Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Vendler on Stevens (and us all?)

Helen Vendler, below, writing on Wallace Stevens, is also speaking to a kind of divide in American poetry (not the only divide, but an important one nonetheless):

“Stevens wrote symbolic rather than transcriptive poetry.”

Oh, dear. Stevens died over 50 years ago now, and where have we gotten to with this question? Well, maybe there is no place to get to. Maybe there’s always this divide, this tension, between these tendencies. She goes on to say:

“How differently might a reader take in ‘Burghers of Petty Death’ if it had been called ‘A Son’s Lament for His Dead Parents,’ or ‘The Snow Man’ if it had been called ‘Stoicism in a Failed Marriage’? Like Dickinson, Stevens has won a wide audience in spite of the guard he put on his privacy, and we are now better acquainted with his sorrows.”

This fascinates me, the weight Vendler is placing on the titles alone. Of course, her alternate titles are terrible . . . but the idea there is that the poetry would instantly have become more personal by context. More revealing. In much the way that I used to hear people saying that one should replace all pronouns with “I” when reading Stevens . . . the personal, the personal, the personal. What an interesting flip and switch we’re called upon to perform when regarding Stevens. Anyway. She then, moving along, quotes this bit from Stevens, on receiving the Gold Medal from the Poetry Society of America:

“Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of the conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds. I speak of a companion of the conscience because to every faithful poet, the faithful poem is an act of conscience.”

Well, there you go, then. Here’s her short piece, on the new Stevens Selected:



At 8/26/2009 4:45 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Replies I’ve gotten on facebook to this post have been interesting, so I’m pasting them here (with names removed as I’ve not gotten permission).

1: Vendler sometimes seems to demand of a poet what she would like to find there, rather than revealing what actually is there, what can be discovered in the work. She overemphasizes Stevens' "sadness" and "impersonality." Still, her review is revealing.

2: Vendler's completely wrong about Stevens. She's always had this kind of myopia about him, this determination to read him autobiographically, in a way that (as David Young says in a letter that I hope the NYT will print) she would never do with Yeats or Shakespeare.

I responded: I think in both cases it comes from her relationship to his daughter. This "she told me" aspect is used to legitimize a rather fast-and-loose reading.

I'm guessing, of course.

I dislike reading Stevens that way, by the way.

3: think the biographical information does help to illuminate some of the more obscure or "dark" passages in the poems. Not that you simply want to explain away what is difficult or mysterious in Stevens, but I think the context of the estranged marriage and loneliness in the placid suburbs of Hartford helps to account for why the imagination was such a necessary part of his poetics.

4: How about simply the escape from immersion in insurance corporation law? no. . . that would be too simple, too real, to anti-intellectual.

5: I just ordered her book on Stevens!

I responded to 3: Biographical information can be interesting and illuminating, true. On the other hand, it can also be completely wrong when usd to diagnose the poems. In other words, Vendler does a lot of guessing when she ties poems like "The SNow Man" to specific events (even if only hypothetically).

To 4: That doesn't sound anti-intellectual to me!

To 5: I've not read it. Maybe it's good!


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