James Longenbach is a poet and a critic whose most recent collection of poems, The Iron Key, is a meditation on the conditions and consequences of beauty. His most recent critical work, The Art of the Poetic Line, is an account of the work of lineation in free-verse, syllabic, and metered poetry (ranging from Shakespeare to Ashbery). He has also written widely about modern and postmodern poetry, sometimes emphasizing the historicity of poetic language (Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things) but also exploring the ways in which poems resist their historical situation (The Resistance to Poetry). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and The New Republic. He is the Joseph Henry Gilmore Professor of English at the University of Rochester.
Gerke: What has Stevens’ work meant to your own development as a poet? How has he informed your relation to words, to poetry?
Longenbach: Whatever else he is, Stevens is the greatest writer of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter lines) in the twentieth century. That Stevens made the great line of Shakespeare and Milton relevant in such shockingly weird (and still shockingly weird) poems is maybe his greatest achievement. And maybe his greatest gift to future poets, certainly his greatest gift to me, is his extraordinary ear—the unparalleled elegance with which he moves complicated syntax through rhythmic, linear, and stanzaic patterns.
Gerke: There are certain words that reappear in Stevens again and again: ‘things,’ ‘ideas,’ ‘sense’ and ‘everything.’ These are somewhat vague terms, but it seems he made these words his own. Do their reappearances explode the meanings of these words? Has Stevens’ choice to often live in these words accounted for some resistance to his poems–because of his seemingly speaking in generalities?
Longenbach: I never find Stevens’s writing vague; it is always excruciatingly precise, and never more precise than when he is writing about the large generalities that are as much a part of our lives as begonias or pup tents. When Stevens uses words like “things,” “ideas,” or “sense,” you feel that he must use those words in precisely the way he uses them; that is, he is not relying on what you already know about those words—he is making you think hard about what those words might mean in particular contexts. In this way, he is making huge areas of apparently unpoetic language available to poetry, and only a few poets have done this because only a few poets employ generalized diction with such unerring precision. George Oppen is another.
Gerke: Going through the original editions of Stevens compared to the Collected Poems or the Library of America edition, I’ve noticed how much the poems are squeezed to fit in the latter. That lack of white space seems to play a part when reading the poems, especially the longer ones, because each canto of the “Auroras of Autumn” for example (though they have to fit on two facing pages) have their own pages with generous amounts of white space, the three line tercets being one and half spaced rather than the single-spacing they received in the Collected Poems. Similarly, ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ and ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar,’ two long poems, were originally published with each canto on a single page, but now the cantos run over to the next page, breaking up the read. Do you think experiencing these poems (or any) in the more readily available editions change the reading of them? Are the cantos in these sequences meant to stand alone? To be experienced as one pool of thought?
Longenbach: It would be nice to have those cantos on separate pages; but the poems were crammed together even in the Collected Poems that Stevens oversaw just prior to his death, and they’ve been printed that way ever since. It’s a trade-off. The compactness of that Library of America edition is in other ways lovely; what other great American poet’s complete works fits so utterly in one hand? In any case, I think I’d say that the poems live ultimately in the mind and the mouth, not on the page.
Gerke: At the end of your book you write about Stevens’ warning to young poets about being too much in books and not experiencing the world (ironic because of his own limited experience due to working full-time–he also never went to Europe unlike many of the poets of his day). Stevens sent out this quote from Henry James’ notebooks to a young poet:
“To live in the world of creation–to get into it and stay in it–to frequent it and haunt it–to think intensely and fruitfully–to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation–this is the only thing.”
It seems the upshot of this is to do one’s own thinking instead of filling one’s head with more ideas–to live in the world, to experience people and nature and have these experiences inform one’s writing. Do you think Stevens counseled this because of the great sadness of his own life–though his isolated existence did provide for him in terms of his own art?
Longenbach: This is a hard question, and I’m not sure if today I’d answer it the same way I would have twenty years ago, when I wrote my book about Stevens. One person’s intense engagement with the most visceral aspects of life is inevitably going to look to another person like retreat or denial. Somebody like Jim Morrison represents one kind of lived intensity, but somebody like Wittgenstein represents another. I think Stevens had real doubts about the shape his life ultimately took; increasingly, his poems seem to me at times unbearably sad: “Her mind will never speak to me again.” * (A gorgeous pentameter!) But he also made something extraordinary from the limited means of himself, and that’s what we all do, or try to do. In some ways, Stevens lived with an intensity that terrifies me.
*sixth line of “Farewell to Florida”