A monster is known by its spawn. Or that’s one way we know a monster, at least, and few presences in American poetry loom so monstrously — in the best sense, like the challenge that confers meaning on our voyage — as Wallace Stevens. From the first his work found itself trailed by spawn.
Poets couldn’t help but respond. Whatever their school, their sensibility, their skill-set, they had to address this mooncalf of their art’s quiddity. A word-monger of scintillating finesse, Stevens also took readers beyond all refinement, to the tropical back-of-brain, the palm at the far end, the residence of The Unknowable. Poets couldn’t help but respond, even if in irritation.
For instance William Carlos Williams, always the rough-and-tumble Jersey boy, had trouble with his sophisticated Connecticut colleague:
In New York, it is said,
they do meet (if that is
what is wanted) talk but
nothing is exchanged
unless that guff
can be retranslated…
Thus the beginning of Williams’ “A Place (Any Place) to Transcend All Places.” I read it as (among other things) a mourning for his and Stevens’ failure to connect, to find shared space. So too, John Berryman felt the insurance man’s melody didn’t quite harmonize with his, in “Dream Song #219 (So Long? Stevens?)”
Mutter as we all must as well as we can.
He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s
wits, though, with an odd
…something …something not there in his flourishing art.
And even Robert Bly admits, in the midst of a swift homage: “He is stern this man whom I love.” So naturally, others address the monument on its own stern terms. W.S. Di Piero, for instance, brings off an admirable alternative “Sunday Morning.” He begins his “Easter Service” in a familiar high rhetoric, tinged by Oriental reference:
He half expects a Chinese dragonhead
will bloom from the weave of golden chasuble,
its fangs grinning behind some scalloped fire.
Towards the end of “Easter Service” (roughly as long as its model), Di Piero sees the earlier poem’s “old chaos of the sun” and raises it: “Unrecorded stars, the happy chaos cry / of galaxies….”
The High-Modernist idiom of Stevens also has been adapted as shorthand, for example in Carl Martin’s “No Sop, No Possum, No Jive,” nine lines total, the central three a clear echo of Stevens:
X-temporizing, scrounging luxuriously
as we climb intricate cobs, nipples
and rosy vellums inscribed with an oriole.
Then there’s the rhetoric of image, the significance that Stevens wrought from a tree or a blackbird. These too have been recast. The bird, to be sure, makes for a good joke, as in Mark DeFoe’s “Thirteen Ways of Eradicating Blackbirds” (“1: Reason with them. Speak Softly. Hide your stick.”). But seeing an object the way Stevens did also results in serious and altogether superb work like John Ashberry’s “Some Trees:”
…you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
The list could go on, to be sure. Spawn of Stevens has more sequels than Friday the 13th, with reminiscences, meditations, fantasias. I could mention Susan Howe wandering the back rooms of a sprawling New England manse (“118 Westerly Terrace”) or Elizabeth Spires taking the pampered Sunday lounger and plopping her down on a garbage heap, atop her orange peels (“The Woman on the Dump”). Still, it’s time I stopped pretending you’ve got to read every poet working in English since, oh, 1935, in order to dig up such nuggets of reference.
That work’s already been done, in the excellent Visiting Wallace: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Wallace Stevens. The editors are Dennis Barone and James Finnegan, the press U of Iowa
The collection, I should add, is one of a series; other Iowa titles include Visiting Emily and Visiting Walt. But today, Wallace is the one. The compendium offers multifarious discoveries and rediscoveries, now grumpy, now fond, now lightsome, now weighty —and all of them proof of a great poet’s well-nigh limitless reach.
John Domini is the author of Bedlam, Highway Trade, Talking Heads: 77, Earthquake I.D., A Tomb on the Periphery, The Sea-God's Herb, Movieola!, and The Color Inside a Melon. Domini has won awards in all genres, publishing fiction in The Paris Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere; and journalism and criticism in The New York Times, Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere (including Italian journals). He live in Des Moines, Iowa.