Eleanor Cook is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Toronto. Her books include Enigmas and Riddles in Literature, Against Coercion: Games Poets Play, and Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens (Princeton). Her A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens, Princeton University Press 2007, is a wonderful source, including a 25-page biography, glosses on all of the poems and a critical section on reading poetry and reading Stevens in particular.
Gerke: What initially drew you to Stevens and how did the writing of your A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens come about? Was the task of examining his references something you had done before in your encounters with the poems?
Cook: My first book was on the work of Robert Browning (1812-1889), and I taught 19th Century literature for a bit, and was then asked to teach a course on modern poetry. Yeats, Eliot, Frost: I had some handle on all of them, but knew only a little Stevens. He drove me wild. I couldn’t make him out, though I always loved his sense of humour. What I did make out was so rewarding that I kept on chewing. Nowadays the effect of reading John Ashbery is somewhat similar.
Princeton University Press approached me to ask if I would consider writing a guide to Stevens’s work, and if so, to submit a proposal; I had published a book on Stevens with them in 1988, Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens. There’s also some work on Stevens in my 1998 Against Coercion: Games Poets Play.
Yes, I’d examined references for the 1988 book, and of course for teaching purposes. But I pursued them much more widely for A Reader’s Guide, as it covers all the collected poems. It was fun (mostly), and people sent me things once they knew I was doing it. I also tracked down some recent acquisitions like a marked college text, and some letters, including that wonderfully funny one about “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” *
Gerke: How does one approach Stevens for the first time? Is there a particular book to start with?
Cook: Oh boy, as Stevens used to say. I’d start with the shorter, more accessible poems, especially the sensuous or humorous ones like some of the Florida poems. Stevens’s first collection, Harmonium, is easily the best known, and in some ways it’s a good place to start. Browning said he liked to read collected poems backwards chronologically. So another good place to start is with the short poems written toward the end of Stevens’s life. I find some of them very affecting, e.g., “The River of Rivers in Connecticut.” In general, the poems written from Transport to Summer until Stevens’ death are the most powerful.
Gerke: Out of all of Stevens’s oeuvre, which poems do you find indispensable?
Cook: Too large a question to answer, really. And one’s personal indispensable poems will vary a bit with age.
Gerke: Is there a danger in reading Stevens autobiographically? One often hears of his long, mostly unhappy marriage and his having to squelch his desires, but can’t art spring from a more mysterious place? I ask this in light of this quote from the essay “Effects of Analogy” in The Necessary Angel:
The truth is that a man’s sense of the world dictates his subjects to him and that this sense is derived from his personality, his temperament, over which he has little control and possibly none, except superficially. It is not a literary problem. It is the problem of his mind and nerves. These sayings are another form of the saying that poets are born and not made.
Cook: Yes, a clear danger. For one thing, a number of people have had long, mostly unhappy marriages and squelched desires, but very few of them produce extraordinary poems. Freud in “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming” found the root cause of art to be a mystery (an “innermost secret” in English). I find Aristotle’s four types of causation useful still:
(1) the material cause (for a building, say, stone; for a poem, say, paper);
(2) the efficient cause (agency: for a building, say, the architect; for a poem, the poet, and here biography would apply);
(3) the formal cause (for a building, say, Georgian as per the architect’s drawings; for a poem, say, elegiac – also prosody, persona, etc., etc.);
(4) the final cause (for a building, say, a dwelling-place for X; for a poem, the end or teleological cause, hard to ascertain sometimes and maybe not in play except as a long-term cause).
*In the letter Stevens humorously declines an invitation to have his title “The Emperor of Ice Cream” used for a Ball (a dance) in Houston.