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James Robison on Stevens

1. To all readers of Stevens who have not already encountered Helen Vendler’s  Words Chosen Out Of Desire and On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems , I recommend both books, or, rather, I suggest they are imperative to the fullest understanding and appreciation of Stevens. They redeem to his poetry qualities of passion and investment which are too easily lost in the blaze of his seemingly detached invention.
2. I overheard Donald Barthelme talking to a poet and Don said that Stevens had been Don’s “lodestar” as a young writer. No two writers more inspire me to try to write than Donald Barthelme and Wallace Stevens.
James Robison has had many stories in The New Yorker, has won a Whiting Grant, a Rosenthal from the American Academy, published two books and has had an issue of the Mississippi Review dedicated entirely to his short fictions. He has been in Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize, co-wrote a feature film that is just out, and is good company on long car trips.

8 thoughts on “James Robison on Stevens

  1. Smart stuff, Jim, & thanks for contributing. Let me corroborate item #2, as well; on more than one occasion, I heard DB insisting on Stevens’ importance.

      1. Greg, I did. Don was an inspiring teacher &, afterwards, always willing to go to bat for me. Much as I honor the man’s memory, though, I don’t want to distract attention from Robison’s thoughtful post — or worse, from Wallace Stevens. What matters here is how Robison ends item #1, talking about the passion w/ which Stevens invested his joshing rococo. That’s something Donald Barthelme had to pay special attention to as well; he had to locate the emotion in the prodigies of his imagination, & in his well-nigh unparalleled gift for phrase-making.

  2. Huh. I didn’t realize the Stevens/Barthelme connection. Interesting, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Definitely something I’m going to give some thought to. Thanks for this.

    1. In a passage later cut from the Paris Review interview [1981]—apparently because he couldn’t think the argument through well enough—Don noted John Ashbery’s influence on [the dialogue-based pieces in Great Days]. There is some sense in which John Ashbery is central to writing at this time, and I couldn’t tell you… There’s a line that goes from Wallace Stevens to Ashbery… Ashbery is onto something that I’m quite curious about. If I can figure out why Ashbery is so important…’

      —from Tracy Daugherty’s indispensable Hiding Man (page 419, I think–Google Books is being uncooperative):


      From that Paris Review interview:

      INTERVIEWER [J.D. O’Hara]

      Your own influences—whom would you like to cite as your spiritual ancestors?


      They come in assorted pairs. Perelman and Hemingway. Kierkegaard and Sabatini. Kafka and Kleist. Kleist was clearly one of Kafka’s fathers. Rabelais and Zane Grey. The Dostoyevsky of Notes from Underground. A dozen Englishmen. The surrealists, both painters and poets. A great many film people, Buñuel in particular. It’s always a stew, isn’t it? Errol Flynn ought to be in there somewhere, and so should Big Sid Catlett, the drummer.


      Why Errol Flynn?


      Because he’s part of my memory of Sabatini, Sabatini fleshed out. He was in the film version of Captain Blood, and The Sea Hawk. He should have done Scaramouche but Stewart Granger did it instead, as I recall.


      You have a story called ‘Captain Blood.’


      A pastiche of Sabatini, not particularly of that book but all of Sabatini. You are reminded, I hope, of the pleasure Sabatini gives you or has given you. The piece is in no sense a parody, rather it’s very much an hommage. An attempt to present, or recall, the essence of Sabatini. Also it hopes to be an itself.


      A D

  3. The unforgettable opening to Sabatini’s SCARAMOUCHE: “He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.” A lot of Donald Barthelme right there.

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