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Douglas Manson on Wallace Stevens

Logging In on Wallace Stevens

On this winter-tilting, groggy morning, with all its torn shreds and twisted sheets of motivation, I wake up and immediately read Stevens’s lines, a few poems, and then think, “this is easy enough, this is what his poetry is…it is three things: a logical proposition,  a partial prayer and also something sculptural in language, it is this art.”  Stevens’s poetry is about learning an art of reading, too.  Not the art of reading, but at the very least a way of learning a syntax, words carefully scored for the page, mingled with the steadiness of purpose that a philosophic, pious mind can offer us.

It is hard not to bring in the world that Stevens witnessed and helped to make in his verse:  that point in human activity where the accidental and the expected result intertwine—so I think of balance, of Alexander Calder’s mobiles, something in our lives we can be carefully prepared for.

Times have been tough.  My Stevens library was once composed of three books, the Vintage Collected Poems in paperback, well-yellowed from sitting out on my desk(s).  I gave that to a friend who was taking a graduate school class with David Levi-Strauss.  My second Stevens book, now gone, was Helen Vendler’s study of his later, longer poems, On Extended Wings.  The third book is the one I still possess and am still able to read—though I have to register here my dislike of their house font and page design, while the books themselves are durable—the Library of America’s Collected Poetry & Prose.  When Greg asked for a post on Stevens, I thought I still had Vendler’s book, but after half an hour of digging in my library I realized that, when it came time to get up enough money to move to New York City in the summer of 2009, I probably sold it.  When it came time I sacrificed about one-fifth of my library, made around $700 dollars, and escaped the vortex (not unlike how most of  New York State is sighing in relief after escaping the Paladino vortex).

The Stevens book I most remember is the limited edition of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, published in 1942 by the Cummington Press.  I read it in the University of Buffalo rare books room.  After visiting the Marian Spore gallery in “Industry City” last night, I can now say that my reading of that poem, poem-as-a-book, was a site-specific sound performance, as auratic, unique and unforgettable any single reading of a poem could be, even if it was drenched in total silence, in the also-horrible silence of that specific reading room.  Quiet, austere and silent except for the sound of his words instantaneously being heard and thought about on the inside of my brain.

Stevens is the most generous poet ever when his poems are read again and again and again.  It is a terrible mistake, maybe it’s impossible, to read his poems once and move on.  Some people think a poem is a good one only if, after reading it ten to twenty times, it still delivers a new perspective, connection, or coordinated image.  While I’m not committed to that kind of valuation—a morbidity of time spent in education has made me a skeptic of all hierarchies and the Aristotelian in general—Stevens is in my mind the most important poet of focus and concentration, the poet whose poems I most want to read over and over, in order to learn poise and balance, mind and color, light and music.

Stevens will be understood, or at least I imagine that he will be understood, as among the four or five key philosophers of the American twentieth century.  If there was an enormous interest in the aesthetics of thinking in American universities during my life, the era of French critique and ecriture, then Wallace Stevens is responsible for developing an interest in language-as-such as the body of that focus, of what is called writing before the letter.

Stevens makes austerity palatable—for every cold, snowy, arrogant and airless space he evokes around us, there is a green fuse, a swift dash of tropical color, a disorder, an assured music, a syntax of joy, a constancy.  But there are books, scholars and entire careers dedicated to explaining for you exactly why that is.  I can only tell you that Stevens’s poetry is worth every word of it.


Douglas Manson received a Ph.D. in English and poetics from SUNY at Buffalo in 2004.  He has published a full length collection of poems Roofing and Siding (BlazeVOX book, 2007), as well as numerous chapbooks of poems, such as Love Sounds (Like Perfidy) (2003), and The Dew Neal (Slack Buddha Press, 2004). He runs Little Scratch Pad Press.

4 thoughts on “Douglas Manson on Wallace Stevens

  1. “‘this is what his poetry is…it is three things: a logical proposition, a partial prayer and also something sculptural in language, it is this art,'” and that he’s a “philosopher” who makes “austerity palatable” — beautiful — that sounds to me like what it means when people me included call him a “perfect poet”

    very nice

  2. And this:

    “Stevens is the most generous poet ever when his poems are read again and again and again…Stevens is in my mind the most important poet of focus and concentration, the poet whose poems I most want to read over and over, in order to learn poise and balance, mind and color, light and music.”

    He just keeps giving, like Hart Crane, like Shakespeare. I can return to some of his poems knowing I have read them, but knowing I’ve only read them one or two ways. Like Kubrick’s films, like Vermeer-there is always more to see, more to enjoy.

  3. “the world that Stevens witnessed” — he was a banker, no? An accountant? Arrogant and airless spaces, like libraries in schools modeled after prisons, though very unlike cavernous warehouses in Industry City. Perhaps the factory is the bank’s or library’s outside. The book (or NetBook) inside the cubicle inside the room inside the building inside the courtyard inside the grounds or campus. Then, the swift dash of tropical color is always exactly that, I think: a swath of color made by the act of a dashing hand, or a REAL far-away and beautiful, airy place that reminds us of the Tropics -as in “Tropic Sun” or “tropical paradise;” as in two Corona bottles leaning against each other on a beach under palm trees — but is decorated in a way that even mass cultural fantasy can’t conjure up in its words and pictures.

    Yes! The joy is in the syntax and the syntax is constant because it is made of words in our language. If the tropical “bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down,” then the bird is radiantly immobile; gorgeous and dead. Joy in the look of words and the look of meaning — their balance, mind and color, light and music.

    1. Stevens reminds us of the troubling dimension of beauty–if I say “beautiful poem!” or “beautiful comments!” there is an inside in an inside of something that abrogates thinking something beautiful. How much the beautiful poem or reading of that poem is demanded by all that it waves away with a dash of hand, flash of fire-fangled feather. Of course, the art is in dialogue with the immobile–thus, Calder’s “mobiles” (I think he coined the term), and that, even before we read, accept a poem as poem, there is a written quality, a trace, before and after anything happened. I accept the idea of the poem as a “machine made of words” but I’m so glad when the poem effaces the sense of anything machinic, because of its beauty. Otherwise, we are dead. I don’t leap to my feet on seeing a Corona bottle on a hill in Tennessee–because I don’t “desire” anything in Stevens’ poetry. Mass cultural fantasies are engineered for mass disquiet and longing. I don’t long for Stevens’ poetry, instead, I want it, and am never the same or at all any worse off, for the having of it. Stevens doesn’t dream of the tropics in New Haven, he makes it up entire, or thinks precisely about why he wants the tropics. He was an insurance executive–which means calculating risk. But i didn’t want to talk about the day job. & lastly, That “radiant immobility” seems so clearly thought through in his poem “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch”, something Duchamp and all the surrealists bent their alchemical heads over: how can you draw a sexy diagram? to wit: “Good-bye,/Mrs. Pappadopoulos, and thanks.” The constancy I mean is that the promise of the proposition he begins with in a poem will be fulfilled, or at least, taken through a useful number of moments–harnessing various registers and level of thought, in order to present a composite image–so that we are given a forceful, musical impression that is NOT linguistic, really. Profound and far-reaching. The light of its music.

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