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Wallace Stevens: Poems Selected by John Burnside: A Word-Hoard

I’m in the middle of meandering, moving from place to place, preparing to move to Providence, so it’s fitting that my reading would reflect this kind of movement: my reading has been full of interruptions and digressions, even more than usual. My browsing of great libraries, like the one belonging to my friends in Far Rockaway, has circumvented any kind of schedule or plan. So, I took a detour from John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (vide John Domini’s and Amber Sparks’s excellent discussion of same), a hilarious, digressive, irreverent, but still lovingly rendered take on the Künstlerroman, to read yet another collection of Wallace Stevens’s poetry, this one selected by John Burnside. Its annoying amount of typos notwithstanding (for some reason, someone missed how a “Z” replaces “ffl” any time it appears so that “shuffling” becomes “shuZing”; “muffling” becomes “muZing”; “afflicted” becomes “aZicted”; and “affluence” becomes “aZuence”; and worse, considering Stevens’s obsession with the word, “Things” inexplicably appears, once, as “hings”), and its rather redundant inclusions, it’s a fine selection. Reading it, I felt like the character in “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” a poem worth quoting in extenso:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Poem after poem, Stevens explores the nature of being and reality, themes encapsulated in a letter to Henry Church (to whom he also dedicated “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”) where Stevens wrote: “Poetry means not the language of poetry but the thing itself, wherever it may be found.” It’s an ironic statement considering the rich sonorities and word play in the poems, the musicality and jeweled diction of Stevens’s poetics. Stevens’s use of language, while not entirely a means to an end, might still be thought of as his primary tool toward realizing reality, creating a “supreme fiction,” as it were: something that through its resonance captures something actual and real.

Here’s my word-hoard from this selection of Wallace Stevens’s poetry:

Citherns, peristyle, muzzy, concupiscent, fantails, ceintures, peignoir, pizzicati, viol, mickey, funicular, turgid, amorist, jocular, semblables, fulgurations, selvages, grassman, majolica, phosphored, haggardie, ensolacings, exhumo, versicolorings, scrivened, esplanade, panniers, raggeder, infuriations, roseate, myosotis, blazoned, caparison, juvenal, blague, halyards, catafalques, copulars, coronal, catalepsy, curveted, jubilas, fundament, pauvred, spredden, collops, clou, perquisites, paradisal, commodious, tournamonde, ouncings, hidalgo, finikin, and chaplet.

9 thoughts on “Wallace Stevens: Poems Selected by John Burnside: A Word-Hoard

  1. Sensitive reading as ever, John, & an excellent word-hoard — & you’ll find lots more in SOT-WEED, I expect. Though yes, that’s just the sort of novel from which you take the occasional brief break, brief, to sample an alternative taste. I recall going to John Berryman, along the way, the first time.

  2. That poem–especially the phrase “as if there was no book”–reminds me of Georges Poulet’s “Phenomenology of Reading” and his account of the book object disappearing:

    “Where is the book I held in my hands? It is still there, and at the same time
    it is there no longer, it is nowhere. That object wholly object, that thing
    made of paper, . . . that object is no more, or at least it is as if it no longer
    existed, as long as I read the book. For the book is no longer a material

    1. Thanks, Michael. The Poulet quote reminds me of a somewhat contrasting thought Bachelard, the famed phenomenologist, expressed in The Poetics of Reverie (a book I read a few weeks ago):

      Reading is a dimension of the modern psychism, a dimension which transposes psychic phenomena already transposed by writing. Written language must be considered as a particular psychic reality. The book is permanent; it is an object in your field of vision. It speaks to you with a monotonous authority which even its author would not have. You are fairly obliged to read what is written. Besides, in writing, the author has already performed a transposition. He would not say what he has written. He has entered–his protests are in vain here–the realm of the written psychism.”

  3. Whipping concupiscent curds, as I recall. My favorite word learned long ago at dear fat Wally’s knee (“blossoming so beautifully at forty”, as Williams wrote in Kora in Hell), was “crepuscular.” In the Comedian as the Letter C.

    Consider also the scene in the first pages of Swann’s Way when Marcel puts the book down, falls asleep, dreams he’s reading, and wakes trying to put the book down again. Something like that.

    1. Hi, Curt.

      I think I first encountered that creepy word “crepuscular,” or rather a variation of it, “crepuscle,” when I first immersed myself in the music of Thelonious Monk:
      [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWhzTjpTBsk?rel=0&w=480&h=390%5D

      Your performative revising of Williams, who wrote: “Dear fat Stevens, thawing out so beautifully at forty!” has been duly noted.

      “The Comedian as the Letter C” is definitely one of my favorites. It merges great questions about the imagination, and who or what an artist is and can or might do, within an imaginative quest narrative. And, oh, what a delectable lexicon!

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