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Wallace Stevens After “Lunch”

By Major Jackson

Brooks%20Gravestone%20even%20smaller.jpg
It happened during the meeting of the National Book Award committee that gave the poetry prize to Marianne Moore. While waiting for Peter Viereck, the last of the judges, delayed by a snowstorm, to arrive, the other five (Winfield Townley Scott, Selden Rodman, Conrad Aiken, Wallace Stevens, and William Cole) passed the time looking at photographs of previous meetings of National Book Award judges. Gwendolyn Brooks appeared in one of these. On seeing the photo, Stevens remarked, “Who’s the coon?” (The meeting, it should be noted, took place after lunch, which for the poet had probably begun with two healthy martinis and continued with a fine bottle of wine.) Noticing the reaction of the group to his question, he asked, “I know you don’t like to hear people call a lady a coon, but who is it?”
— Joan Richardson, Wallace Stevens – The Later Years (1923-1954). New York: Beech Tree Books, 1988. (Pgs. 388-389)


At some point in writing the poem “Letter to Brooks,” I became interested in knowing how did the poetry community respond to Gwendolyn Brooks winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. I was more interested in discovering what progressive forces or friendships during the late 1940s were at play between writers across racial and ethnic lines rather than uncovering some malicious words of enmity or bigoted remarks.
Cursory research (a mere phone call to the Pulitzer office) yielded that the 1950 prize committee consisted of, among other people, Louis Untermeyer, the poet, anthologist, and Robert Frost aficionado. I was living in Robert Frost’s home in Franconia, NH at the time and thought it fitting to start with his letters which were on a shelf near my writing desk. But my initial search in the book’s Index revealed no Gwendolyn Brooks, indeed no black person at all did Mr. Frost ever correspond nor made the subject of at least one of his letters: no Langston Hughes, no Countee Cullen, no Melvin Tolson, no Margaret Walker, no James Weldon Johnson, and no Claude McKay. I searched countless other poets of the period as well as Modernist’s biographies and collections of letters and subsequently concluded the same, maybe naively so.
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Then, I thought: for the most part, literary biographies are exercises in sanctifying literary figures, so why would anthologists and biographers include letters that could possibly tarnish reputations. Again, how naive of me to possess the New Historicist’s hope that cultural and intellectual history is a pure exercise in revealing the times out of which poetic works are created and rewarded.
This is when I begin to wonder about literary friendships and mentorships across race and ethnicity pre-1970 and after; there is, of course, Carl Van Vechten and Langston Hughes. Robert Hayden studied with W.H. Auden for a semester at University of Michigan. Hayden was also a friend of William Meredith. Michael Harper and Philip Levine shared California sunshine. Michael Harper and Lawson Inada listened to jazz in cold Iowa City. Amiri Baraka and Frank O’Hara often shared lunch hour together. Maybe, one of the great ironies is Ezra Pound’s heralding of Louis Zukofsky to Harriet Monroe at Poetry. Bob Kaufman and Ted Joans rounded out the black avant-gardists and friends of Allen Ginsberg. Sonia Sanchez studied with Louise Bogan. Robert Lowell made trips to the West Indies to visit Derek Walcott, who famously traded jokes with his friend Joseph Brodsky. Etheridge Knight and Donald Hall. Miguel Algarin and Bob Holman. Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde in NYC. The story of American poetry (indeed the country itself) and its evolution could be told through these friendships. (Who else am I omitting?)
Tonight, in preparation for an essay I am writing for APR, I decided to hunt down the source of a story I heard about Wallace Stevens, who apparently made the following statement upon learning of Gwendolyn Brook’s winning Pulitzer Prize: “Who let the coon in?” Well, tonight, I impulsively at 11pm, zoomed to UVM’s library to hunt down Joan Richardson’s Wallace Stevens biography. (Thanks to a Rachel Blau Duplessis excerpted note from her book _Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry 1908-1934_ that comes up in a google search on Wallace Stevens and coon.)
Just as I am sure, Margaret Walker’s _For My People_ was simply the best book to be awarded the Yale Younger in 1942, and just as I am absolutely sure that Gwendolyn Brook’s _Annie Allen_ was rightly awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for same reasons, I am also sure that the judge and committee, respectively, were aware of the potential controversy of acknowledging the strength of these books. I am also sure that in such a racial climate as the 1940s and 1950s, such awards must have spawned a series of hostile reactions like that from Wallace Stevens, but will we ever know, for sure?
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Comments (23)

  • On February 5, 2008 at 3:14 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    A twist to this story (that you may have already heard?). In 1989, I was in a workshop with Gwendolyn Brooks when a student brought up Wallace Stevens. According to Brooks, she was on a panel of three judges for the Pulitzer in 1955, where the contending finalists were, if I remember correctly, E.E. Cummings and Wallace Stevens (collected poems). Brooks’s was the deciding vote, since the other two judges had opted for Cummings and Stevens respectively, and it was only thanks to Brooks’s vote for Stevens’ Collected that they decided to allow the honky in. (Does anyone else have verification for this?) “And in return for that,” Brooks said, “He said ‘who let the nigger in’ when I won the putlitzer.” I do remember she said ‘nigger’ and not ‘coon’, though the details of that day are a little hazy in my mind, and I evidently had the chronology all mixed up. I guess now that she had probably been reading the Richardson biography. I was sixteen at the time; it was quite a shock and it put me off reading Stevens for many many years. Even now, though I love Stevens’ poems very much, there is still a slight hesitancy, a watchfulness at the back of the mind. They continue to live in our world, for some good reasons, but I guess we didn’t even exist in theirs.

  • On February 5, 2008 at 7:19 am Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Very provocative post, Major. Thanks. Unless I missed something, do we know who was on the committee that awarded Brooks the Pulitzer?

  • On February 5, 2008 at 7:50 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Maybe another way to look at this story is to be encouraged that the other Dead White Males on the committee evidently disapproved of the comment…

  • On February 5, 2008 at 10:12 am Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Major,
    I don’t gather that Wallace Stevens was a terribly nice person, but I’m wary of conflating the person and the work. As a matter of fact, I’m dead set against it. If we were to read literature in terms of the authors’ lives and opinions, there’d be very little that we could read in good conscience.
    With regard to this particular example, there is a definite difference in tone and attitude between “Who’s the coon?”, which despite the unfortunate (to say the least) word choice could be a simple expression of curiosity–who is this person of a different race than mine?– and “Who let the nigger in?” which is clearing hostile: here’s a nigger, and she doesn’t belong here. In his poems and letters, Stevens used both “nigger” and “coon,” as well as “negress,” though never in the common hostile sense (except insofar as the words themselves are hostile). That is to say, he used words which are derogatory epithets, but were commonly used in his time just as names: note Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven, a problematic novel which was nonetheless largely a celebration of the vitality of the Harlem Renaissance, but not to say derogatory things. Thus I tend to trust the Joan Richardson version of the anecdote over Gwendolyn Brooks’, especially since Brooks was not actually present.
    In a letter about the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Stevens wrote that as far as he was concerned it was a fight between the Dagoes and the snakes and the coons. Personally, he said, he was on the side of the snakes and the coons. Despite the again rather unfortunate language, this does not portray Stevens as someone who hated black people–he sided with the Ethiopians against the Italian invasion.
    I think of my partner’s grandfather, who still referred to black people as “colored,” because that was the polite term in the early Fifties and he had simply never left that bubble. I don’t want to excuse Stevens’s racist language, but in the massively racist context in which he grew up and lived, he does not stand out as more racist than anyone else of his background, and actually a bit less racist than many.
    Stevens’s treatment of black people in his poems (yes, they are there) is ambivalent. In “Prelude to Objects,” the “nigger mystics” are both primitive and primal, and are identified with poetry, which as we know for Stevens was the highest good. On the other hand, the “negress” in “The Virgin Carrying a Lantern” is implicitly compared to a bear, and is overcome with sexuality, as opposed to the implicitly white (we are never told so in so many words) who walks with her lantern only “as a farewell duty” before making her “pious egress.”
    I will be the first to jump up if someone calls me a nigger, which used to happen all too often. (Interestingly enough, it’s never happened in Pensacola.) But the matter of race, in Stevens’ case and in many others, is complicated and ambiguous, and doesn’t lend itself to easy condemnations (or easy exonerations).
    Take good care, and thanks for the thought-provoking post.
    peace and poetry,
    Reginald

  • On February 5, 2008 at 10:56 am Major wrote:

    Hi Reginald,
    “But the matter of race, in Stevens’ case and in many others, is complicated and ambiguous, and doesn’t lend itself to easy condemnations (or easy exonerations).”
    I am in agreement with all of the above. I think Vivek would disagree, however. I remember long ago reading Pearl Cleage’s essay “Mad at Miles: A Blackwoman’s Guide to Truth” which asked can we hear jazz musician Miles Davis’s misogyny in his lush compositions, in effect, calling into question his virtuosity vis a vis his lack of moral character. (Davis famously abused his wives.) She was the first to have me interrogate and think about this issue. Can we comfortably laud a poet who is antisemitic? By way of an antidote: I was reciting from memory the whole of Eliot’s “Preludes” at a dinner party and a university president who happens to be Jewish frowned with such disgust; I realized that I offended him with my blind admiration for Eliot’s brilliant poem. Yes, it’s complicated.
    Do you think I am condemning Stevens? I know its not that simplistic. I write about this topic because I wanted to finally set the record straight about that moment. Also, I am truly interested in the racial climate of the 1950s and literary heritage. Left-wing Jewish intellectuals and artists (some Communists, some not) thought provocatively and worked with black artists and intellectuals to help breakthrough some of the divisions in America’s lily literati. That history is lost and so much of it goes untold.
    Alongside such queries, I think it important to discuss and explore Steven’s misogyny and racism. To do so does not threaten to render him irrelevant or unworthy of his canonical place in American literature. I cannot wait for the world to discover Terrance Hayes poem about Wallace Stevens. It’s brilliant and Hayes response is much preferred than the easy condemnation. But, I’d love for scholars to undertake this matter, much in the same way we have looked extensively at Pound and Eliot’s antisemitic remarks and strands in their work.
    Was that committee making a “color-blind” decision or were they advancing some cause? or both?

  • On February 5, 2008 at 1:17 pm Ben Friedlander wrote:

    Major:
    Your Eliot example reminds me of a comment that has long stuck with me, from a class I took long ago with Thom Gunn. We were reading Eliot’s “Preludes,” and Gunn, noting the line “With smells of steaks in passageways,” said something like, “Eliot probably meant us to feel disgust for the close quarters of apartment life, and for the working classes, who can’t help but let you smell the food they’re cooking. But the line doesn’t have that effect on us, does it? The smell of steaks is a *good* smell. A welcoming smell.”
    Much of what’s unpleasant in a poet like Eliot remains present in the work, but some of it–with hope, a lot of it–fades away as we bring new attitudes and new assumptions to our reading.

  • On February 5, 2008 at 2:18 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    What the hell. I’ll make the case for easy condemnation:
    Mr. Shepherd, frankly I don’t see how we can do anything BUT condemn the man given the vile statements you’ve quoted. Maybe it’s my hotheaded nature, my inherent distrust. But I do know that Stevens was never one to separate his life from his poetics, and insofar as that’s true, I tend to accept Ms. Brooks’ interpretation of the facts. When a man’s language, that which he trades on for a living, tends toward dehumanization (snakes AND coons) and comparison with the savage and the primal, I simply can’t invite the man to tea, and I doubt Wallace would have willingly invited Gwen Brooks to tea. As I’ve said, perhaps it’s my loss, and perhaps Stevens’ racism was of the soft, sambo variety. But given the mythic regard he placed upon the power of the poetic imagination, I am disappointed in his apparent unwillingness to imagine a better reality for Black folk than what was presented to him.
    Here’s to being proven wrong, though. I still hold out hope for the man.
    Peace.
    Rich.

  • On February 5, 2008 at 8:08 pm Sheryl Luna wrote:

    Major,
    A thought provoking post! I confess I am only now learning of the tumultuous relationship between Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Recently I viewed a video on you tube where Alice Walker discusses her lack of awareness that Hurston even existed. It was Walker who searched out her unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery and managed to get THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD in print. The whole time I’ve been pondering the difficulties they faced as writers and the unbelievable barriers particularly for black women.
    I think there were cross-cultural relationships among poets, yet I think due to the times, they were probably few. I think it is easy to view such things with the hindsight of history, but I think it is important to acknowledge the issue of racism in the context of history, otherwise we are likely to continue down a path of separateness, which seems like a bad idea.
    Hurston was criticized heavily by African-Americans and her reputation went downhill after a scandal, but the book itself, wow, holy-cow! Who knows what the truth is regarding writerly relationships. I can only say that I am pleased that you bring these inclusive and cross-racial, cross-cultural discussions. Perhaps some scholar somewhere is digging for such things. Human relationships are always frought with disagreement and even within a “community” tied together by racial/cultural bonds there can be much disagreement and misrepresenation and underhanded politicking. It is great that you seek to bring out the history of those relationships which were healthy HUMANE ones.

  • On February 5, 2008 at 9:48 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Major,
    I didn’t think that you were condemning Stevens. I was just saying that I don’t thnk his is a case that lends itself to easy condemnation or exoneration. I wonder if such terms are even appropriate.
    I don’t think, as I’ve said many times, that the work should be judged in terms of the life, and I disagree quite strongly with Rich Villar when he writes that Stevens didn’t separate his life from his poetry. He didn’t separate life in general from poetry, seeing poetry as a way of life and a guide to living life (when belief in the gods fails, poetry arrives to take its place–I’m paraphrasing). But he would never have acceded to the idea that a poet’s work should be interpreted in terms of the author’s personal life.
    With regard to Ben Friedlander’s comment, when I read “Preludes” I sense a great deal of sympathy for those trapped in these physically and psychically cramped circumstances, who have visions of the streets that the streets can hardly understand, whose souls are stretched tight across the skies. And there is the mention of “The conscience of a blackened street/Impatient to assume the world,” which seems a reproach to that world. But it appears that these people will never get past the prelude to a future they will never grasp. There may well be disgust for the close quarters, and there is definitely pessimism about the possibilities of change, especially at the poem’s end, but I don’t sense disgust for the people stuck in them. Perhaps I’m too much of a Pollyanna… :-)
    In closing, Major, I wanted you to know that your piece prompted me to return to and revise a piece I wrote many years ago on Stevens and otherness, which I will probably be posting on my own blog at some point in the future.
    Take care, and have a good evening.
    Reginald

  • On February 5, 2008 at 10:07 pm Dwayne wrote:

    Major,
    A note on Margaret Walker, Stephen Vincent Benet selected her book. She’d entered two or three years in a row and didn’t win. Then the year she won, she didn’t enter, and he didn’t like any of the books that they sent him (or that were submitted, I can’t remember if Benet was one of the judges that read all the submissions or just what made it to him). Anyway, he asked her to send the manuscript back and he picked it up. So, yes, it was cleary the best entry that year.
    The other interesting thing is that I didn’t read your post as really commenting on Wallace Steven’s writing. I disagree with Reginald being dead set against conflating the author with the work, only because I don’t think we need to have writers who aren’t flawed. I’m sure it gets to a point where the discussion of a writers politics or views gets in the way of his work, but often it seems to illuminate it. Definitely for a writer like say Richard Wright whose politics goes into his work. Or what of a writer like Donald Revell, who’s The Art of Attention is clearly poetic theory with a strong religious bent. If I don’t read some into his belief, I doubt I’d understand as much about the poems he includes in the book to discuss, etc.
    Anyway, interesting post. Interesting remarks.
    dwayne

  • On February 6, 2008 at 4:39 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Hi Major and Reginald (and the esteemed others gathered here)–
    I think I do agree with what has been said, and I also certainly wouldn’t argue for easy condemnation or exoneration. (That would be my sixteen year old self.) Neither, I think, would Gwendolyn Brooks have done: her point, despite the anecdote directly concerning her, was that she nonetheless did consider Wallace Stevens a very important American poet, not to mention someone she herself had read and been influenced by at a young age. She was equally insistent that she had chosen him for the Pulitzer, and that he was racial in his worldview.
    I don’t now find it very interesting beyond a point to tag individuals racist or non-racist or, moreover, to simply condemn Wallace Stevens at the expense of easily exonerating the other white liberals gathered at that lunch. What we have available to us, after all, is at best a record of what people have considered appropriate to get away with saying out loud in one context or another. It’s possible to read what Stevens said as a miscalculation or an act or defiance. The question of precisely what word he used would be impossible to resolve. I’m more interested in the larger questions of, what does it mean, where is it coming from, what does it say about the age, how might the anecdote affect and deepen our reading of Stevens? I find it telling that, as it appears at least, Stevens had not heard of Brooks and could not even conceive of a Black woman winning the Pulitzer. As late as the 1950s, Black people existed for him as primal poets and sources of inspiration but clearly not as (even potentially) sophisticated writers. There’s no way of getting around that, is there? And this also fed somewhere into his idea of order. Didn’t it? And surely this was the case with many white writers of the time.
    Which means that as I read and enjoy and have my mind blown by Stevens, the identification can never be complete, that I always read with the guess that there is no place for someone like me in the poems, that he would not even have conceived of a reader like me. In a way, it’s thrilling to think of myself as an unintended reader, an interloper.
    Which again is not to say that I do not read and delight in and learn from Stevens’ poetry on a daily basis– I do– but to say that one reads with a certain minor distance, a watchfulness, an alertness.
    I want to make a case not for easiness of condemnation, but difficulty. Stevens is, and should be, difficult in this way. The watchfulness I have to bring to him, I think, is a productive and even enabling watchfulness. It’s the same watchfulness that I have to bring to some other writers whose work I admire– Ezra Pound, Heidegger, Kipling, Naipaul… Like Stevens, these are all truly brilliant writers whose work is animated by a profound and (I think) ambiguous racial anxiety, one that in their case sometimes, in certain contexts, expresses itself in what to me are reprehensible attitudes and poses and opinions and images. Does this happen as a by-product of their deep stupidity? Submission to the status quo? Inability to question received wisdom? Arrogance? Megalomania? Alienation? Self-hate? Who really knows? But what is clear to me at least is that race/ethnicity is one of the many keys to their work; it’s not peripheral or irrelevant and it can’t be wished away.
    So I agree. Not much point in condemning or exonerating Stevens’ corpse; we just have to get used to the idea that great writers sometimes get it wrong. And will continue to do so.
    Thanks for letting me have my say– good luck with your national elections.

  • On February 6, 2008 at 7:34 am Major wrote:

    Sheryl: Thank you so much for your encouraging words.
    Francisco: I’ll look for the names of the other committee members. They are buried in my notes somewhere in this office. Untermeyer was the most familiar name.
    Dwayne: A poet’s politics (even lack of) most often do illuminate the work, maybe all to clearly. Like Ben asserts in the best case scenario: those attitudes and assumptions which inform and serve as the basis of one’s politics will fall away.
    Vivek: I’m pondering the unintended reader, and how thrilling such a position can be.
    Rich: I can always count on you to take the controversial position. You seem to be saying condemning Stevens is not to condemn his poems, well at least the poems that are not so xenophobic.
    Alicia: I don’t even know how to respond to your remark, both funny and resistant. It feels a little too “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” For the record, I’m not a fan of that term DWM. Steven’s “off-color” remark among polite society is what it is: provocative and irreverent.
    Reginald: I am looking forward to reading your newly revised essay. Please do send it my way.

  • On February 6, 2008 at 8:02 am Dwayne wrote:

    Major and other Gatherers,
    I was thinking about this post last night, which made me realize it was interesting because I was still thinking about it, and I realized that we have focused in on one aspect of the post to speak on. Stevens comment may or may not be seen as problematic or representative, but Major’s issue was that he could not find any correspondence between black writers and white writers during this time period and that he, in fact, couldn’t find correspondence which would even reveal other comments by writers similar to the Stevens comment.
    A professor told me yesterday that one of the reasons why writer’s notebooks are so fascinating is because you find things in them that didn’t make it into the books (novels, plays, poems) because it may not have fit. I think the same holds true for ideas expressed in letters. So, the question implicit (maybe) in Major’s post is what has been the affect of editors removing any offending comments from the lives of these writers. And why would they do it. I guess he answered why they’d do it just by putting the Stevens quote. Then Reginald clarified it when he mentioned the fear of conflation.
    Still, that lack of communication or that lack of a public record of communication says something historically about the period, and not having some of that back story prevents us from seeing how sometimes the art grew in different directions than the person.
    Dwayne

  • On February 6, 2008 at 8:22 am Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Dear Vivek:
    Thank you for such a thoughtful post. It was a pleasure to read and learn from. One passage that was useful to me ( thinking of one of my areas of interest and concern) was:
    “I find it telling that, as it appears at least, Stevens had not heard of Brooks and could not even conceive of a Black woman winning the Pulitzer. As late as the 1950s, Black people existed for him as primal poets and sources of inspiration but clearly not as (even potentially) sophisticated writers.”
    Thank you,
    FA

  • On February 6, 2008 at 8:22 am Major wrote:

    Dwayne, you summed up succinctly my point! Thank you.

  • On February 6, 2008 at 9:12 am James Hoch wrote:

    Hey Everybody,
    It is dangerous to take quotes out of context. Dangerous in that we might condemn the innocent and dangerous too that we might forgive the unforgivable. Stevens’ quote came at a time that was not so long ago. It wasn’t the 18th century! Certainly, he was priveleged enough to have all the access needed to be a kinder, smarter human being. Perhaps, the specific context of the quote led him to parody or be irreverent or expressive or what have you. But the historical context doesn’t lend to forgiveness. If he meant it, he should’ve known better. Perhaps, this can be noted in the response of the peers, which could be seen as shocking in the way that folks are shocked when someone is saying what they are quietly thinking. This, of course, is a guess.
    It is dangerous too to conflate work with person, to think we know some other’s mind. But it is equally dangerous not to connect work with person. In this case, we have instances of how the life might illumniate the work or how it fails to illuminate the work, which means that we ought to be careful where and when we tread, but not forbidden or fearful to tread.
    It is dangerous too to ignore the role of PO-BIZ. Meaning: Surely, the person (and not the work) influences the reputation of others whether through ascent or descent of another’s work. Surely, all the failings of a given person are likely to come into play when they look to annointing this poet OVER that one. I think Major’s post focused on how racism might’ve come to shape who-got-what and how the probable reactions and fear of those reactions might shape those decisions. More importantly, Major’s post seem to mainly concern itself with how people might respond once such ascent is given, the backlash.
    James

  • On February 6, 2008 at 9:56 am Rich Villar wrote:

    Major: You’re right, one can learn much from a non-ally, especially the dead ones. Even at these early stages of my career, I must try to hold people accountable for their actions and their words, even if some of their work is brilliant in some way.
    Woodrow Wilson founded the League of Nations, despite being a vile racist. Likewise, Wallace Stevens was able to write a profound ars poetica, and put pen to some amazing ideas about poetry as a method of shaping one’s reality. I still contend that these life ideas can be found woven through the man’s written work, but how much MORE profound, how much more profoundly humanist, could he (or indeed, his poetics) have been, had he taken the chance to imagine fellow humans as something other than coon, or snake, or Dago, or nigger. And how much different would the world have been had not the racist Wilson sat down to help divide the world between two empires at the Paris Peace Conference. Unfair comparison? Suffice it to say that I believe one cannot erase his worldview from his writing anymore than he can from his politics. That’s a lesson for examining poets and critics, dead OR alive.

  • On February 6, 2008 at 10:33 am Jayal Fred wrote:

    Everyone’s a little bit racist
    Sometimes.
    Doesn’t mean we go
    Around committing hate crimes.
    Look around and you will find
    No one’s really color blind.
    Maybe it’s a fact
    We all should face
    Everyone makes judgments
    Based on race.
    –Avenue Q

  • On February 6, 2008 at 11:31 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    The old dogs love to quote Eliot:
    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.
    That strikes me first and foremost as a fancy-pants (rolled) way of a dog chasing its tail. It also points to a certain definition of celebrated insanity–doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. What have writers done for the most part than dramatize that very definition of insanity. We keep going to the empty well of the past to validate the present with a kind of pathological obsession with the future. It is bad physics at best. There is a kind of collective and persistent ill will and indignant displeasure with the past for being what the past had or was. We try to dress it up in different clothes, but it is all still rotten to the core inside. (Think of Norman Bates and his Mom.) That is where the critical theory folks get all that reification and fetishism business. Which make a good deal of common sense.

  • On February 6, 2008 at 11:43 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Sorry–wasn’t meaning to be “Don’t worry be happy”–I just find the story deeply depressing–being a fan of both Brooks and Stevens. It is interesting to me, though, that from the reaction, Stevens’ remarks were clearly off base even back then, even in an Old Boys club.

  • On February 6, 2008 at 12:29 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Rich:
    Why is it equally dangerous not to connect the person to the work as it is to connect the person (too strongly) to the work? What are the dangers in not connecting the person to the work? There is lots of literature about whose authors we know nothing (Shakespeare’s works would be an example, since however much people speculate, we know very little about his life).
    As you write, it’s very dangerous to assume that we can know another’s mind and intentions. And frankly, if that were the interest in literature, then we could just read biographies. My presumption is that literature exists because both author and reader are interested in something other than just what’s in the author’s head. And again, I’m quite sure that none of us would have wanted to spend time with Stevens, or with Pound, or with Eliot. Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams seem like they were pretty nice, though Moore was quite eccentric.
    As for Woodrow Wilson, he was not only a vile racist but an arrogant, stubborn, self-righteous ass who sabotaged the League of Nations he founded–by refusing any compromise with Congress, he ensured that the US would not join. And by refusing to uncouple the Treaty of Versailles from the League of Nations, he also ensured that the US would not ratify the treaty and thus lend its support to maintaining the post-war order. This, obviously, had some very serious consequences. But Wilson was a politician. His significance is exactly in his thoughts and actions, since they were public thoughts and actions and had public consequences. I don’t think a politician is comparable to a writer, because Wilson’s or any politician’s opinions shape their policies.
    Politics was what Wilson did, which isn’t the same for a writer. We only care about Stevens’ politics becasuse we care about his writing and thus, transitively, about the man who produced that writing.
    The fact that Stevens said “I know it’s not polite to call a lady a coon” indicates that the “Who let the nigger in?” version, as opposed to the “Who’s the coon?” version, probably isn’t accurate. Black people didn’t enter Stevens’ world or his consciousness except as imaginary figures. His remark, again despite the offensive language, could be taken as curiosity about what was to him something/someone (yes, I’m aware of the conflation) exotic. Like the time an old woman in Vermont asked if she could touch my hair, and was surprised that it was soft and not like a Brillo pad. Stevens was racist, yes, but I don’t think more than many others of his time, and perhaps less than some.
    By the way, the snakes in Stevens’ comment on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia weren’t people (that would be the coons), but actual snakes.
    all best,
    Reginald

  • On February 6, 2008 at 3:18 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    Actual snakes, okay, I figured as much. He’s still putting black people in with snakes. And that ain’t cool.
    Very quickly: While I do appreciate the history lesson on Wilson, I am not talking about the politics of his relations with Congress, but rather, how his inner beliefs, the core that drove him, might have led him to sign on to a treaty that essentially divided up Africa according to colonial and decidedly un-democratic borders, not to mention the havoc the U.S. was willing to ignore to keep that system in place. In that case, I’d argue it’s impossible for an analyst to separate Wilson’s racist, unimaginative belief system from Wilson’s job as politician.
    I never said a politician and a writer are the same, but I DO believe that when a man’s poetry, his creative project, his critical writings, etc. challenge the poet to change reality according the dictates of his imagination (a lofty goal, indeed), then I think a healthy bit a skepticism (at LEAST) can be afforded to his readers, based on what we now know about the limits of Stevens’ own imagination. (Whether he said coon or nigger, I think we can safely assume that Wallace didn’t exactly dig on us coloreds) That’s all I’m saying. I’m not here to tell people to burn his books, or march in solidarity to the Academy and demand his name be stricken from the canon. Just asking for a little relevant perspective as we study him, that’s all.
    Well, that…and maybe a little vigilence, especially in the era of resignations from certain poetry societies and whatnot. Oooooo….

  • On February 16, 2008 at 11:35 pm Patricia Spears Jones wrote:

    Major-I think the most interesting thing about all these posts is your interest in “cross-cultural” relationships. I guess my question would be what cultures are crossed? Segregated America was like a parallel universe w/ poor Whites and poor Blacks; professionals (w/ Black folks getting paid less, often a lot less) and rich Black people and rich White people. But of course the Whites were TOTALLY PRIVILEGED so anytime there was rift in the social fabric, say choosing an African American woman for any kind of award over anybody White, there was going to be a moment where the Privileged stated or mocked their privilege–the give a . . . an inch and he’ll take a mile . . . moment.
    In many ways Stevens, Pound, Frost all those guys were in sync with their time, but they were also out of it–poets usually are. The social version of these gentlemen would reveal them racist, anti-semitic, misogynist, and with Pound deeply fascistic. Well
    But Brooks and Walker and every other Black American writer (unless semi braindead) knew who these men were and why they thought that way and developed deep and sustained resistance to all that power. It isn’t so much letting Ms. Brooks in and thant it is beginning to realize that the comfortable world of White Privilege in all its splendors was about to change, to diminish, if not disappear (it ain’t hardly gone). In a country where Blacks were routinely called “nigger” and whose citizenship was legally restricted via Jim Crow laws, the fact that these Black women and men decided to actually compete for national awards is amazing to me. Frankly, Stevens’ comments are silly in the way that privilege often manifests itself. You know the “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun”with thanks to Noel Coward. It strikes me that the “narrative” around Civil Rights and its triumphs has taken away one very important component–the general ease of White Domination prior to the 1960’s-, It is much easier to think of violent Klansmen and corrupt police, but not the doctors, lawyers, union bosses, cooks, clerks, nurses, florists, shopkeepers, et al who daily made Black people’s lives so difficult.
    In that way an insurance executive who also wrote important and difficult verse could be as small minded and distant from the work of Brooks and any number of poets because well, he didn’t have to be bothered.
    Major–it’s an interesting task that you’ve set for yourself. I wish you well. The commentary throughout esp. from Dwayne and Rich was interesting, Keep throwing stuff against the wall-clearly there are times when it sticks.


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, February 4th, 2008 by Major Jackson.