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Hoodoo You Love

By Joel Brouwer

warhol_mona_lisa

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens was the fourth book of poetry I ever bought, with a gift certificate to Schuler Books in Grand Rapids I’d been given for a birthday, probably my sixteenth or so. Why that book? I’m not entirely sure. I would have known from my English class that Stevens was capital-I Important. I probably liked the notion of collectedness, of having something comprehensive. I love now and probably loved then the look of the book’s innards: that wonderful typeface, somehow both austere and playful (what is it, anyway?); the little decorative dividing lines between the poems; and — famously, I know — the fact that rather than starting each new poem on a new page, they all ran together, as if each was a kind of sequel to the last (which, often, it seemed to be). Once I got it home, I began a long romance with that book, at first wanting to love it but feeling spurned by it, then spurning it in turn, eventually — with the help of some good teachers — learning to live with it on its own terms, and then, a lot later, getting it to love me back on my own terms.

Later I found out about The Palm at the End of the Mind, the edition of poems edited by Holly Stevens, the poet’s daughter, and Opus Posthumous, a 1957 catchall. I stayed away. I felt like I had the only Stevens I needed. Even when, in 1997, the Library of America published an edition of Stevens, a big impressive thing including poems and drafts not included in any of his published volumes, I picked it up once in a bookstore, looked at it for about a minute, and then put it back down. I had already determined who the Stevens I loved was, and I did not care to have that version of the poet altered by the addition of some hundred poems I’d never even heard of before. (Also, for pete’s sake, everyone knows that “Earthy Anecdote” stands alone on the first page of Harmonium, and “Invective Against Swans” comes only after you’ve turned that page, leaving the firecat behind to sleep in the darkness.)

Now comes another Stevens, a selected this time, which seems like an even less attractive idea than the warts-and-all LoA edition. If, as reviewer Helen Vendler says, the only things omitted from this volume are “The juvenilia, the unpublished poems of unhappy love, the less interesting verbal experiments and a few of the more difficult lyrics that might turn away beginners,” then this volume must either include pretty much all of my cherished Collected Poems, which contains no juvenilia, unpublished poems, or uninteresting experiment, or it must include almost no Stevens poems at all, since pretty much all his work consists of difficult lyrics that might turn away beginners.

But I guess the gist of my post here isn’t that I think one edition of Stevens is better than another. What this Vendler review in yesterday’s paper got me thinking about was the ways in which we come to know a given poet, and our reluctance, once our understanding has hardened into habit, to let that poet change, to let the relationship between us change. You might have grown up thinking Sylvia Plath was ______, and then years later read Anne Stevenson’s biography, and subsequently resented what you perceived as a pressure to think of Plath not as _____ after all, but rather as _____. Or maybe, even more simply, you’ve thought of yourself for years as not a big fan of Whitman, but one day you sit down with Leaves of Grass while you wait for the plumber, and find some poem you’ve never heard of before, and it thrills you. John Donne was _____ for 300 years, then Eliot wrote an essay, and Donne’s been _____ ever since.

Probably I’m just rambling now. I can tell because I was about to make an elaborate metaphor based on my aversion to eggplant. Here’d be the discussion question: Have you ever fallen out of love with a poet? Grown to love one you couldn’t stand at first? Have you ever changed your tune about a poet? Has your conception of a given poet ever undergone radical transformation? If so, circumstances, please.

Comments (17)

  • On August 24, 2009 at 4:58 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    I’m with you, Joel, on Collecteds v. Selecteds. So is the fine Irish poet Sinéad Morrissey, who even prefers Completes to Collecteds! She puts it this way:

    Reading the Greats

    Is it for their failures that I love them?
    Ignoring the regulation of Selected Poems,
    with everything in that should be in—
    all belted & buttoned & shining—
    I opt instead for omnivorous Completes.
    For their froth. Their spite. For avoidable mistakes:
    Larkin on Empire, say, or Plath on Aunts.

    The thrill of when they dip, trip up, run out
    of things to write about before they start,
    is the consolation of watching
    a seascape suddenly drained and stinking
    of flies & fishheads & bladderwrack.
    And the tide impossibly distant. And no way back.
    Yes, I love them for that.

    • On August 24, 2009 at 5:39 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

      Thanks for posting Morrissey’s poem, Joseph. I take her point on the usefulness of Completes: if you’ve got a complete, then you essentially have the block of stone from which you can sculpt your own version of the poet. But Selecteds have their virtues, and not, I’d argue, only the oft-cited one of Selecteds being “a good place to start.” (That line’s always seemed a little condescending to me.) I for one and what it’s worth have always liked the ancient Robert Lowell selected just fine, and though I dutifully plowed through the FSG Lowell phone book when it finally dropped (beating GnR’s Chinese Democracy after all and thus losing me a five dollar bet), I haven’t looked at it since.

  • On August 24, 2009 at 5:46 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Don Share, I probably could have guessed, would NOT be a fan of Selecteds . . . http://donshare.blogspot.com/2009/08/blinking-don-tired-of-mini-reflections.html

    • On August 25, 2009 at 9:20 am Don Share wrote:

      True. I like to be given as much poetry as possible, and then make my own selections – all you gotta do is turn pages!

  • On August 24, 2009 at 6:03 pm thomas brady wrote:

    We are displeased by things that please.

    Do we not pin our resentment on the very source of our pleasure rather than the inevitable satiety which is the cause of that pleasure’s surcease?

    The selected poems of X stroked my fancy until my imagination said, “no more!”

    I happened upon, by chance, X’s collected, and seeing the pale rings stretching outward from the knotted center, my imagination whispered: “Do you see? I was right about her.”

    “No!”

    I protested in vain.

    I leapt at my selected, turning the pages to my favorite poem. It was too late. The lovely lines I had long loved seemed a contrivance. The smile had turned to a grin.

    The spell was broken.

  • On August 24, 2009 at 6:10 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

    Thanks for this post, Joel. You know, I tried to enter into Harryette Mullen’s work via Sleeping with the Dictionary, and that was actually a little difficult for me so I just kind of put off reading it. Recyclopedia, however, I totally loved. That’s considered a Collected, no?

    • On August 24, 2009 at 11:36 pm Adam Strauss wrote:

      Recyclopedia–which I love as well–is an interesting case, as I wouldn’t call it a collected because Blues Baby and SWTD are not included, but the 3 collections in between are represented in their totalities.

    • On August 25, 2009 at 12:13 am adam strauss wrote:

      Oops, I meant Tree Tall Women, not Blues Baby, which is marketed as a collected early work. To my feelingthoughts, collecteds are rather confusing when the writer is still alive, tho I suppose it’s legit to argue a collected poems is a whole different deal from a complete poems of [fill in with whoever you like]. SWTD was my entry into Mullen (and I’m “forever” grateful for its introducing me to Oulipo). Trimmings took me many readings to get in the groove of,as it didn’t seem as fun as much of her other work, but then I decided that book too is pretty hillarious–seriously so! It’d be awesome if the Poetry Foundation folks would invite Mullen to be a blogger!

  • On August 24, 2009 at 8:40 pm Joseph Duemer wrote:

    Well, I am biased since the new Selected Stevens reviewed by Vendler in the Times yesterday is edited by my friend and colleague at Clarkson John Serio. I’d like to stand up for selecteds, though. In my twenties when I was really poor I loved the WCW selected especially — it forced me to come to terms with a focused but still representative selection of Williams’ work and I think the new Stevens (I got my copy free from John) will do the same, especially for younger readers or students. And I don’t think that’s condescending — a good selected is a guided tour. Of course, there are bad tour guides as well. . .

  • On August 25, 2009 at 8:27 am Henry Gould wrote:

    To answer your question, Joel : when I was 18 (around 1970), Ashbery was my favorite poet. I was deeply enthralled. By 20 years on, I had gone 180 degrees the other way. Bored & annoyed – almost a conviction (almost) that Ashbery was a kind of fraud, a shyster. I should re-read him in 2010 & see what happens.

    Off the top of my head, there were 2 things I loved about Ashbery in the early days : 1) the sheer evocative music, the humor, the delight-in-reading; and 2) I was very impressed, in those very anxious, depressed, & conflicted times, with the stubborn idea that a poet could use words as a screen against “useful” language – I respected & tried to emulate this stance, the attitude that a poet had a right to say absolutely nothing, to speak utter nonsense.

    I guess it’s a truism that we need different things at different times. By the 80s, what I need was not more nonses, but more light….

    • On August 25, 2009 at 8:28 am Henry Gould wrote:

      p.s. sorry for typo, I meant “nonsense”…

    • On August 25, 2009 at 9:28 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

      Henry, weird! I was typing an Ashbery poem for my new post even as you were posting yourself!

      I’ve had a different journey with J.A.; intimidated for a long time because I wasn’t sure what was expected of me, then later when a bit more confident in myself able to enjoy the shenanigans. But never particularly passionate either way. I think you’re absolutely right that we need different things at different times. Also of course there are some things we never need at all.

      • On August 25, 2009 at 9:37 am Henry Gould wrote:

        Gosh, your Ashbery poem seems to be talkin’ back to me.

  • On August 26, 2009 at 7:18 pm Terreson wrote:

    Good story, Joel Brouwer, and to a delicious point. I could reply with a story but it would be too long for the venue. It involves a teen-age girl, me when I was in my mid-twenties, and Dylan Thomas. The short of the story is that it needed an adolescent to open my ears to the sound-sense, his cadences, rhythms, and metrics in Dylan’s poetry. Come to think of it I got a similar story involving G.M. Hopkins and Whitman, both of whom I rejected out of hand way back when. Fast forward twenty years and I was getting the beauty of sprung rhythm, have worked in a home-grown variety of it ever since, and Whitman’s art finally came through. Funny stuff, huh? These life-long relationships we have with our poets.

    I wish I could put out the proposition that some day, maybe in another twenty years, I’ll come around to Ashbery’s poetics. But I don’t see it happening. Increasingly, without its duende, a poem is no poem to me, which may be a perverse thing for an older man to say.

    Terreson

  • On August 27, 2009 at 1:35 pm Andrew wrote:

    I still can’t get over not liking Elliot.

  • On August 28, 2009 at 7:44 pm N.R. wrote:

    I’ve had a number of affairs–I’ve fallen out of love with Sylvia after I started writing too much like her and I got flack for it in a workshop. But I still privately love the old girl, even if her work now seems a bit self-indulgent once in a while, but the fire always gets me going. Louise Gluck is a recent interest after I read “The Wild Iris” but having read “The Seven Ages” and “Meadowlands” (both good but not jawdroppingly amazing) I’m kind of losing interest in her workings of simple diction in dramatic context. They don’t consistently echo profoundly. I’ve got the collected, p.s. for Sylvia, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As a still learning poet (well aren’t we all) I enjoy and am edified by reading the collected of any great poet from front to back and noting the progress and changes (and failueres–there’s a lot to learn there as well.)

    And I, too, am “eh” about Elliot.

    • On August 28, 2009 at 7:47 pm N.R. wrote:

      *failures


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, August 24th, 2009 by Joel Brouwer.