Prose from Poetry Magazine

Opusculum Paedagogum

Reconsidering Wallace Stevens.

by Laura Kasischke

I know only too well that it is my own failings as a reader, a thinker, 
a poet, and a human being that I don’t like the work of  Wallace Stevens. I know that there are scholars who have devoted their lives to his work, and done so out of  the purest motives. I know that there are poets who, without Stevens’s work to inspire them, would never have taken up the pen themselves. I know that there are students for whom “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” upon first being encountered, cracked open a world of thought and language and helped them to pull themselves out of the gutter of cable television and to worship forever after at the altar of Wallace Stevens. I know that hundreds — thousands! — of far better readers, thinkers, poets, and human beings love the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Spiritually. In all sincerity. And completely.

But, honestly, how can they? I placed a jar in Tennessee…?

“No! Don’t! Please!” someone (perhaps that poor secretary to whom he supposedly dictated the poems every morning) should have said. She should have said, “Wallace, no. Don’t use the word ‘placed.’ It makes you sound so... so ...  so full of yourself ! As if you think that every time you toss a candy wrapper out the window the landscape rearranges itself around you. The whole idea that someone (you) has put (I mean placed) a jar on a hill and then written
a poem about it — that whole idea is so ludicrous and disturbing that it will be discussed for decades in cold rooms with bad lighting. And the music of it! omg! It did not give of bird or bush... 
You really are joking now, aren’t you? This is like that other line, the one with the concupiscent curds in it? Right? You’re just trying to make the kids in Poetry 101 with hangovers start up with the cold sweats, right?”

But perhaps she never dared to say that. He was a powerful man. He was never told by anyone that a poem with a line that required pronouncing the name “Tehuantepec” repeatedly, followed by a line about the “slopping” sea, was stomach-churning. And no one ever asked him to explain how, exactly, a man and a woman and a blackbird can be one. No one said, “Nuncle, you must reconsider this hoo-hoo-hoo and shoo-shoo-shoo and ric-a-nic. And, of course, ‘cachinnation’ is going to require yet another footnote, you know. Maybe just say ‘loud laughter’?”

Just now I took out the Norton, thinking I must be misremembering these lines. No poet as beloved as Wallace Stevens could have written them. But the first Stevens line my eyes fall upon is “Opusculum paedagogum.  / The pears are not viols.” At least I don’t have to worry about those lines getting stuck in my head all day.

I’ve read Wallace Stevens, and I’ve taught Wallace Stevens, and 
I know that as a poet and a thinker I am not the equal of even the pad of paper on which his secretary jotted down his poems during those torture sessions at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. I’m sure that it’s a character flaw of my own that causes the poems he wrote to make my jaw hurt — a pain that actually shoots from my molars to my temples when I so much as see the man’s name in print. That I’ve never felt this way about any other poet — and we’re talking any poet living or dead, published or unpublished or whose work was being screamed at me in a parking ramp — is only further proof of my, to quote Stevens, “complacencies of the peignoir.” And, still, when someone tells me that his or her favorite poet is Stevens, I habitually ask, “Wallace?” And when it turns out that, yes, well, of course, Wallace Stevens, 
I make a mental note about the person: pathological liar. But I just smile and say, “Ah, yes, ‘a jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.’”

It’s never come to blows, but baboons and periwinkles have been invoked as evidence for each side of the argument. And, once, a particularly patient man (my husband) sat down and read 
“A Postcard from the Volcano” to me:

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw.

Of course. How can one not feel that poem in her pulse, and understand the appreciation, the adulation, the worship of such a poet? 
I was chastened when he closed the book on that perfect poem, and 
I had to admit that, yes, it is a poem for the ages, one of the greatest. If only he’d taken her advice on the other ones as well.

Originally Published: January 2, 2013

COMMENTS (15)

On January 3, 2013 at 11:04am Mark Esrig wrote:
Laura Kasischke's article on Stevens reminds me of once finding John Coltrane's music in the 'easy listening' department of a record store. The main flaw in her argument is what a logician might call a negative conclusion from affirmative premises. There is, of course, no real argument here, because Kasischke constantly lets us know she is awed by Stevens' albeit undeserved reputation. When she describes him as "beloved", however, I have to protest. She is looking for Stevens in the easy listening department. Her disdain for his lifestyle, his otherness, and constant reference to his secretary and profession, merely reveal her scorn and all the heaping helpings of her awe do not disguise or forgive her prejudices. When she grudgingly grants that a particular poem is "perfect" it is no more than a backhanded complement. I think Stevens deserves more than this perfunctory commentary...Reconsidering such a poet should do more than allow one admittedly humble reader's taste or lack of taste to distort and malign an entire career.

Mark Esrig
New Mexico

On January 7, 2013 at 11:25am Susan Scheid wrote:
I don't understand why The Poetry Foundation saw fit to accord this bit
of thoughtless silliness print space. Why not accord discussion space
on the pros and cons of Stevens's work to, say, Al Filreis and Marjorie
Perloff? Now that would be worth reading!

On January 9, 2013 at 9:14am JM wrote:
I disagree with Kasischke too, but for the love of god, Filreis and Perloff
don't need another platform. They are not poets and will never
understand poetry.

On January 10, 2013 at 10:55am Susan Scheid wrote:
The wonderful thing about reading the other comments
here is the passion we all have for poetry and with it
the strong desire to protect and nurture it. With regard
to the most recent commenter’s statement about Filreis
and Perloff, a clarification of my own comment may be in
order. I can better understand, even though I do not
share the commenter’s view, the vehemence about Perloff,
but I was surprised about the commenter’s inclusion of
Filreis. With regard to Stevens’s standing as a poet, I
see Perloff and Filreis on different sides of the
debate. Filreis is a Stevens scholar, and his book,
“Stevens and the Actual World,” is an exemplary work of
poetic history that deepened markedly my own
understanding and appreciation of Stevens’s work. It’s
not easy to find, but worth the search. Through careful
and thorough examination of primary source materials,
Filreis goes a long way toward debunking the myth of
Stevens as wholly detached from his world and times. For
a poet’s take on Stevens, Dan Chiasson’s review of the
Collected Poems a few years back was an exemplary piece
of thoughtful writing on Stevens’s poetry. I commend
both to all.

On January 16, 2013 at 5:19am Thomas DeFreitas wrote:
Good golly, who's next, Theodore Roethke?

About this piece, let me simply say that when I
discovered Wallace Stevens' "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"
(the "Tehuantepec" poem) I was a working-class 16-year-
old of slightly-better-than-functional literacy, and I
was utterly enchanted. I read it over and over, and even
wrote some dreadful imitations. The poem is luminous,
it is splendid, it is irreplaceable.

And yes, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" -- how can
anyone read that, and not be (as Marianne Moore would
say) "implicated"? How can one read a line like "Spring
vanishes the scraps of winter" and not marvel at the
ingenuity of "vanishes" being made to mean "causes to
vanish"?

And has anyone in the last fifty years written anything
one-tenth as good as "Sunday Morning" or "The Comedian
as the Letter C"? The verbal inventiveness of
"Comedian" -- yes, sometimes as "unsolvable" as a five-
by-five Rubik's Cube -- is unsurpassed.

Oh, heavens, Ms Kasischke, do please reconsider your
reconsideration! (But I must admit, I don't like "The
Emperor of Ice-Cream.")

On January 16, 2013 at 1:53pm Michael David wrote:
I wonder if some of the comments here
are looking a bit too far down their Lockean noses,
through rationalistic glasses.
You've perhaps missed the mood of Kasischke's argument.
She's far from dogmatic about her disdain for Stevens;
rather she conditions it with honest, brash,
witty self-reflexivity, poking fun at her own barbs.

Question: Since when does poetry criticism have to be
within the hard, plotting confines of sober rationalism?

That said, I would maintain that Stevens' jar
is wielded by a purposefully presumptuous narrator.
Hence the sing-songy, primitive sonic quality
accents our good and noble conquistador of tor,
which uses human innovation to seemingly contain
and tame the sloven wild..

As if.

Question: since when does the poet have to work within
the hard, plotting confines of the reliable narrator? Indeed.

Intertextual suggestion:
I think we'd do good to measure this poem
against Stevens' The Snow Man.
Can one really know and thus contain nature?
Can we really, truly hear
"misery in the sound of the wind" or
have we projected ourselves cumbersomely onto nature
in order to (understandably) buffer the fear of it's
utter impersonality.
Perhaps one ought to assume a mind of winter
in order to better understand
the jar's bold claims in Tennessee.

On January 19, 2013 at 2:19pm David Fellowes wrote:
And I prefer oranges to apricots.

So who cares? She's only expressing a personal preference.

But I know that if she doesn't get Wallace Stevens's poetry, I certainly don't want to read hers.

On January 19, 2013 at 6:12pm June Goodwin wrote:
Whoa, relax everybody. I dunno, but it seems to me...
at least what I've done over the years (esp. to help me
sane when I was a journalist in Africa)... is read
through Wallace Stevens' hoo haaas (as if those are
notes, not words) to find the gems, the reason that
can't "make us happy or unhappy."

Once some of his lines are in one's body, they can't be
extracted.

I mean, when I'm close to death, very near the palm at
the end of the mind, I suspect I will murmur over and
over "the fire-fangled feathers dangle down."

Also, I've looked up to see if I could go visit the real
Tehuantepec. Maybe some day. Although the slopping of
the sea flows in my blood because of Wallace Stevens.

June Goodwin
Oakland, CA

On January 20, 2013 at 12:37am Joe Drennan wrote:
I laughed out loud several times. Thank you for that.

On January 22, 2013 at 1:19am Michael David wrote:
@ June

Just a thought, but perhaps the "palm at the end of the mind" isn't referencing so much death but revelation; by which I mean, a revelation of human limitations, or a sober realization of the finite limits of knowledge itself. This palm is "beyond the last thought" where the bird sings "without human meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song." The bird is outside of our epistemological reach, but we can still see it and hear it.

As soon as we attempt to venture past the palm, if you will, the jar in Tennessee becomes "gray and bare," and the bird loses its song, its fire.

Nature must have its own say.

Poet Nicky Beer picks up on this idea beautifully in her poem "Cardinal Virtue" when she says, referencing the Cardinal,

"This is not a life
of flight, but flight from. Perhaps you don't suppose
that there's any other way, which is itself
a kind of mercy. Perhaps you don't suppose."

On January 22, 2013 at 9:27pm June Goodwin wrote:
@ Michael David

Why not. One of the beauties of Wallace Stevens is he
can be interpreted in variegated ways. That's one of
the reasons puzzling though his poems all over Africa
sustained me through adversity and torque. I understand
the decorative charge, but Helen Vendler showed me how
shallow that was. I do not speak from academic depths,
but from what the sound and meaning of poems do for my
internal gyroscope.

June

On January 26, 2013 at 12:09am MD wrote:
Dear June,

Yes! How very true. Stevens' stuff, like much poetry, has much subjective wiggle room. Puzzling through them, as you aptly state, is part of the process toward the rendering of both the poem as meaningful and the poem-as-read-by-the-reader. Both of those things need to be negotiated by the reader themselves; which is to say, we need to score that our interpretations are, well, just that: interpretations of the text itself. The text/poem itself must always take precedence, and since the poem has a life of its own but does not speak back to us, we must always and forever interact with it, never shutting the book.

-- Not even the poet, or creator of the poem, can shut down negotiations on what the poem means. Hence, your reference to the "internal gyroscope" is prescient. Poems, like humans, are dynamic. They shift with time, slowly but surely, like seismic things.

It's funny, as a sometimes-poet myself, I've noticed a bizarre feeling during the process of writing something. While sometimes I can pump out a poem in one sitting, usually I find myself returning to poems and tweaking them here and there. But after maybe a month or so, there comes a point in time when I, the poem's creator or initiator, cease to be in full control of the poem itself. There comes a point in time when the poem takes on a life of itself, similar yet different from myself, connected yet augmented in some way. It would seem it's at this crucial point that the creator must give way to the creation, listening and responding to where it wants to go in the final stages of the editing process.

Sculptors talk about observing how the rock is beginning to form, and while they have an idea of where they want to go they adapt midway through based on how the thing is panning out. Poetry isn't all that different I don't think.

Poet Paul Valery said "a poem is never finished, only abandoned." The impulse of Valery is undeniably genuine; though I wonder, perhaps if the poet listens close enough to the poem, it can be considered finished on its own right, at least the framework of it, though inviting the poet to accent or furbish small things here and there around its kernel of meaning.

On January 29, 2013 at 12:44pm Kush wrote:
I enjoyed the poem very much. Thank you.

On January 29, 2013 at 7:03pm Alex wrote:
Eh, it cannot matter at all. Happens to like is one of the ways things
happento fall.

On May 30, 2013 at 4:33pm Cece Fran wrote:
A pleasure to read the kaleidoscope of reactions to Wallace Stevens. Laura Kasischke did an excellent job of walking around a devilish problem and inciting some pithy takes.
Should we imagine the dull energy that Stevens and his secretary exerted to complete the day of filing claims with proscribed language. Both of them, with tongue in cheek pomposity, instead of saying "take this down" and proceeding with a dull report, Stevens lets loose with arabesques of image and intent, and she trying not to laugh, must query now and again, "did you say 'fire fangled feathers?". "I most certainly did, now pay close attention".
What wonderful way to perform mental exercise!

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This prose originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

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 Laura  Kasischke

Biography

Poet and novelist Laura Kasischke was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Her books of poetry include Wild Brides (1992), Fire and Flower (1998), Dance and Disappear (2002), Gardening in the Dark (2004), Lilies Without (2007), and Space, in Chains (2011), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Kasischke has won numerous awards for her poetry, including the . . .

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