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.