Wallace Stevens After "Lunch"
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.
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?
Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...