Poetry News

What Could Wallace Stevens Teach Romney?

By Harriet Staff

In a recent post, New Yorker blogger Michelle Dean wonders what sort of politician Wallace Stevens might have been. Stevens earned the equivalent of $350,000 annually as an insurance company VP. He was acutely aware of his remove from the average citizen, and was "shaken" by criticism from the left.

One critic to whom [publisher and editor Ronald Lane] Latimer sent a copy of “Ideas of Order” for review was Stanley Burnshaw, of the Communist Party USA’s New Masses. Though he’d never expressed any particular sympathies for leftism before, Stevens told Latimer that “merely finding myself in that milieu was an extraordinarily stimulating thing.” And yet Burnshaw was not a fan of the book, and took it as an occasion to write a takedown of Stevens’s thinking generally. After praising Stevens’s first book, “Harmonium,” from 1923, for its humor and phrasing, Burnshaw added that, “It is the kind of verse that people concerned with the murderous world collapse can hardly swallow today except in tiny doses.” Yet the incursion of social consciousness into “Ideas of Order” did little more, Burnshaw wrote, than turn Stevens’s “harmonious cosmos” into one “screeching with confusion.” He had a point: the text fused calls for collectivism with contempt for “peanut people.”

For some reason Burnshaw’s disapproval nettled Stevens. He was so irked, in fact, that within a year he’d composed a new section of his long poem titled “Owl’s Clover.” One of its poems is called “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue,” in which the figure of Burnshaw stands for the appeal of politics and the Statue for art. The overall theme that emerges is that “All things destroy themselves or are destroyed.” That piece has its virtues, but as Harold Bloom once put it, “much is left unrepressed … until the poem collapses in a hysteria of bad wit.” Indeed, some lines are downright ugly:

A solemn voice, not Mr. Burnshaw’s says:
At some gigantic, solitary urn,
A trash can at the end of the world, the dead
Give up dead things and the living turn away.

Stevens’s letters on the subject are similarly incoherent and defensive. “I hope I am headed left,” he wrote to Latimer, “but there are lefts and lefts, and certainly I am not headed for the ghastly left of Masses. The rich man and the comfortable man of the imagination of people like Mr. Burnshaw are not nearly so rich or so comfortable as he believes them to be. And, what is more, his poor men are not nearly so poor…. Masses is just one more wailing place and the whole left nowadays is a mob of wailers.”

But Stevens wasn't as bad as all that. Later in the post, Dean describes Stevens' defense of the new Social Security system, irking his colleagues but assuaging our perception of Stevens as a one-percenter. Read the full article here.

Originally Published: October 3rd, 2012