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Opusculum Paedagogum

Reconsidering Wallace Stevens.

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 2nd, 2013

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), Space, in Chains (2011),...

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  1. January 3, 2013
     Mark Esrig

    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

  2. January 7, 2013
     Susan Scheid

    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!

  3. January 9, 2013

    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.

  4. January 10, 2013
     Susan Scheid

    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.

  5. January 16, 2013
     Thomas DeFreitas

    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

    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.")

  6. January 17, 2013
     Michael David

    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.

  7. January 20, 2013
     David Fellowes

    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.

  8. January 20, 2013
     June Goodwin

    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

    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

  9. January 20, 2013
     Joe Drennan

    I laughed out loud several times. Thank you for that.

  10. January 22, 2013
     Michael David

    @ 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."

  11. January 23, 2013
     June Goodwin

    @ 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.


  12. January 26, 2013

    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.

  13. January 29, 2013

    I enjoyed the poem very much. Thank you.

  14. January 30, 2013

    Eh, it cannot matter at all. Happens to like is one of the ways things
    happento fall.

  15. May 31, 2013
     Cece Fran

    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!

  16. May 31, 2014
     James P. Roach

    Stevens is a poet's poet in that he is most for those inclined to live poetically in the broadest sense--people for whom the only happy condition of life is to be usually active artistically, making experiences very intentionally and consciously for the sake of human life--deliberately, willfully, enhancing its quality. It is as personal as that. That's what he most likes in people, real or imaginary--or rather I should say realizers of the imaginary and the imagination itself.
    It does not follow that even poets, literal or figurative, will necessarily be comfortable with the pressure of that much conditional affection, or clearly perceive the comedy of the poet's own (highly ironic) view of the situation. It's like being courted by an unwanted suitor, being a Rosline reading the gorgeously elaborate and unserious correspondence and entreaties of Berowne. As usual, Shakespeare is way ahead of the rest of us on the psychology of self-conscious male narcissism, and the ambivalence it provokes--moreso in women than in men, since men are more likely to identify with, even harmonize with, company like that.
    It does not follow either, that if the slant of a poet like Stevens makes you uncomfortable, that you are necessarily a non-poet or a bad poet. Think of Dickinson as his big sister, in the same extended household, then imagine how mixed her responses to her amazingly lively, but appallingly unrestrained, little brother would have seemed to her (never mind the boundlessly indecorous egotism of her distant cousin Whitman!)and you'll begin to get the picture in a more Renaissance way, regardless of the degree to which the subject of your poetry is the poet's own subjectivity--as it has been in the Anglo-American world since Wordsworth--or about the the loss of personality to population pressure--which is the demise that Continental European poetry and drama since, roughly, Goethe, reflects upon.
    Beyond sex and family resemblances, relations, and all the mixed affinities & repulsions that go with them, there is also the matter of the uses of solitude for those it better suits--its delights and dangers. Some of us hold together better when we can command lots of quiet time & space to be, and some of us fall apart and into madness unless surrounded by a veritable menagerie of others to play off. There are virtues and vices that go with each extreme, the former being Goethe's, the latter being Johnson's. Stevens was closer to Goethe in this most core of all differences, and so am I, which is why I read them more as mentors that teach by a process of identification--becoming what I behold in their perspective. With Johnson, the perspectival pathway must differ, for I cannot see the world through him, but rather it he is I see, a very definite other. He just is, overwhelmingly, a great lovable and loving lion whose roar is all bluster, but whom I could never befriend, and share the finer things in, say, recordings of orchestral music and miniature citrus trees, growing behind windows--flourishing in the middle of winter, a piece of summer, big as all outdoors can be.
    You don't need to dress like a lumberjack or a shepherd to write the poems of any climate, but you probably do need to live in the suburbs, with urban amenities combined with good vistas on the sky. You could do it in a 3 piece suit, on a commute in your Buick, day or night or either twilight.