Invisible Priest: Contemporary American Poetry and the Echo of Stevens
"Sometimes I feel about this poem the way others feel about the Twenty-third Psalm." That's James Merrill talking about Wallace Stevens’s "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour," and it is quite a claim.
Typically, poets stick to secular language when describing their emotional attachment to another poet’s work, especially when describing the work of their peers. While Merrill and Stevens were not exactly contemporaries—Merrill would have been almost thirty when Stevens died—they shared a decade or so during which both were writing poems. I often wonder if Merrill ever hoped any future poet would feel about his poetry the way he felt about Stevens’s. So much of Merrill’s work rings with a Stevensian tone, it is interesting to ponder if the Stevensian bell in his ear drowned out his own words or made them more resonant.
Harold Bloom, the father of the concept of slaying the poetic father, would consider such a conundrum an anxiety of influence. What Bloom calls “the poet-in-a-poet” comes not from the imagination but from the inspiration of another poet’s poetry. Or, put another way, one is drawn to poetry because of poetry. For Bloom, that ontological (and tautological) source dilutes the work of the poet, which comes second because it is fundamentally derivative. More interesting to me than the Freudian tension poets have with other poets is the dialogic relationship poets enter into with each other, and in particular, the one they enter into with Stevens. Bloom was (and still is) fascinated by the degree to which poets swerve away or misread their predecessors, but, relying too heavily on misreading as a mode of reading assumes knowledge of authorial intent and even readerly intent. By “readerly intent” I mean what a person has in mind as she or he reads and interprets the work of another writer. I might assume a Keatsian influence on Stevens through Stevens’s writing, but that may have nothing to do with how Stevens read Keats. What did he read into Keats? What do we want, as a reader or a writer, from Keats? How often do we really know what we’re trying to do—either as writers or readers?
For me, the much more reasonable (and enjoyable) question is not how poets avoid or rewrite Stevens’s work but rather how they accommodate it.
As the 2009 anthology of Stevens-inspired poems Visiting Wallace suggests, Stevens is thoroughly present in contemporary letters. As Dennis Barone and James Finnegan write in their preface, “No other American poet, we would argue, has been more influential upon American poets during the past thirty years….And in the recent Poet’s Bookshelf anthologies, more poets cited work by Wallace Stevens for its significance in shaping their poetic art than work by any other writer.” This factoid, coupled with the tenor of the poems in the anthology, suggests no evidence of writerly competition with Stevens. In fact, where I expected to uncover attempts to de-Stevens contemporary American poetry, I kept coming across poems that took relish in the great pleasure of co-Stevensing.
In my mind, and I think in the mind of many contemporary poets, it is Stevens who establishes the lyric aesthetic for this century and the last. To interact with him, to don his hat and cane, is to drape your poem in his cloak. The poem as costume, the poem as disguise. The poem as dialogue. The poem as enactment.
We admire Eliot and Williams and Pound and Crane but in my experience, contemporary poets interact with them less. It’s easy to mimic Williams or jettison Pound, but Stevens is more complex. Despite the ambiguity of his poetry and the ongoing disagreements among scholars of his work, contemporary American poetry is saturated with his voice. To ignore Stevens, to pretend he does not exist, is to betray poetic legacy. His words are always in our heads, his voice an echo in our own. In fact, just this week, an excellent poet sent out a note asking for lines from poems, songs, or music that one always remembers or has handy. The first thing to pop into my head was “Days pass like papers from a press”—from “The Man on the Dump.” I began to wonder if Merrill and I were ever, a continent away, thinking about Stevens at exactly the same moment. I have another poet friend who will just repeat random lines from “The Snow Man” to himself as a kind of calming meditation. I have begun to believe that when it comes to American poetry, there is no place he is not. For many of us, that leaves two choices: take Stevens on or take Stevens in. As Visiting Wallace reveals, the latter is the more prominent, but the former is more exciting.
Consider, for example, Theodore Roethke’s famous-slash-infamous “A Rouse for Stevens,” which both praises and mocks Stevens (“Roar ’em, whore ’em, cockalorum, / The Muses, they must all adore him”) while also praising and mocking Stevens’s admirers (“Wallace Stevens—are we for him? / Brother, he’s our father!”). Roethke takes Stevens on, whereas Merrill takes Stevens in. However, for poets of our current generation, neither of these options seems to suffice—we take him in by taking him on. I began thinking about this back in 2009 during the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and Bookfair—the largest creative writing gathering in the country. At the conference, six prominent poets, including Cate Marvin, Jay Hopler, and Terrance Hayes, participated in a high-profile panel dubbed “Six Ways of Looking at Stevens.” The poets explored the influence of Stevens on their own work. This was particularly interesting because the writers on the panel were not those whose poetics one might not expect to be informed by the master of the “supreme fiction.” What emerged was an awareness that even in poets whose voices might not sound like Stevens or whose politics might be far from his, Stevens was still there nevertheless, somehow, speaking through those who came long after. A good example might be Cate Marvin and, in particular, a poem like “Chilly Voice in the Tropics.” Marvin, whom Publishers Weekly once described as a “postmodern Plath,” might seem on the surface to have little in common with Stevens. But listen closely to the opening lines of this gorgeous lyric:
Likely as not, or like as like, there was that moment
I could not dislike, somehow hinged sudden to your
side, I became your oar, slip, skiff, turned rudderless,
ran my hands fluid alongside your sides, skin so fine,
Sure, the poem is more forthcoming, more surrendering than something from Stevens, but it is impossible, if you know his work, to read those “likes,” the repetition of “as,” and not think of Stevens’s obsessions with those prepositions (as the great critic Charles Altieri has shown). We also hear the wordplay, the word war, the eternal echo, the repeating rhymes of the Harmonium Stevens and The Man with the Blue Guitar Stevens. To my ear the passage above is both so Marvin and so Stevens—so much so that reading Stevens through the lens of Marvin makes him sound absolutely Marvinesque. How is it that poets whose aesthetics are so far from Stevens still hear him in their own voice?
The answer to that question requires a more nuanced understanding of voice, itself. What is poetic voice after all? A pragmatic way to think of it is the marriage of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. A more philosophical way would be the language one uses to translate the internal into the external. However, I would argue that most of the time when we say voice, we really mean style. I say this because poetry’s lexical characteristics tend to trump its aural ones. I should probably pause for a moment and distinguish between voice and style, but it may be more fun (and more interactive) to bring in Writer’s Digest for an experiment. In a 2012 “The Writer’s Dig” column, Brian Klems attempted this rather dicey parsing. Which of the following definitions, according to Klems, describes voice and which explains style? “[A] developed way of writing that sets you apart from other writers” as opposed to “long, complex and beautiful sentences, packed with metaphors and imagery…[or something] more straightforward…”
To me, the first example is clearly style, but that is how Klems defines voice. The second definition is really just an explanation of the first, but that is Klems on style. I found the column wholly confusing because I would probably associate adjectives like complex, beautiful, and straightforward with voice. But let me take this one step further in regard to poetry. Most of us default to a concept like voice because we like the idea of poets talking to us or even talking with us. For whatever reason, perhaps because it feels less conversational or less intimate, we don’t always like thinking of poets writing to us, and we never think of poets writing with us. Every single detail, major or minor, that goes into how a poem is arranged on the page helps determine and even create a poet’s style. Since Stevens’s style could be a bit sleepy compared to Cummings, Williams, Pound, Hughes, and even Dickinson, he could never rely on visual cues to augment voice.
The Stevens voice (and style) relies on what I call “syntactic tone.” By this I mean the recipe of words, grammar, syntax, and pacing that we have come to identify as Stevensian. Perhaps this includes dashes of blank verse, mixed with a catalogue of qualifications, blended with scandalous hints of arcane vocabulary, kneaded with intentionally comical uses of alliteration, all of which is finished off with an unexpected ingredient—the plainly spoken aphorism.
Note for example the following passage:
We cannot love the world as it is,
Because the world, as it is, is impossible to love.
We have only to lust for it—
To lust for each other in it—
And, somehow, to make that suffice.
For the experienced reader of Stevens, these lines sound like they could be from any number of his poems, maybe one written in the 1940s. But, in fact, this passage appears in a poem called “Of Hunger and Human Freedom” from the book Green Squall by Jay Hopler, the winner of the 2005 Yale Younger Poets prize. Hopler is one of the poets who both takes Stevens on and takes him in. Consider the following from Hopler, a Floridian, who writes in “Academic Discourse at Miami: Wallace Stevens and the Domestication of Light,”
I have no beef with Wallace Stevens . . .
Only, that there exists a difference between the tropical light one
Finds beaming in a Stevens poem and the tropical light one finds
Burning in the tropics. Florida’s light is far more aggressive, far
More violent, than Stevens knew—
Hopler takes Stevens to task for his misreading of Florida’s tempestuousness. And yet, his own poetry not only invokes but translates Stevens’s main epistemological project—finding what will suffice for us as human beings in a beautiful but frightening and perhaps ultimately meaningless world. A closer reading of Hopler’s book, and a teasing of the poem above, suggests that Hopler does, in fact, have a poetic beef with Wallace Stevens—mainly that Stevens has already figured Florida as a space of emotional geography and desire as a space of poetic cartography. One feels for Hopler; how does a poet of Florida (and desire) write these provenances in an original way after Stevens? His ghost is everywhere.
Stevens’s ghost also haunts the work of Terrance Hayes, one of my favorite poets. The faintest Stevensian spoors appear now and then in Hayes’s first two books, but late in his third collection, Wind in a Box, Hayes closes a fine enumerated poem entitled “Imaginary Poems for the Old-Fashioned Future” with an oblique reference to Stevens and Robert Frost: “A tercet rhyming bric-a-brac, brick a black, and poppa bag.” Perhaps invoking Frost’s and Stevens’s loyalty for the three-line stanza, Hayes suggests Stevens and/or Stevensian poetics are both prescient and traditional, simultaneously cutting-edge and old-fashioned.
His best dialogue with Stevens, though, is the fantastic “Snow for Wallace Stevens” from his book Lighthead. It is hard to beat these opening lines:
No one living a snowed-in life
can sleep without a blindfold.
Light is the lion that comes down to drink.
I know tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk
holds nearly the same sound as a bottle.
Drink and drank and drunk-a-drunk-drunk,
light is the lion that comes down.
This song is for the wise man who avenges
by building his city in snow.
For his decorations in a nigger cemetery.
I want to note three things here: anger, engagement, homage. The anger, justified, both sublimates and catalyzes the poem, but Hayes also transforms it into poetic interaction with the cadence, vocabulary, and motifs of Stevens. For example, the title and opening line ask us to carry Stevens’s most famous poem, “The Snow Man,” with us as we read Hayes’s. But only three lines in, Hayes recasts “Light / Is the lion that comes down to drink” from a little-known but utterly gorgeous Stevens poem, “The Glass of Water,” into a sophisticated play on lightness, enlightenment, and whiteness. The following line not only echoes the poem from Hayes’s own Wind in a Box but also the sonically playful “tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk” from Stevens’s “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman.” Most interestingly, Hayes confronts the poem all lovers of Stevens must reckon with—the indefensibly titled “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.”
I wonder, if for Hayes, Stevens is the man living the snowed-in life, if Stevens is the wise man who avenges by building his city of snow, if Stevens is the man who is, ultimately, more than his limitations. I wonder if the poet loves Stevens without forgiving him. I wondered this so much I decided to ask him. Here is what Hayes said:
In my poem, “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” I write, “Thus, I have a capacity for love without / forgiveness.” That pretty much captures my feelings for Stevens. Most certainly he is an influence. Just as an alcoholic father can be an influence... Of course his racism is an issue—I don’t believe he thought black folk could write poems, comprehend poems, care for poems. But that’s not what both scares and influences me most about Stevens. It’s the remoteness his brand of imagination engenders. He champions the kind of imagination that makes all else secondary. Source material. Even language is little more than a tool of the imagination. This interests me. This frightens me. This tempts me. But maybe it’s all in my head.
It is remarkable that Hayes’s highly Stevensian poem is—in its lyric beauty, its acknowledgments of the limits and power of language, its provocative engagement with race, and its elevation of the role of poetry—also one of the most Hayesian. Hayes may drink some of Stevens’s water but he also throws a lot of it in his face. Thankfully, he also leaves a little in the glass for us. Language is the lion that comes down to drink. This poem, like the glass, is a state between two poles.
It is poems like those from Hayes—those from writers least likely to have some poetic rapport with the clean-shaven, gray patron—that interest me most. It is not surprising when Roethke, Merrill, Dana Gioia, Edward Hirsch, Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, John Ashbery, or William Carlos Williams invoke Stevens. But what draws writers to him who seem to have nothing in common with him? Why are Rachel Loden, Michael Palmer, Adrienne Rich, and Susan Howe attracted to Stevens? Howe has called Stevens her “necessary angel,” yet it’s hard to imagine two poets whose enactments of poetry are more unalike. Similarly, Ravi Shankar beams up the Stevensian trope of truth in his lovely “Blotched in Transmission”; Robert Creeley intersperses his own lines with those of Stevens’s in his fabulous long poem of 1996, “Histoire de Florida”; Martha Ronk channels Stevens the philosopher in the beguiling and thoughtful “The very insignificance was what.” In one of my favorite deployments of Stevens, Brian Clements’s “Taking Stevens South,” the Arkansas poet places the Connecticut poet among the trappings of the Ozarks, and Stevens seems right at home. We should not be surprised at the ease with which Stevens goes south; he has been inhabiting the landscape of Charles Wright’s landscape poems for decades.
What is remarkable is that so many poets find something useful or admirable in his work. Matthew Rohrer writes that “what we all do with Stevens is find our calling in him.” For Matthea Harvey it is Stevens’s titles; she calls him her “titling hero.” For Tracy K. Smith it is the profound unknowingness of Stevens’s poems. She writes that Stevens “reminds me, when I write, that the most important thing for me to do is not to know where or why things are going, but to believe in them as if they are real, to cross the bridges and enter into the cities and listen to the boots and handle the fruits incredulously before trying with my mind to taste them.” For me it is the modulations of tones—the meanders through language and consideration—to achieve something nearly miraculous.
How Stevens manages to click with so many poets comes back to that notion of voice. Part of the pleasure of writing a poem to or about another poet is the freedom to speak in that poet’s voice. And despite warring aesthetics, I think many living poets writing in English want to know what it feels like to participate in the discourse that has come to define the modern American poetic voice. I still find it amazing that out of the seventy-six poems in Visiting Wallace none, except perhaps for Roethke’s, attack Stevens. They may confront him, question him, or challenge him, but no one dismisses him. In fact, contemporary poets whose formal and epistemological stances are at variance with Stevens evince themselves to be far more gracious than contemporary critics. Is it possible that poets—who may have more at stake in Stevens’s poetics—are more gracious than critics? If so, it seems to me the main reason a diversity of poets give Stevens a break when critics might not is itself Stevensian. Poets write out of desire, and in the case of those who enter into poetic conversation with him, there is a strong desire to inhabit Stevens’s Stevensness—to participate in his repetitions, his evasions, his shameless play with arcane vocabulary and infantile rhymes, his reverence for the imagination, his nearly prophetic insight, and his dogged belief in language and poetry’s ability to get the world right. Perhaps now and then, even those poets who don’t sound like Stevens, want to sound like Stevens.
Take Rachel Loden for example. Her 2009 collection, Dick of the Dead, about Richard Nixon, lesbianism, Dick Cheney, and imperialism is the last place you’d expect to find Stevens. But, Stevens lurks in the shadows of several poems. Loden’s “Emperor of Heaven” recalls Stevens’s famous “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” just as her “Milhous as King of the Ghosts” evokes “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.” The most peculiar and lovable co-Stevensing, however, is “The Winter Palace,” a line-by-line Lodenization of Stevens’s “The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws.” What’s amazing about this poem is how little Loden strays from the original. Note the similarities in the opening and closing tercets of both poems:
Above the forest of the parakeets,
A parakeet of parakeets prevails,
A pip of life amid a mort of tails.
Above the winter palace of the presidents
A president of presidents prevails,
A blacksmith’s hammer in a world of nails.
He munches a dry shell while he exerts
His will, yet never ceases, perfect cock,
To flare, in the sun-pallor of his rock.
He is content to let a poppet make the news.
Propping up the hapless emperor of guffaws
He abides inside his white house, signing laws.
Even the rhymes and alliterative moves match Stevens. Terceted, the poem begins with a classic Stevensian prepositional phrase. Loden relishes the odd BB rhyme scheme and plays with interior rhymes like “poppet” and “propping,” a la Harmonium, Stevens’s first collection of poems. Here, Loden not only tries on the semiotics of Stevens, but also uses Stevens’s penchant for the indirect ridicule to undermine Nixon’s fatuousness. It’s a bizarre move to deploy one of Stevens’s most impenetrable poems to penetrate the most impenetrable office in the world. Loden relies on her reader’s familiarity with this poem (or that reader’s willingness to go reread it) to riff on a couple of key lines from Stevens’s poem, like “his eyes are blind” and “As his pure intellect applies its laws.” I remain both charmed and impressed with the way Loden dresses up Stevens’s mannequin. She wears his clothes as comfortably as he; in fact, “hapless emperor of guffaws” is more Stevens than Stevens.
At the other pole, and yet not, is Adrienne Rich, whose fine poem “Long after Stevens” incorporates motifs from Stevens’s “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain” and “Poetry Is a Destructive Force”:
A locomotive pushing through snow in the mountains
is more modern than the will
to be modern The mountain’s profile
in undefiled snow defies the redefinition
of poetry It was always
indefinite, task and destruction
the laser eye of the poet, her blind eye
her moment-stricken eye, her unblinking eye
The opening recalls Williams’s “Overture to a Dance of Locomotives” and Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter” but Rich’s use of the indefinite pronoun in line five and the poem’s momentum toward the union of body and language are all Stevens, especially his attempts to redefine poetry. Rich, a poet known for her political stances as a lesbian feminist and pacifist, is another writer one would not normally assume would turn to Stevens, but she cited him as a significant influence on her early work. Later, however, she questions her relationship to his work and renounces his racism in her essay “Rotted Names,” published in her 1993 collection of writings What Is Found There. Rich writes, “Why, I was asking myself, was that ‘master’ of my youth, that liberatory spokesman for the imagination…so attracted and compelled by old, racist configurations?” Perhaps, Rich related to Stevens’s work in her early life as a poet because his voice is ultimately one of engagement. His is a poetry of address. It is a poetry that explores what it means to contend with one’s own ideas, and Rich is one of the great poets of ideas.
The proliferation of Stevens’s influence in current American poetry is arguably emblematic of our contemporary pastiche society. Few modern poets are sampled or collaged like Stevens. His poetic devotion, his poetic desire, his commitment to working and reworking his craft, his desire to name and rename the unnamable, is a mode of poetic ethics. He wanted his work and his words to be part of the world. He wanted poetry to be the light that the lion of life comes down to drink. He once wrote, “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.”
Of course, writers dialogue with Stevens not just because of the Stevensian aesthetics, but because his voice is a model of lyric contemplation. Winter and light have animated the poems I’ve talked about so far, but death is the long shadow stretching across much of Stevens’s work. Few poets are more contemplatively elegiac, few wonder more about the metaphysics of death while also musing on the many pleasures of life. This was the case for me. The first poem in my first book is entitled “Traveling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother’s Funeral, I Write a Poem About Wallace Stevens,” and unlike Stevens, the title is wholly directive. For me, the only voice appropriate to articulate what I wanted to say was Stevens’s. Layering his phrasings alongside my own gave my poem, at least in my estimation, the gravitas I feared it might lack without them. Stevens’s voice is also—and I wonder if Hayes would agree with this—a source of comfort and a context for the figuration of loss. As I was on that plane flying back to Oklahoma, it was Stevens’s voice I heard, and I wrote the poem as though he might be speaking it. Later I would watch an interview with the great British writer A. S. Byatt, who was asked if she believes in God and responded with “No. I believe in Wallace Stevens,” and I would know what she meant. That ability to limn the secular and the sacred is no doubt what enables Howe to figure him as angel and Merrill as psalm. Martin Heidegger once proclaimed that “the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.” For Byatt, for Howe, for Merrill, for me, for those of us who, as Hayes says, “have placed [our] faith in language,” Stevens is often our interlocutor for the holy.
For Stevens it was always day verging on night, or night on the precipice of day, which is why he is at times both a priest of light and a priest of darkness. A priest of the imagination, a priest of reality. A priest of our best, a priest of our worst. A priest of what we can see and what we cannot.
This essay originally appeared in the spring-summer 2016 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2016 by the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member online.