An Author's Assemblage: Brief Notes and Notices

The accumulation of posts to this web page serves merely as an author’s assemblage of brief notes and notices: the collection of informal bits of information, quotations, and observations gathered as one way to display a personal reflection of perceptions on poetry, publication, and related selections of material drawn from my perspectives as a poet or professor of literature and creative writing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Major Achievement" in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens

“There is an abstract feature to much of Stevens’s poetry that distinguishes it from that of most other poets. Modern lyric poets, for example, usually write about more tangible topics, often using the first-person singular. One thinks of the speaker contrasting his neighbor’s view of walls with his own in Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall,’ or the persona’s sudden reversal of perspective toward a rather ugly, lice-infested fish in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish,’ or even the paralyzing insecurity of T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, dreading a social encounter (‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’). Each of these poems has a well-defined speaker and a clear setting. Each invites the reader to identify with or relate to the principal human figure in the poem.

“By contrast, Stevens’s poems frequently seem bizarre, theoretical, and detached. What is one to make of lines such as ‘The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream’; or ‘A. A violent order is disorder; and / B. A great disorder is an order’; or ‘There it was, word for word, / The poem that took the place of a mountain’? In addition, Stevens often employs strange characters, such as the mountain-minded Hoon, Professor Eucalyptus, and Canon Aspirin. He seldom uses the first-person form in his poetry, and when he does, it is likely to be in the plural form of ‘we.’ Although he occasionally chooses the second-person ‘you,’ he usually resorts to an anonymous third-person ‘he’ or ‘she,’ or to the even more remote ‘one.’

“How then do we explain Stevens’s subject and elucidate his greatness as a poet? The answer is simple: His major achievement is the expression of the self in all its amplitude and, in fact, teasingly beyond it. In this respect, he writes in the grand tradition of romantic poetry. Ironically his strategies of distancing—his use of odd characters, his opening philosophical gambits, his impersonal voice—serve to objectify and make authentic deeply personal sources of feeling and thought. To borrow Eliot’s phrase, Stevens’s poems become objective correlatives of various states within the reader, not only of heart and mind but also of being.” —From the “Introduction” to Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems (Knopf, 2009), edited by John N. Serio


  1. Very thoughtfull post on achivement. It should be very much helpfull

    Karim - Creating Power

  2. A sense of humor one assumes, was helpful in his straitened circumstances as well as evident in his poetry.



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