Three New Titles on Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and Thom Gunn

Visiting Wallace: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Wallace Stevens, edited by Dennis Barone and James Finnegan (University of Iowa Press)

At a 2004 conference on Stevens held at the University of Connecticut, Susan Howe compared Stevens’ devotion to linguistic purity to that of Jonathan Edwards. Stevens’ work seems simultaneously to enact a great awakening (narrowing the gap between Word and Idea, the latter having a near-sacred aura), to prepare for one, and to provide color commentary on its failure to arrive. One of 76 poets represented in Visiting Wallace, Howe begins “from ‘118 Westerly Terrace’” with these lines:

In the house the house is all
house and each of its authors
passing from room to room

Short eclogues as one might
say on tiptoe do not infringe

The house is quiet and the world is still, and a man whispers his eclogues so as not to wake his disaffected wife. The house is the idea of itself and is also a solid burgher’s residence, and the author shares its various qualities. Howe’s lines incorporate her mentor’s disposal of domesticated identity and thought.

Stevens.jpgThe poems in Visiting Wallace fall roughly into two categories: poems reflecting Stevens’ influence in the mode of execution and poems treating him as subject matter. But many of the poems work in a middle zone. Robert Creeley shares Howe’s moment of homegrown estrangement in his late poem “Thinking of Wallace Stevens” – but the mode of address is somewhat conventional for Creeley:

After so many years the familiar
seems even more strange, the hands

one was born with even more remote,
the feet worn to discordant abilities, face fainter.

Robert Frost said Stevens’ work was made of bric-a-brac, but everyone knows a knick-knack shelf supports a despairing beauty, suggests ideals among the dust motes, and lectures to us on style. Stevens gave every succeeding generation of poets permission to elevate an errant thought to a vantage point. Only poverty dreams exclusively of such vast resource. This is why Stevens gestured back, always, to cold reality. A wayward thought needs to be tested, validated. We workshop poets, extruding Stevens-like sounds, rarely got the point.

Stevens1.jpgWhile appreciating Stevens, some of the poems in Visiting Wallace ring his doorbell just to flatter him with an occasional poem, reflecting credit back on their own good taste, as in Lisa Steinman’s “Wallace Stevens in the Tropics”: “Stevens must have felt like this / with the end of the mind at the palm, / the ocean endless / chips of light on water.” Must have felt like – what? Stevens traveled to Florida as a businessman for the first time in 1922 and took two-to-three-week winter trips there for the next twenty years, leaving his wife in Hartford. He played cards and drank martinis with his associates and friends, not "mixing business and pleasure" so much as enjoying the pleasures of business.

If you’re going to design an homage to Stevens’ effect, then go all the way rhetorically and musically, as in Edward Hirsch’s “At the Grave of Wallace Stevens” and Elaine Equi’s “The Voice of Wallace Stevens.” If you want to honor Stevens’ materials, consider Lewis Turco’s “An Ordinary Evening in Cleveland” or W.S. Di Piero’s “Easter Service.”

Other contributors include John Ashbery (“Some Trees”), Donald Justice (“after a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens”), Ann Lauterbach (“Annotation”), James Merrill (“The Green Eye”), Adrienne Rich (“Long After Stevens”), Theodore Roethke (“A Rouse for Stevens”), and David St. John (“Symphonie Tragique”).

In his new collection of essays On Poets and Poetry, William Pritchard continues the old harangue against Stevens. The poems, he says, are often “elusive to the point of incomprehension, their gorgeous structures of sound not put to the service of illuminating ‘subjects’—human beings.” As if The Imagination were not a substantial “subject.” Of course, Stevens insisted that his poems grew out of experience. In a 1935 letter to Ronald Latimer he wrote, “While, of course, my imagination is a most important factror, nevertheless I wonder whether, if you were to suggest any particular poem, I could not find an actual background for you … The real world seen by an imaginative man may very well seem like an imaginative construction.”

Working from life is always working from memory. The poet turns away from the palm tree and gazes at paper or pixelated screen. The poet never copies anything except for the vision that remains after looking. Cezanne said, “Everything we look at disperses and vanishes, doesn’t it?” The poet most startled by this situation will pay less attention to the pretense of “illuminating subjects” and instead privilege other pretenses more dedicated to the disruptions and leaps of perception.

John Berryman, represented in this anthology by “So Long? Stevens (Dream Song 219),” speaks for the entire cast of Visiting Wallace when he writes, “O veteran of death, you will not mind / a counter-mutter.”

[Published September 1, 2009, 184 pages, $18.00 paperback]

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Robert Frost: Speaking on Campus, Excerpts from His Talks 1949-1962, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (W.W. Norton)

Frost2.jpgDuring the panicky days of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s, Robert Frost was asked to comment on the role of loyalty. “I don’t like treason,” he answered, “I like people that belong to this country, in some shape or other. There’s quite a variety of us. I’m allowing for plenty of variety.” But he wasn’t finished. If his answer had sounded too bland or didactic, he would toss in something darker, dispassionate, the obvious standing in for the revealing. So he added, “Disloyalty is that for the lack of which your gang will shoot you if they catch you at it. That’s all.”

In his poem “The Ingenuities of Debt,” Frost wrote famously, “Take care to sell your horse before he dies. / The art of life is passing losses on.” If you go to market shopping for a horse or a sub-prime mortgage, it’s your own fault if you want to believe the horse isn’t lame or you paid too much. In the forty-seven lecture excerpts of Robert Frost: Speaking on Campus, the poet is often heard stating his convictions. In a 1958 lecture in Berkeley he said, “I suffered from wondering how convictions are had – how you have ‘em. I saw older people with them. And I saw older people worried because I seemed to have none. And I worried about it a little myself.”

Frost.jpgWhen he talks about poetry composition, Frost means the devising of conviction, line by line. In a 1949 lecture he says, “The whole art of writing is learning how to have something to say. You’ve got to start that. You’ve got to get up things. Get ‘em up.” You learn to write at twenty, study the forms, and read the masters. “Then, if you ever have anything to say when you’re forty, you’ll know how to say it.” The man at forty, displaying his aging plowhorse in town, must speak with a conviction that counter-balances the shopper’s insistence on a bargain. “I don’t think there’s enough expectation around these colleges that you should start getting up things to say for yourself, to hold your own,” he went on. “The expectation is that you should pick up things to hold your own with -- that knowledge should do it.” This is still great advice for poets who depend early on a degree, button-pushing mentors, and workshop trends to get “established.” Jay Parini’s Robert Frost: A Life (1999) inspires by showing how Frost constructed a life around poetry without such scaffolding.

At Amherst in 1958, Frost made one of his more familiar points about style: “Slowly the tone of what you say gets to people, so they know how you mean it to be taken. And the verse has the advantage of prose in that. Something in the verse carries a tone of extra meaning that makes it clearer and clearer.” In the lectures, however, he wants to be (and perhaps believes he is) understood all at once. As a result, he has little interest in developing ideas which often have the too-ready advance of a stump speech. Yet taken together, these lectures cover a broad span of subjects and news of the day.

Some of the lectures are excerpted from audio tapes of the “Great Issues” course he taught at Dartmouth and of talks recorded at Amherst. Also, there is a lengthy index including 2,200 entries, not only of names and topics but key themes, phrases and words.

[Published September 28, 2009, 232 pages, $25.95 hardcover]

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At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn, edited by Joshua Weiner (University of Chicago Press)

In “Thom Gunn: The Plain Style and the City,” August Kleinzahler writes, “The truth is that the trajectory of Gunn’s career can be easily enough charted and does not at all resemble what the self-perpetuating notions contend.” Those notions, in short, carved up the poet’s output according to the changes in his life and shifts of subject matter.

David Orr concurs in his New York Times review, saying, “Gunn began to come into his own with the publication of My Sad Captains in 1961, when he was 32, and his work steadily strengthened for the next four decades. In his best, most characteristic writing, Gunn is what you might call a poet of friction: he’s interested in the ways in which surfaces push off, against or into each other.” This last sentence is an apt summation of Gunn’s center of gravity. The mind announces the body’s contacts and with utmost consideration spares the body from working for the mind’s personality. Consider “The Night Piece” below, from Jack Straw’s Castle (1976):

The fog drifts slowly down the hill
And as I mount gets thicker still,
Closes me in, makes me its own
Like bedclothes on the paving stone.

Here are the last few streets to climb,
Galleries, run through veins of time,
Almost familiar, where I creep
Toward sleep like fog, through fog like sleep.

For At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn, Joshua Weiner has collected and edited 15 essays that map out the continuity of Gunn’s career, organized by the periods of his life -- minus what Orr calls “misleading career narratives.” Apparently this isn’t the time to ask just how misleading those narratives are, or to what extent, if any, Gunn encouraged them.

gunn2.jpgThe introductory essays establish a framework for Gunn’s emergence. Neil Powell sets in place Gunn’s theory of “pose” by quoting him: “The theory of pose was this: everyone plays a part, whether he knows it or not, so he might as well deliberately design a part, or a series of parts for himself.” Powell notes that this process solved three intertwined problems: “It enabled Gunn to combine disparate literary influences (such as Donne, Yeats and Stendahl) … it supplied a philosophical template in which Sartrean existentialism and Yeatsian masks both played their part; and it provided a neat way of juggling with sexual identity at a time when homosexuality was illegal and enthusiastically prosecuted.” Alfred Corn’s essay “Existentialism and Homosexuality in Gunn’s Early Poetry” adds historical context to this critique.

Kleinzahler then tracks Gunn’s urban interests from Baudelaire and describes the plain style as “unembellished, lucid, in diction and movement the way people speak. It doesn’t call attention to itself but serves the material of the poem … The plain style, however, is not to the confused with the colloquial … the tone is oddly formal to most American readers … The ‘I’ in his poems is the disinterested ‘I’ of the Elizabethans.” But what of Gunn’s “pose”? Kleinzahler says Gunn is “preeminently a poet of closure, intelligence, and will,” a description aligning him with his teacher Yvor Winters.

Gunn.jpgKeith Tuma rambles through the modernists and their heirs to suggest that Gunn borrowed from diverse sources. But Joshua Weiner’s “From Ladd’s Hill to Land’s End” peers more deeply at Gunn’s mode of address and range of material, noting Gunn’s early issues with Pound, Eliot, Yeats and Stevens and his sense that Modernism had been lacking from the start. Gunn wrote in 1963, “They make a leap into abstraction that acts as a denial of their particular observations, a leap which few of us want to follow. [And] much of their best work – maybe ultimately their best poems – has no connection with their answers.” Weiner points out the influence of novelists on Gunn, effectively an emphasis on clarified situation (versus the “anecdotalism” Gunn disparaged in Robert Duncan’s work, as mentioned in Tuma’s essay).

Weiner sums it up neatly: “We thus find Gunn in 1963 in a tense imaginative moment: a British poet of impressive talents attempting to absorb the prosodic experimentation of twentieth-century America while holding onto a premodern allegiance to formal coherence and continuity; a lyric poet who sees narrative fiction and drama as more successful than poetry in exploring modern experience; and yet a poet who wishes to reinvigorate contemporary poetry without any diffusion of form.”

Some other highlights here include Brian Teare’s “Our Dionysian Experiment,” a look at the evolving historical tensions between the words “gay” and “poetry” and how “the radical shifts in critical favor that attended both the changes in [Gunn’s] formal practice and the gradual entrance of the gay subject into his work act as a kind of dye injected into the vascular system of literary history.” Tom Sleigh’s “Thom Gunn’s New Jerusalem” (published recently in Poetry) is also included. Weiner contributes a second essay that reprints two versions of and briefly discusses Gunn’s poem “Meat,” a brief but sharp examination of differences between formal and more loose renditions.

[Published July 1, 2009, 329 pages, $25.00 paperback]

Thom Gunn

I taught three Gunn poems in one of my high school English classes this spring and students reacted very strongly. I'd like to do it again. Do you recommend any of the essays in the Weiner collection as background for these kids? Thanks in advance for your answer.

Teaching Gunn

Josh Weiner's collection concludes with a "coda" by Robert Pinsky that your students will find approachable and clear. I think Tom Sleigh's essay should work fine for many students. And Kleinzahler's. Take a look at Gunn's own essays, too. And thanks for visiting the site.