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Modernism/Modernity 9.3 (2002) 439-462



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A Virile Poet in the Borderlands:
Wallace Stevens's Reimagining of Race and Masculinity

Eric Keenaghan


In 1913, young Wallace Stevens confessed to his wife Elsie, "[M]y habits are positively lady-like." This epistolary admission launches Frank Lentricchia's Ariel and the Police, a study of continuing importance to gender readings of the poet. 1 Lentricchia cites the remark to indicate Stevens's discomfort with Gilded Age precepts, inculcated by his father's admonitions, about masculinity and the "effeminacy" of writing verse. By rooting the poet's career in a classic family drama framed by a period's gender ideologies, the critic re-masculinizes his subject and ascribes him to the role of anti-patriarchal poet, "the potential subverter of his official role as a young American male." 2 Yet because Lentricchia relegates Stevens's gender struggle to its documentation in private letters and expression in confessional lyric, the poet's "subversion" is limited to a fixed set of psychological strategies that restructure his individual relationship to gender identities as they are formed in familial oedipal dramas.

Ariel and the Police secures Stevens's place as an archetypal modernist, a solitary poet who re-creates history and society in his own image and on the page, even if his yawp is lacking some of the requisite barbarism. Any depiction of his gender trouble as private psychologism, however, risks minimizing the public function that Stevens himself ascribes to poetry. Although nested away in private notebooks, the Adagia (1934-c.1940) constitute his earliest attempts to formulate an explicit statement of this function, later finding their way into many of his public speeches and programmatic poems. In his notebooks, Stevens distances [End Page 439] his work from lyric's supposed confessionalism when he states that "Poetry is not personal." (This insight is later repeated with a slight variation, "Poetry is not a personal matter"). 3 Its publicity stems from its propositional qualities, its embodiment of "the statement of a relation between a man and the world" (OP, 197). Another adage adds, "The real is only the base. But it is the base" of the poem's relational statement (OP, 187). Through an important simile, Stevens compares the relation between the poet and the actual world to heterosexual eroticism: "A poet looks at the world somewhat as a man looks at a woman" (OP, 192). A gender reading of Stevens can begin by combining these choice Adagia into one proposition: Poetry is a public discourse derived from the poet's imaginative reconstruction of and erotic engagement with a "real," or social, "base." Because they are imaginative, poems never exist apart from elements of privacy and psychology; yet Stevens intuits that poetry's social effectiveness depends upon its ability to create correlations between private interests and the desires of large communities.

Stevens's minor qualification that poets only engage the world in a "somewhat" erotic manner lays bare how poetry's progressive public function is capable of reproducing some social asymmetries. Although he argues throughout his career that the imagination introduces change, Stevens's simile precludes any reimagining of gender binaries or epistemological structures that privilege masculine subjects as the entitled beneficiaries of a heteroerotic gaze. Consequently, I would advise a cautious approach to reading Stevens's redefinition of gender. Rather than reading him as an anti-patriarchal or subversive poet, it would be more accurate to characterize his work as arguing only for a selective revision of gender roles. That selection hinges on an identification of private desire—his private oedipal struggles against the Father and his resultant anxieties about the "effeminacy" of writing—with a larger community's interests. And time and again, Stevens defines that community along racial lines; in the early part of his career, his virile poet speaks only to white North America, to which he appeals to revise its precepts of masculine identity.

He does not mention race and gender together in any one essay, but the literary and social significances he separately ascribes to each...

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