Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry by Srikanth Reddy (review)
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Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry.
By Srikanth Reddy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Srikanth Reddy’s Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry is not really a study of Wallace Stevens. In fact, Stevens appears only in the opening dozen pages of the book. But his work plays an important role in the study as a whole, as Reddy provocatively uses Stevens as the starting point for a wide-ranging exploration of twentieth-century American poetry that centers on Marianne Moore, Lyn Hejinian, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and several recent younger poets. I refer to Reddy’s use of Stevens as provocative because critical discussion has all too often severed Stevens from discussions of the avant-garde poetic lineage that Reddy’s book traces. This is, in part, because Stevens has never fit easily into the reigning critical paradigm that views fragmentation, parataxis, and collage as the necessary ingredients for innovative, challenging poetry. Indeed, this proclivity has fostered the notion that Stevens’ work is more conservative and less formally adventurous than that of peers like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams, and has obscured its significant influence on such movements as the Objectivists, the New York School, the Black Mountain poets, and Language poetry. As a result, Stevens is rarely seen as a precursor for many of the poets Reddy discusses, like O’Hara, Hejinian, or the younger contemporary experimental poet Juliana Spahr.

Fortunately, Reddy wishes to correct this misapprehension of Stevens’ work and its importance. His Stevens is no traditionalist or latter-day romantic, but rather a modernist extraordinaire—a poet of radical change and constant transformation. Reddy’s Stevens is “our modernist Ovid,” a writer who “obsessively documented the metamorphoses of our fluent mundo” and who believed that “to change modes is to change worlds” (7). This reevaluation of Stevens is key to Reddy’s compelling and persuasive overall thesis that the “ongoing theoretical preoccupation with the poetics of fragmentation and disjunction” has caused us to overlook an alternative mode, “an understudied poetics of artful digression,” that lies at the heart of twentieth-century American poetry (154, 19). Eschewing both the embrace of fragmentation and the propulsive, forward-moving rhetoric central to narratives of the avant-garde, the poets Reddy highlights “disavow stuttering in favor of loquacity,” as they adopt the “more digressive and wayward poetics of merely floating” (19, 130).

As this echo of “The Pleasures of Merely Circulating” suggests, Wallace Stevens serves as Exhibit A in Reddy’s case for the centrality of a modern poetics of drift and digression. The book’s discussion of Stevens rests upon an illuminating and fresh take on “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” which Reddy views as a “disorderly paean to changing the subject” (10). Coming at the poem from a surprising angle, Reddy argues that “Notes” be read as [End Page 121] “a curious intervention in an age of literary manifestos” (8). Unlike the strident proclamations of F. T. Marinetti and André Breton, which are driven by a militant outlook and “a teleological poetics of purpose” (8), Stevens’ long poem deliberately refuses the linearity, the committed forward march, and the enumeration of principles so central to the manifesto as a genre (10). It is, in effect, a “carnivalesque text,” a “digressive ars poetica” that “makes changing the subject its purposive method” (7, 10, 12). For Reddy, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” rejects the “orthodoxies of teleological order and authorial intention within the period” and, instead, “advocates a disorderly poetics of detours and digressions” (10). By dwelling in transition and perfecting the art of changing the subject, Stevens “deftly evades the militarization of art that was promoted by movements such as futurism” and sidesteps the rigidity and the goal-directed ethos of the avant-garde (11).

Reddy’s refreshing approach to “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and to Stevens in general is a welcome and useful intervention. It reminds us that Stevens’ poetry of “the never-resting mind” (CPP 179), with its commitment to flux and flow, is as radical and influential for later innovative poetry as the disjunctive poetics of The Waste Land, The Cantos, Tender Buttons, or...