- Wallace Stevens:Hillbilly Deluxe
Twenty years ago, I was cavorting around the Kentucky backroads one day and happened upon the village of Mackville. While there I briefly visited with a lady, Mrs. Leonard Carpenter, the proprietress of the general store, who was in a guff because she'd moments before shooed away an idle youth—whom she referred to as a "nosey peckerwood"—from the shed behind her store. She allowed he was the eldest offspring of a whole family [End Page 34] of idlers and little could be expected of the young man's future. "You just can't get above your raisin'," dame Carpenter said. Raisin' and rearin' up happen to be an interest of mine concerning Wallace Stevens: his poems strike us as the work of a seasoned and urbane man; it is surprising to think he had a childhood, and perhaps more surprising to learn that late in life he "dealt" with his childhood, as so many poets do, yet, characteristic of Stevens, his dealing was consciously impersonal and vague.
I've been looking through Stevens's letters, journals and some of the endnotes to the Library of America edition of his poetry and prose. Among the happier discoveries I've made rooting around in Stevens's life is the fact that his father was once the owner of a bicycle factory. In the summer of 1895 Stevens provided one fourth of a barbershop quartet, singing, not surprisingly, bass. As a law student in New York, Stevens took to walking around the city and its then outskirts; on one excursion he covered forty-one miles—in a single day! In 1936 at the age of fifty-five, clearly in possession of more than a petal from the flower of his youth, Stevens broke his hand in two places, after landing a punch on the jaw of one Ernest Hemingway, at some kind of artsy frat-party in Key West. Less happy is the fact that Stevens's parents—for reasons I haven't been able to unearth—disapproved of his marriage to Elsie Moll in September of 1909; in fact, they refused to attend the wedding. Stevens's father, Garrett, died two years later following a series of breakdowns; after the wedding, Stevens never spoke to his father again. Stevens's mother, Kate, died a year after her husband. I feel certain the family rift also severed Stevens's emotional connection to his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding hinterlands, and this break caused him grief, which would show up many years later "worked out," so to speak, in some of his driest, heady poems. [End Page 35] This rift and, particularly, the way it manifests itself in Stevens's poetry is the source of the criticism Randall Jarrell levels at Stevens. Jarrell says:
As a poet Stevens has every gift but the dramatic. It is the lack of immediate contact with lives that hurts his poetry more than anything else, that has made it easier and easier for him to abstract, to philosophize, to treat the living dog that wags its tail and bites you as the 'canoid patch' of the epistemologist analyzing that great problem, the world; as the 'cylindrical arrangement of brown and white' of the aesthetician analyzing that great painting, the world.1
Jarrell's assessment is one with which I would politely disagree. If poetry, as Wordsworth claims, "is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings… recollected in tranquility," perhaps, then in the case of Stevens, it simply takes longer for the feeling to reach its full power, and further, perhaps recollection in Stevens requires several stages of reflection, so that the emotion—and implicit drama—which eventually finds its way to the page cooks the spontaneity down to a distilled and aged dram—the original sour mash has matured.2 In short, Wordsworth is advocating moonshine; Stevens gives us mellow, eight-year-old bourbon. My notion is the powerful feeling and the drama are there, but filtered through several removes which merely create a different kind of poem. Stevens's letters and journals are the best means I've found to support my claim to the presence...