- Planets on Tables: Poetry, Still Life, and the Turning World
Bonnie Costello’s Planets on Tables focuses on how still life, having become a quintessential modernist pictorial genre, entered and informed the poetic worlds of Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and Richard Wilbur, and the visual world of Joseph Cornell. Going against the grain of common opinion, Costello contends that for the modernist masters and the poets following in their wake, and for Cornell, still life served neither as an hermetically sealed aesthetic universe for unhampered formal experimentation nor as a refuge from historical tumults. In the face of socio-political imperatives and the disparagement of the “merely” personal that marked the 1930s and early 1940s, still life fostered the creation in poetry of “tentative, partial spaces of order and beauty that might create a conduit to the world without annihilating the personal” (6). The objects that inhabit its aesthetic formations “absorb rather than shed history” (8).
Costello derives her title from Wallace Stevens’s “The Planet on the Table,” published a year before his death in his Collected Poems (1954), in which the poet contemplates his life’s work and takes satisfaction in it: “Ariel was glad he had written his poems.” Stevens employs the still-life conceit of a planet on a table not to analogize poetry into an autonomous aesthetic object, a world of art entire unto itself, but to affirm that poems “should bear / Some lineaments or character, // . . . Of the planet of which they were part.” Social and political issues, and along with them still life, had acquired a new prominence in Stevens’s Parts of a World (1942), whose title augurs an engagement of his poems with the public world of which they were part. Costello argues that Stevens’s growing attraction to still life was directly connected with the increased place granted the political, and that still life empowered his poetic response to the economic, social, and political upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s and to the onset of another world war. In “Man Carrying Thing,” which Costello reads in historical terms, Stevens writes of “a storm we must endure all night, / . . . / A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.” His turn to still life is “a means of contemplating and resisting” the storm (28), while “reclaiming the space of the personal” (2). “A Dish of Peaches in Russia” reveals how artfully Stevens could incorporate pressing historical and political realities within a still-life world, even as the speaker engages in an affective and aesthetic experience that consciousness and historical reality deny him. In Parts of a World violence and uncertainty intrude upon the tranquil world of still life, but, instead of shrinking from such confrontation, [End Page 209] still life affords “an orientation to the crashing parts of the world” (37). It also intimates analogical relations with the lyric, as in “Woman Looking at a Vase of Flowers,” which takes the floral still life as an emblem for the role and nature of lyric poetry. Although still life recedes in importance after Parts of a World, its intermittent presence conjures a sense of “provisional order and plenitude under the pressure of reality” (44). Costello’s excellent chapter on “Stevens and Painting” in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens offers a more comprehensive view of Stevens’s avid, lifelong interest in painting and of the central role it played in his poetry and poetics.
William Carlos Williams’s friendship with Charles Demuth and fascination with the art of Juan Gris fostered an interest in still life that complemented his own preoccupation with the local and domestic. A good deal of Williams’s early work, notably “The Rose” in Spring and All (1923), was inspired by Gris, long his favorite painter. His own representations of stationary objects have prompted Bram Djikstra and others to conceive of Williams’s poems as still lifes, and to associate his poetics with precisionist strategies for presenting the object in space. Costello points instead to affinities with futurism infused in Williams’s still lifes...