- Watering the Flowers
So Mr. Stevens said to Mrs. Stevens, "I will water the flowers myself." He walked out into the picture on our cover, in his best three-piece suit, to oblige for the photo op. It was full summer and maybe, like Mrs. Dalloway, he merely thought of life, Hartford, this moment in June. Perhaps he had just returned from work and the sun was still high, the flowers still thirsty. Perhaps it was a Sunday and while spraying he thought back to lines he had written years ago, playing around with them: "I'm watering my lawn on Sunday, watering North America. Tum-ti-tum, ti-tum-tum-tum!" Or perhaps he just mulled over lines unchanged, unwilling to be changed:
fill the foliage with arrested peace,Joy of such permanence, right ignoranceOf change still possible. Exile desireFor what is not. This is the barrennessOf the fertile thing that can attain no more.(CPP 323)
There is more than anecdotal banality in our cover image, then, more even than visual humor: we may also detect in it the fertility of the everyday as a form of ultimate—shall we even say supreme?—satisfaction.
It may seem unexpected to think of Stevens as a poet of the everyday, yet in recent criticism, two books have turned Stevens' relation to the ordinary and everyday into a topic of concentrated critical debate: Liesl Olson's Modernism and the Ordinary, which discusses Stevens alongside James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein, and Siobhan Phillips' The Poetics of the Everyday, in which the analysis of Stevens is complemented by chapters on Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill. The current issue, which derives inspiration from both these works, proves that the proximate appearance of Olson's and Phillips' studies is more than coincidence. Twenty-first-century Stevens studies is already broadening the ways in which we situate Stevens' poetry in his times, urging us to rethink the place he has been attributed in the literary landscape of the last century. As the following contributions show, a rich topic has been waiting to be mined. This is due, at least in part, to the way in which notions [End Page 5] of the ordinary and the everyday have been so powerfully theorized in cultural analyses of the relations between modernism and postmodernism. Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot, Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, and Michel de Certeau have all honed in on the unsuspected significance of the quotidian, paving the road for the "everyday life studies" that are flourishing today.
With this issue, we aim to pluralize this conversation by offering a range of ways to think about Stevens and the everyday. The essays are organized in a more or less chronological manner: they take us from the poet of Harmonium to the writer at midcareer, and from The Rock to the inspirational heritage Stevens has bequeathed. The present studies consider the banal, the material, the demotic, the unnoticed, the indeterminate, the habitual, and the transience of daily life—the watering of flowers, say—which it becomes impossible to capture, since paying attention to it causes it to dissipate. But these essays also offer an imaginative array of approaches that draw from cultural studies, comparative poetics, and philosophy. They explore debates surrounding early cinema and the idea of the aesthetic as surplus; they propose readings that demonstrate Stevens' dialogue with the French poet of humble objects, Francis Ponge, or the American philosopher of ordinary experience, Stanley Cavell; they lay bare the surprisingly democratic roots of Stevens' notion of the hero; they consider how Wittgenstein can help us read Stevens' late poems; and they show how the Stevensian poetics of the quotidian is at work in the poetry of the New York School. This robust range of approaches certainly demonstrates the multiplicity of connective readings that Stevens' poetry prompts. But in so doing, it also serves to question and recalibrate the very concept of the "everyday."
Benjamin Madden kicks off our issue with a type of question readers of Stevens instantly recognize: "What's So Ordinary about Stevens' 'The Ordinary Women'?" His answer is fresh and surprising. Madden works...