- "I Hope I Haven't Made Another Lampshade":Stevens and John L. Sweeney
The Irish connection to Stevens has heretofore been explored in relation to his poetic and personal exchanges with Thomas MacGreevy (1893-1967), poet, critic, and, from 1950 to 1963, director of the National Gallery of Ireland. But a missing Irish American link is Stevens' friendship with John L. Sweeney (1906-1986). Brother of the more famous James Johnson Sweeney, the director of MoMA and of the Guggenheim, who was also an acquaintance of Stevens' via the Henry and Barbara Church circle, John L. (Jack) Sweeney was a critic and patron of the arts, and, between 1942 and 1969, curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard's Lamont Library. Writing to Barbara Church in 1947, Stevens tells her,
I know your Sweeney's brother. He has a position of some sort at Harvard—John, a courteous and friendly person. A little of the history of these two—quiet and extraordinary people, would be of interest. But Irishmen without whiskey are a bit like women without hair.(L 563)
For his part, John L. Sweeney had commented on Stevens the poet before he met the man. As Alan Filreis has noted, Sweeney and Elizabeth Drew had nominated Stevens and John Crowe Ransom "romantic ironists" in their 1940 coauthored study Directions in Modern Poetry (Filreis 75).1 Sweeney and Drew focus on what they describe as "the brittle exotic brilliance" of early Stevens and the "oddness and preciosity" of his "private poetic world" (257). His theme they identify as "the contrast between reality and the imagination," the Stevensian keynote that is sounded again in late poems like "The Irish Cliffs of Moher" (227). It was Sweeney who, in September 1952, would send Stevens the postcard of the dramatic shale and sandstone cliffs in County Clare that, as Eleanor Cook puts it, acted as "the starting-point" for the poem, first published in The Nation in December of that year and subsequently collected in Stevens' last gathering of poems, The Rock (1954) (Cook 279; see L 760). [End Page 91]
Like MacGreevy, Sweeney was a poet in his own right: his first poems appeared in transition in the 1930s, and later work in Poetry in the early 1960s. Conrad Aiken's anthology Twentieth-Century American Poetry (1944, rev. ed. 1963) prints three of the eleven poems of which Sweeney's oeuvre consists, and which survives in its entirety in the form of a reading recorded in 1978 (Woodberry W45L6).2 Sweeney appears to have heeded T. S. Eliot's injunction that the poet should compose as little as possible (see Empson 361); indeed, Eliot, who was himself a Harvard man, would write to Sweeney in 1955 to say he "liked" the latter's Phi Beta Kappa poem, "An Arch for Janus": "There are places where I found it difficult to scan," Eliot comments, "but otherwise I found it moving, especially, for some reason, the reference to John Quincy Adams" (UCDA LA52/102). Neither Stevens' letters to Sweeney nor "The Irish Cliffs of Moher" itself allude to the latter's verse: in this respect at least, Sweeney's Co. Clare postcard makes for a more straightforward pretext for "The Irish Cliffs of Moher" than the MacGreevy poems—"Recessional" and "Homage to Hieronymus Bosch"—that are ghosted in Stevens' other "Irish" poem, "Our Stars Come from Ireland." But if they lacked the intertextual intimacies of his relationship with MacGreevy, Stevens' dealings with Sweeney involved an interpersonal dimension that the Stevens-MacGreevy association lacked: Stevens kept the MacGreevy he deemed "the best of all my correspondents" at a safe distance (TCD 8123/29). Clearly, Stevens came to trust Sweeney, not only accepting but also reciprocating his hospitality (not at his Westerly Terrace house, to be sure, but at the Hartford Canoe Club; see L 842). Stevens turned to Sweeney for help when the Fortune Press edition of his Selected Poems, edited by Dennis Williamson and the product of a lapsed and thus invalid agreement between the London-based small press and Stevens' American publisher Alfred A. Knopf, came out in 1952. Indeed, Sweeney had alerted him to...