- Searching for Mr. Stevens: Poems by Ken Lauter
To be a poet (maker/creator) one must be audacious. Perhaps the most audacious project is to try to get inside the head of a major artist, especially such an outsized and commanding maker, and mind, as the poet Wallace Stevens. Ken Lauter has crafted a series of poems that together become an idiosyncratic portrait of Wallace Stevens. Idiosyncratic, because as much as these poems are about Stevens, and as much as they rely on Stevens’ poetry, letters, and biography, it’s Lauter’s particular vision of Stevens that pervades the poems. Both in a psychological and in a poetic sense, many of the poems literally try to speak Stevens’ mind. Others explore and elaborate various incidents from Stevens’ life and times.
Clearly, Lauter knows his Stevens inside and out. And wisely he has entitled his collection Searching for Mr. Stevens. This helps undercut the inevitable [End Page 251] questions that arise when we read a poem speculating upon what Stevens might have thought or felt on a particular occasion during his life. Here Lauter not only searches but finds Marianne Moore and Stevens strolling together in New York City:
down streets of glitter, stink, horns, smoke, smiles, curses, and cops.
Did people passing by them wonder if they were a circus act? He was huge, a suave bear in a Panama hat and bow tie and she was bird-like—not a sparrow but a falcon—in a long, black coat and jaunty tri-corner hat. . . .(from: “Mr. Stevens & Miss Moore Take a Stroll”)
I think of Stevens as more of a fedora man myself, and in poems like these, Lauter certainly takes his share of imaginative liberties. But if I can’t always believe Lauter’s vision, I don’t have trouble reading or rolling along, having some fun inhabiting Lauter’s inventive jaunts.
The poems are most successful when Lauter makes (or approximates) a Stevensian poem to tell us about Stevens:
He thinks of the thick stack of files of surety claims on his office desk
waiting for him, oblivious to the gray of the sky, ignorant of the blue, high
above the gray, and the always-burning eye high above the blue. He thinks all
this thinking is a waste of time but knows time is all he has—and it isn’t gray.(from: “Mr. Stevens Overcast”)
In many of his poems, Lauter quotes Stevens’ poetry and letters. These materials certainly lend authority to the poet or poem’s speaker, and being Stevens’ words they do good service within the poem. Direct quotes are italicized by convention, which is fine. But many of the quotes are also marked with an asterisk or a hashtag in the text, and then footnoted below. I understand the need to credit these quotes, but the alternative of adding a few notes at the end of the collection, citing specific sources within a particular poem, would have been less intrusive than running into an “*” or “#” within the text.
To write one or two poems with Stevens in mind perhaps expresses one’s passion. To write a dozen borders on obsession. To write a book’s worth of poems based on Stevens may be the act of a fanatic. But for any fan of Stevens’ [End Page 252] poetry this collection will be a joy—partly because the poems touch on so many aspects of Stevens’ works and biography, partly because Lauter’s writing is direct and often deft. In the following poem, for instance, in which he imagines a love-like bond between Stevens and his much younger niece Jane, Lauter ends quite aptly with understatement and undertones:
When these two finally speak, it is in slow, patient, syllables.
Let us leave them there, an old man and a young woman sitting at peace in Elizabeth Park, awaiting December’s revisions.(from: “Wallace and Jane in Elizabeth Park”)
Wallace Stevens is Lauter’s poetic paramour, and he has not failed to speak fully of that relationship, which he has so liberally imagined. Lauter writes clearly to and of...