- “One Long, Unbroken, Constant Sound”:Wireless Thinking and Lyric Tinkering in Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium1
It has become a familiar refrain in periodical studies to speak of “multiple modernisms.”2 To do so is to consider the act of putting poems into circulation a collective effort, the work of many hands; but it might also be to admit a truth, no less striking, that modernist print culture was always a contested domain, sensitive to the flicker and buzz of rival media. In its first years of publication, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse proved an accommodating place for inventive thinking, an environment peculiarly suited to songs about magic lanterns and poems on the telephone.3 The effect was a productive kind of antagonism, an impression that the specialness of lyric must consist, not in its resistance to other forms of representation—the movies or a telephone call—but in its very capacity to articulate the existence of those new types of mediation. Rather than pointing up the category distinctions that might be thought to guarantee lyric’s “apartness” from other discursive modes, the technologies that turn up between the sheets of Poetry seem instead to complicate and dissolve them.4 Given the right material conditions, the modernist lyric enables something we have come to value in the new wireless age: good, unbroken reception.
The subject of this article, Wallace Stevens, may seem a curiosity in this respect. He, too, was an early and enthusiastic contributor to Poetry, yet his correspondence with Monroe bespeaks a firm notion of what imaginative writing could and could not do. Stevens was admitted to the New York Bar in 1904, and his letters shuttle accordingly between intellectual occupations, conscious that poetry must remain “a form of retreat.”5 Few of [End Page 919] his early poems speak of his working environment—of New York, Hartford, or of trips to the Midwest—and their quality of attention has rarely seemed explicable in relation to the objects or processes of popular communication. Stevens worried about his attention wandering, however, and he wrote to Monroe on the subject in January 1925:
Holly grows prettier and jollier every day. We have never had the least trouble with her—have never lost a wink of sleep. She babbles and plays with her hands and smiles like an angel. Such experiences are a terrible blow to poor literature. But then there’s the radio to blame, too. Really and truly, I haven’t written a thing for months.(L, 244)
In 1916, Stevens had moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to commence work at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and to make a home with his wife Elsie. More carefree than careless, this letter registers the airy distractions of new domestic bliss—the burbling of “an angel,” and the ethereal hosts of a radio network. Monroe had seen something like this pass across her desk before: the interest of Robert Frost’s wartime poem “Snow” depends, as this message does, on an interplay of presence and absence, the intrusion of a machine, and the sound of a baby. In Stevens’s experience, the babblings of radio and infant mingle in a pool of sound that is wholly unremarkable, but what requires finer scrutiny is the quiet sense of alarm that accompanies the poet’s news. In acknowledging the influx of fresh sound, Stevens confirms that his new arrivals are in good working order, yet in doing so he begins to mourn the state of “poor literature.” For the clandestine poet who spends his evenings crafting verse, a radio set portends a special kind of interference.
Stevens’s note to Monroe dates from the beginning of a new phase in the lawyer’s life, a period of little poetic activity that was bookended by the first and second printings of Harmonium in 1923 and 1931. Much else besides the rise of commercial radio and the patter of family life filled this interval, as biographers have shown.6 Recent critical studies have been right in this respect to move beyond Harold Bloom’s depiction of Harmonium as an “impasse” that would only be resolved in Ideas of Order...