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  • Beach Boys: Stevens, Whitman, and Franco-American Modernism
  • Lee M. Jenkins

I send these words to Paris with my love, And I guess some chansonniers there will understand them. . . .

—Walt Whitman, from “France, the 18th Year of These States”

IN THE FORTY YEARS, almost, since the publication of Harold Bloom’s Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, Stevens scholarship has weathered, and indeed has often forecasted, sea-changes that have altered the contours of literary studies. Bloom’s psychopoiesis has fared less well, however. His signature swerve (or clinamen) has been superseded by other turns—spatial, transnational, historical—and as the paradigms have shifted, Bloom’s vertical model of poetic genealogy has been undermined by the transversal and mobile modalities of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome. Troping the trope à la Bloom has become, if not a proscribed activity, then a guilty pleasure. That said, and even if we move on to consider Stevens and Whitman under different rubrics, it would be downright perverse to broach the topic of this special issue of the Wallace Stevens Journal without first revisiting Bloom.

The “account of the interpoetic relation between Whitman and Stevens” in The Poems of Our Climate is, by Bloom’s own admission, “very complex” (11), but his nonetheless remains the “standard,” if not the sole, study of the subject. Diane Middlebrook’s Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens predates Bloom’s book, and although Middlebrook was Bloom’s student, her comparativist approach “is not based on [his] idea of influence” (19). Where Middlebrook treats the two poets “separately but symmetrically” in order to assess the effects of a loose analogy between Stevens’ and Whitman’s romantic conception “of the mind’s creative relation to reality” (19), Bloom anatomizes, in his own words, “overt allusions” that “conceal as much as they reveal of Whitman’s deepest and most anxiety-inducing influences upon Stevens” (15). [End Page 50]

The most overt of those allusions is the opening stanza of “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” first published in Poetry magazine in 1935, and subsequently included in Stevens’ 1936 volume Ideas of Order:

In the far South the sun of autumn is passing Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore. He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him, The worlds that were and will be, death and day. Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end. His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.

(CPP 121)

Rebutting William Carlos Williams’ suggestion that “Walt Whitman meant nothing to him” (“Comment” 238), Stevens’ lines are a paean to Whitman as the embodiment of an American sublime, the sun simile assimilating Whitman to the diurnal round, and to the seasonal cycle: beginning with “the sun of autumn,” the poem ends “in snow” (CPP 128). As part of nature, Whitman is also part of us, and of our climate. Since the “subject” of Stevens’ poem is, Helen Vender reminds us, “death and fatal chill” (Extended 66), its opening stanza may be parsed not only as a celebration of Whitman’s solar power but also as an abbreviated elegy or epitaph for a predecessor whose sun has set. Stevens’ stanza both invokes and revokes Whitman’s self-presentation in “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” in which the poet, “inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,” “wander’d alone over the beach” and “saw the sun rise” (Poetry 276). Whitman may chant that “Nothing is final,” yet the logic of Stevens’ poem’s titular conceit dictates that its stanzas are grave goods. Stevens’ agon with his precursor is hiding in plain sight in his homage to a “post mortem” Whitman (Lawrence 155).

But the Whitman who is rendered in the first stanza of “Like Decorations” in his own signature present tense is not so easily laid to rest in Stevens’ poem’s cimetière marin: as Bloom notes, Whitman’s most potent articulation of the indivisibility of birth and death, or “death and day,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” is sounded in Stevens’ own shore lyrics. It may be the case that for Stevens as for Whitman, “To say ‘sea’” is also “to...


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