- Survey Review of a Year’s Essays on Stevens“Luminous Companion”
He was never the most companionable of poets. As Beverly Coyle and Alan Filreis remarked in their introduction to Secretaries of the Moon, “Stevens’ aversion to bridging natural distances between himself and acquaintances by mail is well known” (2). However generous and disarmingly familiar Stevens could be as a correspondent, in person he was notoriously and comically difficult to coax out of “the walled citadel of the insurances,” as José Rodríguez Feo joked in one of his letters (qtd. on 3). And yet this temperamental aversion would belie the current trend in Stevens studies, which seems to be undergoing an efflorescence of comparative-mindedness. We have become habituated to thinking about Wallace Stevens among Others (to borrow the title of David Jarraway’s recent book). With the devotion of the latest issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal to the topic of Stevens and Whitman, and the increasingly comparatist tendency in the essays surveyed below, the community of Stevens scholars might well think about incorporating themselves as “Wallace Stevens & Co.”
What I mean here by companionability extends beyond what we might otherwise recognize as the scholarly practice of unpicking intertextual allusion or the interpersonal practice of empathy or sociability. To address Stevens’ companionability is not simply a matter of tracing his influence on others, or their influence on him; nor is it simply a matter of recalling those moments in life or on the page in which he may have been uncharacteristically sympathetic or chummy. Instead it may be a case of coming to understand the desire on the part of so many readers to keep his poems close for the way they help clarify how to live, what to do. It is no accident that Stevens’ poem of that name (a poem of companionship, no less) should end, “Joyous and jubilant and sure” (CPP 103; my emphasis). Reading Stevens’ poems may never tell you “How to Live” or “What to Do” directly; however, like the “tufted rock / Massively rising high and bare,” they do create a refuge “away from the muck of the land” (CPP 103) in which one can “compose” oneself, like Stevens’ Penelope, into a state of susceptibility to the bracingly possible (CPP 442). If Stevens is essentially a poet of meditative solitude (as I still believe he is), then it is the kind of solitude that ultimately makes us better company for others and for ourselves.
In the interests of enlarging the circle of companionship, then, this survey will look to bring book chapters and essays from outside The Wallace Stevens [End Page 241] Journal to the attention of its readers, who are no doubt already familiar with the articles published in this venue over the past year. It was, after all, a big year for Stevens studies with two giants, Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom, returning to the field with major books featuring essays on Stevens, and the publication of a full-length biography by Paul Mariani. Since both Mariani and Vendler have been covered by this journal (those looking for a review of Vendler’s latest contribution should consult Zachary Finch’s survey of 2014), I will devote some attention to Bloom’s return to Stevens in The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, which has received only passing mentions in this journal thus far.
Few critics or scholars can claim to be as much of a victim of their own success as Bloom. As Roger Gilbert remarks in his contribution to the Stevens and Whitman issue, “[Bloom’s] work tends to provoke resistance and discourage emulation” (61). Yet his presence seems singularly hard to escape. Given the half-century that has elapsed since Bloom’s first espousal of the connection between Stevens and Whitman in The Massachusetts Review, it would be tempting to read the timing of the special issue as a signal instance of Bloom-ian belatedness. For all Bloom’s canon-making audacity, The Daemon Knows “does not attempt to present an American canon.” Instead the book explores the “incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism” in six pairs of American authors (3): Whitman...