- Feeling Strange and Turning Back: Stevens, Frost, and the Foreign
DENNIS LEE DESCRIBES writing in “colonial space” as an attunement to cadence, a speaking to one’s “own dwelling” (154), that requires in turn a listening to the “deeper cadence in which the poem is locally sustained” (152). “But if we live in space which is radically in question for us,” Lee writes, “that makes our barest speaking a problem to itself. For voice does issue in part from civil space. And alienation in that space will enter and undercut our writing, make it recoil upon itself, become a problem to itself” (154). In The Hybrid Muse, Jahan Ramazani considers the invisibility of what he calls “postcolonial poetry” relative to parallel readings of fiction and drama, and like Lee he recognizes that academic and readerly assumptions about voice, place, and affective expression often prevent entry into the work of poets (including Louise Bennett, Okot p’Bitek, and A. K. Ramanujan, but also aspects of W. B. Yeats’s poetic archive) who speak neither from within an unquestioned, un-alien space nor out of a postmodern non-place where locality itself is an obstacle to good—because non-territorial—thought and speech (3).
It would be all too easy to take the poetry of Wallace Stevens as an example of the latter, as a collection of “Description[s] Without Place” (CPP 296), and Robert Frost’s as the former, as a record of northern New England vernacular speech wrestling with meters, devoted to the cadence of a solid and well-established place. Such a schema would indeed allow one to dismiss these modernist white American poets as unconcerned in any way with the politics of borders and colonial dialectics—what Frantz Fanon refers to as the process of cultures “once living and open to the future” becoming “closed, fixed in the colonial status, caught in the yoke of oppression . . . mummified” (44).1 But both Stevens and Frost were concerned throughout their careers with the sort of meta-problem that grounds much postcolonial writing and scholarship, the at once practical, metaphysical, and deconstructive problem of Self and Other, which Kwame Anthony Appiah calls a binary that is “the last of the shibboleths of the modernizers that we must learn to live without” (354). That Stevens’ poetry, for instance, contains and/or attempts to overcome an epistemological deadlock aligned with this meta-problem—which grounds colonial [End Page 50] politics and poetics performed far from the hard, spare landscapes of his Connecticut—is recognized by none other than Edward Said, whose 1984 essay “The Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile” borrows Stevens’ famous phrase from “The Snow Man” to describe the diasporic experience in wholly psychological terms, where “the pathos of summer and autumn as much as the potential of spring are nearby but unobtainable. . . . [A] life of exile moves according to a different calendar, and is less seasonal and settled than life at home” (55).
In this essay, I will consider a few of the different ways in which the poetry of Stevens and Frost encounters the encroachment of the “foreign” into spaces of refuge, and will situate my readings of a few representative poems within an epistemological problematic of self and other that underlies concrete concerns about immigration, settlement, xenophobia, and colonialism. Though Stevens’ career in poetry and correspondence evince several different approaches to the pressures of the “exotic” real, in his late poems his acquaintance with things is often only with their surfaces, not their depths: birds sing strange and dissonant songs (“Of Mere Being”), landscapes present a hard outer shell (“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”), and particles of the world appear transcendent only in their muteness (“The Course of a Particular”). But insofar as Stevens resolves the initially disturbing foreignness of the world in his old age, it is in his recognition of the construction of metaphor as an engendering relation that remains open to the revision and reconstruction of one’s desire for the unusual. In “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain,” for instance, “the outlook that would be right” is achieved by the observer-poet’s reordering his position...