- Poetry and Poetics after Wallace Stevens ed. by Bart Eeckhout and Lisa Goldfarb
Edited by Bart Eeckhout and Lisa Goldfarb. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.
For poets writing after Wallace Stevens, there is no simple ABC of Influence, to quote from the title of Christopher Beach’s 1992 monograph on Ezra Pound’s legacy. Stevens’ impact on poetics is “nearly unidentifiable” in wholesale critical terms, as Al Filreis notes, because he has taken effect so variously for such a wide array of poets (138). Poetry and Poetics after Wallace Stevens responds to this condition with sixteen essays that explore how Stevens, since his death in 1955, has helped shape the landscape of poetry in the United States and abroad. The concept of “influence” does not entirely capture Stevens’ impact on those poets who have responded to him in very deliberate and conscious dialogue with his legacy. Stevens whets questions and sharpens frictions within poets who feel many-minded about his work. To refer to W. B. Yeats’s shorthand, the affordances and limitations of Stevens’ oeuvre instigate poetry rather than just rhetoric about it—quarrels within writers rather than between them. The heterogeneous “case studies” approach adopted by Poetry and Poetics after Wallace Stevens honors the full complexity of this dynamic (4). The result is a stimulating collection that will prove useful to students and scholars of post-war and contemporary poetry beyond the pale of Stevens studies itself.
The editors, Bart Eeckhout and Lisa Goldfarb, mention in their introduction how far we seem to have traveled from the binary logic of Marjorie Perloff’s 1982 inquiry “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” Indeed, Edward Ragg’s desire “to transcend the more formulaic grouping of writers that can characterize Modernist and Postmodernist studies” is an apt description of the larger work that the collection accomplishes (118). Ragg’s essay is a telling example: “The Not So Noble Rider: Stevens, Oppen, Glück” aims for greater clarity on two poets seldom connected with Stevens by positioning them against a Stevensian horizon upon which they had presumably turned their backs—Glück because she felt Stevens’ meditations were exclusive and solipsistic, Oppen because he disparaged the “little elegances” of Stevens’ aestheticist manner (qtd. on 119). In the process, we come to hear how the “repetitive, incantatory dictions” of Oppen’s late work combine “phenomenological and ontological reflections” in ways that resemble Stevens more than the constructivist poets with whom Oppen is traditionally associated (120). And we come to see how Stevens surfaces (albeit uninvited) in Glück’s poetry, in a poem like “Four Dreams Concerning the Master,” when he “rolls into the room” in the form [End Page 139] of a hazelnut before “coming to rest” at the foot of Glück’s teacher Stanley Kunitz. “Well,” Kunitz says in the dream, “what do you want now, Stevens?” (qtd. on 128).
This kind of easily overlooked detail—Stevens humorously cropping up in an early poem by a writer who has publicly dismissed him—is but one of a great many surprising moments analyzed by essays alert to the generative properties of ambivalence about Stevens. Two particularly path-breaking essays address Stevens’ relevance to contemporary African American poetries on this count. Rachel Galvin’s “‘This Song Is for My Foe’: Olive Senior and Terrance Hayes Rewrite Stevens” shows how contemporary poets of color have been writing into “the historical blanks of Stevens’ poem[s].” Senior and Hayes are not just composing downstream of Stevens. Each has written work that disturbs and even reverses the currents of so-called influence, revealing “intertextuality as something other than an economy in which original property is bequeathed from one unified subject to another” (234, 239). A multidirectional model of literary filiation, Galvin argues, speaks to how writers do not simply come “after” their precursors: via “retrospective influence” they are continually recasting the dynastic canons that precluded them (232).
Lisa M. Steinman pursues this line of inquiry by placing a series of contemporary African American poets among Stevens’ “Unanticipated Readers,” her essay’s title. Here the focus is on the contradiction between the racist foreclosures of Stevens’ worldview and the...