Yeats, Stevens, Eliot:Eras and Legacies, an Interview with Marjorie Perloff
Your first book, published in 1970, was devoted to Yeats, and for several decades you have written about, taught, commented, and reflected on many of the major twentieth-century poets, as well as, more recently, their twenty-first-century inheritors, explicating, in particular, the evolution of modernist and postmodernist avant-gardes. How would you compare and contrast the changing reputations and influence of such now-canonical figures as Yeats, Stevens, and Eliot on poetry and poetics both in their own times and since?
Yeats, Stevens, Eliot? The major shift in our time is that Yeats is all but written out of histories of modernism, at least in the US. Courses on modernism tend to be almost exclusively on American modernism, and so Yeats does not figure. Then, too, given his dates (1865–1939), Yeats seems increasingly to be pushed back into the nineteenth century. After all, he still wrote his poems in metrical stanzas, and his "high" style has little in common with that of the American modernists from Pound and Eliot to H.D. and Marianne Moore (the latter, increasingly, seen as one of the central modernist poets), or Robert Frost and Langston Hughes. Contemporary students of poetry, and especially those in Creative Writing, hardly know he exists: he has been relegated to courses on Irish Literature or perhaps on the Decadence, which has become an important scholarly subject in recent years, witness Vincent Sherry's Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence. Perhaps the questioning of Yeats's "modernism" is in part a necessary corrective: when I was going to graduate school in the 1960s, every other student of modernism was writing a dissertation on Yeats! Gayatri Spivak (then at Iowa) is a case in point.
Then again, Yeats remains an important poet for the broader public, especially in the UK, as is the case with Eliot. Eliot is also largely untaught in the Academy today, where his politics, his devout Christianity, and his misogyny make him a problematic subject in the age of trigger warnings. At the same time, Eliot is enormously popular with a broader public. I've just come back from teaching at the T. S. Eliot International Summer School in London and I can assure your readers that Eliot remains, for [End Page 6] many poetry lovers, the great twentieth-century poet. His letters, now in the process of publication, already take up six volumes and roughly 5,000 pages: and that's only up to 1933 (Eliot died in 1965!). Someone is buying these massive volumes!
In 2017, Stevens is probably taught more widely than either Yeats or Eliot. He is acceptable to all as a "great" American poet, even if accusations of racism and conservative politics sometimes cloud the picture. As Stevens's lyric poetry recedes into the past, he is seen as the natural heir of Emerson, Whitman, and even Dickinson, though he barely knew her work. It is Stevens's Americanism (Eliot, after all, was an expatriate), his sense of time and place, his relation to pragmatist philosophy and impact on our later poets that puts him squarely at the center of things.
In terms of their poetics and attitudes toward poetry, as expressed implicitly or explicitly in poems and often explicitly in their essays on poetry, are there revealing points of comparison, do you think, among these three poets? Have these points of comparison become more apparent with the passing of time and our evolving sense of modernism?
Well, all three poets write a difficult, oblique, indirect poetry, meant to challenge the reader. And all three are aesthetes, who believe that Art redeems life, makes life worth living. They are not populists who believe poetry is part of everyday life! But there the similarity stops. One would never confuse the three. Yeats's aesthetic is still essentially romantic and features the antithetical poet, wearing a mask, confronting a hostile middle-class public. His poetry is highly rhetorical and dramatic and makes use of traditional stanzas. Eliot's poetry is much more thematic, dealing with ethical issues, although obliquely so. His poems are more concrete and particular than Yeats's, as geographic as they are historical. Stevens is the most abstract and "art for art's sake" of the three: his lifelong concern with the imagination vis-à-vis reality—the "pressure of reality" (CPP 665)—is distinctive. Yeats would never have pitted art vs. reality in that way.
At the same time, both Yeats and Eliot are more innovative at the sound level than is Stevens. To the end, Stevens writes in unrhymed quatrains or tercets (and sometimes longer stanzas), whose base line is a loose iambic pentameter, to be expanded or shrunk, in keeping with the poet's thought patterns. It is an entirely adequate form, but not especially inventive.
You stated in "'Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?' Revisited"—coinciding with your book of the same year, 21st-Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics (2002)—that modernism "remains unfinished" (139). Is that simply a trait of modernism itself or do you see modernism as something that is still evolving in the twenty-first century? Yeats modernized his poetic [End Page 7] diction repeatedly over his career, but is not easily described, as you note, as modernist. Stevens and Eliot are clearly more modernist, Eliot especially, while Stevens has gradually been accepted more by the later avant-garde poets of the twentieth century and current period—Susan Howe being a noted champion of Stevens in particular. But what do Yeats, Stevens, and Eliot still have to teach us now that modernism is over a hundred years of age?
Modernism remains "unfinished," I believe, in that we are still essentially living in the modernist period and subject to the modernist aura. How can that be in 2017, a full hundred years after the publication of Eliot's "Prufrock"? Didn't a vocal postmodernism arise in response to modernism and question all its premises? It looked that way back in the 1960s, when critics like Ihab Hassan were busy contrasting the two movements or periods. But, by the 1990s, we began to realize that nothing had quite replaced those revolutionary modernist features: collage, fragmentation, alinearity, the absence of closure, decenteredness, indeterminacy. In retrospect, the modernism of the World War I era constituted a real break with the past. The new industrialized urban West stood in stark opposition to nineteenth-century fiction and poetry—and, of course, painting. Whatever, say, cubism owed to earlier painters, when Picasso and Braque first showed their canvases, audiences didn't know what to make of them—they represented something new. Stevens's poems have been called romantic odes, but read Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode" and then, say, "The Man on the Dump," and the distinction between poetic modes and epochs is perfectly obvious. Modernism remains "unfinished" because we have yet to surpass it.
Al Filreis has followed Stevens's poetic afterlife closely, and Bart Eeckhout and Lisa Goldfarb's Poetry and Poetics after Wallace Stevens (2017) has shown in some detail the very wide range of poets for whom Stevens is relevant today, or, at least, worth sparring with. Could it be said that Stevens, despite some initial resistance from the Language poets, has become more significant for contemporary poets and poetics than either Yeats or Eliot?
That depends on which contemporary poets you choose to consider. Stevens was always the poet revered by mainstream American poets, from Anthony Hecht and John Hollander to Adrienne Rich and Jorie Graham. John Ashbery has always been considered the heir of Stevens, with Harold Bloom emphasizing the bond, and Susan Howe has declared herself again and again a disciple of Stevens. But beware of the Anxiety of Influence! As time goes on, I detect a major Eliot influence in both the work of Ashbery and of Howe, and the latter is also a devotee of Yeats, on whose poetry she was brought up by her Irish mother. In The Midnight, for example, Yeats [End Page 8] holds a central position. And the layout of a Howe poem is much closer to the visual poetics of Eliot than to the fairly traditional layout of the typical Stevens poem.
At the same time, we have to recognize that large congeries of US poets—from Black Mountain and the Beats to Language and Conceptual poetics—are not especially indebted to Yeats, Eliot, or Stevens, taking their direction instead from William Carlos Williams or from European and Latin American models. And then, of course, African American poets have also looked elsewhere for their models, and women poets have turned to Emily Dickinson and other women poets for inspiration.
Still, as we move closer to the 2020s and the 100th anniversary of The Waste Land, it may well be Eliot, long scorned for his political conservatism and orthodox Anglicanism, who will once again be center stage, quite simply because he is such an extraordinary poet. He wrote relatively little poetry, but every word is chosen with astonishing care, and the rhythms are endlessly varied and brilliant. His earlier poetry especially captures the peculiar tensions and stress points of modern living in ways that still captivate students. I'm thinking of lines like "Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells" (3). Consider the relationship of "restless" to "restaurants," the latter word originally referring to a place of refuge, of refreshment needed so as to continue on one's way. So the substitution of, say, "bistros" or "cafes" for "restaurants" would destroy the whole passage.
And, as in the case of Pound, the more time that goes by, the less upsetting the poet's politics or cultural attitudes. Dante was no sweet innocent, no progressive, but we seem to have forgotten all about the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict in his native Florence.
You are a much-traveled scholar who has been addressing an increasingly diverse, global audience over the years. What has struck you about the changing fates and varying poetic statuses of Yeats, Stevens, and Eliot in different parts of the world? What do you see as the main driving forces behind these dynamics of change? Are there evolutions in this regard that you view with excitement and others that are causes for concern?
This is a very challenging question. I am always fascinated by national differences when it comes to the response to a given poet. Let me begin with Yeats. I'm on the board of The Yeats Journal of Korea. Their Yeats Society is extremely active, and, for reasons I don't quite understand, Yeats is very popular in Korea and also in Japan, given his work on Noh plays, as well as in India, where his symbolism is much studied. Perhaps it is Yeats's "spiritualism" that appeals to readers in these East Asian countries. In a deeply secular Europe, where increasingly modernist poetry studies focus on American rather than British poetry, I don't find Yeats much talked about—although, of course, he remains a very respectable [End Page 9] dissertation subject. And in my visits to Brazil, I hear little about Yeats; his work seems relatively remote.
The Eliot situation is different. In India, even after years of colonial rule, Eliot remains somehow the #1 poet. At the recent Eliot Summer School, a large proportion of the students came from India. Their English is, of course, very good, and they have strong interests in Eliot's "spiritualism," his concern for something beyond the material. Eliot is widely studied in Europe, but there is also skepticism about his religious turn and his misogyny.
As for Stevens, we have witnessed a real change in recent years. Until the 1980s or so, French poeticians used to shrug off Stevens with the words "We already have Mallarmé." Stevens seemed too "French," too "symbolist," not sufficiently American. And in Germany, Stevens was long regarded as a bit quaint, what with his bucks clattering "Over Oklahoma" and his placement of a jar in Tennessee (CPP 3, 60). But in recent years, the Europeans have come to appreciate Stevens as the unique poet he is, and I always find much interest in Stevens in East Asia. The British, who never warmed up to Williams, have always regarded Stevens almost as one of their own. Frank Kermode singled Stevens out for study, as did other British scholars.
But—and here is a great irony—none of the above is as popular in Europe, Asia, or Latin America, or (I gather) in North Africa and the Middle East, as is Ezra Pound. There are very active Pound societies in China and Japan; in Brazil, the Concrete poets Augusto and Haroldo de Campos long ago claimed Pound as their mentor; and The Cantos, with their many languages, their deployment of the "Chinese Written Character," and so on, have a large appeal. Then, too, Pound's biography—his being jailed for treason, his stay in a mental hospital, his defiance of authority—these are appealing to foreign readers. And Pound's work as a translator is especially important. Stevens was not a translator, Eliot just barely, but Pound's devotion to "transcreation" of poetry from other languages has won him much support abroad.
We must also take into account the difficulty of translating Stevens's poetry. His tone is especially hard to duplicate and the transitions are so subtle.
Lee Jenkins has written poignantly about Stevens's poetic contemporaries (in Wallace Stevens in Context). She notes how Williams adopted "Dear fat Stevens" in Kora in Hell as one of the "stay-at-home American modernists who," unlike Eliot and Pound, "had not 'run to London'" (112). How would you describe the consequences of Stevens never being involved in a European avant-garde or other movement, notwithstanding his contact with Duchamp and other European artists through the Arensberg circle in New York? Put differently, how was Stevens's reputation shaped by his largely American experience, in contrast with Yeats [End Page 10] and Eliot, given these latter poets' more public connections with literary, artistic, and other worlds, whether in London or elsewhere?
Stevens was the poet who stayed home, whose poetics are squarely in the American tradition, despite a certain French overlay, as in "Sea Surface Full of Clouds." In recent decades, much work has been done on Stevens's Emersonianism and his relations to William James and Charles Peirce (see, for instance, Joan Richardson). He is in many ways the representative modernist American poet, along with Williams and Moore. His Pennsylvania childhood, his isolated years in New York, his work for an insurance company in Hartford: all these are things later American poets can relate to. Just as readers around the world appreciate Whitman and Dickinson as quintessentially American, so Stevens is increasingly seen as the real thing: no expatriate games, no social climbing, no sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the European tradition. The depth of his very American poetry makes up for what may seem like an absence of breadth. And Stevens's consistent concern for the natural world has gained wide appeal in our ecological climate.
Clearly, both Yeats and Eliot had more definitively public careers than Stevens in the sense of their respective roles as cultural arbiters. One thinks of Yeats's involvement in Irish nationalism and the Irish National Theatre and Eliot's career as literary critic, playwright, and publisher. Stevens is generally considered to incline more toward privacy, both temperamentally and socially, and the abstract tenor of much of his poetry is, rightly or wrongly, traced to this "temperament" (a word preferred by the poet himself in discussion of his favorite painter, Cézanne, in "The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet" [CPP 671]). However, interest in Stevens's prose, especially his public lectures and essays, has grown in recent years. How would you characterize the different public profiles of these three poets and how would you evaluate the importance of their prose works in relation to their poetries?
Of the three, Yeats is obviously the great public figure. Playwright, theater director, Irish senator, journalist: Yeats made his living from his prose writings as well as his public activities. He was astonishingly prolific and his views on philosophy and religion have been taken very seriously. At the same time, many people—say, W. H. Auden—regarded Yeats's involvement in theosophical movements, his faith in the Occult, and his "system" in A Vision as wrongheaded, if not foolish, and today Yeats's "ideas" are rarely taken seriously. His politics, which became increasingly conservative, have also been decried. But his Autobiographies is certainly a major literary text, and there are essays like "Per Amica Silentia Lunae" that read like prose poems. [End Page 11]
Yeats's other activities did not interfere with his writing of poetry. He wrote a great deal, whereas Eliot, after "Ash Wednesday," all but stopped writing poetry except for the Four Quartets of the late 1930s and early '40s. Eliot became a major critic—much more of a critic than Yeats, I believe—and, of course, an editor and publisher. His criticism set the stage for the New Criticism and beyond, but as a poet his output was, however important, quite small, and the plays have never won the wide audience his poetry has commanded. I for one don't care for the plays at all. And his religious and political writings have been—and continue to be—very controversial. Yet the poetry itself makes up in quality for its lack of quantity. Every line, every word counts!
Stevens is, to my mind, the purest poet of the three, but not an important essayist. The "Adagia" may be grouped with his poems: these short aphoristic prose texts are best read side by side with the lyrics. And Stevens was a great letter writer; many letters, again, are almost poems. The essays are, of course, of great interest to Stevens scholars because information derived from them can help us to read the poetry. But I find them less than compelling. I don't think Stevens was—or wanted to be—a critic or cultural commentator. I realize that interest in his public lectures has, as you say, grown. But his "ideas" and critical arguments are not very striking, and we have to remember that he was a busy insurance executive. One cannot compare his essays to, say, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" or "Hamlet and His Problems"—essays that changed the very course of literary study.
Stevens is arguably closer to Williams and Moore than to Yeats or Eliot in terms of poetic affinities or, at least, poetic friendships. What do you make of Eliot's alleged dragging of his feet when it came to Faber publishing Stevens? Bearing in mind Stevens's own comments on Eliot and their very different attitudes toward religion—notwithstanding the former's alleged deathbed conversion to Catholicism and a shared, if very different, interest in "belief"—would you say that Eliot did have an impact on Stevens's reputation, at least in Britain and perhaps in America?
Eliot's "dragging of feet" says more about him than about Stevens. As an editor (of The Criterion and then at Faber & Faber), Eliot was curiously snobbish about his fellow Americans. He seems always to have preferred European writers, even ones that now seem quite dated or minor. He did not admire Williams either and, in general, kept aloof from American modernist poetry, with the exception of Marianne Moore, whom he found "eccentric" and interesting and who could not be regarded as a competitor. And Eliot remained loyal to Pound all his life, whether or not he actually "liked" The Cantos, for he knew what Pound had done for him. Stevens was another matter. He probably seemed too romantic to Eliot, too personal, too solipsistic. Conversely, Eliot was not Stevens's cup of [End Page 12] tea—too doctrinaire, too orthodox. Reading, Pennsylvania, is hardly New England, even if both poets went to Harvard. And Eliot took seriously his blue-blood heritage, which Stevens certainly did not have.
But there is no reason why great poets should like and appreciate one another. Affiliation doesn't work that way. Williams's tastes were for some very minor poets like Eli Siegel. And look at Stevens's high regard for José Rodríguez Feo!
Both Stevens and Eliot absorbed aspects of French symbolism—Stevens especially in relation to Mallarmé and Eliot in relation to Baudelaire and Laforgue. Both poets also embraced Paul Valéry. But how did these French influences impact differently on Stevens and Eliot, in your view?
Both poets absorbed indirection and irony—the obliquity of the French symbolists. But whereas Eliot created dramatic characters, following Laforgue's model, Stevens preferred Mallarméan philosophical meditation, often highly abstract, to the nervous raciness of a Laforgue. As for Baudelaire, it was his Catholic sense of original sin that appealed to Eliot; Stevens doesn't seem to have been particularly influenced by Baudelaire.
Yeats was attracted to radical and esoteric philosophy as well as to the Occult, and his sense of history, particularly in terms of the movement of gyres, is idiosyncratic. Just as Eliot in his literary criticism came to define his own place as a poet in relation to Dante and other figures from literary history, Yeats provided his readers with a vocabulary for conceiving his role as a contemporary Irish poet in relation to both Irish and world history. Stevens, by contrast, does not essentially create a vocabulary rooted in an interpretation of history, or even cultural change, that enables his readers to conceive of his métier as poet. Certainly, Stevens does create a special and notably abstract vocabulary, especially in the notion of the "supreme fiction," which has given his readers tools for interpretation of the poetry. But would it be fair to say that Stevens is not as ardent as either Eliot or Yeats in constructing a poetic legacy in relation to history, be that literary or overall history? Undeniably, Stevens did intend his work to be taken as a complete statement of sorts ("The Whole of Harmonium" etc.), and he harbored a definite fear of miscellany. Yet those more totalizing gestures are of a different order from how Yeats and Eliot built their respective poetic worlds, are they not?
I agree with this diagnosis completely. For Stevens, as Denis Donoghue once said, the past was not only dead, but deadly. There is little interest in or concern for history, or even for his own actual past. Stevens's poetic voice operates in the present and is often quite abstracted: the concern is with "now" and what can be generalized about that "now." Stevens draws his imagery from the natural, not the historical world. [End Page 13] Animals, birds, trees, flowers, plants, the weather, the four seasons: these are the properties of the Stevens universe. His final volume is called The Rock. And the vocabulary is very much Stevens's own, especially the titles, which are so unique, like "No Possum, No Sop, No Taters"—even though the poem by that name doesn't mention these particular items!
Thinking further of their corpuses and total careers, how do you conceive the late and last works of these poets? Late Stevens, especially The Rock (as you mentioned), and late Yeats, especially his Last Poems, have been occasionally compared in critical literature, especially as Stevens's stature as a poet has grown in light of his late and last work. Eliot's position seems different, at least in terms of his poetry, the highlights of which must include "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," The Waste Land, and Four Quartets. Is it fair to say there is no late great Eliot? Does this matter? And how do you conceive of late Yeats and late Stevens?
Like Yeats, Stevens was a late starter and steadily improved. Most critics agree that The Rock is one of his best volumes. And Stevens's style evolved from the early exuberant exoticism of "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" to the sparseness of "Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself." Eliot is the opposite: he was young and precocious when he wrote "Prufrock" in his early twenties. The Four Quartets represent his "late great" style: he was in his early fifties when he wrote the Quartets, his final poem! So he and Stevens have opposite trajectories, with Yeats closer to Stevens than to Eliot.
To return to critical reassessment of these three poets, particularly in light of greater sensitivity in some critical spheres to issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, how do you think modern audiences have come to terms with or contested these poets' political proclivities or other preferences? Each was a creature of his time, but each also tended to particular points of difference in their poetries and prose: Eliot with his Anglo-Catholicism, royalism, and anti-Semitism, Yeats with his Irish nationalism and flirtation with fascism (or at least a distaste for democracy), Stevens with a racism typical of his generation when faced with representations of the "Other." But do these political differences matter? You have also taken Stevens to task on a different but related issue, namely his poetry of war and the coda to "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction": that he was aloof, abstracted from the "actual world" the poet so often craved. But does modern criticism need to "come to terms" with Yeats, Stevens, and Eliot in relation to their implied or explicit worldviews?
In my essay on "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," I argued that Stevens's poetry suffers somewhat from its failure to include other people in his poems, and I guess I still find the solipsism problematic. Stevens [End Page 14] was, in his own life, a great solitary, and his introversion can prove to be irritating when he is trying to comment on, say, the meaning of war. I don't think he had anything interesting to say about war, and his attempts, as in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," fail because the commentary on, say, "major man" relies on generalization. As a "man among other men" (CPP 1001) Stevens had the characteristic prejudices of his time and place. He clearly considered blacks inferior and Jews as outsiders. More important, poets were, essentially, men; woman was the Muse, but not herself a poet. Yet Stevens had such a strong sense of integrity, of refusing to be anything he wasn't, of never writing so as to "sell," that I believe the public easily forgives him even for such unfortunate titles as "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," which happens to be one of his great poems—a meditation on death.
The politics of Eliot and Yeats are harder to forgive. Eliot was quite clearly anti-Semitic, although again we must understand that anti-Semitism as being heavily class-bound and nationalistically derived. Jews, in his day in London, were the "Other"—strange, exotic, "foreign" creatures; Eliot's mother, for that matter, openly declared she didn't like "them." And African Americans were regarded as being even more "Other"—a different species. One can never forgive Eliot for declaring, at the University of Virginia in the mid-1930s, that society didn't want to have to accommodate too many "free-thinking Jews." But his poetry is so brilliant that we can overlook these national and class faults, remembering that they were just about ubiquitous at the time.
Yeats's case is a little different because his ideas were often so silly! His version of fascism was to give authority to a group of aristocratic Irish leaders like Lady Gregory; it is hardly a populism. A middle-class and often impecunious Yeats increasingly presented himself to his poetry public as an aristocrat—part of a kind of royal "we."
Stevens, despite his lapses, was the most democratic of the three, having absorbed the values of the American Republic without excessive fuss—or even interest.
But, to conclude, to castigate the three poets in question for their "worldviews" seems to me entirely unfair. One has to understand the first half of the twentieth century so as to read Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens with the sympathy they deserve. It was a very different world from ours, and poetry was considered a Higher Calling, a resistance to everyday bourgeois existence. Pop culture was dismissed as demeaning and cheap. This may be a snobbish view, but it meant that poetry was taken very seriously indeed. One didn't just sit down and write a few poems on a Sunday. And I feel that was a great legacy.
The second point—and I've already said this—is that poets aren't necessarily "nice" people. Some (e.g., Louis Zukofsky) have the "right" (that is, really, Left) politics, but are too self-centered to care about others; some betray their family and friends (Robert Frost); some fall prey to totalitarian [End Page 15] poetics, like Pound and, in a different way, Bertolt Brecht. The modernist writer whose politics I most admire is one we have not mentioned: Samuel Beckett, who could easily have sat out World War II in Ireland and done nothing to help the cause, and yet joined the Resistance in France, risked his life day after day until war's end and beyond. But, someone might respond, Beckett could be quite cruel to the women in his life.
We read our poets, finally, not for moral uplift but to marvel at the power of poetic language to invent an alternative universe—a universe that is unique, coherent, and self-contained even as it paradoxically also represents our own desires and confusions. As Stevens put it,
When the blackbird flew out of sight,It marked the edge Of one of many circles.(CPP 76)