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  • The Plumbing, Pairing, and Impeachment of Pruned Pineapples:A Medley of Notes on Stevens's Assorted Fruits
  • Kimo Reder


ACCORDING TO Wallace Stevens in his Adagia, "A poem is a café," not, more predictably, a verbal recipe or a menu (CPP 909). Such a claim is one of Stevens's nutshell manifestoes and an offhand advisory that is at least one-half red herring, a poke at a modernist tendency toward art-defining pronouncements but also a telling figure. The poem (and pomus is Latin for "fruit tree") as food-serving locale provides a complex of interlinked figures. James Baird reads Stevens addressing an audience who "hunger for . . . metaphor" (317), and Eleanor Cook notices a "trope of words as food" abounding in Stevens's verse (18) and refers to his treatment of words and letters as a "nourishment" to be "ingested" (62). My own essay, presented as a non-linear series of notes divided into brief micro-chapters, emulates Stevens's tendency toward maxims and aperçus. This approach treats his concern with verbal fruits and visual tastes not as a teleological development or logical progression but as an obliquely recurring motif, like an intermittent hunger pang or impacted mental molar.

In Stevens's verse, "taste" toggles between brute appetite and intellectual discernment. Johann Sebastian Bach (one of Stevens's favorite composers) believed his fugue form, in its dialogic movement, lent itself to a listening spirit's "refreshment" (Ergötzung): Stevens's verses likewise operate on a dialectic between "fresh name" and "stale grandeur" (CPP 474, 430), between innovated coinage and inherited doggerel. Stevens's sense of language as oral and optic refreshment derives from a blend of inputs: a French symbolisme reveling in correspondences between vowel color and oral savor, a Keatsian sense of poetry as player of a would-be speaker's tongue, and a skewered verbal take on cubist table settings. Tellingly, Stevens often phrases even his failures in composition in culinary terms: in a 1919 letter to Harriet Monroe, the poet claims that a failed poem turns [End Page 251] out like "cabbage" instead of "crisp lettuce" (L 214), and during an early-1920s dry spell, a note laments churning out poems that resemble "a very rancid butter" (L 224).

Stevens's most supportive critics are similarly prone to comestible comparisons. Harold Bloom acclaims his accumulated canon's "sense of ripeness unique in American poetry" (22), while R. P. Blackmur refers to Stevens's "fresh and rejoicing tongue" and to a poem sliced into stanzas "like a pie marked for cutting" (216, 213). These responses all assisted in forming Stevens's general (if never entirely accurate) reputation as a poetic hedonist and neo-decadent. Frank Kermode says, "we can tell a Stevens failure as we detect the rottenness of a particular fruit: it is bad in its own peculiar way" (10), though I would add that such "badness" is frequently a matter of compost, where the sweet rotting apart of overripe language helps to seed and fertilize new flavors.


Stevens began to make his poetic reputation while Freud was forging his own take on orality as a formative mental input, during a lotus-eating Jazz Age bent on hedonistic intake. His work partakes of a modernist emphasis on crossed-over and collaged senses, and in particular an entwinement between seeing and tasting: Joseph Riddel refers to him as a writer who views language as the "'bread' of our being" (183), with a sense of intake that is endlessly plural and overlapped, in which verbiage becomes a victual. In "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," all sensing is a "mating of surprised accords" (CPP 399), because our perceptions are marked by fractal correspondences between our sense modalities. Indeed, "hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once" (CPP 416), as if said mind were a foaming cluster of seeing grapes.

This overlap between eating and seeing is supplemented by an intersection between speaking and devouring. In a letter to José Rodríguez Feo, Stevens wonders if cows watching human beings speak suspect that we are "eating words" (L 513). He is a sound poet of buccal, gustatory noises, of smacks and chews and nips: in...


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