Wallace Stevens, une poétique du fini: Pour une approche matérielle de l'œuvre by Juliette Utard
The very first book in which Wallace Stevens's poetry received consideration was written, in French, by an expatriated Frenchman (René Taupin). Not quite a century later, this tradition is continued by Juliette Utard's thoughtful study. As well as being on the editorial board of The Wallace Stevens Journal, Utard is well known to the Stevens scholarly community as both organizer of and participant in symposia and conferences on his work. (As one who has enjoyed her company at such events, I should perhaps declare a friendly interest.)
Writing as she does from the Sorbonne, does she get Stevens straight? This is a long-deliberated book, displaying broad and detailed knowledge of his work, which she insists on not limiting to the poetry alone, although that constitutes her principal focus. In considering the work "sous l'angle de la finitude et des finitions" (17), she sets out to explore what was involved, for him, in the act of "finishing"—where not just the idea of terminating but also the idea of polishing come into play. The "material" aspects of such an inquiry, marked in her subtitle, are particularly manifested in the appearance of the finished thing—at the largest level, in the book or collection as material object: what should it look like and how does that affect its reader and/or its writer? At the smallest level, such concerns focus on the poetic line: what considerations cluster around line endings—considerations that, again, are not simply semantically driven, but also involve the way it looks on the page, its material presence ("autant un vers optique qu'un vers mélodique, un vers graphique plus encore qu'un vers métrique" )?
This is an intricately argued and scholarly book, and that, as well as the fact of its requiring a reader to have serviceable French, may act as slight deterrent to the Anglophone majority. Therefore, in summarizing it, I will quote the original untranslated, the better to guide anyone reading this review whether to make the necessary commitment. An introduction and then avantpropos preceding Part I situate the study in contemporary critical concerns with "closure" and its obverse, drawing on Giorgio Agamben and Vladimir Jankélévitch, among others, and noting how Stevens's commitment to a relatively stable poetic line distinguished his practice from that of, say, William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound. Similarly, his selectivity at the level of collection contrasts with theirs (and Walt Whitman's), which tended toward expansion rather than retrenchment. (At this point, connections could be made with Hannah Sullivan's study of literary revision.) It also produced a species of paradox, by which the Stevensian delimitation produces an interpretative infinitude: "Nous souhaitons … dans notre portrait de Stevens en 'poète des finitions,' proposer une autre vision de la période moderniste, du reste [End Page 140] moins corrective que complémentaire, qui fasse émerger un modernisme pris dans un double mouvement, investissant simultanément l' infinitude du sens et la finitude du texte" (39). A further paradox is suggested by that sequence in which the ending of the process of finalizing a text and incorporating it into a collection signals the beginning of the building of an oeuvre: "Le travail de finition est donc par usage un travail de signature, qui consacre simultanément l'abandon de l'ouvrage et l'appropriation de l'œuvre. … Le travail de finition vaut donc, ultime paradoxe, comme fin de l'ouvrage et comme inauguration de l'œuvre" (48).
Utard's study moves, broadly put, from a consideration of manifestations of ending within the works to a consideration of the ways in which the entire oeuvre conveys a sense of its own ending. This raises the question of Stevens's "late style" and how that might be defined (she cites Gordon McMullan's thinking of the "idea of late writing" in the case of Shakespeare). She proposes that The Auroras of Autumn inaugurates Stevens's late phase ("le début de la fin" [ch. 6]), in exploring which lies the book's true center of gravity. The first part, with Jerome McGann as perhaps its principal precursor, examines the precedent volumes of poetry and what they suggest of Stevens's coming-toterms with ideas of ending. The "travail de signature" noted above was particularly problematical for him in the matter of his long-delayed first collection, which required—as she shows—his consenting to put his name to a volume he still felt as premature, and necessitated the abandonment of those various pseudonyms (astutely discussed), deliberate disguises that had licensed several previous trespasses towards publication. "[A] book of poems is a damned serious affair," he once counseled Williams (qtd. in Williams, Selected Essays, New Directions, 1969, p. 13), and Utard argues that it signaled a finality not threatened by mere journal publication; his unease is seen in his symptomatic indecision, persisting to the eleventh hour, over the title of Harmonium.
That volume's calamitous initial reception led, whether directly or indirectly, to the prolonged silence from which Stevens (again) needed prompting to emerge. She notes the appropriateness of its being the polyonymous Ronald Lane Latimer ("éditeur brillant à l'identité trouble" ) who was able to coax forth from the poet material that more established editors had sued for in vain. The fact that his was a start-up independent press altered, too, the power relations inherent in the more commercially based poet/publisher nexus, and it was a significant enablement for Stevens to forego his author's royalties for Ideas of Order: money may be a kind of poetry, but then again, it may not. All these factors mitigated for Stevens the fear of irreversibility that Utard diagnoses, in a coming-to-terms with the fact of the book that continued through Latimer's publication of his subsequent collection, Owl's Clover (published just after Knopf had issued an enlarged trade edition of Ideas of Order). Also operative was an embracing of the idea of the throwaway or casual as antidote to the marmoreally finished: Utard notes this in the poetry and title of "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," which engrossed the first ten pages of Poetry (February 1935), and, despite its racist title, validated "the litter that one usually finds" in such a place (L 272). (There is, of course, a question begged in dismissing decorations on graves, however tawdry, as "litter.") This process of [End Page 141] accommodation continued through his next collection, The Man with the Blue Guitar, where Utard interestingly notes the difference between an instrument whose workings are visible, as opposed to one—a harmonium—where they are not; and whose uncharacteristically emphatic four-beat lines twang out a dialogue between maker and auditor.
In Parts of a World, she sees Stevens as increasingly at ease with the authority vested in a finished book; its thematic interest in rejectamenta (provoking a fruitful comparison with A. R. Ammons) actually contrasted with his own practice of discarding rough drafts: "Tout est fait pour que le livre éclipse durablement le manuscrit" (127). He praised Knopf for the appearance of the book, especially in its generous margins. (It is surely mistaken, however, to suggest that the opening poem, "Parochial Theme," first published in 1938, could be considered as a war poem.) Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction and Esthétique du Mal were both published independently by the Cummington Press before their incorporation in Knopf's postwar Transport to Summer. Notes is significant, she argues, in its being "le premier des livres à avoir été pensé comme un ensemble complet, avant même d'avoir été commencé" (145). This suggests a reconciliation with "finishing" that contrasts with his anguish over Harmonium—although it is conceivable that envisaging having completed before one has even begun is also a means of warding off anxiety by proleptic abrogation. And there is, of course, his possibly wistful declaration, in 1954, "For a long time, I have thought of adding other sections to the NOTES"—whose very title indicates intermediacy (L 863).
None of this is to contest the interest and perceptiveness of Utard's approach up to this point, but the second part is where the Stevens who most matters to her, I think, is invested. Starting with The Auroras of Autumn (1950), she sees him as aware of the need to put "un point final non plus seulement à un livre, mais à l'ensemble de son œuvre" (164). This is not the same as diagnosing a "late style," which, following McMullan, she regards as a retrospective construction; she does, however, propose the notion of an "œuvre tardive" (165): "Nous verrons donc dans cette seconde partie la manière dont Stevens, comme Picasso et James, construisit consciemment la fin de son œuvre, théâtralisant à son tour sa sortie de scène" (170). Her theatrical metaphor, here, responds to its frequent occurrence within Stevens's writing of this period.
In successive chapters, she treats The Auroras, "The Rock," and the section entitled "Late Poems" in the Library of America edition as constituting parallel, if different, kinds of collection; her approach here pays closer attention to the poems constituting them and to the management of "line" within those poems. In Stevens's welcoming the fact that Knopf's layout of The Auroras "compels the reader to move through it slowly and deliberately" (L 686), she not only sees an awareness of time but, in "cette lenteur voulue," she suggests "une autre forme de résistance à l'irréversible" (180), while the book's recurrently apocalyptic imaginings evoke spectacular terminations. If this final separate collection constitutes the penultimate phase of his work, The Rock (her italics) thematizes "la fin, au sens cette fois de la finitude" (221), its very existence a function of its closural position in The Collected Poems: "sa raison [End Page 142] d'être est l'œuvre, dont il doit consacrer la portée monumentale" (223). As the theater was a dominant motif in the previous collection, here the awareness is more that of lapidary inscription, but she sees The Rock, too, as conscious of the two contrary imperatives "finir et ne pas finir" (286), and its "langueur … n'est pas autre chose que de la résistance à l'irréversible" (291). The figure of Ulysses becomes important in the second part of this "collection," and also recurs in "l'ensemble hétéroclite appelé Late Poems" (319). Styled "interminable" by "The World as Meditation," it is clear that he, too, resists finality, his perpetually deferred presence actually enabling that poem (CPP 441). "Late Poems (1950–1955)" exists, of course, as an editorial convenience, and contains some material arbitrarily omitted from The Collected Poems, as well as some poems which she speculates might have indicated for Stevens "un pas au-delà de la fin, transgressant … la loi des finitions" (319), some of which are quite literally unfinished and embrace their own provisionality. This gives them, she suggests, their particular note of exhibiting "le plaisir d'écrire libéré du poids de la fonction épitaphière" (324), "une forme inachevée et ouverte" (350) expressing what he elsewhere termed "a mere delight" in the extension of possibility (CPP 110).
Utard is a subtle and suggestive reader of Stevens, whom at one point she agreeably styles "Casanova des livres" (159). She is especially alert to verbal detail—as when noting the proximity of "Moher" to "Mother," or responding to the potential pun in Stevens's place of birth, "Reading," or when linking the "Wood-smoke" of "Long and Sluggish Lines" to Joachim du Bellay's sonnet he had translated decades earlier (CPP 442)—to select a few from many possible examples. One could carp, here and there: it seems strange, given the focus of her study, that she has nothing to say about the final line of The Collected Poems, which summarizes the end of all our exploring since that first encounter with the firecat and the bucks in the volume's opening poem. And in the light of the early "Negation," it isn't clear why she claims that the undivided ten lines of "July Mountain" and "A mythology reflects its region …" confer an exceptional status on those late poems. I might also wonder whether she insists too much on the differences between late Stevens and the rest (one thinks of Marianne Moore's perception of the lines of connection within his oeuvre). But there is much more to praise, in this valuably thought-provoking study that sees a good deal that others have not seen, continually alert to the poem-pheasant disappearing in the brush, which captives the being, widens—and was there. [End Page 143]