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Reviewed by:
  • Wallace Stevens and the Poetics of Modernist Autonomy by Gül Bilge Han
  • Andrew Goldstone
Wallace Stevens and the Poetics of Modernist Autonomy. By Gül Bilge Han. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

To discuss Wallace Stevens as an advocate of aesthetic autonomy, as Gül Bilge Han does in her monograph, would hardly seem to be doing him any favors at this stage in the history of criticism. The main current of literary scholarship today emphasizes the ways literature bears on history and politics. Defenses of art for art's sake look like outright rejections of the importance of such contexts, and any poet associated with the doctrine of autonomy is in danger of being dismissed as hopelessly hermetic or hopelessly reactionary. This critical climate is not particularly favorable to Stevens, a modernist of the "high" variety, a political non-participant and sometime explicit defender of ivory towers who wrote in a willfully idiosyncratic and highly oblique idiom.

Han directs her attention to Stevens's ivory towers and other images of artistic independence in order to reclaim this aspect of his poetic project for contextualizing scholarship. She argues that Stevens imagines poetry as a relatively separate and self-governing endeavor, but only in order to establish particular kinds of poetic relationships with his social world: he developed a "conception of aesthetic autonomy as a necessary condition for poetic engagement" during the course of the 1930s and early 1940s (4). In the poems of these years, says Han, Stevens worked through the tension between his poetry's aesthetic distance from, and its necessary connection to, a wider world in crisis.

As Han explains in a lucid and thorough introduction, this more qualified understanding of autonomy, which she calls "relational" (4), has become more prominent in scholarship on modernism over the last decade; she cites and builds on a number of scholars, the present reviewer included, who have sought to historicize modernist autonomy itself as a form of relation to, rather than an evasion of, the social world. Taking "Mozart, 1935" as a first example, Han urges us to recognize Stevens's advocacy of some version of poetry for poetry's sake while understanding that advocacy as responsive to the pressures of his times. And she rightly insists that this understanding would help to overcome any lingering opposition in Stevens scholarship between internal and contextual approaches, from both of which Han draws broadly.

The book is tightly focused on Stevens's career from Ideas of Order to "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," which for Han marks the central phase in his thinking on autonomy. These writings also encompass the cultural context the book is most concerned with, the high-water mark for American leftist cultural criticism seeking to merge political radicalism and modernist experimentalism. When Han argues that Stevens thinks of his poetry relationally, she has in mind the kinds of relations debated within the Popular Front, above all that of the writer and the (potentially revolutionary) masses. Here she follows the lines laid down by Alan Filreis, whom she cites abundantly, while adding her own insightful and complex readings of the periodical context, especially the Partisan Review.

Chapter One characterizes Stevens's work in and around Ideas of Order as an exploration of seclusion and collective address, giving extended readings of "Re-Statement of Romance" from that volume and the uncollected 1934 [End Page 144] poem "Secret Man." Han attends to the way that moments of privacy and intimacy may open onto wider address; the reading is particularly convincing when it comes to the ambiguous address of "Re-Statement." Chapter Two, on Stevens's "Relational Place-Making" (65), takes up the architectural tropes of his poetry of the 1930s. This chapter, which appeared in The Wallace Stevens Journal in article form (Fall 2016), aptly contrasts the secluded spaces of Harmonium with the buildings of Ideas of Order and The Man with the Blue Guitar. Han shows how the latter two volumes construct images of built enclosures that get opened up to a wider world by the forces of historical change; her two most convincing examples are the "shuttered mansion-house" of "A Postcard from the Volcano" and the...