- Stevens's Letters and the Sense of Place
"LIFE IS AN AFFAIR of people not of places," Stevens wrote. "But for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble" (CPP 901). Social and moral trouble, we have understood him to mean, a human shortcoming, and perhaps it was one. But perhaps also, or instead, Stevens meant intellectual trouble, even a problem of the poet's calling—a problem in poetics, shall we say, to be solved by poetry. How does one stand in order to see, or write, life as an affair of places? And what do we mean by an "affair"? Business (in French: affaires), eventuality, phenomenon, adventure, experience? Are there overtones of relationship, of romance, dalliance, flirtation, the "blissful liaison" (CPP 28)?1
I don't intend to answer this question here in the broad context of Stevens's poetry, only to look at the letters as a site where the author often engages with places. Especially in his traveling days, Stevens attempts to grasp or project a sense of place, often where his contact was brief, a matter of glimpses and first impressions. What, in the letters, creates a sense of place, which is something different from an abstract idea of place? What, in Stevens's letters, is place? Does he represent the intersections of geography and human culture as something distinct, felt, and located? In the letters, certainly, he does.
We might acknowledge at the outset that for Stevens the sense of place is an individual matter. He shows little interest in addressing his correspondent in the role of documentarian, and he is not a representative or authority but an outsider to the places he describes. The sense of place in the letters is personal and selective, not collective; it arises from his experience, forms in relation to individual taste and desire, and lodges in memory. We can see this sense of place in a letter to Samuel French Morse, who in 1943 was in army training in Florida. Morse had expressed to Stevens his irritation about his chores and the conditions there. Stevens replied,
Although Miami Beach is now a bit like the land of Oz, it was once an isolated spot by the sea, where it was as easy to enjoy mere "being" as it was to breathe the air. And what it was once is still to be found all over Florida. So that I hope you won't allow your momentary surroundings to get you down. [End Page 44]
For many years I used to go to Long Key, south of Miami, and then later, after Long Key had been pushed into the Gulf by a hurricane, to Key West.
My particular Florida shrinks from anything like Miami Beach. In any case, unless your mind is made up, you may find that you have picked up an individual Florida of your own which will keep coming back to you long after you are back home. I used to find the place violently affective.(L 449–50)
Place is not only individual, it can function like a souvenir, "picked up" in location, but brought home to be preserved and relished long after.
That a place is wrapped up in individual desire can be a problem when other individuals, who may live there, are involved. We have Alan Filreis's account of Stevens's correspondence with José Rodríguez Feo and Leonard C. van Geyzel, which Filreis sums up with the title of a chapter: "Description Without a Sense of Place" (151–86). The extrapolation from Stevens's title for the poem "Description Without Place" is significant, and I want to qualify it a bit. Filreis is discussing letters in which the poet is remote from a place and manipulates a correspondent into producing a certain desired, colonial image that suppresses or distorts many facts of the correspondent's reality. We can accept Filreis's argument from the evidence he finds in the correspondence with Rodríguez Feo and van Geyzel: especially as the poet settled down to domestic life in Hartford, Stevens sometimes kept real places and the complex, often cosmopolitan lives of his interlocutors at a...