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  • Stevens's Late Letters as Addresses to Posterity
  • Charles Altieri

MRS. YEATS ONCE gently complained about finding ways of getting along with a husband who knew he was in the history books. I want to ask how to read the letters of Wallace Stevens when he must have known he would be in the history books and his letters would be available to posterity, say from 1948 on, when invitations to speak and awards started to pile up. After all, for Stevens's generation letters were their basic mode of social media. Can we use what we know now about social media to treat Stevens's letter writing then? Perhaps we can, if we recall how entering history involves another form of being visible to a potentially huge, diverse, and discerning audience. So it makes sense to worry about how the self performs and what we might attribute to this. But when we view letter writing as a mode of self-display for an audience beyond those we know personally, we may have to accept different parameters of assessment than we apply to our usual measures of communication, which are largely based on an opposition between sincerity and insincerity. Perhaps, when the audience enlarges, our primary concern has to be for the degree of deliberation embedded in the communicative action. On this basis, I will argue that Stevens's sense of a possible listening subject who is not the addressee is best seen and judged in terms of how he stages his materials so that this larger audience is invited to participate in his ways of being concerned. The additional element is one of strategy, not of self-delusion nor of insincerity.

What concrete changes are involved because of these invitations to participate? I will elaborate three modifications of our roles as audience that differ from our expectations involving person-to-person direct communication. First, there will be greater attention to what we might call performative identity-formation indirectly aimed at later audiences who will be encouraged to overhear what is said. Even casual remarks may become signs to readers of what they are meant to incorporate into their image of the "real" poet. So the poet will always have to pay attention to the image she or he is creating. Here I am most interested in how Stevens tries to forge a sense that philosophical concerns are not mere academic interests but are central to his work and to his life. These worries about philosophical stakes enact concrete links between the theory of poetry and the effort to make that theory coincide with the need for theory even in [End Page 57] practical life, because they emphasize how thinking in poetry might affect one's sense of value in experience.

Second, I will speculate on the possibility that a little confession or display of indiscretion goes a long way toward what we might call the effect of humanizing the writer. That confessional strategy is rare with Stevens, but is sometimes in evidence. I will briefly take up the case of a potentially embarrassing, unexplained apology to Marianne Moore about an indiscretion. Why is this in Holly Stevens's selection of her father's letters at all? Why did the author or editor not destroy this letter as introducing the deeply private into the public? Here I will link the matter of indiscretion to Stevens's manifest desire to open himself up to his regular female correspondents, especially if we take into consideration how often he refers to the dullness of life in Hartford as being both a problem for the active imagination and a vehicle for recognizing how habit can become its own source of imaginative values. And, finally, I will take my cue from Ezra Pound's producing a canto of letters not from Malatesta but to him in order to suggest that the multiple personalities of this man are sharply captured in the range of ways he is addressed. With Stevens I am interested not so much in how he is addressed as in how he stages an awareness that he is addressing and honoring distinctive traits in the person to whom he is writing. On what...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-0570
Print ISSN
0148-7132
Pages
pp. 57-66
Launched on MUSE
2021-03-05
Open Access
No
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