- "Aesthetics, Poetry, Art, or Blondes":Why Stevens's Letters Don't Theorize Rhythm
AS A SCHOLAR of verse prosody, I have a penchant for searching poets' prose to find scents, evasions, and self-evasions regarding their prosodic practice. Typically, for most modernist poets, the trove is an embarrassment of riches. Not so for Wallace Stevens, who is circumspect—one might even say continent—regarding any theorizing of rhythm anywhere outside of the poems. As attentive Stevens readers know, this lacuna ought not to be mistaken for indifference or disinterest. Rather, it might remind us of W. B. Yeats's remark, in "Per Amica Silentia Lunae," that "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry" (411). Why Stevens theorizes rhythm only within the rhythmic container of verse is the key concern of the following, rather dilatory essay. Less concerning is what Stevens's actual theory of rhythm is. (Spoiler alert: he doesn't, in my estimation, articulate one, or else not a usual one, one we might regard as a politics of rhythm; rather, he regards rhythm as its own attunement of relations.) Let me say I think pressing to answer that second question is as misdirected as might be answering the central question in Henry James's short story "The Figure in the Carpet" about what alphabetic letter sums up the entirety of the great author's works: a trivial answer can be found, but any attempt to separate the figure from the ground misses the very value that inheres in this relation, mistakenly reducing questions of "style" to "mechanism" when the more profound question is of the effect on "one's subject" (L 838).
I. Stevens's Philosophizing "On the Fly": A Scruple Against Aesthetic Conversation
The main title for this essay, "Aesthetics, Poetry, Art, or Blondes," comes from a rather mischievous quote not collected in Holly's Letters of Wallace Stevens but found in the Stevens archives at The Huntington. In a letter to Ferdinand Reyher, sent in April 1922, just a few months before Stevens comes to the "substance of an agreement with Mr. Knopf for the publication" of his first book (L 228), Stevens writes, [End Page 67]
I take damned little stock in conversation on philosophy, aesthetics, poetry, art, or blondes. Of course, I hanker for all those things as a fly hankers for fly paper. But experience has taught me that fly paper is one devil of a thing to get mixed up in. You should see some of the letters that I get!("Letters" 401)
Notice that Stevens does not identify what experience, prosodic or otherwise, has taught him or what the experience itself entailed. Neatly, he sidesteps the question and points to unspecified letters. Well, in the Letters of Wallace Stevens selected and edited by his daughter Holly, there are a number of responses to letters, both before and after 1922, that can be held up and identified as possible candidates of the kinds of letters Stevens may have had in mind in his remark to Reyher.
Most immediately, consider a letter Stevens receives from the critic William Stanley Braithwaite, regarding a Miss Fowler who demands an explanation or apology for Stevens's poem "Cortège for Rosenbloom" included by Braithwaite in his Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1921 and Year Book of American Poetry. Stevens writes,
I have your letter of November 25 enclosing a copy of Miss Fowler's letter of November 9 in regard to the Cortège for Rosenbloom. I don't know whether Miss Fowler is looking for exegesis of the poem itself or apology for your choice of it. Is she entitled to either? . . . Please do not involve me in any correspondence with the damsel.(L 223)
Then there's a fairly late letter, written in 1951 to Barbara Church, Stevens's friend and wife of the late Henry Church, reckoning that
There has been a great deal more literary activity than I care for recently. The more active other people are on one's account, the more one stands still on one's own account. I like...