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  • The Submerged Adagia:Stevens's Aphoristic Writing in The Contemplated Spouse and Secretaries of the Moon
  • Bart Eeckhout


TO CONCLUDE the analysis of language and form undertaken in this second part of our double issue on Wallace Stevens's epistolary heritage, I propose that we turn our attention also to the aphoristic features of the poet's letters. Any novice reader of Stevens who sets out to explore the poet's writings soon encounters his self-made aphorisms, to which we are in the habit of referring collectively as his "Adagia," though they are really divided over various notebooks that also include "Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects" (available separately in a handsome facsimile edition) and "Materia Poetica" (for all of these, see CPP 899–922). The main title of my contribution is meant to establish a family connection with these compact prose writings by suggesting that Stevens's love of the aphorism seeps into his letter writing as well.

One trigger for my choice of topic has been the polemical attitude toward Stevens's aphoristic addiction taken by Marjorie Perloff in her essay "Beyond 'Adagia': Eccentric Design in Stevens' Poetry." In this essay, Perloff proposes that "Stevens' most fully satisfying poems are written in what we might call a counter-, or at least anaphoristic mode, a mode that studiously avoids the 'finish' of adagia" (22). This claim, to be sure, is about the ways in which Stevens's aphoristic tendency affected—or, in Perloff's argument, possibly hampered—his poetry rather than his letters. Yet, ever since the essay's first appearance in 2011, the provocative view proposed in it has usefully sharpened the question of Stevens's literary importance as an aphorist. The fact, moreover, that the essay became one of the most frequently downloaded contributions to The Wallace Stevens Journal since the journal moved to the Johns Hopkins University Press ten years ago suggests that, irrespective of her own preference for an anaphoristic style in the poems, Perloff was touching upon an issue that speaks to a lot of Stevens's readers.1 [End Page 86]

A specific methodological approach for my exploration suggested itself as I started doing the requisite preparatory reading. My main theoretical inspiration in the rest of this essay will be Ben Grant, whose practical introduction to what is called, in his title, The Aphorism and Other Short Forms came out in 2016. Grant's book offers a beautiful synthesis of the history and theory of the aphorism and its many affiliated forms. A Stevens scholar going through it soon discovers how many of these forms and traditions seem to have exerted an influence on Stevens's writings. Thus, a more focused question for this contribution emerged: what, ultimately, was the allure of the aphorism and its many affiliated forms for Stevens, given what we know about the different strands of his cultural background, his literary reading, his temperamental inclinations, and his aesthetic preoccupations?

While this question could be pursued extensively with regard to Holly Stevens's Letters of Wallace Stevens, I chose to take an alternative approach for two reasons. First, in the case of Letters the corpus of examples would have been so abundant as to be practically unmanageable, considering the cornucopia of that 900-page volume. And second, when Lisa Goldfarb and I set up the conference on Stevens's letters at The Huntington in preparation of this special issue, I was expecting most contributors to delve almost naturally into Holly's standard collection, as has indeed been the case. For the sake of both manageability and complementarity, then, it seemed more attractive to steer the attention in this final essay to the two edited volumes of Stevens's letters that tend to stay out of the critical limelight, The Contemplated Spouse and Secretaries of the Moon. For readers who have little experience with either volume, let me simply say that The Contemplated Spouse is subtitled The Letters of Wallace Stevens to Elsie, was edited by J. Donald Blount, and published in 2006 by the University of South Carolina Press, and that the slimmer Secretaries of the Moon, subtitled The Letters of Wallace Stevens and José Rodríguez Feo, was edited...


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