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  • Twitter Stevens, Tumblr Stevens, Trans Stevens
  • Stephanie Burt

I. Twitter Stevens

WALLACE STEVENS IS NOT our most often quoted modernist— “April is the cruelest month” is hard to beat—but he may be the most often quotable, the one most likely, on any given page of his Collected Poems, to say something curiously pithy, usefully abstract, and fit to reapply: “Things seen are things as seen” (CPP 902); “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the” (CPP 186); “The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair” (CPP 286) (I’ll get back to that one later). He makes abstract or general statements that other writers, and not only writers, find useful, memorable, moving, insightful, even out of context. “Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation” (CPP 331), as in Strange Relation, a book of poetry by Daniel Hall. Strange Relation is also the title of a memoir with poems, by Rachel Hadas; The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, of an independent film; The Palm at the End of the Mind, of a book by a Harvard Divinity School anthropologist who is also a New Zealand poet.

The same phrases lend themselves to incorporation into other poets’ material: “‘Human nature is like water. It takes / the shape of its container,’ said Stevens / while the world turned to war”: that’s part of a recent sonnet sequence by Barbara Fischer, a set of poems that register Fischer’s astonished protest at the ubiquity of plastic, even more reusable, and more reshapable, and considerably more toxic, than the Stevens quotations she chose to reuse: “Slovenly wilderness surrounds the hill / littered with condoms, condom wrap- / pers, gum wrappers, gum” (62, 65). Stevens seems to have been the first—for a long time the only—American poet quoted in verse by Czeslaw Milosz, who thought about Stevens when visiting Pennsylvania: “what can he do, the phantom-in-chief / As he’s been called, more than a magician, / The Socrates of snails, as he’s been called, / Musician of pears, arbiter of orioles, man?” (140). Terrance Hayes’s poem “Snow for Wallace Stevens” concludes, “This song is for my foe, . . . the emperor of whiteness / blue as a body made of snow” (57). Hayes’s elegant takedown brings in “The Snow Man,” the refrain from “The Emperor [End Page 27] of Ice-Cream,” and the final line of a poem whose title explains why Hayes might be Stevens’s foe.

This ultra-quotable Stevens is the Stevens who claimed—perhaps to troll us; perhaps because he was trying to imagine how it would feel to believe it—that “Life consists / Of propositions about life” (CPP 310). That is not to say that Stevens asks us to read his poems as stacks of detachable, independent aphorisms, closets in which pithy generalities hang; indeed, they often caution us not to read them this way. When Langdon Hammer asserts that “there is little in his poems that we can extract, detach from their metaphors, and use to generalize,” Hammer is, taken literally, just wrong. His larger argument, however, stands: Hammer holds that Stevens’s abstract statements insist that we understand them as responses to one another, and to their own poetic contexts, within an evolving set of attitudes. This Stevens, Hammer continues, “gives us no principles, only a practice, even when, as it often does, his practice involves precisely stating principles” (101; italics added). Like any good American pragmatist, Stevens puts propositions in play against one another, so that none of them is final; “truth is acknowledged as evolving and contingent” (as Rachel Malkin has recently put it), as in the more or less anti-foundation-alist (Malkin’s term) thought of John Dewey or William James (219). “The effect” of all these cascading abstractions and pronouncements about life, Hammer concludes (echoing Jonathan Levin and others), “is to deny the possibility of formulating fixed principles—general truths—outside the process of poetic composition, which is repetitive and open-ended” (104; italics added), though it is, also, made up of propositions about life.

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-0570
Print ISSN
0148-7132
Pages
pp. 27-42
Launched on MUSE
2022-03-02
Open Access
No
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