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  • “Like Nothing Else in Tennessee”: Stevens’s Otherworldliness
  • Tony Sharpe

It is shocking to have to say this sort of thing. Please destroy these notes.

—Wallace Stevens, letter to L. W. Payne, Jr., March 31, 1928

LIKE MOST CONTRIBUTIONS to this special issue, this essay began as a presentation delivered at Stockholm University in the late spring of 2018, to a symposium with the theme “Wallace Stevens as World Literature.” That topic led me to muse on the nature of the “world” presumed to be the case by his poetry, and of the relation to it in which the poems situate him and, by extension, us, his readers. Considering this poet who evoked “The magnificent cause of being, / The imagination, the one reality / In this imagined world,” one might easily assume that ultimately Stevens self-configured as “the single artificer of the world / In which [he] sang”—that he relegated the simply given order of things to purely accidental significance, as “merely a place by which [he] walked to sing” (CPP 19, 106, 105). But my slight alteration of the quotations from “The Idea of Order at Key West” underlines the fact that it is a poem as much about relations as about creative self-sufficiency: “we beheld her striding there alone ” (CPP 106; my italics). “We,” like “the veritable ocean” (CPP 105), seem to be unacknowledged by her singing creativity, but nonetheless bear irrefutable witness to antecedent facts of creation; and while an “Idea of Order” may carry its own abstract grandeur, within the poem’s title it is equally significant for occurring, specifically and perhaps even bathetically, “at Key West.” The (loco)particular seems indispensable to the abstract.

With regard to my own title and its quotation from “Anecdote of the Jar,” it may help my readers if I ask them to imagine a comma intervening between “else” and “Tennessee.” Next, I should explain that behind my “Otherworldliness” flits the ghost of that literally extraordinary stanza from Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden”: [End Page 68]

Mean while the Mind, from pleasure less,Withdraws into its happiness:The Mind, that Ocean where each kindDoes streight its own resemblance find;Yet it creates, transcending these,Far other Worlds, and other Seas;Annihilating all that’s madeTo a green Thought in a green Shade.


“Extraordinary,” not only because the stanza seems momentarily to exhibit quasi-Stevensian disdain for the ordinary, and to offer (perhaps recklessly) a remedy for its “malady of the quotidian” (CPP 81), but also because what is described appears to leap from the frame of its own period and historical register. In a trance-like present tense, seductive repetitions intensified by rhyme, together with those assertive participles (“transcending,” “Annihilating”), imbue Marvell’s defiantly subjective passage with proleptic modernity. To suggest this is to be somewhat patronizing as well as anachronistic; but even so, the stanza’s closing couplet exemplifies what W. B. Yeats described in “Coole Park, 1929” (with intentional memorability) as “The intellectual sweetness of those lines / That cut through time or cross it withershins” (358). Yet, while there is a deducible theory of intellect behind Marvell’s words, their appeal is also strongly sensuous; this, too, is an aspect that we should not overlook in Stevens. For he writes not just a “poetry of thought,” as has often been inferred (although “thinking” would in my view be more accurate), but also poems “with Rhythms,” manifesting “Certain Phenomena of Sound,” or existing beyond intellection as “The Creations of Sound,” “in syllables that rise / From the floor, rising in speech we do not speak” (CPP 222, 255, 274–75). If, then, the “Otherworldliness” of my title has kinship with Marvell’s “Far other Worlds,” not only does his “transcending” speak to an impulse Stevens manifests (even when defining a transcendence as “slight” or noting “leaves that do not transcend themselves” [CPP 100, 460]), but his “Annihilating” also looks toward the “nothing” frequently invoked by Stevens’s poetry, and present in the final line of “Anecdote of the Jar.” Marvell’s “Annihilating all that’s made” moves to resolution in the irenic greennesses of his stanza’s final line, apparently unbothered by such astronautical ascent...


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