Dec 2, 2009

Logan on Wallace Stevens

I offer a brief note to say that I did read William Logan's overview of Wallace Stevens's poetry in the New Criterion in October of this year, which I am sure you would expect me to have read, since I read Logan regularly and since Stevens is a poet whose work has a prominent place in the Winters Canon. The chatty, witty, balloon-busting essay is worth reading, though not because it has any affinities with Yvor Winters's classical take on Stevens's work. I like Logan's iconoclasm, which irritates plenty of fans of particular poets and wins him few friends (how he stirred the nest of Hart Crane fandom a couple years back with a few sharp pokes).

As we all realize, Stevens has become one of those much beloved central figures in American literature, one of the untouchables, the object of a protective fan-base, almost a celebrity of sorts. As you also may know as well, though Winters considered Stevens to have written some of the greatest poetry in the English language and several of the greatest poems of the modern era, Winters also touched the now untouchable Stevens quite forcefully. I would say that he punched him -- and pretty hard. For Stevens's poetry degenerated badly in the last two-thirds of his career as a poet, in Winters's judgment, and my own. (I have no idea exactly when Stevens wrote his poems. I presume he tinkered with them for years before publishing them. I refer to their order and time of publication.)

At the end of his essay, Logan includes a list of the poems he considers very good or great in Stevens's body of work, and some of these poems aren't too bad. But Logan passes over almost all the poems Winters considered great. Only "The Snow Man" makes the list of both critics. Logan even makes the colossal mistake of thinking "Sunday Morning" tedious (without explaining why he thinks so). Winters considered this, perhaps, the single greatest poem written in English in the 20th century, and I come close to agreeing (Winters's own "To the Holy Spirit" gets my vote, provisionally). Logan doesn't quite say so, but it seems that he finds "Sunday Morning" to be soaked in amateurish philosophy, a view with which, if accurate, I cannot disagree more.

But, overall, Logan's is a provocative read and worthwhile for being that. And that's what William Logan is often after, a little provocation (though I do think that he truly holds the opinions he uses as sticks to poke nests). Regrettably, however, he doesn't sum up Stevens well. We hardly get any sense of why to read his poetry other than that it sparkles from time to time with some elegant lines, vivid diction, and passages that have little or no meaning or importance or substance. There is much more in Stevens than that, even in the weak later poetry. Logan seems to get nothing out of Stevens that I can tell from this piece. I see in his work a desperation that arose from a loss of meaning in life, the result of a flustered effort to find some purpose for modern humankind, which has lost all confidence in past truths. This overarching theme, for me, makes Stevens one of the truly representative modernist writers, even though his work declined so much in the later years as he treated his theme in ever more bizarre ways. I recommend for a summary of Stevens, if only it weren't so obscure and hard to find, the discussion of his work in Donald Stanford's Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry, in addition, of course, to Winters's essay on Stevens in In Defense of Reason and his later reconsideration in Forms of Discovery. By the way, though Logan discusses a passage of it at length, I find R.P. Blackmur's study of Stevens nearly worthless.

On a side note, I wanted to say that I was very appreciative of a reader who sent the recommendation of the poetry of Australian Stephen Edgar, whose work I have been reading lately (and you too can find a few of his poems on the web). This is what I was hoping for a lot more of on this blog. I repeat my call for comment: please send me your recommendations for new classicists we can all consider. I will post a note on Edgar some time in the near future.

1 comment:

Rick said...

you might enjoy this: