Arranging, Deepening, Enchanting Britain
Soon after I first came to Britain, I read a review in Le Monde of a concert of Benjamin Britten’s music at Lyons. The critic complained that there was “too much content” in the works played. At the time I thought this complaint absurd. Yet it has a certain resonance for me now, when there is such insistence from contemporary British critics and polemicists that poems should “be about,” should make sense of people’s lives and experience, should console and be of some sort of use.
In an important sense, Stevens is of no use at all. While some American critics were originally exasperated by Harmonium, there were readers in Britain who responded differently, who understood the attempted enchantment of his poems. The most eloquent early critic, writing in The New Age on 7 August 1924, was a man whose poetry was eventually so ballasted with content that it almost sank. The critic was C. M. Grieve, writing under his given name rather than his “nom de plume et de guerre” Hugh MacDiarmid, adopted in 1922 for polemical purposes.
Grieve talks of Stevens’ “incessant efforts” which “provide a spectacle unique in contemporary literature•a series of unparalleled efforts, conceived with an adroitness that borders on the miraculous, to surprise the heavens out of their last shreds of obscurantism as on the terrestrial plain one might seek to frighten an enemy out of his skin or devastate a virgin with what Peter Hille calls ‘the horrifying fable / So gracious and so wild’” (178). Most importantly, he seemed to hear Stevens in a particular way. He speaks of the “slow motion” of the verse, “that does not permit the tiniest absurdity, the most elusive impossibilism, to escape.” It is important to bear in mind how MacDiarmid, a Scot who was not a natural ironist, heard those curious lines of Harmonium.
MacDiarmid talks in metaphors and images rather than using analytical tools. So does Llewellyn Powys, quoted at length by MacDiarmid. Powys was writing in The Dial a month before, in July 1924. His metaphors are wild but apposite, built out of Stevens’ own language. He insists that we cannot read Stevens “without feeling that we are being initiated into the quintessential tapering expression of a unique personality”•“How high that highest candle lights the dark,” as Stevens was to write later in “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” (CPP 444)•“a personality as original and authentic as it is fastidious and calculating.” He elaborates a wonderful metaphor: “Listening to his poetry is like listening to the humming cadences of an inspired daddy-longlegs akimbo in sunset light against the coloured planes of a sanct window above a cathedral altar” (180). This sounds a bit eccentric, but all the elements are there: listening, the regularity of the versification, the inspiration, the remoteness in kind, the bright colours intensified by evening, the irreligious voice using the religious setting and its tropes.
Powys especially relishes “Cortege for Rosenbloom”:
It is the infants of misanthropes
And the infants of nothingness
The wooden ascents
Of the ascending of the dead.
It is turbans they wear
And boots of fur
As they tread the boards
In a region of frost,
Viewing the frost.
Such writing was bound to appeal to the Celt in Llewellyn Powys. His own rhetoric is elaborately domestic, furnished in a demotic but responsive to the high church strains of Stevens’ modernism because it moved and danced and tapered without insisting on any imposibiles to test our belief.
The Grieve who would become MacDiarmid makes a kind of litany of Stevens’ titles and suggests that they themselves “connect Stevens with the Sitwells, and Lord Dunsany, and the art of S. H. Sime” (181). This was not, at the time, a particularly damaging collocation. More damaging would have been another connection, with Swinburne, though that was surely in Eliot’s mind when, less out of jealousy or rivalry than as a matter of judgement, he refused to include Stevens on the Faber list for so many decades. It was for him a matter of prosody and of the fakeness of the content he detected, the religious tones, the sham epiphanies: the gaudiness.
If we look at Sangshaw, MacDiarmid’s collection published in 1925, which he was working on while he was reading Stevens’ first book, is there any evidence of Stevens’ impact? Perhaps an influence can be traced in the poems in Scots which he was busy with while reading Stevens, in that near nonsense that is in fact reinvention, in their intense lyric prosody, in their insistently religious themes; and there are lots of birds too, made strange: some are pecking in the yard, others are musical and skybound. Those poems, even the taut lyrics, also require to be read in slow motion; and insist, as it were, on a paced and pacing music of delivery. There is in MacDiarmid a full use of the vocalic elements as well; and surely of all the great modernists Stevens is the most vocalic, perhaps the most purely attentive vocalic poet since Tennyson or Swinburne.
Those early British readers, a Scot and a Welshman, heard Stevens as part of a known tradition which included Emerson and Whitman; they were used to the scale of his concepts and the manner of his conceptualising. They understood too that there was (as for Emerson and Whitman) something richly provisional which made it possible for a poem to remain continuous with its process, freeing it from the contingencies of specific authorship or specific context. It was a walking out carefully, but bravely, onto ice. It was risk, the chance of failure, the unequal chance of success.
And then, to quote the Ezra Pound of the Pisan Cantos, “for 180 years almost nothing” (Canto LXXXI, 534). That is, at least the publication of Harmonium and its reception did not guarantee that it got around very widely in Britain. In the next three decades Stevens fell from view. Or rather, he fell from favour. He was read by Nicholas Moore, by the poets of the New Apocalypse, by Norman MacCaig and W. S. Graham and George Barker, by Dylan Thomas; and his curious enchantment wrecked many a poet whose voice and ear were not strong enough to resist the siren that Stevens quite clearly can be. He claimed, for preference, not to read either Eliot or Pound for fear of unconscious influence: “I am not conscious of having been influenced by anybody and have purposely held off from reading highly mannered people like Eliot and Pound so that I should not absorb anything, even unconsciously” (L 813). But many a poet was taken over by Stevens: Nicholas Moore and Jack Beeching, it seems to me, are two talented poets who, for a time at least, fell under his wheels.
So I am puzzled, given that Stevens was read by other poets right through the thirties and forties, that there is such an air of surprised discovery in the 1953 review in Twentieth Century of the Selected Poems issued by Faber and the competing volume issued by Fortune Press in the previous year.1 Donald Davie, just like the poets of the 1940s, but unlike MacDiarmid and Powys, crucially mishears Stevens; and in mishearing him misvalues or mislocates him in that early review. He returned to Stevens later, and his sense of the poet altered, though in the end he rather lost interest in him.
It is hard for the specifically English ear not to mishear Stevens, not to read in him a relatively regular iambulator. But his own recorded readings transform the English reader’s sense of the poet and may indeed affect other readers. The prosody Stevens’ voice locates•there is nothing imposed about it, a prosody inherent in the composition, in the way the words assembled in his mind’s ear•can be distinctive, and hearing its originality changes the nature of the charm of Stevens’ verse. One realizes that the metrical poison so many poets imbibe with their Stevens is not his poison, but one of their own invention, or their own conditioned expectation, due to the deceptively familiar surface of his poems.
The first time I listened to Stevens’s 1954 recording of “The Idea of Order at Key West” the scales fell from my ears.2 Each line seemed to be endowed (in a quite un-mechanical way) not with one but with two caesurae. This broke the apparent tyranny of the driving iamb, creating a suspension or a stillness, changing the nature of the emphasis and climax of the line. A driving iamb might be imposed upon Stevens’ verse, but it is not necessarily inherent. What is inherent is something deliberately tentative in the kinds of emphasis it gives, something specifically musical. Had Stevens been more calculating he might have considered laying out his lines in those descending, indenting triplets favoured by Williams. But his relatively orthodox lineation paradoxically enables the poem’s mystery and captures its sound without self-consciousness. Here is how the poem’s first stanza might be transcribed to indicate those caesurae:
beyond the genius
of the sea.
to mind or voice,
Like a body
Its empty sleeves;
and yet its
Made constant cry,
That was not ours
of the veritable ocean.
(Compare with CPP 105)
But Stevens is nothing if not unostentatious in the presentation of his verse. Thom Gunn will take heroic couplets and put them through the Williams slicer, giving what is regular prosody the appearance of free verse, as in part four of “The Geysers”.3 In that poem, the effect is, prosodically, Stevensian in that the lines are more insistently inflected, less prey to the drumming decasyllabon. But Gunn uses the extra liberty to highlight irregularities and to disrupt syntax, to make the visual form more responsive to the dissolving theme of the poem, a poem which loosens rather than tightens towards release.
The two-caesura line in “The Idea of Order at Key West” is relatively wide-spread; and once we are alert to this counter-pacing, which works against the traditional expectations we have of his line lengths, we find other Stevens poems similarly taking shapes, and making shapes, even more wonderful than those we had heard hitherto. Stevens stands higher and further apart from other poets. But we can make more sense of his impact on Ashbery, for example, who attends closely to how one might hear Stevens than we can his impact on Charles Tomlinson for whom Stevens is a philosophical poet, a poet who suggests ways of seeing. Tomlinson, like many of the English poets of his generation whose example he staunchly and eloquently withstood (and despite his passion for the work of French, Spanish-language and Italian modernists) is English in his hunger for content of a specific and identifiable kind, in his desire for “argument.” His poems are seldom, like Stevens’ or Ashbery’s, “instances of themselves”. There is always the sense that the poem is “about” something, like those Victorian narrative paintings that never quite have the courage of their medium. Not having that courage can be a virtue in that they speak, and we remember what they say. But that other, Stevensian form of poetry compels us to remember how they say, foregrounding the medium, holding it up for our wonderment.
1 Davie’s review can be found in Donald Davie, The Poet in the Imaginary Museum ed. Barry Alpert (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1977), 11-17.
2 This is the recording reproduced on Wallace Stevens Reads (New York: Caedmon,  1998), audiotape.
3 See Thom Gunn, Collected Poems (London: Faber, 1993), 242-46.
Davie, Donald. The Poet in the Imaginary Museum. Ed. Barry Alpert. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1977.
Grieve, C. M. “Wallace Stevens, Harmonium.” The New Age (7 August 1924), reprinted in Hugh MacDiarmid, The Raucle Tongue: hitherto uncollected prose Ed. Angus Calder et al. Vol. 1. Manchester, Carcanet Press, 1996, 178-181.
Gunn, Thom. Collected Poems. London: Faber, 1993.
MacDiarmid, Hugh. Sangshaw. 1925, reprinted in Hugh MacDiarmid, Complete Poems Vol. 1. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993, 17-42.
•••. The Raucle Tongue: hitherto uncollected prose. Ed. Angus Calder et al. Vol 1. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1996.
Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. London: Faber, 1998.
Powys, Llewellyn. Quoted in “Wallace Stevens, Harmonium.” The New Age (7 August 1924), reprinted in Hugh MacDiarmid, The Raucle Tongue: hitherto uncollected prose. Ed. Angus Calder et al. Vol 1. Manchester, Carcanet Press, 1996,
Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1997.
•••. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1966.
•••. Wallace Stevens Reads. New York: Caedmon,  1998, audiotape.