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Reading Wallace Stevens

In response to:

The Hunting of Wallace Stevens from the November 20, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

I was shocked by Helen Vendler’s venomous review of my book in “The Hunting of Wallace Stevens” [NYR, November 20, 1986]. A letter from Professor Vendler to me in June prepared me for the fact that she would take exception to my approach to Stevens; she informed me of this on the basis of having only “glanced through” the page proof copy I had sent her shortly before. (Following my publisher’s suggestion, I had asked Professor Vendler for a comment that might be used on the book jacket—a practice she noted in the same return letter to be “corrupting” and so refused.) I could not have then anticipated, however, that in composing the piece she also indicated in that same letter she had been requested to do by The New York Review she would both misread my stated intention and grossly misrepresent my words by quoting out of context and by reducing my consideration of Stevens to what she sees as a purely psychological reading.

Professor Vendler seems particularly disturbed that I do “not see Stevens as a hero.” In asserting this, she fails to note a central distinction I make between Stevens’s conception of a hero and the kind of hero that it is all too easy for a biographer to create out of his or her subject. In my introduction, I write:

This biography will respect the sense of the man Stevens shaped himself to be, but will do so without the idealizing reverence given a hero. I believe it is important to honor the choices that individuals have made for themselves. Stevens called poetry “a health” (OP 176) and chose to express through it the “impossible possible philosophers’ man” (CP 250), a self abstracted from himself and from the possibilities inherent in all beings in their relationships to the other elements of nature….

Insofar as it was necessary to discuss what are generally regarded as weaknesses of character, offensive habits or behavior, and intimate details in order to make clear what kinds of difficulties Stevens faced in making the choices he did, I have. But I have not dwelt on them, nor have I described more than representative examples. On the other hand, I have not simply sung the praises of Stevens as major-man. This would be to miss the point entirely, especially since for Stevens the notion of the individual as hero was an outworn one. The hero that emerges from his work is nature itself or, rather, consciousness as it understands itself to be part of nature. In this sense the biography, in tracing the development of Stevens’s consciousness, is as much a biography of America from 1879 to 1955 as it is of the poet who was so integrally bound to his time and place. This broadened perspective is in keeping with Stevens’s desire to create a mythology of our region at a moment in history when none of the myths on which human beings had sustained themselves over hundreds of generations could support belief any longer. As Stevens expressed late in his life, the greatest problem of his age was what William James had called the “will to believe.” It was not just for poetic effect that Stevens memorialized familiar elements of America’s landscape and human creation—like Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s statue of General Sherman, which graces Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza. A coherent mythology begins with nature and ends in monuments, and it is the development of consciousness that moves us from the cold facts of stone and metal to vibrant shapes that prompt imaginings. [pages 19–20]

Professor Vendler feels that I diminish Stevens by treating the development of his consciousness in the context of his time and place. Stevens wrote that “his soil is man’s intelligence,” and conceived, as I point out in the passage quoted above, his role as a poet in epic terms. In light of this, I think it is Professor Vendler’s failure to admit into her critical scheme for reading poetry the significance of biographical and historical material that led her to distort and dismiss my observations concerning Stevens’s “relation to his world”—his own definition of poetry’s function. Professor Vendler chooses to ignore the intention expressed in the two paragraphs quoted above. She also ignores the major focus throughout my text on the intellectual, artistic, and scientific elements that contributed to the development of Stevens’s poetic consciousness.

She is also egregiously unfair in failing to give attention to my careful analysis of Stevens’s “rude aesthetic,” an analysis that runs through the biography like the “true subject” of one of his poems. She fails, as well, to comment on my extensive treatment of the significance of Stevens’s religious upbringing and the later attitudes this engendered. Since I observe in my introduction and repeatedly in various appropriate contexts throughout the biography that the poet felt the greatest problem of his age to have been the “will to believe,” Professor Vendler’s omission can’t help but seem designed to obscure the major purpose of my bookto explore as fully as possible how the century’s central epistemological and ethical problem was experienced and addressed by one of its most important poets. She wants readers of her review to come away, instead, thinking that I prefer to concentrate on gossipy details chosen to reduce the poet to a “case study.”

This misrepresentation of my intention and content is responsible for what is perhaps the most glaring of Professor Vendler’s distortions: “She [myself] wants to include ‘weaknesses of character, offensive habits or behavior, and intimate details.”’ I think any reader not blinded by preconceptions—I hesitate to suggest animosity—would come away from the sentences in which these words are couched (the first two of the second paragraph quoted above) with precisely the opposite sense Professor Vendler conveys by taking the words out of context. This kind of misrepresentation is unforgivable, especially in the case of a critic of her stature. More, it indicates that she is guilty of something even worse than the weakness of intellect of which she accuses me in confronting the multifarious aspects of Stevens’s intricate mind. A critic unable to entertain and evaluate objectively a point of view she observed to be different from her own even before carefully reading through the text at hand is a dangerous critic.

In discussing my “misunderstanding of Stevens’s theoretical positions,” she “can cite only one: the distinction Stevens draws between the ‘true subject’ of a poem and ‘the poetry of the subject’ of a poem and ‘the poetry of the subject.”’ She takes me to task for seeing this as corresponding to a psychoanalytic distinction between an “infantile kernel” of feeling and the “surface of his words’ appearance.” On numerous occasions throughout my book, and particularly in connection with various discussions of the “true subject” versus “the poetry of the subject,” I was careful to note that in no instance was a poem reducible to one or a set of feelings. One such passage is the following:

Considering what this process [the recollection of a past experience contributing to the creation of a poem] involves makes it clear why Stevens called poetry “a health,” a “completion of life.” In verbally reconstructing events, he voiced feelings he could not express at the time the events occurred. “A poem is the cry of its occasion” (CP 473). The process of going back over the past, looking at it again and again, finding words to embody buried feelings, was not different from what Sigmund Freud intended as the purpose of his “talking cure.” Stevens did not name Freud “one of the great figures in the world” (OP 218) lightly. He called Freud’s “eye” the “microscope of potency” (CP 367). He came to understand that it was only by being able to express feelings that he could become free of them, at least to the extent of controlling and shaping them, rather than being controlled and shaped by them. In venting feelings to and about the “high-toned old Chrsitian woman,” the poet simultaneously explained himself and created a fiction that, in existing on its own, was an indication of a measure of freedom. He was no longer constrained by the training that would not have allowed him to mock it openly, as he did in the lines of the poem.

Understanding this process does not mean that for Stevens this or any poem had only one “analytic” purpose or that for any poem there was only one occasion. “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” was addressed to many things. It was about Elsie, about the part of his own nature that was like a high-toned old Christian woman, about any high-toned old Christian woman, as much as it was addressed to and about the high-toned old Christian woman who was his mother. More, this or any poem is always also about the pleasures of merely circulating through words, about the joy of indulging in the sounds and shapes of language with all its power of suggestion, allusion, and association. But not to see the connection Stevens’s poems have to the real “facts” of his life is to miss what gave them their “potency,” what made them part of the res and not about it. [page 111]

But then, Professor Vendler is content that in Stevens’s poetry simply “That duck, that wind, are the ‘true subject.”’

I don’t know why Professor Vendler chose to ignore or misread passages such as those I quote and refer to above, or why she misremembered or misinterpreted others. I am sorry she did. Had she given them her astute professional attention, her review might have opened an important critical dialogue. It was, perhaps, my “vulgarity of tone” that prevented her from reading carefully and made her find “this biography hard to engage with.” I can only hope that other readers will find my style more congenial than she did and forgive the occasional proofreading failures, solecisms, and sometimes imperfect comparisons that Professor Vendler lists so meticulously.

Thank you.

Joan Richardson

New York City

Helen Vendler replies:

Readers of Wallace Stevens’s poetry will make their own judgment, as other reviewers and I have done, on Joan Richardson’s capacities as a biographer, a commentator, a cultural historian, and a writer of prose.

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