T. Rapatsikou on Bart and Ragg’s Wallace Stevens
1Eeckhout, Bart and Edward Ragg, eds. Wallace Stevens Across the Atlantic (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Pp. xvii + 246. ISBN 978-0-230-53584-8.
2Bart Eeckhout and Edward Ragg’s edited collection of essays entitled Wallace Stevens Across the Atlantic is a diverse, well-informed and excellently conceptualized volume offering fresh insights into Wallace Stevens’ poetry. This book can serve as a good introduction to Wallace Stevens’ oeuvre for the general reader, university students and poetry scholars with a special interest in Transatlantic Studies.
3The volume is divided into three parts or thematic strands, bearing the following titles: “Descriptions without Place: Ideas of Europe in Stevens,” “Beyond Staten Island: Stevens in Transatlantic Conversation” and “Getting It Straight at the Sorbonne? Stevens’ Afterlife in Europe.” In addition, the current edition is supplemented with a Preface by Frank Kermode as well as with the colored illustrations and accompanying Coda by the visual artist Helga Kos.
4Using transatlanticism as the framework within which Stevens’ work and philosophical ideas are to be presented and commented on in this volume, both Eeckhout and Ragg have achieved, as it is delineated in their introduction, a “dynamic and open-ended” (1) approach to this major poet’s various stages of development. Coming a year after the publication of the Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens (2007), this book supplements international bibliography by offering readers on both sides of the Atlantic the chance to appreciate the geographical expansion of Stevens’ imagination and creative thinking. In this sense, this volume falls nicely alongside Lawrence Buell and Wai-chee Dimock’s syllogism as expressed in Shades of the Planet (2007) where American literature is seen to be standing side-by-side a diverse pool of references and influences coming from various geographical locations. Although some of the essays contained in Eeckhout and Ragg’s volume only offer a schematic presentation of the arguments they tackle, they do succeed, through a variety of excerpts coming from Stevens’ writings, in attracting the readers’ attention appetite for further research.
5The first part of the collection commences with George Lensing’s informative, although descriptive essay, shedding light on Stevens’ European sensibility. With Europe being “a paradise unvisited but not ungained” (21), Lensing shows the reader how Stevens came to know Europe via his own studies at Harvard University in French and German language and literature, his work as a reporter in New York Tribune, the postcards friends sent him and his personal acquaintances. By bringing together references to Stevens’ correspondence and poems, Lensing states that Europe was for Stevens an idealized rather than an actual geographical location that he came to know via his intellectual and literary explorations. J. Hillis Miller takes the whole argument a step further by examining the kind of names Stevens often uses in his poetry. The poem “The River of Rivers in Connecticut” stands as a good example which Hillis employs so as to highlight the fact that the various levels of interpretation this poem evokes derive not only from the use of local place names but also from names that define the existence of a collective cultural experience that surpasses Stevens’ Americaness. At this point, Hillis attempts to juxtapose Stevens with William Carlos Williams, this being an argument that he does not fully pursue in the present paper. The same applies to the comparison Hillis wishes to draw between Stevens’ way of using language and the way this is performed by cyber technologies which again does not work very effectively here as it relies on general observations only. However, the argument that this paper manages to bring forward is that for Stevens “language … is the embodiment of thought” (33). This is additionally explored in Robert Rehder’s commentary on the philosophical gravity of Stevens’ writing with philosophy embodying the process of thinking or the process of formulating an idea not yet defined. By providing a thorough close textual analysis of Stevens’s poem “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” Rehder is underlining the poet’s effort to make sense of his own world (America) by reflecting on the sense world of his literary imagination (Europe). As evidenced in the analysis of the poem, Stevens feels particularly drawn to George Santayana’s views about writing being described as a course of action that transfers our thinking beyond “the vagaries of sense-data” (53). The philosopher’s return to Rome or to his “home ground” (53), as Stevens’ poem suggests, could be interpreted as the poet’s metaphorical return to his cultural ground. As a result, geographical space transforms into a space of the mind. In this sense, what matters for Stevens is not simply the country of his origin but the “country” where his ideas stem from.
6The second section of the volume continues the discussion of the philosophical background to Stevens’ transatlantic writings in Charles Altieri’s essay where an attempt is made to examine the role that the imagination plays in Stevens’ poetry. In his endeavor to tackle such a demanding topic, Altieri resorts both to the close analysis of various poems coming from Stevens’ collection The Rock as well as to Edmund Husserl’s and Simon Critchley’s philosophical investigations so as to show the way in which Stevens’ poems “establish figures of capable imagination” (70). In this dense at times but really interesting essay, Altieri talks about the metaphysical quality of Stevens’ poems deriving from the feelings or the possibility of other worlds that the scenes described evoke. In this manner, imagination for Stevens moves away from abstraction since it constitutes “the exploration of the founding difference between ‘real’ and ‘realized.’” (71). Krzysztof Ziarek, in his own paper, resorts to Martin Heidegger’s notions so as to explain the openness of Stevens’ language to a “foreign non-human sense of being” (80). In the different sub-sections of this presentation, Ziarek eloquently tackles the notions of “mere being,” “foreignness” and “nothingness” exposing in this manner the parallelisms one can find, as to how language works, between Heidegger’s way of thinking and Stevens’ “elusive” way of writing. Looking at Stevens’ poems via Heidegger’s way of thinking, one comes to appreciate their deep meditative engagement with reality since they do not “exist as simple presences but keep unfolding into the future” (82). In this light, Justin Quinn’s essay comes to unfold another facet of Stevens’ writing, that of spiritual strivings in terms of “deepening [his] respect for tradition” (105). In this short but rather succinct essay, Quinn focuses on the “historicized sense of Christianity” (95) which is evident in the poems Stevens wrote in the 1940s and 1950s. What is interesting in this case is Stevens’ attitude towards Christianity not as a hegemonic but as a contingent system of beliefs “just as fluid as any ideology knocking about today” (98). Viewing this essay in tandem with all the others that have preceded in the present volume, one comes to appreciate that Stevens’ transatlantic profile does not rely on superficial assumptions about his work but on the multiple levels of meaning and perception his work opens up to. Stevens’ case makes one realize that nothing exists in a vacuum but everything interconnects on a deeper level of being. In other words, Stevens’ poetry is not only dealing with the dynamism of the present moment but with the dynamism of its projection in time and space. As a result, one comes to recognize not only the value and density of Stevens’ thoughts as these appear in his poems, but also the way through which his Americaness is constructed. In particular, transatlanticism, as this is created by the various systems of thought Stevens resorts to, becomes the tool through which the historicized validity of his poetry becomes apparent. Josh Cohen’s essay complements these thoughts by approaching Stevens’ poetry from the perspective of resemblances and their state of becoming. In an informative tone, Cohen places Stevens alongside Friedrich Schlegel and Stéphane Mallarmé who considered poetry to be the embodiment of fluctuating experience manifesting itself in poetic writing in the form of metaphors and similes. As a result, through the commentary of various poems, Cohen traces the lineage that there is between Stevens’ way of thinking about poetry to Romanticism and Symbolism. In a sense, this sets him apart from William Carlos Williams’ poetic style which mainly focuses on the clarity of the image. However, Stevens’ encounter with various European artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, marks a definite shift in his work but with a twist. As noted in the excellently and clearly written essay by David Haglund, “the goal of Americanism … was to represent or even embody America” (129). Duchamp responded to this challenge by constructing what would Stevens describe as “things.” Also, Williams’ insistence on everyday objects and the point of view they introduce contradicts Stevens’ idea of Americanism. Stevens believed that the essence of art is located not in its ability to describe the specifics of reality but in its talent to capture the “gulf between our words and our places” (130). This becomes evident in his poem “Anecdote of the Jar” which could very well function as a parody of Duchamp’s American-based artworks. By embellishing the narrative with poems by Stevens, essay clippings by gallery owners (Robert Coady), reviews and little anecdotal instances concerning Stevens’ encounter with Duchamp, Haglund’s essay comes to a clear conclusion. In a rather eloquent and fresh approach, he reveals that Stevens’ artistic ingenuity rests not in the concreteness of his images, which is what many European artists thought American art to be about, but in the inexactness and uncertainty of their innate value. This realization sheds light on the kind of transatlanticism Stevens adheres to. Edward Ragg notes in his essay: “Stevens is ‘Transatlantic’ … because of his refusal to define his tastes” (134). In his well-documented piece of writing, Ragg brings forward an array of views and critical appreciations so as to help us approach Stevens’ claims about his poetics from a different standpoint. By introducing Pablo Picasso’s and Paul Cézanne’s engagements with abstraction, Ragg highlights Stevens’s “attention to the idea of things (or places)” (133) as well as his transatlantic allegiance to other artists’ practices. Stevens’ continental outlook takes his poetry writing beyond dualisms (imagination vs. reality), suggesting thus “a positive creative process in which the idea of poetry inspires the creation of actual poems” (137). In his effort to draw attention to Stevens’ creative potential, Ragg resorts at times to certain ineffective and underdeveloped comparisons, as that between Stevens’ imagination and virtual/electronic practices. However, Ragg is best at pointing clearly to Stevens’ dialogic communion with other artists and artistic effects which accentuates the aesthetic quality of Stevens’ own American poetic idiom. This proves that Stevens’ poems do not grow out of their dependence on other Eurocentric artistic influences but out of their inteconnectedness with them. In particular, Lisa Goldfarb in her piece focuses on the common points of reference that there are between Stevens’ and Paul Valéry’s views on music or “musicality of poetic speech” (152). In her well-balanced exposition of thoughts, Goldfarb shows that by knowing the work of other artists or philosophers, as it is the case with Valéry, Stevens’s “poetics of voice” (152) can be much more adequately appreciated. Through the analysis of poems, such as “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Variations on a Summer Day” and “The Creations of Sound,” Goldbard reveals that the meaning of Stevens’ poems lies not in what is printed on the page but in how the poems are read or, in other words, in what is disclosed by the way words reverberate. By looking at Stevens’ work from a transatlantic point of view, one comes to appreciate its multivocal and multileveled character that moves beyond mere influences and dependences. Having read or having engaged with other European writers, artists or philosophers, Stevens has managed to prove that what makes American poetic writing unique is not its ordinary or “of the soil” (127) quality but its attention to the creative process itself.
7The third section of the present volume transfers the discussion of Stevens’ work to European ground, examining its reception in Britain, Portugal and Italy. The theme that connects all four articles contained in this section is that of transference of influence defined as the process of translating a text from one language into another one as well as of receiving a text from one culture into another as this if formulated by literary taste and effect. Mark Ford, in his really engaging discussion, acquaints readers with the British publishing scene and the editorial battles fought before and after the introduction of Stevens’ poetry to British readers. The essay starts with a reference to the poetic work of Nicholas Moore, being a major enthusiast of Stevens’ work, and his personal correspondence with the American poet in 1938 asking him to grant him permission to publish a few of his poems in the magazine Seven. In 1944, after Moore’s intervention, Fortune Press requests Stevens’ permission for the publication of a volume of Selected Poems. However, as Ford goes on to relate, this was not a smooth process as indicated by the various offers Stevens’ received (for instance by Poetry London magazine), his dealings with his American publisher (Knopf) and his disappointment with the edited volume of poetry that reached British bookstores which was then withdrawn. Ford very effectively delves into the factors that determined the introduction of Stevens’s poems into the British market which surpassed pure literary taste and value. It becomes evident here that the artistic intimacy and dialogue that can be created between artists, as it happened in the case of Moore and Stevens, can be easily marred by the publishers’ negotiations and marketing interventions. The influence Stevens exerted on young British poets is also tackled in Gareth Reeves’ article on Charles Tomlison’s struggle with Stevens’ and Williams’ ideas. Thus, transatlanticism is approached from quite a different perspective here that of the European poet trying to come to terms with American poetic practice as this is evinced in Stevens’ work. The influence Stevens exercises on Tomlinson works quite differently here, since it is through the interrogation of and departure from Stevens’ ideas that Tomlison’s Stevensian fascination grows. This is a kind of fascination that does not simply rest on the imitation or immediate transference of certain styles but on the constant “definings and redefinings” (202) of ideas. Irene Ramalho Santos provides an appealing interpretation of such a process in her piece on António Ramos Rosa’s “allegiance” to Stevens’ poetry by introducing the notion of “poetry-as-ignorance” (205). Through her analysis she points towards the creation of “constellations of poets than in tracing influences or pinpointing exact intertextualities” (213). What Rosa and Stevens share is their common attitude towards the writing of poetry seeing it both as the art of words and ideas. From that respect, there seems to be a subconscious connection between them that moves beyond national boundaries and differences since both poets are inhabitants of the same world, struggling to come to terms in their poetic endeavors with the essential values of our being. Santos attempts a few references to other poets, such as the Brazilian poet Manoel de Barros, which she unfortunately leaves unexplained. What this paper makes us comprehend though is that the kind of poetry Stevens and lots of other poets like him write responds to an intuitive need, that of getting to grips with or grasping what constitutes reality. This is where the process of literary analysis and literary translation springs from. In the final essay of his collection, Massimo Bacigalupo concentrates on a few translation case studies in order to show that translation practice constitutes one of the most significant processes for the appreciation of the linguistic richness and uniqueness of a text. Bacigalupo refers to the various difficulties Italian translators have encountered when it comes to the alliterative and juxtaposing patterns Stevens’ poetry creates. It is only when an English-speaking text is transferred into a European language that its transatlantic quality and interpretative diversity is revealed.
8Having offered its readers adequate food for thought through its various and diversely styled and written essays, this collection brings to the fore Stevens’ complex insight, temporal and spatial multiplicity. With Kos’ Coda, the whole volume comes to a fulfilling conclusion which illuminates the fluctuating and ever changing potential of Stevens’ work through the description of Kos’ printing and graphic artwork. Although there is not a particular theoretical stance provided, this collection does offer its readers numerous contexts within which Stevens’ transatlantic writings to be viewed and assessed. One could claim that this is exactly where the distinctive character of this volume resides.
Tatiani G. Rapatzikou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
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