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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb

Part Two. Stevens’ Poetic Legacy across the Atlantic

Hoobla-hoo and Hullabaloo: Divagations with Stevens

Maureen N. Mclane

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  • 1 Thanks to Bart Eeckhout, Lisa Goldfarb, and Juliette Utard for their invitation to participate in t (...)

1“They will get it straight one day at the Sorbonne,” Stevens mordantly observes in his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (CPP, 351). In this essay I will get it not straight but at best crooked.1 So let us undertake some divagations with and through Wallace Stevens— “divagation” a term I adopt from one of Stevens’ contemporaries, Ezra Pound (see, e.g., his Pavannes and Divagations, 1958), a term connoting digression, a wandering itinerary, even perhaps a raving. “Divagation” is a term found more often in French, which seems appropriate for the Francophile Stevens; one might think, for example, of Mallarmé’s Divagations (1897). So let us divagate with and through Stevens. Part of what I wish to explore is the force of Stevens for me, and for a few other poets. Stevens wrote “The world is a force, not a presence” (CPP, 911); he also titled one poem “Poetry Is a Destructive Force” (CPP, 178). Stevens is both a force and a presence for me; he is for me and for some other contemporary poets both a powerfully enabling and a disturbingly destructive force. Thus one must salute “The Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens”—an organization based in Stevens’ own Hartford, Connecticut: because Stevens, like any strong poet, asks not for unqualified admiration or enmity but for a more complex reckoning.

2I write, then, not as a scholar of Stevens but as an admirer and questioner.

  • 2 N. Rorem, quoted in “Composer Ned Rorem Gives Brooklyn College a Piece of His Mind,” Brooklyn Colle (...)

So instead, I will talk about myself, a subject I purport to know something about. The world is divided into two aesthetic styles: French and German. The color red is German. The color blue is French. Men are German, women are French. Japan is French, and China is German. German art is known for being profoundly superficial, and French art, for being superficially profound... I am French. If you disagree with my analysis, then you are German.2

3This witty heuristic is Ned Rorem’s—an American composer who shares several affinities with Stevens’ sensibility. Yet what Rorem characterizes as a binary—French/German—Stevens typically enacts as a dance. Or rather let us say that Stevens’ poetry, particularly his early work, offers a spectral erotic linguistics— “spectral” in both senses: ghostly and of a spectrum. “French” and “German” are for Stevens frequencies within the emergent bandwidth of his idiolect, frequencies he can channel, shifting mid-phrase among them.

  • 3 W. C. Williams, “Comment: Wallace Stevens,” p. 234.
  • 4 I offered an earlier foray into this territory in “My Wallace Stevens: Thinking Songs.”

4I want to pursue, then, not so much “Wallace Stevens and/in France” (two flags under which the preparatory conference and current volume have been flying) as “French in Wallace Stevens’ American English”: thus these notes on Stevens’ idiolect. Clearly such a subject exceeds the bounds of this essay, and it is no accident that many of the poems I invoke here come from Harmonium, when Stevens was fully in what William Carlos Williams called “the phase of the French influence on his style.”3 I would suggest that Stevens addresses the question of being “native” in English partly via French.4 One could lay out a complex network of Stevens’ inquiry into being native—e.g., “The Man with the Blue Guitar”: “I am a native in this world / And think in it as a native thinks” (CPP, 147). One could track its connate and cognate intersection with the question of the “natural sounds” of a place (CPP, 41). What I want first to sound out here is Stevens’ bravura naturalization of a register of French into his own ludic American English.

5I would lay a bet that not since Chaucer had there been so much French in English as in early Stevens. The new mavens of quantitative stylistics could test this; I write, however, as one inflected by, infected by, Stevens’ starry connaissance, his labials and gutturals, his concupiscences and euphonies and icy Elysees rubbing up against his crowing cocks, polecats, and jars in Tennessee. There is much to say, and many of the scholars featured in this volume have brilliantly said it, about the impact of French literature, language, and thought on Stevens, about his affinities with Symbolism, his love of French painting, his forays into abstraction, his Mallarméan and Valéryan resonances. It was of course Stevens himself who wrote in Adagia that “French and English constitute a single language” (CPP, 914). From one angle, this is obviously not true. Yet the notional unity of French and English is a great enabling “as if” for Stevens.

6Consider these lines from “Explanation,” which moves as if already in dialogue with Ned Rorem’s heuristic:

Ach, Mutter,
This old, black dress,
I have been embroidering
French flowers on it.

Not by way of romance,
Here is nothing of the ideal,
CPP, 58

  • 5 Such a poem anticipates, lightly and non-Germanically (in Rorem’s sense), the trenchant albeit occa (...)

7A funny, sad, brilliant portrait of the artist, a witty ars poetica, the poem proceeds to offer a kind of explanation, a mock-explanation, of some aspects of Stevens’ idiolect and poetics. It performs and probes its performance. The poem both displays and satirizes the semantic field and connotative horizon around “German” and “French”—French embroidery, gaiety, romance, Catholicism, para-medievalism, fantasy, imagination, and “the ideal” emerging against, figured against, the drab old black background of a Teutonic severity, craft, reality principle, Unlust. Here, as in so many of Stevens’ poems, we have the maker figured as a young woman—not singing beyond the genius of the sea but embroidering perhaps defensively within a field of limitation. The embroidering young woman begins her explanation, or rather this explanation, by way of the first words of childhood— “Ach, Mutter”—the muttering mother and German tongue smuggled into Stevens’ American poem. Here, romance is Germanically denied and yet, in the double negative ( “Nein, / Nein”), peculiarly emphasized and partly affirmed.5

8A question arises, or does as least for me: is this a dramatic monologue, or a dialogue? The shift to “Liebchen” in the third stanza suggests another speaker—that we are hearing first the “Liebchen,” then the “Mutter” responding: “It would have been different, / Liebchen, / If I had imagined myself, / In an orange gown […]” (CPP, 58). We confront the imagination of elsewhere—characteristic of Stevens—in the counterfactual in these lines: “It would have been different […].” Is this the girl’s counterfactual or the mother’s? Would the young girl have had easier access to romance if the mother had imagined herself in an orange gown? A series of binaries emerges: romantic orange gown vs. old black dress; a “drifting” posture vs. a seated working one. What we encounter is perhaps not a binary logic so much as dérive, a drift—a “Drifting through space” (CPP, 58)—from German toward French, from domestic craft to architectural romance, from the old real to the imagined otherwise.

9Here we have a dialogue between maid and mother—a mini-Lied; or perhaps an internal monologue, a dialogue of self and soul. Here we have notional Germans embroidering their way into or around romance; a figure for a poet whose English will draw intently and in hypermarked fashion on the French, Latin, and Teutonic, Norse, and other registers of his language. One sees another version of this in, for example, “The Weeping Burgher”— which one should not take as a straightforward ars poetica (as if anything in Stevens is straightforward, i.e., “German”): “Permit that if as ghost I come / Among the people burning in me still, / I come as belle design / Of foppish line” (CPP, 48). As if anticipating the charge of dandyism, the speaker displays it, and again in strikingly culturally and philologically striated terms—belle design and foppish line, French fashionability and English foppery converging in a conflagration of too much muchness.

10One could pursue a philological and stylistic reading of these and other poems, noting their dictional and tropological inflections and tendencies. And one should note too that Stevens’ “French” is a very peculiar thing; it is certainly not French, as William Carlos Williams noted soon after Stevens’ death. Speaking in Poetry magazine of Harmonium and Stevens’ early work, Williams wrote,

  • 6 W. C. Williams, “Comment: Wallace Stevens,” p. 234.

This was the phase of the French influence on his style or the influence he conceived to be French, though it was no more French than that of Robert Louis Stevenson. Baudelaire would have found nothing French about it. That was during his alliterative period […]—the stage when Stevens was fascinated to receive from a friend a box of joujous fresh from Paris !6

11Tellingly, Williams pointed to the “Germanic” element of Stevens as a kind of contrast:

  • 7 Ibid., p. 234-235.

To me there was something in the dogged toughness of his thought that gave it a Germanic quality. He always reminded me of Goethe, in his youth, when citronen blümchen filled his dreams, before the devastations of the moral sense had overcome him. Stevens was like Emily Dickinson in that, who was later imprisoned by her conscience in her father’s house for a lifetime: or Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Marble Faun. Stevens’ thought was like that of a New Englander, but he was not from New England.7

12Where was Stevens from? Where was Stevens going? Williams’ comments, like those of many critics since, raise all kind of questions about Stevens’ place, the place of language and the language of place. This question seems to have obsessed and delighted Stevens, who ceaselessly works on and works up the question of language and locale. What are the “natural sounds” of a place? How do naturalized sounds come to seem “natural”? What are the linguistic acoustics available to a poet, a person? What ears might we need, retuned, untuned?


13Consider, again, what Stevens writes in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”: “I am a native in this world / And think in it as a native thinks” (CPP, 147). Consider Crispin’s projection in “The Comedian as the Letter C”:

Upon these premises propounding, he
Projected a colony that should extend
To the dusk of a whistling south below the south,
A comprehensive island hemisphere.
CPP, 30-31

14Such lines distill the elaborate poetico-colonial fantasy of the poem, which conducts an ecstatically flexible romancing of languages and terroir even as Stevens asserts a kind of Heideggerian essentialism, an insistence on poetry’s ground—as in “Nota: his soil is man’s intelligence” (CPP, 29). Or: “The man in Georgia waking among pines / Should be pine-spokesman” (CPP, 31). Yet ultimately everywhere Stevens performs aerials above any merely local ground, even while cataloguing and specifying locality:

The responsive man,
Planting his pristine cores in Florida,
Should prick thereof, not on the psaltery,
But on the banjo’s categorical gut,
Tuck tuck, while the flamingos flapped his bays.
CPP, 31

15 Here Stevens’ means are at odds with his ostensible aims: he asserts a provocatively local instrumentalism, a poet as medium of his place—the Georgian the spokesman for pines; the Floridian plucking banjos not psalteries; the Brazilians making pampean dits, and so on:

Sepulchral señors, bibbing pale mescal,
Oblivious to the Aztec almanacs,
Should make the intricate Sierra scan.
And dark Brazilians in their cafés,
Musing immaculate, pampean dits,
Should scrawl a vigilant anthology,
To be their latest, lucent paramour.
CPP, 31

16And yet Stevens is anthologist of all, “progenitor of such extensive scope” (CPP, 31), encompassing all these ditties in a gathering of Stevensian flowers, whose roots clutch a complex linguistic, historical, and cultural soil. (One notes, for example, that the “señors” who should make the “Sierra scan” should do so “Oblivious to the Aztec almanacs […].”)

17Consider “The Plot Against the Giant,” the final stanza featuring the “Third Girl” and her proposal: “Oh, la... le pauvre! / I shall run before him, / With a curious puffing” (CPP, 6). The first line of the Third Girl’s speech epitomizes Stevens’ linguistic erotics, the sounding out of and through multiple registers, characteristic of his early idiolect: “Oh, la... le pauvre!” We move from a vocalization not yet definitively culturalized or semanticized to the tender French phrase “le pauvre.” We pass via ellipses, as if in one synapse, from “Oh, la,” the solfège of exclamation, pure vocalise, to the definite gendered article and French noun. How to seduce a giant? How, rather, to make American English sing? With “heavenly labials” in a world of giant “gutturals” (CPP, 6)— gutturals typically associated with those throaty consonantal sounds in German and Hebrew, e.g., /ch/ and /k/; labials those consonants requiring touching lips to pronounce: e.g., /p/, /v/, /b/, /f/. Once again the dance between linguistic means and ideational content intrigues, invites: “Oh, la”... is not a labial though one hears or rather sees a la in labial; but the /p/ in pauvre is precisely a labial.

18Obviously there are many other ways to read this and other lines, not least through the interplay of speech and writing, with its orthography of acculturation—the “h” in “Oh” signaling something other than the pure vocative O, for example; we might also consider the semantics of punctuation marks (e.g., the ellipses). One can’t help but hear in this poem a blundering likely Anglo-Saxon giant—who in Stevens’ ears, as in contemporary Americans’, would likely come muttering or shouting “Fee Fi Fo Fum”: four labials of another stripe entirely. One should not, moreover, over-accent the swerve into French without giving due to the whole vibrant linguistic arc of the poem—including its first telling juxtapositions of American slang and regionalisms (viz., “this yokel”) and English dialect ( “maundering”) with “civilest odors” (CPP, 5).

19In “The Plot Against the Giant,” as in “The Comedian as the Letter C,” we confront on a linguistic level what the poem “Explanation” thematizes: a remaking of the instrument of American English in and through Stevens’ poetic idiolect—a remaking accomplished in part, performed, through a sounding-out of French and German registers of the language. “The Plot” offers a story about civilizing and seducing—both Latinate terms and Roman poetic practices— “this yokel,” and also a story about addressing him, having him in mind: the poem is at least partly about having the resources to make this navigation the stuff of poiesis, about making yokels maunder in French syllables, and French submit to the power of American English’s doing and undoing.

  • 8 See P. B. Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind,” p. 300. On Stevens’ engagement with the poem, see M. N. (...)

20This raises a question proper to Stevens but not only to Stevens: what is the proper instrument for poetry? One might here ponder Percy Bysshe Shelley’s meditations in his “Defence of Poetry,” or his extended ode to poetic mediumship in his “Ode to the West Wind” (e.g., “Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit!”), a poem Stevens savagely and lovingly evokes and torques in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”8 A Shelleyan orientation could lead us to continue along a primarily linguistic and poetically Aeolian path. And tropologically, certainly, Stevens offers a crazed orchestra of instruments and meditations thereon. We might think of the many mandolins, guitars, and occasional banjos in Stevens—not least of the infamous blue guitar in the eponymous poem.

21In this poem the possibility of gypsy music surfaces throughout, Picasso’s painted Barcelonan guitarist ghosting the poem however much Stevens denied the connection (see Letters, 786). In section XXV we encounter a repeated phrase, the cry and the thumb-beat “ay-yi-yi”: “Things as they were, things as they are, // Things as they will be by and by.../ A fat thumb beats out ai-yi-yi” (CCP, 146). Here Stevens offers a parable not only with instruments but of instrumentality itself. “Things as they will be by and by”—by and by what? By this guitar, this song, this poem. Certainly “by and by” more idiomatically activates a temporal than instrumental/causal logic, and may be heard more adverbially than prepositionally; yet it does not seem too much a stretch to observe that the preposition is the grammatical particle of instrumentality, of mediality, and that Stevens strongly accents the prepositional mode throughout.

  • 9 S. Stewart, “Lyric Possession.”

22Even as Stevens is sounding out the thumb-beat “ai-yi-yi,” I would suggest he is also channeling a black American guitar sound: not in any documentable way of influence or appropriation, but rather by resonance and approximation, the kind of lyric possession Susan Stewart describes.9 One hears in this passage, and elsewhere, the presence of (notional) black vernacular speech and black song, a phenomenon more broadly networked via Stevens’ performative forays into French, and into a French and more broadly a Latinate register in his American English, his idiolect. Stevens’ responsiveness to cries, ai-yi-yis, to calls, hoots, hoos, and hullabaloos is only one aspect of his extraordinary acoustic. The ears of his poems are vast, interlingual, and indeed, intermedial— for I could not not hear in this passage another song, known to me in the first instance via that other great early-twentieth-century artist, the American singer and guitarist Lead Belly (Huddie William Ledbetter): see, for example, his recording on Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection of “Ha-Ha This-a-Way” with its refrain:

  • 10 You can listen to Lead Belly sing this song, and Raffi too if you like, at the Smithsonian Folkways (...)

Ha Ha This-a-way
Ha Ha That-a-way
Ha Ha This-a-way
Man oh man...10 

23One hears in Stevens, I would suggest, not only the guitar but—via a network of thumb-beat and “this-a-way” and “that-a-way” (CPP, 146)—intimations of the children’s song “Ha-Ha This-a-Way,” perhaps best known in the recording by Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly).

24This is where the Roremian heuristic of French vs. German—one occasionally mock-endorsed by Stevens and sometimes earnestly re-inscribed by his critics— breaks down. For, when considering Stevens’ whole oeuvre, one finds that traversing the French vs. German frequencies so audible in, say, “Explanation,” are other intonations, not least those of a notionally black vernacular. One can be multiply and simultaneously possessed as a poet; and one finds in Stevens’ idiolect, rather than essences, tendencies and potentialities.

  • 11 See “tom-tom, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed 8 March 2017.
  • 12 For lyrics, see C. Porter, “Night and Day,” Google Play Music.

25 Consider another statement in miniature of what I am calling Stevens’ instrumental poetics, from an earlier passage in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”: “Tom-tom, c’est moi” (CPP, 140). Might we take this code-switching as a kind of bizarre encapsulation of Stevens’ negritude?—an aspirationally and vexed Francophone position perhaps, full of exoticized Africans and of notionally African instruments (though the tom-tom is in the first instance an East Indian drum, extended also, as the OED tells us, to the hand-beaten drums of Asia and Africa generally, and included in drum kits in the early twentieth century11). One might think of the nightclub scene in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, with its exoticized black drummer, or of Cole Porter’s lyrics to “Night and Day”: “Like the beat, beat, beat of the tom tom / When the jungle shadows fall.”12 “Tom-tom, c’est moi. The blue guitar / And I are one” (CPP, 140). Most striking here: Stevens figures himself not as a black or exotic drummer but as an exotic and potentially African drum—a figural claim asserted via the most infamous and refunctionable statement of French Royalty, further torqued by Flaubert. Stevens emerges here not as a King or a Bovary or even a Flaubert (though these are resonances) but as a jazz and jazzed drum: Wallace Stevens, King of the Cats, master of duende, singer of venereal floral songs of the fluent mundo.

  • 13 T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, p. viii.

26So again, let us consider the question of instruments, linguistic and otherwise. Stevens’French, and his relation to French, is not Eliot’s or Pound’s. One way it is not is that he, like Williams, stayed immersed in the American scene. I do not mean this only in a literal way—that they stayed, as it were, “home.” A crucial way Stevens’ French signals differently from Eliot’s and Pound’s is that it moves through what we might call the hauntology of black vernacular. A sense of American groundedness licensed for good and for ill Williams’ and Stevens’ different but related forays into, raids on, black vernacular throughout their work—this aside from, but not unrelated to, Stevens’ intermittent and complex invocation of black figures in his poems, most revoltingly as “niggers.” We might here invoke Toni Morrison, who in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination tracks “the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them.”13 In Stevens’ poems, forays into notionally black speech or invocations of black figures often seem to work as a hypermarked “American” corrective to his own explorations of French and Latin registers that some saw—and some still see—as dandyism; in Williams’ work, turns to “the Negro” are typically aligned with his ideology and poetics of contact, of rootedness, his hatred of American puritanism and his celebration (certainly not p. c.) of a kind of mestizo American generative vigor commingling Black, Indian, French, and Spanish elements over and against what he saw as the hard little souls of the Puritan Anglo inheritance.

27Stevens’ Negroes are not, that is, Baudelaire’s. They are not even Williams’.

  • 14 W. C. Williams, “Comment: Wallace Stevens,” p. 237.
  • 15 F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, p. 102.

28Williams said of Stevens, “He’s an American even if it hurts, even when he speaks of the ‘Puella Parvula’ or says, in a title ‘Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et Les Unze Mille Vierges.’”14 “History is what hurts,” Fredric Jameson wrote.15 Wallace Stevens hurts—both transitively and intransitively. He’s an American even if it hurts. Even if it hurts us, and should hurt us, Americans, to reckon with how blackness is involved in what we know, in what we know of and through Stevens.

  • 16 See, e.g., S. Jones, “Self Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer,” BuzzFeed LGBT, 3 Apr (...)
  • 17 Other moments might include “The Virgin Carrying a Lantern,” attended by a watchful and wrongheaded (...)
  • 18 R. Laurentiis, “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen,” Boston Review, March 2014; also included in his vo (...)

29Confronted with the title “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” one finds oneself—I find myself—an enemy and not a friend of Wallace Stevens. A conspicuously under-studied poem, as recent poets and critics have noted,16 the poem traffics in its title in a casually brutal, unremarkable racism that frames a poem about cultural decline and possible poetic renovation. Black birds, as well as black citizens defaced by the title, haunt this poem (as in: “From oriole to crow, note the decline / In music. Crow is realist. But, then, / Oriole, also, may be realist”; CPP, 124). I will not offer a sustained reading of this poem—an important, complex Whitmanian/Modernist poem whose title, like other moments in Stevens, lodges in the throat like the bone that is America.17 But one might note several contemporary African American poets who have been reading and writing back to, and around, Stevens’ poetry: among them Rickey Laurentiis, whose “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen”18 directly confronts “Like Decorations,” and Terrance Hayes in his “Snow for Wallace Stevens”:

  • 19 T. Hayes, “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” p. 57.

No one living a snowed-in life
can sleep without a blindfold.
Light is the lion that comes down to drink.
I know tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk
holds nearly the same sound as a bottle.
Drink and drank and drunk-a-drunk-drunk,
light is the lion that comes down.
This song is for the wise man who avenges
by building his city in snow.
For his decorations in a nigger cemetery.19 

30 Both homage to and critique of Stevens, Hayes’s poem is a brilliant reckoning with and through Stevens: his linguistic ebullience, his racist myopia, his whitening out the histories if not the sounds of his native place. Hayes refunctions Stevens’ music, its exuberance, its “tunk-a-tunk-tunk” (CPP, 47) given a hip-hop torque into “drunk-a-drunk-drunk,” Stevens’ own lines and his core tropes from “Like Decorations” woven into Hayes’s brilliant counter-music. Hayes shows that the truest friends of Wallace Stevens may be those who are prepared to recognize him as well as foe.

  • 20 Ibid.

Who is not more than his limitations?
Who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language, have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without
forgiveness. This song is for my foe,
the clean-shaven, gray-suited, gray patron
of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness
blue as a body made of snow.20 

  • 21 This essay was largely completed when I encountered two trenchant discussions addressing and expand (...)

31Such a poem shows how Stevens continues to reverberate, productively and problematically, in US poetry.21

  • 22 S. Howe, interview with M. N. McLane, “The Art of Poetry No. 97.”

32Here we confront the possible insufficiency of a criticism engaging Stevens’ work as exclusively or even primarily as “poems about poetry” (whatever Stevens himself proposed) or even as “spontaneous particulars of sound” (CPP, 275): between the phoneme and the morpheme and the lexeme and the syntagm falls the social. And here, invoking “spontaneous particulars of sound,” I both salute and momentarily diverge from American poet Susan Howe’s brilliant, sustained engagement with Stevens. In her Paris Review interview, Howe observed, “Stevens and Ashbery are American but are without governing projects, apart from the most important one—nobly riding the sound of words.”22 One cannot nobly ride the sound of “nigger” (as Howe would undoubtedly concede). Stevens himself properly worried about a merely acoustic largesse: “Is the function of the poet here mere sound, / Subtler than the ornatest prophecy, / To stuff the ear?” (CPP, 116).

  • 23 S. Howe, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives.
  • 24 For a recent, differently inflected take on the importance of Stevens for opening up possibilities (...)

33Howe herself offers us a way through this thicket: she speaks of “The Telepathy of Archives.”23 Language itself and poetry itself—or poetries themselves—are archives. Stevens offers a resource, a complex archive both American and transnational, precisely through his French, his dandyism, his orientalism, and indeed his racism—which are not all the same thing. He beckons to those American makers sick of a mid-range flattened American demotic, its merely instrumental language; he beckons to poets like Hayes and Laurentiis who find in Stevens as much foe as friend; he has long beckoned to experimental poets like Howe and Michael Palmer. He beckons too to those English poets tired of the (now quite moth-eaten) hegemony of Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, poets who wish to engage a longer history of French poetics as well as American experiment.24

34Indeed, Stevens seems to be winging his way once again into the poetries of the UK, if the work of young English poet Oli Hazzard is any guide. His first lauded book, Between Two Windows (2012), is as much Stevensian as Ashberian—knowingly, wittily, critically so. (As he titles one poem, “Pantoum in Which Wallace Stevens Gives Me Vertigo.”) His “Two Versions of ‘Fabliau of Florida’” offers just that: Hazzard treats Stevens as source and resource, as material for deconstruction and reconstruction. His poem recombines the alphabetic materials of Stevens’ poem, anagrammatically refunctioning Stevens’ “Fabliau” into his own cracked and brilliantly loopy stanzas.

Hop for probe-quash.
Capable hymen, tho.

  • 25 O. Hazzard, Between Two Windows, p. 27.

Mouth a tonne. Ad overview:
Tethers a tonsil-baa,
Handles tubing.25 

35What is striking is that this experimental reprocessing yields a poem with a clear Stevensian brio.

Sh. Baroque Prof., hop-Hop. Batman. Lychee.

  • 26 Ibid.

Oh, a retentive ovum! O, wand!
Theorise as blatant
As blighted nun,
Re: aeon. Faun-clad doom !26 

  • 27 Ibid.

36The comedy of the “Baroque Prof.,” the pop of “hop- / Hop,” the high-low absurdist mashup of “Batman” and “retentive ovum [s],” the ludic phrasings here are as much Stevensian as deconstructed Stevens—with a nicely British kick: “‘Hullo, ’ (bray). Lick full.”27

  • 28 See, e.g., Meghan O’Rourke’s interview with Clive James, “Renaissance Man,” Slate, 14 March 2007; o (...)

37It is also worth noting that a poet like Hazzard implicitly finds in Stevens, as English poets in the 1960s and ’70s found in John Ashbery, a route into French poetry: no accident that Hazzard chooses here one of Stevens’ more fantastical French-inflected poems to work with. Since the mid-twentieth-century, English poets have often been remarkably, polemically provincial (though this is clearly changing)—it is frankly amazing that a poet-critic like Clive James (an Australian transplant, but long based in London) can still tsk-tsk about William Carlos Williams as if Williams were a regrettable detour or dead-end.28 The self-announced main lines of English verse have often been hostile to or ignorant of experimental North American verse—Ashbery, for example, has long been received, and in some quarters still is, as a charlatan. Hazzard himself recently completed his Oxford DPhil thesis on the impact of John Ashbery on English poets in the 1960s and ’70s, and one thing he has noted is the hostility of postwar English poets like Larkin and Kingsley Amis to the French tradition: Larkin for one was very well read in French verse, but never overtly activated it as a resource for his own poetry. Those younger English poets in the postwar era who sought a different or broader ambit (e.g., Lee Harwood) often found their way to French verse through Ashbery, himself a longstanding reader, and brilliant translator, of French poetry (as well as a decade-long resident in Paris). It may well be that contemporary British poetry will continue to find its way to Stevens through the work of younger poets, not least Oli Hazzard.


38“I am what is around me. // Women understand this” (CPP, 70).

39I am what is around me. Stevens understands this. Stevens has been and remains around me.

40“The soul, he said, is composed / Of the external world” (CPP, 41).

41The soul, she said, is composed in part of Stevens.


43For me, as an American, one taught by Helen Vendler and a reader of Stevens since, Stevens has long been part of my mental weather—he is both inner and outer weather, as Robert Frost might have said. As Terrance Hayes writes, “Who is not more than his limitations?” Stevens moves for me along an asymptotic curve, ever toward but never touching a limit; he stands at his best as a poet who, as Shelley said of Keats, has “outsoared the shadow of our night.”

Divagation: Anecdote of a Man in 2017

There are men of the East, she said,
Who are the East.
There are men of a province
Who are that province.
There are men of a valley
Who are that valley.

There are men whose words
Are as natural sounds
Of their places
As the cackle of toucans
In the place of toucans.

As the hullabaloo
in the place of halloo.

There are men who sing
and make their song
a natural sound of a place
a place gone wrong.

The mandoline is the instrument
of a place.

Are there tom-toms in Connecticut?
Polecats in the Sorbonne?
Who can say to the French here is France again?
Who can say to the American
what is the sound of your place?
How sing a fluent mundo
with a broken breaking tongue?

The dress of a woman in Germany
is the embroidery of a lone man
sounding his way into place.
Is a visible element in the place
of the poem that took the place
of a mountain. His orange gowns
and starry connaissance
are invisible elements of a place
made audible in the space of the mind.

44 So after all this hoobla-hoo and hullabaloo: let us acknowledge that Stevens is sometimes ponderous, that his compensatory mythmaking smacks of the early twentieth century, that his Major Man is embarrassing, that his florid venerealism can cloy; let us concede that his darkies are rank, his lofty pentameter at times complacent, his archness at its worst a hard husk, his wisdom literature too strenuous; but let us love his Canon Aspirin, his dancing wily ways, his ephebes, his funneling ear, his tunneling tongue, his vernacular brilliance, his Latinate baroque, his weirdly joyous stoicism, his sophisticated tomfoolery, and his stately gorgeous pomp. Let us love his hoobla-hooing wood-dove and the hullabaloo of his poems. Let him not become his admirers, nor his haters. Let be be finale of seem.

Summer Beer with Endangered Glacier

My one eye
does not match
the other

lenses regulate

needs require.
I was being

being seen.
Let be
be finale.

Let our virtues
up against

the obvious.
If we
don’t believe

why all

the hoobla-hoo, hullabaloo?

mon semblable
ma soeur

  • 29 M. N. McLane, “Summer Beer with Endangered Glacier,” This Blue: Poems, p. 16-17.

soi même
blow through
this blue29 


1 Thanks to Bart Eeckhout, Lisa Goldfarb, and Juliette Utard for their invitation to participate in the June 2015 conference at the Sorbonne, and for their care with this essay; special thanks to Juliette Utard for her conference vision, and to Lisa Goldfarb, who first invited me to return to Wallace Stevens. I owe gratitude as well to all the seminar participants, and to Antoine Compagnon— compañero in Paris and New York. And a salute to The Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens, and to Jim Finnegan, for the invitation to speak and their hospitality in 2014. Finally, best thanks to Laura M. Slatkin: “we say spread sail.”

2 N. Rorem, quoted in “Composer Ned Rorem Gives Brooklyn College a Piece of His Mind,” Brooklyn College Website, 21 March 2002.

3 W. C. Williams, “Comment: Wallace Stevens,” p. 234.

4 I offered an earlier foray into this territory in “My Wallace Stevens: Thinking Songs.”

5 Such a poem anticipates, lightly and non-Germanically (in Rorem’s sense), the trenchant albeit occasionally labored theorizations of poetry, alphabetization, and the mother’s mouth offered by Friedrich Kittler in his Discourse Networks, 1800/1900.

6 W. C. Williams, “Comment: Wallace Stevens,” p. 234.

7 Ibid., p. 234-235.

8 See P. B. Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind,” p. 300. On Stevens’ engagement with the poem, see M. N. McLane, Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry, p. 252-268.

9 S. Stewart, “Lyric Possession.”

10 You can listen to Lead Belly sing this song, and Raffi too if you like, at the Smithsonian Folkways Tumbler:, accessed 8 March 2017. For lyrics, see LyricWikia,, accessed 8 March 2017.

11 See “tom-tom, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed 8 March 2017.

12 For lyrics, see C. Porter, “Night and Day,” Google Play Music.

13 T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, p. viii.

14 W. C. Williams, “Comment: Wallace Stevens,” p. 237.

15 F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, p. 102.

16 See, e.g., S. Jones, “Self Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer,” BuzzFeed LGBT, 3 April 2015; and see Timothy Donnelly’s introduction to Rickey Laurentiis’ “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen,” Boston Review, March 2014.

17 Other moments might include “The Virgin Carrying a Lantern,” attended by a watchful and wrongheaded “negress” (CPP, 56); the “nigger mystics” of “Prelude to Objects” (CPP, 180); and so on.

18 R. Laurentiis, “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen,” Boston Review, March 2014; also included in his volume Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

19 T. Hayes, “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” p. 57.

20 Ibid.

21 This essay was largely completed when I encountered two trenchant discussions addressing and expanding on this terrain, in Poetry and Poetics after Wallace Stevens, ed. B. Eeckhout and L. Goldfarb: for further, ramifying meditations, see L. M. Steinman, “Unanticipated Readers,” p. 288-302, which explores the engagement of several poets of color, including Hayes, with Stevens; and R. Galvin, “‘This Song Is for My Foe’: Olive Senior and Terrance Hayes Rewrite Stevens,” p. 303-322, which discusses Hayes (including his racialized reception by critics) alongside the Jamaican Canadian Senior.

22 S. Howe, interview with M. N. McLane, “The Art of Poetry No. 97.”

23 S. Howe, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives.

24 For a recent, differently inflected take on the importance of Stevens for opening up possibilities in English poetry, see Jeff Dolven and Joshua Kotin’s interview with J. H. Prynne, “The Art of Poetry No. 101”: Prynne notes how important Stevens was for Charles Tomlinson, and for Prynne himself as he was looking for serious new poetic possibilities. As Prynne observes, “a world that had previously been occupied more or less exclusively by Pound and Williams now opened to another presence of a very different kind, a seriously intellectual poet of cerebral focus, committed to an active intelligence of mind. This was quite distinct from anything that I’d found in Pound, or in Creeley, or in Olson, come to that” (p. 178-179).

25 O. Hazzard, Between Two Windows, p. 27.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 See, e.g., Meghan O’Rourke’s interview with Clive James, “Renaissance Man,” Slate, 14 March 2007; or the conclusion of C. James, “Little Low Heavens,” in Poetry, September 2008.

29 M. N. McLane, “Summer Beer with Endangered Glacier,” This Blue: Poems, p. 16-17.


The author of five books of poetry, most recently Mz N: the serial: a poem-in-episodes (FSG, 2016) and Some Say (FSG, 2017). She has also published two critical monographs on British Romantic poetics, Romanticism and the Human Sciences and Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romanticism (both with Cambridge University Press), as well as numerous essays on Anglophone poetics, 1750-now, and contemporary literature and culture. Her book My Poets (FSG, 2012), an experimental hybrid of memoir and criticism, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. Ongoing projects include work on rhyme, “compositionist” poetics, and lyric discontents. She is a Professor of English at New York University.

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