Nov
30

Stevens in Contemporary Culture

About two months ago, as election season was bearing in, the journalist Michelle Dean wrote an article called “What Mitt Romney Might Learn from Wallace Stevens,” and which was promptly sent to me by about four different friends who knew about my thesis. Later in the month, buzz began about Poetry magazine’s centennial anthology — The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine — which turned out to have chosen Stevens’ “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” (of the forty-four poems and two plays Stevens published, by my count, in Poetry between 1914 and 1952) as one of its one hundred. I even found a video of Bill Murray reading two of Stevens’ poems at Poets House.

What’s interesting about all of this is that, during Stevens’ own lifetime, he was often criticized for writing outside of the sphere of current events–particularly in the thirties, which placed great importance on political art such as Auden’s. And yet, despite his abstract relation to the realities of his own time, the worlds Stevens constructed in his poems have lasted. He himself proclaimed that they need not — It was not important that they survive, he wrote in “The Planet on the Table”; What mattered was that they should bear / Some lineament or character, // Some affluence, if only half-perceived, / In the poverty of their words, / Of the planet of which they were part. The planet, not the time; the people, not their generation; stubbornly and persistently, the human and nothing less.

Stevens, in my view, saw something more eternal in us than his contemporaries perceived. He knew this as early as his initial publication of “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” in 1918, this truth of our paradoxical mixture of ephemerality and eternality:

… but until now I never knew
That fluttering things have so distinct a shade.