A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens

William Baker (Department of English/Libraries, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois, USA)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 18 April 2008




Baker, W. (2008), "A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 4, pp. 322-323. https://doi.org/10.1108/00242530810868788



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

It is somewhat surprising that until the appearance of Eleanor Cook's book, there has been little explication of all of Wallace Steven's poems. It is not as if Wallace Stevens is a neglected, unknown poet. Indeed, Stevens (1879‐1955) is regarded as one of the most important American Modernist poets of the twentieth century. He is, according to Eleanor Cook's preface “by common consent, one of the great Moderns, those major writers in the earlier part of the twentieth century who changes once and for all the way their art is practiced”. Cook continues: “among poets, there are at least four such Modern masters: W.B. Yeats (b. 1865), Robert Frost (b. 1874), Wallace Stevens (b. 1879) and T.S. Eliot (b. 1888). Other names such as Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams or Marianne Moore might be added” ([ix]).

There are innumerable books on Stevens's ideas and work. A Wallace Stevens Journal, active since 1972, typically issues four to six articles an issue, providing close readings and interpretations of individual works. There is a 1963 Concordance to his poetry, J.M. Edelstein's definitive 1973 descriptive bibliography, and the slightly earlier 1967 Ronald Sukenick's Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure: Readings, Interpretation, and a Guide to the Collected Poetry. The MLA typesims for 2006 record 25 items on Stevens including Eleanor Cook's Enigmas and Riddles in Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2006). This is not exclusively devoted to Stevens but contains material on him. A Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens, edited by John S. Serio, appeared in February 2007. Tony Sharpe's extensive Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life was published in the St. Martin's “Literary Lives” series in 2000. In addition to a comprehensive biographical account, Sharpe offers extensive explication of individual poems.

A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens “is designed for all these types of Stevens's readers – the knowledgeable, the studious, the enthusiastic, the occasional, the curious, the baffled but persistent” at all levels ([ix]). The focus is on the poet itself. A 25‐page “Biography” is followed by “Glosses.” These are arranged according to the dates of publication of individual poetry volumes. Thus, poems in Harmonium published in 1923 “with a second, slightly enlarged edition in 1931” are followed by poems glossed in Ideas of Order (1935, 1936) and so on, concluding with Late Poems (1947 and 1950‐1955). Indeed, some of the most useful parts of Cook's volume are found in her description of the publication and genesis of Stevens's individual collections. For example, her explication based on the OED of “harmonium” illuminate the poem and the instrument ([29‐30]).

At times, Cook's explication of individual poems is most useful. For example of “Sunday Morning” she observes, “the poem plays on two senses of Sunday: (1) the day of Christian worship, and (2) the day of the sun”. She adds somewhat cryptically: “Stevens's homiletics are naturalistic and anti‐supernatural”. Words in the poem are glossed: to give one instance, “A voice that cries, ‘The tomb in Palestine… ”’ Cook glosses as an “assertion denying the resurrection of Jesus, introduced by a clause in biblical language”. She does note the important point that the words in the poem “Casual flocks of pigeons … wings” extensively revise “the tradition of the single, casual Holy Spirit in the form of a dove”. Examples of “a dove” are given from Hopkins, “God's Grandeur” (64), but the important point – one made many years ago by the late David Daiches – is not made that in a secular world the pigeon replaces the dove. This displacement helps place Stevens amongst the modernists.

Many of Stevens's poems are fiendishly difficult. As an undergraduate I was given a part of “The Man with the Blue Guitar” ([1937]) to explicate and was frankly unable to make sense of the lines. They are, as Cook indicates, “of varying length use tetrameter couplets” and associated with Picasso's 1903 painting “The Old Guitarist”. Yes, the poem focuses on the interplay between the real and imagined but I must still admit, in spite of Cook's detailed explication ([112]‐131), all these years later to not being further along in plumbing its depths!

A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens concludes with an “Appendix” somewhat pretentiously entitled “How to Read Poetry, Including Stevens” ([335]‐344). This is divided into twelve sections and is on the whole useful. There is an all too brief alphabetically arranged “Short‐Glossary” beginning with “allusion” and concluding with “trope” [345]). This is followed by an unannotated listing of reference sources, a biography and all too “Brief List of Criticism” ([347]‐249). There is no index or listing of individual poems discussed in the text.

At £22.95 the volume is rather expensive: a reduced priced paperback version would make it more readily available to undergraduates and the general public. All in all, then, a useful volume, to be recommended for library purchase with some reservations.

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