Monday, January 5, 2009

Enemies of Wallace Stevens, Unite!

I stumbled upon a website this morning selling a coffee mug depicting a caricature of the poet Wallace Stevens, with his cane, walking (the other side of the cup contains a quotation from his poem, "Anecdote of the Jar"), whose links led me to one of the funniest critiques of a poet's writing that I've ever read, on the site of the Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens.

Now, I happen to love the poetry of Wallace Stevens. But ... I read somewhere that he was not very nice to his wife, Elsie, who was, according to one biographer, "not his intellectual equal," and who "grew sullen, reserved and eccentric as their life together went on." In the following footnote, the reviewer chides this biographer for dwelling too much on the unhappiness of Wallace's wife. --> [1]

The Enemies of Wallace Stevens in Hartford openly declare that "There were more than a few people who knew Stevens and couldn't stand him." Hmmmm. And then there's this letter from a disgruntled employee, Evan Daugherty, at Hartford Insurance (Stevens was his boss), written in 1947, alledging that:

His attitude was always one of indifference...

Mr. Stevens has not been an easy man to work for. He has a great
contempt for his fellow man...

If one talks back, he runs the risk of his lasting dislike
and enmity.[2]

Well now, how about them apples? Perhaps Stevens saw poor Mr. Daugherty as a sniveling whiner, grumpy because he didn't get the raise he believed he deserved. Perhaps Mr. Daugherty DID deserve one and Stevens, for whatever reason, simply couldn't tolerate the man and therefore refused to recommend him. Who really knows.

This matter of loving a person's work, but disliking the writer (for whatever reason) is what today's blog entry is really all about, though. How many times have you read a poem or book that so resonated with you, so impressed you, so moved you, that you scrambled to find out everything there was to know about its author--only to discover that he/she was vain, egotistical, perhaps utterly repugnant, a fool or a monster?

It may have been the reason I've stopped reading biographies of people whose work I admire--and especially, their autobiographies. Because the disconnect is sometimes very large--between the magnificent creative product, and their sometimes ridiculous, often abysmal, erratic, foppish, or vindictive, self-destructive, personal behavior.

So poets are human, just like the rest of us; surprise, surprise. Except they have an extraordinary gift for words that takes us beyond the ordinary that opens up a world so incredible we forget where we are. They appear to understand exactly how to reach us. We feel a kinship with such writers. They've somehow connected to us. Or, I did with Wallace Stevens, at any rate, until the rumors about his Grand Indifference kept surfacing.

I have a particular aversion to people who wear indifference as their basic wardrobe through life. Indifference stuns. It can even maim. It brings out the worst in the objects of its dispersal.

So what do we do, then--resign ourselves to the "Love-the-Poem, Hate-the-Poet" conundrum? My resolution (initially) was to separate the two, play with the idea that one's words, one's artistic creations (and this applies to art as well as writing), one's "gift", as it were, comes from somewhere else--sort of like a lucky gene not everyone gets to inherit. But I'm leaning more toward the idea that it really emanates from some gigantic cosmic repository from which we can all subconsciously feed, some being called to do so more than others.

What we DO with what we find there is where the creative part comes in--the uniquely individual elements that manifest when a true connection is made. Call it whatever you want, it doesn't affect its Thereness. (Label away, if that makes it more comprehensible. I myself have problems always having to define the origins of something or paste a label on things that just "are".)

Anyway, in case you want to read this hilarious essay from a so-called member of this little Enemies of Wallace Stevens group, click here.

Some sample quotes:

I am begging you, fellow patriots, do not attend the Wallace Stevens birthday bash. Be warned all ye who enter there. If you go, you will come out a few hours later, talking about, as one Stevens scholar put it, "the vulgar personal life of the world that interferes with a clear and simple confrontation between imagination and reality."

His best poem, as enemies of Wallace Stevens know only too well, was "The Ultimate Poem is abstract." I won't bother quoting from it. You wouldn't understand. No one does. It's too, you know, abstract.

He knew the truth about himself. In his "Of the Surface of Things," he wrote: "In my room, the world is beyond my understanding." Yeah, we know. And your poetry is beyond our understanding.

Do you want to sound like that? Do you want to be responsible for tricking unsuspecting friends and family into actually trying to read a Wallace Stevens poem? I think not.

Ha ha ha. Thank you, though, Laurence Cohen (columnist and author of the above article), for showing me the absurdity of poet idolization (and conversely, the unnerving predilection for incessant, nitpicky, poet bashing, especially re: those whose poetry we simply don't understand or find the least bit interesting. Just don't read it, is all!).

I was going to say something cute and snarky here about coffee mugs with poets' images plastered on the front (I don't know that I could face staring at anybody's face looking at me from a mug as I sip my morning coffee), including pilgrimages where "fans" walk the exact same footpath once trod by a famous writer -- but then I remembered that I once swam in Walden Pond and later circled the reconstructed replica of Thoreau's little house in the woods, peering into the windows with fascination and awe; and last year made my poor son take me to Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI to find the grave of H. P. Lovecraft. So I'm afraid I'm inadvertently one of the very group I was about to parody. Ouch, ha ha.

I didn't know before that Hemingway once knocked Stevens kersplat down into a rain puddle.[3] What could have provoked such an action, I wonder.

The story is confirmed by Stevens's biographer Joan Richardson, who reports that Stevens returned home to his wife and daughter in Hartford that March with a still-puffy eye and broken hand, and that Stevens himself told versions of the story throughout his life ...

Hemingway: “I think he is really one of those mirror fighters who swells his muscles and practices lethal punches in the bathroom while he hates his betters.” ...

Stevens was in his late 50s when this occurred; Hemingway in his 30s.

[Hemingway's story is from a letter to Sara Murphy, printed in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961, ed. Carlos Baker.]

This is Wallace Stevens walking, swinging
his cane. -------------------------------------------------------->

He looks like a happy chap, not at all afflicted with the dreaded mantle of Indifference. Perhaps this is the image he would prefer, from his grave, that we remember—not his having been pushed into a puddle by Ernest Hemingway.


This has turned out to be an extraordinarily long posting today. My apologies.

But about the reports of Wallace Stevens's Indifference – he himself says … in the excerpt from his poem “Table Talk”, that: “One likes what one happens to like.” Maybe we should just leave it at that.

In sum, I think we should stop worshipping (or denigrating) poets for how they choose to live or behave, or how they happened to manage or screw up their lives, and concentrate more on their actual WORDS. (Two annoying little chirpies just whispered in my ear: "Actions speak louder than words!" ... followed by.... "Do as I SAY, not as I do!" ) ha ha.

I still tune into Wallace Stevens's words, and take his poems along on long bus trips, jammed in between the peanut butter sandwiches and Walkman and apple juice. It's his words, man. It's his WORDS.


Granted, we die for good.
Life, then, is largely a thing
Of happens to like, not should.
And that, too, granted, why
Do I happen to like red bush,
Gray grass and green-gray sky?
What else remains? But red,
Gray, green, why those of all?
That is not what I said:
Not those of all. But those.
One likes what one happens to like.
One likes the way red grows.
It cannot matter at all.
Happens to like is one
Of the ways things happen to fall.

-- Wallace Stevens.


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