Friday, June 26, 2009

The Present State of Poetry (Another Installment of... Of Being Quiet!)

In an essay titled "The Present State of Poetry," Delmore Schwartz recalled: "In 1936 I heard Wallace Stevens read his poetry at Harvard: it was the first time Stevens had ever read his poetry in public, and this first reading was at once an indescribable ordeal and a precious event to Stevens.... Before and after reading each poem [he] spoke of the nature of poetry... he said, among other things, that the least sound counts, the least sound and the least syllable. He illustrated this observation by telling of how he had awakened after midnight the week before and heard the sounds made by a cat walking delicately and carefully on the crusted snow outside his house."


[Re Stevens's "The River of Rivers in Connecticut"] This unnamed river of rivers may also serve as a trope for Thoreau's Concord River once called Musketaquid or Meadow. On its banks, local Connecticut place names, Haddam and Farmington, gathered into steeples on their village commons, glisten and sway.

River of peace and quietness. River of battlefield ghosts - this great original river before - is where poetry flows into prayer.

-- Susan Howe, from "Choir answers to Choir: Notes on Jonathan Edwards and Wallace Stevens" in Chicago Review 54:4

(Speaking of Stevens, Al Filreis praises Eleanor Cook's terrific A Field Guide to Wallace Stevens on his blog. Eleanor was a delight to work with when I was at Literary Imagination.)

Pictured: Stevens' quiet house in Connecticut


K. Silem Mohammad said...

Stevens' anecdote of the cat in the snow has always shared mental space for me with Stein's comment about how she figured out that "sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are" by listening to her dog Basket drinking.

In fact, the more I think about it, the twentieth century was full of animal-based poetics soundbites. There's O'Hara's mantis that "knows time more intimately," for example, and any number of creatures in Moore.... I'm always trying to remember which early poem by a Language poet had the isolated line "a cat's paw flashes out."

These modern examples seem to me to be qualitatively different from the animal imagery of past centuries (Blake's tiger, Clare's woodland creatures, etc.), in that they are emphatically illustrations of some material aspect of poiesis itself--but maybe I'm overlooking obvious exceptions?

Michael Robbins said...

The river might be unnamed in the poem, but it's hardly a mystery which river Stevens has in mind!

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Henry Gould said...

Eleanor Cook's book "Poetry, wordplay and word-war in Wallace Stevens" is also superb...