Good Book about Wallace Stevens: James Longenbach, “The Plain Sense of Things”

I know a lot of you like Wallace Stevens. Although English teachers conventionally stress the “difficulty” of his poetry, my perception—gleaned from years of being that slightly too observant person at the coffee house, the friend who looks at your library while nervously smirking about people who look at other people’s libraries, the dude inspecting your book on the bus, a guy who will bloviate about literature on first dates (thereby often assuring no second dates)—is that he is genuinely popular. As far as poetry goes, that is; although I don’t like admitting it, I realize that the serious novel has a much bigger audience than serious poetry.

About Stevens’ reputation as an especially demanding poet. To a certain extent it’s a fair one: if for no other reason than his opulent language, Stevens demands a great deal of attention. That said, like all great poets he also makes you love him at the same time, and hence desire to pay attention. Love is at the heart of reading and is the basis of one’s taste in books.

Part of the Difficult Poet rep is the idea that Stevens’ poetry is cut off from history, from the real life we all agree to live, as if he were just a Connecticut dandy. Since the 1950s, when the New Critics got hold of him and used Stevens to help make generations of college students think poems are otherwordly, atemporal puzzle boxes, that misperception has dogged him. Without denying the complexity of Stevens’ work, James Longenbach does a lot to correct this image in Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (Oxford, 1991). Longenbach gives the requisite biographical details from Stevens’ life, which was outwardly bourgeois (guy was an insurance exec at The Hartford) but inwardly astonishingly complex. He also reads Stevens’ poetry in relation to contemporary history: this means dealing with the Great Depression and nuclear war as much as with the influence of writers like Emerson and Yeats, and Longenbach does it masterfully. A poet himself,with a writer’s intuitive feel for the work of other writers he likes, Longenbach is also a professor of literature, and he brings the scholar’s deep, wide perspective to his aid. Stevens comes across as an artist who spent his entire life meditating on the relation between art, the making and consumption of which demands time away from other concerns, and history, which is public and involves all other people as much as it does the writer, which is those “other concerns.”

The Plain Sense of Things is lucidly written, not dogmatic, and thoroughly humane. This is criticism written by a great teacher. As such, it’s entertaining if you have any interest in poetry. If you do suffer from that interest, you might consider scanning a chapter or two of Longenbach, whose work can also be found in shorter formats at places like Slate.com. The Google will point you there.

 

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