Two years ago, on the first day of the first graduate-level poetry workshop I ever attended, my teacher asked us to bring copies of a poem we liked. This was, I imagine, designed to be both an assignment and an icebreaker, perhaps even an introduction. For the next few days, I kept several poems in mind and tried to decide between them. At that time, this included the following:
- “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” by Wallace Stevens
- “Between Takes” by Paul Muldoon
- two poems by Charles Simic: “The Devils” and “My Beloved”
- the title poem from Matthea Harvey’s debut collection and her manic little love poem
In the end, I copped out and chose not one, but two: the Stevens and the title poem from Harvey’s collection. My teacher didn’t care much for the latter but vigorously discussed many of the formal devices Stevens employs in “High-Toned.” Afterwards, however, he warned me of the tendency in Stevens’s poetry to exclude the reader, which became one of the many ideas I wrestled with that semester as I wrote my poems and submitted them for critique during the workshops.
(To be honest, I can’t remember the word my teacher actually used to describe Stevens’s writing; I often think it was “arrogant” or “aloof,” but there are times when I feel it could be something else like “snobbish.” A year later, I would remember his point but not the word he used, when I read Louise Gluck’s “Invitation And Exclusion,” the essay in Proofs And Theories where she describes how her early “encounter with Stevens was shattering (114),” because reading his work made her feel “superfluous, part of some marginal throng (115).” By that time, I had learned to simultaneously heed and ignore the warning; though I somewhat understand where Gluck is coming from when she characterizes Stevens’s work as such, I admit to loving his poetry precisely for that very quality.)
The other question my teacher asked that first day was just as confusing: “How do you reconcile choosing Stevens and Harvey?” I was puzzled for several reasons. After all, as someone who loves listening to both “So What” by Miles Davis and, er, “So What” by Anti-Nowhere League, I considered the differences between Stevens and Harvey to be much less irreconcilable than that.
More to the point, while Stevens’s lyricism and Romanticism, not to mention his frequent use of blank verse, can make him seem arguably more conventional than, say, Pound (“break[ing] the pentameter” was Pound’s “first heave” but Stevens doesn’t seem so interested in that project) or Eliot, the indulgence in wordplay and musicality makes many of Stevens’s poems approach, limit-like, the point of nonsense.
In “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” it’s obvious in bits like “tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,” but many of the other lines make their sense through sound: “like windy citherns hankering for hymns,” the last two lines of the poem, and many others seem to me to form the “jovial hullabaloo among the spheres” which is the poem itself. It’s a play of sound without being nonsense, and neither is Harvey, despite how skittery the latter (and even the former) seems to, say, Tony Hoagland.
I still like those two poems I’ve chosen, although, when another teacher in another poetry workshop I took one year later gave the same assignment, I chose a different one: Ann Lauterbach’s “Rancor Of The Empirical,” which I consider a little Stevensian in theme and language. It has since become my “totem poem,” although I did have a runner-up: Chad Davidson’s “Cockroaches: Ars Poetica.”