Book Review: The New Wallace Stevens Studies

6 December 2021

Domonique Davies, University of Reading

The New Wallace Stevens Studies, Edited by Bart Eeckhout and Gül Bilge Han, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Wallace Stevens’s well-known adage, ‘It Must Change’, has been continually reflected on through critical discussions of his work.[1]  Over the last twenty years, socio-political movements have been echoed in literary criticism, with the development and expansion of ecocritical studies, queer studies, and re-evaluations of imperialism and colonialism. The New Studies in Wallace Stevens signals that it is time to effect change in Stevens studies and reevaluate his works and thought. As Bart Eeckhout comments in his chapter on Stevens and Queer Studies, ‘there may be some value in attempting to redraw a number of circles around Stevens’ (p. 178). Even so, while a paradigm of fresh perspectives is set out in this text, it is not without remembrance of how Stevens criticism has evolved, and a particular strength of the contributions is the acknowledgement of key work by Helen Vendler, J. Hillis Miller, Frank Lentricchia, and Alan Filreis, helping to situate the development of Stevens studies over the years.

Divided into three sections, a clear progression is chartered according to ‘Emerging Concepts’, ‘Recent Critical Methods’ and ‘Revisionary Readings’. The structure situates new perspectives of Stevens’s work across a diverse range of literary fields. Responses intersect between sections and build a dialogue across new critical modes. While each chapter presents a different facet of Stevens, an emerging theme is the presentation of a liberal Stevens — one that is interested in pushing the boundaries of his poetics. While to what extent a liberal portrait of Stevens is influenced by our current socio-political landscape remains to be debated, the perspectives shared throughout this volume are refreshing and offer the potential to extend Stevens studies to a wider audience of readers and scholars outside of the traditional philosophical paradigm so often associated with Stevens.

The first section interrogates Steven’s socio-political and transnational poetics. Lisa Siraganian’s chapter on ‘Imperialism and Colonialism’ investigates Stevens’s complicated relationship with cultural imperialism, and develops connections between imperialism and artistic commodification at the root of Stevens’s anti-cultural imperialism. Siraganian explains that Stevens’s anti-cultural imperialist stance is against the general tide of ideological and cultural Western imperialism incited through the emergence of capitalism in the modernist period. Stevens recognised the consequences of emerging globalisation in relation to the production of art, with Siraganian noting that ‘[m]ore clearly than most poets of his generation, he [Stevens] saw globalization as the existential problem it would become by the turn of the twenty-first century’ (p.34). Here we have a forward-thinking Stevens, concerned with the longer and more far-reaching consequences of his generation’s socio-political direction.

Stevens’s interest in the effects of globalisation extends in Gül Bilge Han’s chapter on ‘Transnationalism’. Han makes a compelling case for Stevens’s poetic aim to be concerned with creating new global and cultural interconnections, intersecting with Christopher Spaide’s chapter on the vibrancy of communities within Stevens’s work. Using the poem “The Comedian as the Letter C”, Han shows how Stevens exposes moments of implosion relating to transnational aesthetic sensibility (p. 109). With a conflation of language from the US, Mexico, Brazil and the Caribbean, Han asserts that the poem suspends the boundaries between different national and cultural regions (p. 109). Even so, the expansionist tendencies of the poem’s main character, Crispin, speak to discussions around imperialism and colonialism which undercut the cultural layering of the poem. While the first section of the book presents a more liberal Stevensian worldview than previous studies have concluded, contributors remind us that this liberal worldview is but one of the ways in which Stevens and his works can be interpreted.

A repositioning of Stevens’s socio-political ideologies continues in the second section, which focuses on the recent application of critical methodologies, such as ecocriticism, queer studies, urban studies, and cognitive literary studies. Cary Wolfe builds on his recent book, Ecological Poetics; or, Wallace Stevens’s Birds, to show how a nonrepresentational understanding of Stevens’s ecological poetics enables a departure from traditional phenomenological exploration of his understanding of inner and outer worlds. Key for Wolfe is the application of Gregory Bateson’s ecology of mind theory, permitting an anthropological reading of Stevens to expose his understanding of the poet’s position as ‘creature and creator’ and understanding of the nuanced position of the human artist within the world. In dialogue with the first section of New Studies, Stevens is shown to be one who wishes to explore boundaries within the physical world, through experimenting with the potential of the poetry to extend himself both subjectively and objectively through the body of the text beyond these boundaries. One of the ways in which Stevens used poetry to explore and move ‘beyond’ various boundaries is built on by Gabrielle Starr with a detailed close reading of “Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight”, demonstrating how Stevens uses sound to create a sense of embodied aesthetic disorientation. Starr reveals that Stevens’s sensory discomfort and semantic confusion highlights the fundamental ‘instability between what we know and what we sense’ (p. 211). Stevens’s aesthetics not only enable his thinking to go beyond conventional perceptual boundaries of the text, but also reform the ways in which his readers receive poetry on a sensory level.

In tension with the embodied aesthetic mode of Stevens is his sense of the lyric. Johanna Skibsrud argues in ‘Lyrical Ethics’ that an ethics of ‘discontinuity and rupture’ (p. 308) is prevalent in Stevens’s poetics, moving himself and readers beyond subjective interpretations into a space of encounter, disrupting the self-contained lyric ‘I’. Skibsrud posits this disruption as a resistance to singularity, which surmises the varying perspectives offered throughout this book which presents Stevens through new critical lenses as a figure deeply concerned with the ways in which poetry can remind us that ‘We live in a constellation | Of patches and of pitches | Not in a single world’.[2]

New Wallace Stevens Studies offers a diverse range of responses to Stevens’s work and broadens discussion to promote scholarship in new directions. Each essay asks questions about how we may now read Stevens alongside new critical frameworks, and in turn offer ways in which Stevens’s poetics and thought remain relevant today. New Studies in Wallace Stevens is an essential text that will shape responses to Stevens’s work in the years to come.

[1] Wallace Stevens, ‘Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction’ in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens ed. By John

N. Serio and Chris Beyers, Second Vintage Books edn. (New York: Random House,

2015), pp. 401-432, p. 412.

[2] Wallace Stevens, ‘July Mountain’ in Opus Posthumous, Poems, Plays, Prose, Revised, Enlarged and Corrected Edition, ed. by Milton J. Bates,(New York: Vintage Books, Random House 1990), p. 140.

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