Critical Studies in a Post-Theoretical Age: Three Books Sort of about Wallace Stevens
Critical Studies in a Post-Theoretical Age: Three Books Sort of about Wallace Stevens Eeckhout, Bart. 2002. Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press. $49.95 hc. xi + 303 pp.
Harrington, Joseph. 2002. Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modem U. S. Poetics. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press. $50.00 hc. $24.95 sc. x + 228 pp.
Santilli, Kristine S. 2002. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. London: Routledge. $80.00 hc. xvi + 160 pp.
A decade ago, I attended a conference that brought together literary scholars, engineers, politicians, and others interested in environmental issues. The keynote speaker remarked that when literary scholars address mixed audiences, they ought to refrain from using jargon. In literary conferences, he said, discipline-specific terms are of course meaningful. However, since environmental issues are typically interdisciplinary, literary scholars should use words that everybody else understands. In the question-and-answer period, a younger man with a goatee and black turtleneck stood up and argued that literary scholars should use as much jargon as possible in (apparently) every context in order to create an oppositional discourse. Immediately afterwards, an older man with unruly hair and a tweed jacket stood up and asserted that the black turtleneck was in error; in fact, all theory of the past thirty years had been one huge mistake. This prompted a rejoinder from another black turtleneck-and so it went, the black turtlenecks versus the tweed jackets, back and forth, all staking their positions on theory then crossing their arms as they waited for the other side to stop talking.
At the time, what struck me most forcibly was the debate’s belatedness. The preposterous notion that all theory of the past thirty years should be jettisoned was clearly one generation’s pique at having its premises questioned. For the tweed jackets, criticism properly dealt with the correct interpretation of text; method was somehow natural and inevitable, and thus they perceived themselves as writing without theory. I think most of my contemporary readers will find that last clause untenable. Nonetheless, the black turtleneck contention that theory is a good in and of itself seems equally untenable. If it is an alternative language you want, why not write in hip-hop dialect or Farsi? You don’t have to read many essays in New Literary History to find politically-minded theorists worrying that the institutionalization of their oppositional discourse distances it from the cause it advocates. Certainly, the general dissemination of poststructural theory had the salutary effect of showing the world that all readings proceed from some theory, some method of locating significance. However, in the theoretical age, there was still the dream of adequacy, that Jacques Derrida had found the key to language, or Michel Foucault to sexuality, and so on. The average critic’s job was to leave the theorizing to the New Authorities and simply apply their theories to other texts.
Thus, I am defining the theoretical age as one in which it was only necessary to announce a theory and apply it. The movement that began in opposition soon developed a legion of believers who refused to think beyond accepted parameters. I once sat in on a session on Bakhtinian readings at a graduate literary conference. In the question-and-answer period, I remarked that all three papers had shown us how theory could be applied to the works in question. I asked if the works suggest any critique, blindness, or need for further development in the theory. The three panelists, all from prestigious graduate programs, gave the same, one-word answer: no. Their curt reply indicated that the panelists had never considered the question and never intended to.
From my perch in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, that “no” answer was only adequate in the theoretical age. In this, the post-theoretical era, a critic must understand her own methods and the methods of others. Writing in a time when so many approaches are possible, she must address the pressing theoretical problem of our age: How to choose? These three books give us three different answers.
Kristine S. Santilli’s Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language might be the most brilliant book written in the last decade. If it is, though, I am afraid the world will never know it, since it is hard for me to imagine too many readers with enough patience to read very deeply into the book.
One reason I say this is that Santilli never clearly defines “gesture.” It is not “bodily gestures but rather the gesture of the words themselves.” Poetry, she tells us, proceeds from and speaks to an essential “inwardness,” and that, “[r]egardless of what poems actually say, the language of poems and the music they make gesture in the direction of our inwardness and of what may be found there” (xii). She returns to defining “gesture” in the first chapter, saying that her study looks at gestures as “linguistic and spiritual aspects of poetic language.” She focuses on “spontaneous” gestures that “arise beside language but only in the presence of language, and which have non-specific meaning . . . which can only be understood in speculative or conjectural ways, much like the gestures of dance” (2002,1). For further clarification, she quotes David McNeill’s quotation of somebody else: gesture is ‘”the movement of whose body is the world, whose speech the sum of all language, whose jewels are the moon and stars-to that pure Siva I bow!'” (2) Then Santilli then moves to a long, associative discussion of what a number of people-Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Lacan, Foucault, Roland Barthes, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Plato, Ovid, Rainer Maria Rilke, and many more-say about gesture. At the end, the poor reader is only more confused as to the meaning of the book’s central term.
Such an approach is indicative of the era we find ourselves in. Recognizing critical plurality, Santilli seems to want to marry critics in order to fashion some sort of comprehensive account of poetry and spirituality. However, there is a troubling aspect to her pursuit that she never addresses. I’ll give just the most obvious example. In the preface, she asks, “what may be found in a poem?” Here is her answer: “Certainly not merely a play of signs. Certainly something distanced from us, but surely not nothing. Something” (2002, xiii). That is a plausible answer, but if you are going to commit yourself to that point of view, should you then be quoting, at length and approvingly, Derrida in the next two chapters? I do not mean to say critics who proceed from different assumptions can never agree. But I feel that it is the writer’s job to negotiate these differences for me. That is to say, she never attempts to answer this question: Are all these theorists really saying similar things, or has the author just seized upon a verbal resemblance (the word, “gesture”) and overlooked the greater contexts that render the ideas incompatible?
Another striking thing about the book is its attitude towards argumentation. Consider the opening to her extended analysis of Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West”:
A woman walks alone by the sea singing. Like Iphimedeia, who loved Poseidon, she seems in love, perhaps with the genius of the sea, just as Keats was “half in love with easeful death.” However, although her song requires the presence of the sea, song and sea never integrate, never unify and become one. (Santilli 2002, 139)
The first sentence and last two clauses are paraphrases. However, the poem offers nothing to indicate that the singer is in love, or that she might love the sea, or that she cannot sing the song except in the presence of the sea. These assertions are pure conjecture, unanchored by text. Santilli is very much like the singer who transforms a silly love song into a transcendent musical moment because she has decided that the song is about her own devotion to God. That is to say, Santilli does not interpret; she performs texts in a particularly rich way, abandoning any real attempt to persuade. Since this is very much her own performance, it seems beside the point to cavil that she spells Ramon Fernandez’s name wrong, or misquotes a key passage (she writes “lights of the fishing boats” for Stevens’s “lights in the fishing boats”). At its heart, her approach is profoundly aesthetic. It is not too much to say that the entire book is a poetic gesture.
Poetic Gesture is at its best in such extended readings, where Santilli mixes suggestive paraphrase, quotation, and theory, typically reaching for inspirational generalizations reminiscent of Percy Bysshe Shelley. We find, for instance, that poetic gestures “express the silent, unreadable, deeper and older messages that we find inherent in mythical narratives” (xiii), and that “[t]o lose the power to gesture is to lose the power to create a beyond, to point toward the invisible, to illuminate the possibility of the divine” (7). No doubt, Stevens could be mystical and Shelleyan when talking about the place of poetry in human life. However, her approach can be selective. Symptomatic of this are Santilli’s several quotations from Stevens’ letters to Sister M. Bernetta Quinn. Stevens does say what she says he says in those letters, all of which imply that Stevens had a strong though unorthodox faith in the divine. However, at the same time he was writing to Sister Bernetta, he was giving others a much different impression: He told Victor Hammer that the “point” of “Angel Surrounded by Paysans” was that “there must be in the world about us things that solace us quite as fully as any heavenly visitation could” (Letters 661) which sounds like a rejection of the spiritual realm; to Thomas McGreevy, he lamented that he did not have enough time “to make up my mind about God” (Letters 763). Santilli fastens on to one aspect of Stevens’ thought and does not consider the ways that he conditions and undercuts that position.
Again, such a critique only asks the book to do what it has no intention of doing. It may be that, in a few decades time, nearly everyone will have reached the conclusions that Santilli has, and that a bright graduate student will unearth this essay and, patronizingly, point out how it is indicative of the previous age’s absurd assumptions.
Bart Eeckhout’s Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing responds to theoretical pluralism much differently. It is in my view the best book there is delineating the shape of Stevens’s criticism. Eeckhout’s procedure is to contextualize a critic, provide a quotation, and discuss it. Ideas are discussed as ideas, not great truths to admire. Charles Altieri once remarked at a conference that theoretical critics must resist the urge to be brilliant. He explained that, the more abstruse the theory and difficult the reasoning, the more the critic had to work to be clear and coherent. Santilli wrote a brilliant book; Eeckhout wrote one that we can all use.
Eeckhout, surveying the “full-blown critical industry that has sprung up in [Stevens’s] wake” (2002, 13), asks, “Why is it that this poetry has lent itself so well to professionalized academic appropriation-and of such diversity to boot?” (17). He positions his study as a complement to John Timberman Newcomb’s Wallace Stevens and Literary Canons, which inquires into how ideologies and institutions have shaped the reception of Stevens’s poetry. Eeckhout’s intent is to investigate how the poetry’s “intrinsic” characteristics (19), the “qualities of the poetry itself (20), helped shape its criticism. He goes on to say, a little unguardedly, “If the poetry has prompted so many critics to produce such a spate of commentaries, this must automatically and to a large extent be a function of its artistic mastery” (20). The rest of the book explores the theoretical and aesthetic dimensions (Eeckhout calls them “limits”) of Stevens’s corpus. Two aspects of Eeckhout’s premise speak to the problem of theoretical pluralism
The first is the notion that a work’s “intrinsic” mastery causes it to be written about. As of this writing, there are 1,667 entries for books, articles, and dissertations catalogued in the MLA index for Stevens. Is this abundance necessarily a condition of Stevens’poetry? For William Carlos Williams, there are 1,262 entries. There are 1,733 entries for Alfred, Lord Tennyson and 1,814 for Alexander Pope. Do these numbers prove Stevens is a better artist than Williams but worse than Tennyson or Pope? It strikes me that very few of the 852 entries for James Fenimore Cooper-and virtually none in the past twenty years-are related to that novelist’s aesthetic abilities. The canon and existing institutions seem to me more obvious causes for criticism to be written. Most readers only know about books that have been put before them. Moreover, the Stevens critical industry has been greatly bolstered by the Wallace Stevens Society, which sponsors prizes, conferences, sections in conferences, and The Wallace Stevens Journal. Somebody looking to put a line on a vita is more likely to expend critical energy in a direction that will be rewarded, so the easier path is another essay about Stevens instead of, say, something new on Adelaide Crapsey (7 entries) or MacKnight Black (2 entries).
Secondly, consider Eeckhout’s phrase, the poetry “has lent itself.”This literally states the text has volition. This intentionality ascribed to the text is clearly a response to critical pluralism. “It is not I but the verse,” Eeckhout is saying, “that decides my critical method.” Now, I have exaggerated his argument for effect, since he readily concedes the “enormous importance of readers in the interpretive process” (2002,18) and merely examines how the text’s contours help direct that process. But even this reasonable position assumes that there are features that can be asserted to be objectively (or, as Eeckhout would have it, intrinsically), there. Certain features of poetry likely do have claim to objective existence-say, that a Shakespearean sonnet has fourteen lines or that Stevens uses words like “blue” and “center” often. However, most of the features that Eeckhout focuses on, such as times when Stevens’ “most visionary, solemn, and ecstatic tone is accompanied by a burlesque, frivolous, mannered, or tinkling overtone” (40) seem to be the result of methods bent on finding such subtleties, readings about which competent readers may disagree.
Surely, Eeckhout uses textual intentionality and passive voice as a way of saying that readers have found that the poetry seems to lend itself to their purposes. Still, in the first chapter, Stevens’s verse is consistently portrayed as a living thing that makes choices: It “exerts its own enabling and disabling forces on the interpretive process” (18); later, Stevens’s poems “compel the reader to develop a more than usual degree of self-consciousness about the act of reading” (22). While few of my readers would disagree that a text is living in the sense that it is constantly being read and reinterpreted, that is not tantamount to saying the poem forces a certain interpretation. Tracing Eeckhout’s rhetoric, the text that merely lends itself to interpretation at the beginning of the chapter ends up compelling readers in the conclusion. It is like a surreal horror film: The more he discusses it, the more powerful the text becomes.
Having said this, I cannot but admit that I agree with Eeckhout that certain aspects of Stevens’ work seem to be there, that it is worth talking about them, and that a work’s salient features help shape its criticism. Still, in Eeckhout’s book and others, too often passive voice is used as a way of implying an absolute or normative interpretation or affect, eliding the problem of reader and institution. Whenever we assert a volitional text, we had better be aware that we are really just using shorthand for saying “Well, it seems to me (and other readers who think as I do) that the text is directing me to do this.”We had better be aware that we are employing an eighteenth-century standard of truth-that something is so because a group of reasonable people say it is-and that such a standard is greatly influenced by culture. Finally, it is probably better to jettison the rhetoric of compulsion. I personally know many readers of Stevens who, despite reading him closely, have not become more self-conscious.
The succeeding chapters investigate the ways that Stevens’s ideas “stand midwife to vaster theoretical structures” (2002, 47) as Eeckhout puts it.The poetry enacts a tension “between intelligible thoughts and a counterforce that is constantly in the process of undercutting or resisting intelligibility” (29); it “constantly questioned the unity of the speaking subject” (41); its philosophizing combines vagueness and suggestiveness in a way that is “impossible to synthesize” (141); it wavers between assertions of the integrity of the thing itself and the idealist proposition that the mind creates the world; it wavers between the idea that poetry is a mirror held up to nature and that poetry is the sound and play of words; it meditates variously on metaphor’s meaning. Throughout, Eeckhout’s discussion is well supported and thoughtful.
The book’s most impressive chapter is its sixty pages on “The Snow Man” and what people have said about it. Eeckhout concludes that the different readings are “caught up” in their “proper historicity” (2002, 111) but resists the notion that “anything goes.”Yet as he begins to delineate the limits of interpretation, he traverses ground I find uncertain. He contends that the variety of readings of “The Snow Man” is in part sponsored by an aesthetic that valued “the greatest possible denotative and connotative variety,” that “part of Stevens’s project” was “that his texts should be able to branch out as much as possible within the limits of an aesthetically effective economy” (112). I find it unlikely that Stevens intended this. In his extensive correspondence, he often explains what he had in mind for particular poems. He said that a few early poems were “pure poetry” with no denotative meaning. More generally, he paraphrased, rather dully, the doctrine of this or that poem. Although he sometimes prefaced his remarks by saying that explanations might ruin the poems in question, he never said that he was multiplying meanings. When given the chance to say he wanted his poems to branch out as Eeckhout claims, Stevens never said it. It is hard to imagine why he would keep that a secret. Of course many readers have found the poems branching out, but a significant portion of those readers are committed to interpretive styles and theories of language that assume such branching must occur. Thus, as much as I love the chapter on “The Snow Man,” I cannot agree with its concluding thesis. It appears that Eeckhout has mistaken the criticism for the work. Probably Eeckhout’s conclusion is due to cordial collegiality-he wants to agree with everybody, and the only way he can harmonize Helen Vendler and James Longenbach is to say the poem embodies plentitude.
In Why Americans Hate Politics, E. J. Dionne argues that American political debate is still shaped by Cold War tensions, and thus “liberalism and conservatism are framing political issues as a series of false choices” (1991,11). The literary-critical version of this is the Blame-Everything-on-the-New-Critics approach, which has given many a book and article a straw man. Thus, it is refreshing to read in Joseph Harrington’s Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U. S. Poetics that “it has become passe to critique the New Critics” (2002, 2), yet disappointing to see that he does it anyway. To be fair, his comments are more thoughtful than is generally the case, and such a critique is not out of place in his study. Still, I look forward to that day when some iconoclast from a non-prestigious university will insist on reading the New Critics through their qualifications and more careful considerations (instead of their most extreme assertions), and conclude either that “New Criticism” did not really exist, or that the New Critics very rarely practiced it.
Part of Harrington’s critique is that the New Critics exerted cultural hegemony, and thus understanding their convictions means understanding canon formation and what he calls the “social form” of poetry. His definition is wide-ranging:
The social form includes the historical meaning of the genre; the institutional production of the “poetic” (by publishers or critics, for instance); the interpretations, reception, judgments, and uses to which readers subject poems; the identity of the poetry audience (whether represented statistically or rhetorically); the text’s physical context of physical presentation or publication; and the roles and meanings of different poems and types of poetry as points within larger social relationships. (Harrington 2002, 4)
This historicist approach offers one answer to the problem of how to choose among theories. Harrington does not read texts “himself”; he shows us how various groups at certain times understood those texts. Of course, the book more accurately is Harrington’s reading of others’ readings. Yes, the historicist’s will is still at work, but that does not mean the thing itself cannot be shown to some degree. Careful historicism offers something that other approaches do not: a check to the pure exercise of critical will.
Chapter one revisits debates on Modernist poetry, distinguishing thinkers like Archibald MacLeish, who thought that a poem should just “be,” from more socially minded, genteel critics who thought it should “mean” and have a cultural value beyond itself. Harrington reminds us that those who held the latter view were plentiful and not intellectually bankrupt, suggesting we pay more attention to poetry clubs, newspaper poetry, and other popular forums.
Chapters two and three address Alan Tate and Wallace Stevens. He shows that Tate’s poems and essays, often assumed to be conservative, are actually “a classical liberal reaction against twentieth-century ‘social’ liberalism.” The classical liberal is something like what we would call libertarian today, focusing on individual rights and the limits of government. The social liberal embraced the New Deal and “equality and social solidarity” (2002, 59). However, Tate’s classically liberal ideals were constantly in tension with his “longing for subsumption in a communal union” (72) and a Burkean notion of an organic state.
Because Stevens s poetry can also be read to support classical liberalism, his works were canonized by Tate and other New Critics. Harrington focuses on the thirties, when Stevens began writing poems about the Depression and social unrest. At the chapter’s end, he recasts Stevens’s imagination/reality dichotomy as “a sort of compromise-formation between what the author represents as a world-historical reality principle on one hand and a desire for autonomy-a desire to ‘hug the purely local’-on the other” (2002,103).
This is a reasonable reformulation, but parts of his thesis deserve a closer look. For instance, he claims that Stevens’s penchant for abstraction provides “a perspective from which Depression, war, and totalitarianism become less personal, more distant, and therefore more amenable” (2002, 95). In saying this, Harrington ignores the political virtues of philosophical idealism-until the following chapter, when it turns out the abstractions of syndicalist, Arturo Giovannitti, have progressive political value. The poems were “disinterested” and thus more “public” (113) because they “do not directly engage the politics of the day” (114); since the contemporary audience knew Giovannitti was a labor organizer, it would “fill in the specifics” (115). It is hard to dispute that the public identity of an author matters (if Karl Rove published an abstract poem, I for one would search for political meaning), yet this does not force the conclusion that an insurance lawyer’s abstractions are necessarily bourgeois. My sense is that Harrington’s definition of “social form” is too broad to apply consistently, and here he seems to be simply choosing sides-sides already chosen for him by the New Critics, even if he reverses their judgments.
The next chapter acquaints us with the newspaper verse of “Anise,” Anna Louise Strong, which evolved into short, free-verse lines, each separated by three marks of punctuation. For example, here is the opening to the poem, “What’s Money, Anyway?”
It is the prize method
$ $ $
For TYING MEN
$ $ $
With a SETTLED HOME (2002, 133)
Strong “adapted both traditional and innovative textual forms to the interests of a local proletarian counterpublic sphere in which women were to be seen and heard” (148), argues Harrington. The poems were popular, easy to understand, and progressive, often addressing current affairs. It is easy to see why they were not canonized, and this chapter and the one on Giovannitti provide two snapshots of the world of poetry beyond what is traditionally anthologized.
In the conclusion, he argues that late twentieth-century American poetry “included multiple, difficult negotiations between normative standards, equality, community, subjectivity, and competing conceptions of and reactions to ‘the public'” (2002, 169). The book concludes with a discussion of public poetry in the 1990s-poetry slams, open readings, writing workshops, and popular anthologies (such as The Love Poems of Emily Dickinson). As with the “meaning” people of chapter one, Harrington points out that contemporary public poetry tends to stress communication, community, and “empowerment” (179).
What all three books share is a refusal to employ straight explication de texte. No doubt, some readers will complain that these works are not “about” Stevens at all-Santilli concerns herself with uncovering the unsaid and typically subsumes a poem within her own suggestive language; you must read fifty pages into Eeckhout before you come upon very much close reading; Harrington argues that “social form,” not the words on the page, determines meaning. These studies may seem to show that the text is slowly disappearing. To me, however, these books focus on what makes texts alive-readers. It would seem the text is still there, vital as ever; we are just finding out that we are there too.
Dionne, E. J. 1991. Wliy Americans Hate Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Newcomb, John Timberman. 1992. Wallace Stevens and Literary Canons. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Stevens, Wallace. 1996. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chris Beyers is an associate professor of English at Assumption College. His numerous publications include A History of Free Verse (2001).
Copyright West Chester University Fall 2005
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