Longenbach on Stevens

James Longenbach Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things.
Oxford University Press, 342 pages, $18.95


“Many readers of Wallace Stevens,” notes the jacket copy of James Longenbach’s second book, “wonder at his ‘double’ life: the poet, crafting phrases of supernal elegance and beauty, and the lawyer and insurance executive, wading through life’s utilitarian chores with practical aplomb. For more than one critical generation it has seemed as if these two men were unacquainted… . [But this notion] is misleading… . Stevens was not only aware of the momentous events taking place around him, but often his poetry was inspired by those events… . [H]e… thought deeply about the strengths—and, equally important, the limitations—of poetry as a social product and force.”

This thesis is presented as revolutionary; but it’s hardly that. For who would argue that Stevens’s two “halves” were unacquainted, or that he was unaware of the Depression and world wars, or that he didn’t think deeply about poetry and society? What matters is that his poems, whether or not inspired by historic events, deal chiefly with abstract ideas and not politics. Longenbach, an associate professor at the University of Rochester, never really denies this, though he does offer his own version of the contemporary line that not to make a political statement is to make a political statement; as he puts it, “Stevens’s interest in poetic ambiguity” and “his concern with the limitations of the social function of poetry” are “part of a carefully modulated effort to assert the historicity of poetry and the polit-ical power of poets.” Certainly all his rhetoric, in this chronologically arranged study, about how “Stevens confronted basic political issues daily in his work at the Hartford,” how “the Great War helped to shake Stevens into the state of mind that produced ‘Sunday Morning,’” and how Harmonium was a “product of a postwar historical imperative,” makes it sound as if Longenbach’s purpose is to reclassify Stevens as a political poet.

Everyone calls Stevens a poet of imagination and reality. Longenbach prefers to invoke other dichotomies: “public and private,” “engagement and transcendence,” “art and politics,” “self and politics,” “idealism and realism,” “the world within and the world without.” His slick blurring of distinctions not only among these dichotomies but also among the various senses of “politics” makes it hard not to feel, at times, that he’s trying to overstate the political dimension of Stevens’s art. Ultimately, however, Longenbach doesn’t seriously misrepresent either Stevens’s politics or his verse’s political detachment—which would seem to suggest that the aim here is not necessarily to twist Stevens into a political poet but simply to trace his political shifts. But why? For little of what Longenbach has to say on this subject illuminates Stevens’s poetry; indeed, Longenbach generally seems to be talking not about the poems but around them.

Among his more notable accomplishments here is that he manages to work in most of the biggest names on the academic hit parade—among them deconstructionists, feminists, and Marxists—and, despite the apparent incompatibility of their approaches, to agree with virtually all of them. (He will be a full professor before he knows it.) One minute he is cheerfully citing Frank Lentricchia on Stevens’s “epic of bourgeois interiority”; the next, he is examining Stevens’s “patriarchal” assertion of “phallic power” and his “desire to suppress feminine energies.” A master of the “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach, he is so quick to qualify every statement, to seek common ground among differing points of view, and to underscore the ambiguities in every situation that he ends up saying almost nothing fresh or surprising. Indeed, what this book essentially amounts to is a poised, professionally prudent restatement of universally accepted ideas by a critic with no conspicuous passions or convictions. Though he makes some solid points, then (for instance, about why Stevens never visited Europe), Longenbach emerges from this study with no clear point of view of his own—in fact, no clear point at all.