Monday, October 26, 2009

A livelier spirit ...

... actually: The sovereign ghost of Wallace Stevens. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

"... Blackmur, as close to a genius as American criticism ever produced (excepting only Poe) ... "

I think some - not I - would put forth Edmund Wilson as a critic of genius, and have much evidence to support their case. My choice for the critic as artist would be Van Wyck Brooks, whose critical judgments are incorporated into narrative, characterization, and wondrous description. But I suppose Brooks is out of fashion these days.

I am also bothered by Logan's view of Stevens's "philosophizing." Merely because Eliot "trained" in philosophy does not mean that Eliot was somehow more original or sounder in whatever philosophical conclusions he arrived at. There is a difference between being a philosopher and having a degree in the subject. As it happens, Eliot and Stevens both studied under George Santayana, a genuine philosopher. So did Conrad Aiken, and I think Santayana's influence is evident in the work all three, if only in the melody of their verse. I also think it is more important to study under a real philosopher than to get that degree. Anyone who has read both Santayana and Stevens will recognize that Stevens's collected poems are practically a commentary on Santayana's philosophy - except that in the end Stevens, I think, takes a step toward faith that his mentor could not bring himself to take. Eliot and Stevens both, I think, are poets preoccupied with questions of faith.

As for Stevens as being our poet of "emotional extinction," it is useful to remember that it was Eliot who said that poetry "is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." Merely because one masters one's emotions, does make a display of them, does not mean one does not feel them, and feel them deeply. Of course, as Eliot also said, "only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things...."

I confess that the best thing I got out of this piece was the discovery, by way of the comments, of this blog: Poet Tree.


  1. Logan has been making himself more and more clearly into a "critic" who thinks that only snark will serve as criticism. His reviews have become better known even as they have become shallower. There's a real ideology at work that unifies all his reviews, and it's an ideology of disparagement, despair, and disaffection.

    The comments thread to that non-article got it right, when more than one stated that they couldn't get very far into the article as such, and that Stevens deserves better. I say this as someone who does not put Stevens on as high a pedestal as many others do, and yet Stevens DOES deserve better.

  2. Afterthought: HIlary Mantel described Logan very well with her point that critics should not be prescriptive of writers. It seems to me that there is a serious trend in lit crit going on right now, exemplified by Logan, James Woods, and others, to be precisely that prescriptive, in which the critics tell the writers what they did, what they should do, and how to do it. It's a really bad trend, and it's very dangerous.