Unfortunately, I was deeply affected by the poetry I loved and/or studied as a university student — Rimbaud, Tagore, Elliot, and so many others. Wallace Stevens was perhaps the most difficult to understand, and I loved his work all the more for that, just as I loved Wittgenstein or Hegel. I really understood very little of what I was reading in those days. But I read it all hard, I carried it to bed with me, I scrutinized the volumes while sunbathing nude (the one and only day that was possible, in May of 1980) in the cow pasture out behind my Oxford college. I was earnest.
I wrote poetry then, but it was bad. When I began to write poetry somewhat more seriously, in the early 1990s, Stevens got in the way. I could not possibly measure up to him. Having read Stevens so assiduously meant that I was also, to use a word I learned from another writer the other day, “primed” to think in his oblique, formalistic terms. I sounded like a poor imitation. That is why I had to purge him.
This poem emerged in a kind of controlled verbal rage against not just Stevens, but against the strictures of that schooled set of influences. I’ll reprint the poem here, then explain its references. Readers of Stevens will immediately recognize that this poem is chock full of references to his work. And of course, the embedding of references to other poems, philosophers, artists, the science of the day, is precisely what reading people like Stevens and Eliot and Pound, and studying literature generally, taught me to do.
So this was the weapon I took up against my mental priming.
Purging Wallace Stevens
Call the roller of big cigars and tell him to
get his ass out of town. He doesn’t give the orders
anymore — not in Key West, not anywhere. His world
is an attic, a koan at the end of the mind
posed by a million angels, all of them
unnecessary. Our complacencies are of the painful
variety: the muscular ones who whip the Kurds
or contemplate serial murder on Sunday morning.
Oh Wallace, we hardly knew you. Your words said only
what would suffice. You met every man of your time
but one, who sold insurance at a crap shoot. You
did not face the women of your time. They could have
introduced you, at the grand finale of seem, to the
sticky puddle underneath the emperor of ice cream.
Reprinted from Alan AtKisson, “Collected Poems: 1989-2009,” Broken Bone Press, 2012
So, that felt good. I got that out of my system. Here is what you might have missed, if you were a less obsessive fan of Wallace Stevens’ work.
Call the roller of big cigars
The principal poem being toyed with here is Stevens’ most anthologized work: “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Professors loved to teach this poem, with its tough-minded meditations on the interplay of appearance and reality. “Let be be finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” That’s Stevens’ closing line. “Do you get it?” the teachers would always say. “Ice cream always melts. Death and entropy are all that rules us in the end.” They appeared to love flogging their students with this kind of confrontation with our mortality.
not in Key West
In “The Idea of Order in Key West,” which is perhaps Stevens’ second-most-anthologized poem, I was taught that he was celebrating the human capacity to impose linear order on a chaotic natural world. The sail boats at Key West “mastered the night” (get that play on words with “mast”) with their straight lines against the sky, etc. etc. Well, two can play at the double entendre game, so I do, with “doesn’t give the orders anymore”.
a koan at the end of the mind / posed by a million angels
Here my studies of Zen Buddhism crept into the picture: there are no koans in Stevens, but his work is very koan-like, especially “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (the third most anthologized poem of his, though I have no data to back up these ordinal claims). I’m blending, in these lines, “The Palm at the End of the Mind” (the title of my tattered collection of his work) and “The Necessary Angel,” his singular book of essays.
Our complacencies are of the painful variety
The upper-class domestic sketching in “Sunday Morning (“Complacencies of the peignoir” is the opening line, as I recall). The newspapers were full of violence against the Kurdish people (and others) in those days, and some serial murderer (Jeffrey Dahmer maybe?) was in the headlines. We weren’t in the 1920s anymore. Oh, and the roller of big cigars, “the muscular one,” is bid to whip concupiscent curds in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” (The word “cereal” shows up in one of those Stevens’ pieces too — I am writing all this from memory now, so I am not quite sure exactly where it shows up.)
Your words said only / what would suffice.
Stevens explicitly practiced the art of saying “what would suffice,” like a sculptor chipping away at stone till what’s left is statue. Of course, I admired this, deeply, else I never would have had to become so irate in order to purge it, in an effort to find my own voice.
… who sold insurance at a crap shoot.
Stevens, as is well known, was a senior insurance executive. That was his “day job.” Here I am claiming — with something like false bravado — that he never actually encountered himself. His poetry is certainly self-reflective, deeply intelligent, sometimes achingly beautiful … but also cold and impersonal, like the poetry of a self-aware supercomputer. What’s the crap shoot? Oh, that’s easy. That’s life. But the insurance approach to poetry has the tendency to reduce life’s blood-and-sweat vagaries, its reckless gambling, to the precision of actuarial tables, which is, as I insinuate here (with that subtle word “crap”), a load of crap.
You did not face the women of your time.
The treatment of women in Stevens’ work is deeply problematic. They are posed, if they are present at all, in their peignoirs, or as two-dimensional cut-outs, inquisitively but rather naively questioning Picasso and his blue guitar. This is masculine, old-boy stuff. It seems, in Stevens, that only the men have minds — orderly, masterly minds.
Which is why this poem ends on a note of pity. Who knows what Stevens really thought, or felt. I hope that my purge-by-critique is base and unfair; I am, after all, reacting against a cardboard cut-out. But how different might he have been — how different would his poetry have been — had he broken a few more pencils, ripped up the dance floor a bit, lain his head in his lover’s lap and sighed a deep sigh … and just listened to what she had to say.