When I wrote this post, I did not know that Poetry editor Christian Wiman participated in the 2004 conference, “Celebrating Wallace Stevens: The Poet of Poets in Connecticut,” at the University of Connecticut. According to this account at electronic book review, here is what Wiman had to say:
. . .Throughout the entire proceedings, he had sat a bit pushed back from the table, looking sallow and brooding, else intent and reticent. When his turn came to speak, he cleared his throat and slowly, in carefully enunciated syllables, began with this proposition: if Wallace Stevens is influential in 50 years, then the break between American poetry and the world will be complete. Much of the crowd, a bit confused by this comment, leaned in attentively. Was Stevens a great poet? Yes of course. But, was he a companionable poet? No, not at all. In fact - Wiman continued in measured tones - he was almost inhuman, uprooted, impenetrable, unpenetrating, a self-indulgent effete, a hyper-cerebral poet with raw talent blazing but little sense of how to convey something a reader might enter into, something born of blood and emotion and the shared commonalities of lived life. He was a destructive influence on modern poetry. . .Stevens’ poetry has abjured the world, Wiman continued, he lived in a bubble of the mind so that he might not be infected by life. His poetry corrosively and obsessively studied itself and was utterly unconcerned with the specificity of things and with relationships to people. There was coldness or distance that Wiman sensed in Stevens’ poetry and it turned him off, way off, didn’t arrive at the root of him as a reader. The early poems thought in sounds, not in ideas, and throughout Stevens’ career, all he could see were busy associative surfaces with very little depth. . . .
What strikes me most about this passage (acknowledging that it is a paraphrase of Wiman's remarks, not direct quotation), is the dishonesty of allowing that Stevens might be a "great poet," even though his poems have the grave defects Wiman enumerates. Clearly Wiman doesn't believe Stevens is a great poet; how could someone who had "a destructive influence on modern poetry" be great? Wiman has high moral standards for poetry to meet--it mustn't be "inhuman" (that word again),"uprooted," "self-indulgent"--and manifestly Stevens's poetry doesn't measure up. (Although is is important to note that these standards are moral. There's nothing in this diatribe that actually touches on Stevens's facility as a poet, his ability to indeed think "in sounds.")
Although perhaps it is more important for a poet to be "companionable" than to dilly-dally around so much with words and stuff, more important to offer "something born of blood and emotion" (as if Stevens's poems don't contain emotion--has Wiman read "The Death of a Soldier"?) than to write skillful and provocative poems. Presumably Poetry will be publishing poems that manifest the opposite qualities Wiman describes here, and readers can decide for themselves whether they represent an advance in the art of poetry. But if I had to bet on what will be influential 50 years from now, the issues of Poetry editied by Christian Wiman or the poems of Wallace Stevens, my money is decidedly on the latter.
Thanks to John Palatella for alerting me to the ebr article.