For a while now, I’ve been trying to make the case here and there that Wallace Stevens’s outsized influence on American avant-garde poetry — including on the poets of the New York School — has often been overlooked, to the detriment of both.
Now, I’ve had the chance to expand on this argument in an essay I contributed to a new collection entitled The New Wallace Stevens Studies, edited by Bart Eeckhout and Gül Bilge Han, which was recently published by Cambridge University Press.
In the piece, I argue that literary history has long downplayed or ignored Stevens’s crucial role in the history of experimental poetics, from Objectivism, to the various movements of the “New American Poetry,” to Language poetry, and beyond. For reasons I discuss in the essay, Stevens has long been cast as a formalist favorite and latter-day Romantic or neo-Symbolist poet, of marginal importance to avant-garde poets who follow him (though that impression has begun to change somewhat in recent years).
As I put it in the essay, “in the case of the New York School, the neglect of Stevens as an important precursor causes problems in both directions: it unnecessarily limits our sense of New York School poetry, while simultaneously hindering our understanding of Stevens and his legacy. For one thing, it gives us a misleading picture of the aesthetic and philosophical complexity of New York School poetics, which can too easily be reduced to a chatty, pop-culture infused poetry of urban daily life. On Stevens’s side of the equation, this neglect reinforces the distorted image of Stevens as stuffy, backward-looking aesthete, devoted solely to abstraction and imagination, disdainful of the concrete, everyday realities so dear to the New York School, and perpetuates the notion that he has been of minimal importance to the avant-garde strain in American poetry.
The essay discusses Stevens’s importance not only to John Ashbery (to whom he has of course often been connected), but also to Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and members of the New York School’s second generation, like Ted Berrigan. Ultimately, I argue that “for all their differences, Stevens and the New York School poets share a great deal: an obsession with painting and a passion for all things French; a delight in wordplay and the sensuous surfaces of language; an anti-foundational skepticism towards fixity in self, language, or idea; and perhaps most of all, an embrace of the imagination and deep attraction to the surreal combined with a devotion to the ordinary and everyday.”
You can read my essay and find out more about The New Wallace Stevens Studies here.