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Posts Tagged ‘Wallace Stevens’

Jar Watch

October 14, 2016 | by

Photo: TheStarmon, Wikimedia Commons.

I first arrived in LA in the dark. On crutches. I’d been bitten by a dog the week before, that was the reason, but by the time we got from LAX to our temporary digs in Laurel Canyon, having almost thrown up in the car, I was definitely worse for wear, as if I’d walked the whole way. The next morning—though I felt like the sister from another planet (I’d never been to California)—I had to admit it was beautiful here: morning glory blooming up the side of the house in the middle of winter; all those flowering trees. But the rest of the city turned out to be ugly, so I thought: too much stucco; everything short and squat, brown or beige, bleached out and overexposed. I couldn’t see the forest for the palms, bearded and rootless, coming straight up from the pavement.

Anyway. Not so long after, within the year or so, a famous comet was scheduled to show up in our skies, a once-in-a-lifetime event—not to be missed—and the best place for us to get a glimpse? The Mojave. How astonishing if you hail from New England, to find yourself living on the lip of the Mojave. As recommended, we left after midnight and drove until ours was the only car on a two-lane road, nothing but sand and scrub as far as we could see. We pulled over, turned off the high beams, and stepped outside. It was freezing. And the Joshua trees—wizened, arthritic—seemed to fold in on themselves as if they disapproved of our being there; no moon in the sky that night, much less a comet, and not many stars. Cold, disappointed—a little scared of the quiet and the dark—I gave up. Sat hunched in the car, like one of those pissy little trees, while Fred (my boyfriend) shivered and scanned the sky. Read More »

The Literate Pigeons, and Other News

September 21, 2016 | by

He thinks he’s people!

  • I used to take such pride in my literacy. “Look at me!” I would shout, running down the street in my I’M LITERATE T-shirt. “I can read!” But now the pep is out of my step, because apparently even pigeons can learn to read: “Through gradual training, the birds moved from learning to eat from a food hopper, to recognizing shapes, to learning words … After narrowing down to the four brightest birds out eighteen, over eight months of training, the advanced-class pigeons were taught to distinguish four-letter words from nonwords. They were even able to tell the difference between correctly spelled words and those with transposed characters, like ‘very’ and ‘vrey,’ or words with different letters included to make them completely misspelled.”
  • And that means it’s only a matter of time until the pigeons will be texting, too, because that’s what everyone does now. What do you think the pigeons are gonna do, use the telephone? The phone call is dead. Don’t even bother making a friendly call, unless you’re a needy loser. Timothy Noah tells us, “The phone call died, according to Nielsen, in the autumn of 2007. During the final three months of that year the average monthly number of texts sent on mobile phones (218) exceeded, for the first time in recorded history, the average monthly number of phone calls (213). A frontier had been crossed. The primary purpose of most people’s primary telephones was no longer to engage in audible speech … Calling somebody on the phone used to be a perfectly ordinary thing to do. You called people you knew well, not so well, or not at all, and never gave it a second thought. But after the Great Texting Shift of 2007, a phone call became a claim of intimacy. Today if I want to phone someone just to chat, I first have to consider whether the call will be viewed as intrusive. My method is to ask myself, ‘Have I ever seen this person in the nude?’ ” 

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Shock Your Way to Fertility, and Other News

August 11, 2016 | by

This could be you, friend! Animal magnetism and animal electricity at work.

  • Some asshole on Ninth Avenue grabbed Mary Karr’s crotch and that was a really, really, really dumb thing for him to do: “I came to and shouted from the doorway, ‘Not today! Not this bitch! You picked the wrong woman to fuck with today!’ … Around Forty-First Street, a cop car pulled up, and I hopped in and recounted it all as they peeled out like they do on Law & Order. The female officer riding shotgun radioed the description I gave her to other cops, who nabbed him and hauled him, handcuffed, before me outside the Port Authority. ‘That’s him!’ I said. He was blank-eyed, as if this whole thing were happening to somebody else. His buddy was amped up, though, claiming his friend hadn’t done anything. I shot back that was horse hockey—yes, he had—and the buddy walked off as an officer put the Grabber in the back of a cruiser.”
  • In the thirties, Wallace Stevens published a poem called “Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz”: “There are these sudden mobs of men, / These sudden clouds of faces and arms, / An immense suppression, freed, / These voices crying without knowing for what … ” David Bromwich reflects on the meaning of these lines in the age of Trumpism: “The qualities of the mob I think Stevens meant to evoke were anger and a somehow warranted self-pity. Those outside are unequipped by nature to enter into the mood. But these sudden mobs don’t want our pity; they are made out of feelings that are intoxicating, and the feelings are their own reward. And never pretend that self-pity is a contemptible thing. It is the most popular and contagious of emotions. ‘The epic of disbelief,’ Stevens concluded, ‘Blares oftener and soon, will soon be constant.’”

A Huntsman of Ogres, and Other News

March 22, 2016 | by

From the cover of a new collection of Broodthaers’s poetry by Siglio Press.

  • At a moment when Syria, in the Western imagination, is synonymous with violence and war, an anonymous Syrian film collective called Abounaddaraprovides a strikingly different picture of Syrians and their country,” as our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, writes: “The members of Abounaddara, an Arabic phrase meaning ‘the man with glasses,’ began making films in 2010, but it was Syria’s version of the Arab Spring that gave them an urgent sense of purpose. For the past five years, they have posted a new documentary film every week, resulting in an archive of nearly four hundred shorts that can be watched for free on Vimeo … These films, whose subjects include soccer players for the Syrian national team, bereaved parents, former prisoners of ISIS, intellectuals, and refugees, are powerful portraits of individual Syrians, yet they can also be hard to read, in part because we’re told so little about the subjects and settings. This withholding of information is clearly by design. The films often begin and end in medias res, leaving the viewer to puzzle out their significance. They require one to think as well as to look.”
  • The set designer Es Devlin has a CV that includes everyone from Shakespeare to Verdi to Miley Cyrus: “Devlin argues that there is something in between pictorial realism and complete abstraction. Though she borrows elements from every period, her approach is thoroughly contemporary. She’s not interested in straight realism, or in traditional production design … She is theatre’s postmodern expert, and has an instinctive sense of how Shakespeare and opera and fashion and pop concerts might draw from the same dark web of psychological information. Each of her designs is an attack on the notion that a set is merely scenery. She is in demand because she can enter the psychic ether of each production and make it glow with significance. She told me, ‘A stage setting is not a background, it is an environment’—something that directors and actors can respond to. ‘Sometimes what these people want is a liberator, someone who might encourage them to defy gravity.’ ”
  • A new biography of Wallace Stevens, The Whole Harmonium, reminds us of the vast chasm between artist and art: “He never left North America. He was casually racist and anti-Semitic. A Hoover Republican, he distrusted labor unions. He drank too much at parties, to overcome his natural shyness, and later had to apologize for his boorishness. In the depths of the Depression, he made $20,000 a year, the equivalent of $350,000 today … ‘Wallace Stevens is beyond fathoming,’ Marianne Moore wrote, comparing him to a person with ‘a morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose.’ But the secret would out, and in his poems Stevens revealed it: The bluff American executive had a soul as baroque and fantastical as an aesthete’s, as profound and brooding as a philosopher’s.”
  • Before he found renown as a painter, sculptor, filmmaker, collector, and God knows what else, Marcel Broodthaers was a poet. And his poems pursued (among other subjects) ogres: “The world of these poems is far removed from modern life. My Ogre Book in particular, a self-described ‘suite of poetic tales,’ unfolds across a medieval-ish neverland of forests, mad kings, storm-swept landscapes, and those ogres invoked in the title. Its fairy-tale idiom is vivid but generalized, the animal and human figures serving as emblems that are never far distant from elemental strife: ‘Lost in solitude / I have always been prey,’ reflects the speaker of ‘The Donkey-Drummer’; ‘The toads devour themselves / at the heart of diamonds,’ runs the full text of one of the brief untitled poems interlarded throughout the book; in ‘A Drama of Solitude’ a ‘huntsman of ogres’ turns on his loyal dog and kills him, preferring ‘to be alone in the Great North.’ Broodthaers’s archaism, which according to his translator extends to his use of anachronistic phrasing in the original French, was also deeply personal, providing him with a means to map his inner geography in ways both distanced and intimate.”
  • Today in nomenclature and direct democracy: just when you’re coming around to the idea of the Internet as a tool to empower the masses, something like this happens … and you’re more convinced of its awesome potential than ever before. “A proposal by a British government agency to let the Internet suggest a name for a $287 million polar research ship probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, the agency is the latest group to see what happens when web users are asked to unleash their creative energy: R.S. Boaty McBoatface is a clear front-runner … Alison Robinson, a spokeswoman, said in an email that the group was ‘delighted by the enthusiasm and creativity’ of people vying for names like Boaty McBoatface. The ship is scheduled to set sail in 2019.”

Clairvoyant Observation

March 9, 2016 | by

A vision of Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” at its centenary.

Diane Szczepaniak, Stanza 6 (Is there no change of death in paradise).

When “Sunday Morning” was first published in the November 1915 issue of Poetry, just over a hundred years ago, Wallace Stevens was thirty-six; the poem was one of his first major publications. He’d recently moved to the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he would spend the rest of his life insuring people against the hazards of sudden change. His professional and poetic lives converged on that fact: everything changes.

A spiritual meditation for a secular era, “Sunday Morning” glows with the ripe colors of late summer and early autumn, brief arc segments of the seasonal cycle whose rhythms Stevens celebrates.


In 2007, my mother, Diane Szczepaniak, a lifelong abstract painter and sculptor, began to memorize “Sunday Morning.” She was unaccustomed to memorization; it became a kind of ritual for her. She kept Stevens’s book by her bed and worked through the poem line by line. As she built each stanza in her memory, she began to paint her experience of the images, music, and emotions carried by the language. The paintings became her “Sunday Morning” seriesRead More »

To the Crematorium with Patricia, and Other News

October 16, 2015 | by

A 1909 postcard of the main gates to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

  • Susan Howe on Wallace Stevens and just plain old liking the guy’s poems: “The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy. This is the simple truth. Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper. No matter how many theoretical and critical interpretations there are, in the end each new clarity of discipline and delight contains inexplicable intricacies of form and measure … I don’t often remember Stevens poems separately except for the early ones, but they all run together, the way Emerson’s essays do, into one long meditation, moving like waves, and suddenly there is one perfect portal. The quick perfection.”
  • In 1987, Patricia Highsmith, then at her most misanthropic and having found a malignant tumor on her lung, paid a visit to Brooklyn, where she wrote an abortive essay for the New York Times about Green-Wood Cemetery. It never ran, perhaps because its pivotal moment finds her sticking her hand in an industrial furnace, still warm, at the crematorium. “The warmth of that retort, even though it may have come from a pilot flame, brought home death to me as none of the stone monuments above ground had,” she writes. She also likens the cemetery to a passing garbage truck: “Its apparently inexhaustible drip of squashed vegetable matter or leftover orange juice reminds me of human mortality, with its attendant ugliness, stench and inevitability.”
  • Susan Cheever has looked into America’s long lust for booze, and she’s discovered a few things. First, that a drunk Nixon once claimed he’d made a great pope. And second, that the link between writers and alcohol is a fairly new one: “In the nineteenth century, writers didn’t drink. Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow. Nope. No drinkers. It’s not about the writers. It’s about the drinking culture. Some writers drink a lot, so much so that the five people who won the Nobel Prize for literature were all alcoholics [Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck]. I hadn’t really done the math, and then it occurred to me that, of course, it came out of Prohibition, that Prohibition made drinking that much more attractive to writers.”
  • Today in vintage hate-reads: a newly discovered transcript of Ayn Rand’s remarks to the 1974 graduating class at West Point finds her up to her usual tricks, i.e., disguising out-and-out bigotry behind a tissue-thin veil of “philosophy.” “Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent,” Rand said to the group of dewy-eyed officers-to-be. “It is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights … Racism didn’t exist in this country until the liberals brought it up.” Important words to remember the next time you spot a malleable young person reading The Fountainhead and claiming it’s just “a really good story.”
  • Notes toward a theory of Playmobil, with its bizarre, intensely Euro-zone aesthetic, its fascination with the civil service, its tendency to exalt the bourgeois: “As I examined the Playmobil version of Vermeer’s Milkmaid, I realized how Vermeer’s popularity as a painter rests on the same sort of generic, domestic scenarios as Playmobil, with all those charming, joyful, bourgeois little details, the depiction of the everyday things of our lives … Next to Lego … Playmobil can seem downright dowdy and boring … One of the best-selling sets is a Christmas manger scene. The fastest-selling Playmobil figure of all time was launched this past winter: Martin Luther, complete with quill and German Bible!”