“The Intricate Evasions of as”: History’s Duplicities in Stevens’s “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”

  • Barbara L. Estrin


In the course of “Auroras of Autumn,” Stevens comes to “feel afraid” of his own appropriations, the violations that resulted in the explosions “flaring on the frame / Of everything he is” (p. 417). In “An Ordinary Evening in New haven,” Stevens acts on those fears. his project is to find “the thing apart” (p. 465) from the “thing as idea” (p. 295) he relished in “So-and-So Reclining on her Couch” Abandoning the frame with its “apparition[s]” (p. 295) of repressed seizures and “mechanism[s]” (p. 295) of poetic determinism, the Stevens of “An Ordinary Evening in New haven” struggles to work out an alternative to the oxymoronic “solid space” of the earlier poem. he finds it by redefining the reality of the “solid”:
  • It is not in the premise that reality

  • Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses

  • A dust, a force that traverses a shade. (p. 489)

In order to get to the newly interpreted real at the end, Stevens begins with an attempt to break free from “the origin of a mother tongue” (p. 470) he inherits from the patriarchal language of “th[e] form[s]” (p. 470) of desire, with their “inescapable romance” and “inescapable choice / of dreams” (p. 468). The “romance” of the “romance” looms in its infinite deferrals. Satisfaction is always just beyond reach.


Woman Writing Legible Meaning Casual Litter Late President Ordinary Evening 
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    My premise here, that “automata” includes the political, might be disputed by those who say that Stevens was only concerned with artistic conformity. But Gromaire’s paintings are, in themselves often political commentaries, alternating between the same woman—a “So-and-So” reclining—and industrialized landscapes, peopled by sculptured industrial workers. Stevens describes them as intrinsic to what Gromaire “postulates [as] an ‘art directement social’ which transmits itself to the spectator without mediation or explanation.” See “Marcel Gromaire,” Opus Posthumous, ed. Milton J. Bates (New York: Knopf, 1989), p. 251.Google Scholar
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    Marjorie Perloff is the most consistently critical of Stevens’s indifference to politics. Of the “major man” of “Notes,” Perloff writes, “What does it signify, in the middle of World War II—when the real Major Men included such names as Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin—to posit the desirability, however fleeting, of Major Man?” See “The Supreme Fiction and the Impasse of the Modernist Lyric,” Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism, ed. Albert Gelpi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 59. In answer to Perloff’s accusations, Dean Rader maintains, “What remains troubling about comments … by Perloff and others is that they assume an undeviating Stevens; that is, they take for granted the assumption that Stevens never changes his mind, and they tend to ignore that Stevens develops and alters his vision over time as America and Modernity change.” “Wallace Stevens, Octavio Paz, and the Poetry of Social Engagement,” The Wallace Stevens Journal 21.3 (1997): 181. On the question of Stevens and politics, refer also to James Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) and Alan Filreis, Wallace Stevens and the Actual World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).Google Scholar
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    Considering Stevens’s relationship to the continent, Helen Vendler writes, “It is only after students understand that maximalist euphony and minimalist colorlessness, Euro-culture and American bareness, are aesthetically troubling and divisive issues for Stevens that the teacher can begin to show them why accuracy of representation must be the artist’s standard of moral responsibility.” “Wallace Stevens: Teaching the Anthology Pieces,” Teaching Wallace Stevens: Practical Essays, ed. John N. Serio and B. J. Leggett (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994), p. 10.Google Scholar
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    See David Jarroway, Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief: Metaphysician in the Dark (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), p. 302 for a play on New haven and old havens as well as Eleanor Cook Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 268.Google Scholar
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    Alan Filreis complains that “the poem’s bread may seem to simulate realism, but it is actually constructed of types: the (typical) plate, the (typical) loaf of bread and so on. It does not depict the observed scene. Definitive articles stand for the universal; ‘the’ rather than pointing to misery points it away.” Filreis reads the poem as Stevens’s defense of not going to Europe. Relying on “post-card” images sent to him by Barbara Church, who went grandly to Europe but wrote accurately of postwar European deprivation, he was able to resist “the travel-writing cliché of the ‘grand tour.’” Wallace Stevens and the Actual World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 226. On Stevens as armchair traveler, see Alison Rieke, “Stevens in Corsica, Lear in New haven,” The New England Quarterly 62.1 (1990): 35–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Angus Cleghorn writes that “in ‘The World as Meditation,’ Stevens gives ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ back to its singer.” See “And of that Other and her Desire: The Embracing Language of Wallace Stevens,” Ethics and the Subject, ed. Karl Sims (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997), p. 235.Google Scholar
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    For a discussion of Winnicott’s theory in Wallace Stevens, and especially in “The World as Meditation,” as a way of mediating between the internalized image and objective reality, see Mary Sidney Watson, “Wallace Stevens and the Maternal Art of Poetry,” The Wallace Stevens Journal 22.1 (1998): 72–82.Google Scholar
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    See Louis Martz’s definition of the meditative tradition in The Poetry of Meditation (New haven and London: Yale University Press, 1954), p. 1. Martz recognized the scope of “The World as Meditation” early on. “Wallace Stevens: The World as Meditation,” Yale Review 47 (1958): 517–36.Google Scholar
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    For Loren Rusk, “Penelope is the counterpart of the poet” and Stevens comes close—with her inventiveness—to suggesting that the creative mind has an “androgynous center.” “Penelope’s Creative Desiring: ‘The World as Meditation,’” The Wallace Stevens Journal 9.1 (1985): 16, 23.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Barbara L. Estrin 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara L. Estrin
    • 1
  1. 1.Stonehill CollegeUSA

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