I dislike the garden variety college activist who demands Wallace Stevens shouldn’t be read because of his racism. I detest the biographer who treats him as if he’s a god. Both are fringes of cultural movements, nether edges that do nothing but troll each other, and contribute no good towards art or critical discussion. However, the activist will be shamed, ignored and disposed of on account of the cynical factory dynamics of modern academic life( which is unfortunate, because most of the people complaining are just kids, and every white person who gets a hard on talking trash about black student activists act like they never made a mistake at 20.). Mariani’s testament of devotion to Stevens( The Whole Harmonium) will have staying power and a stronger network of people in the right wing academic community.Stevens’ racism wasn’t a product of his time, it was openly reviled at the very moment he spewed it. His public racial abuse of Gwendolyn Brooks at the 1950 Pulitzer Prize Awards is one of the lowest moments in American Poetry history. If you don’t want to talk about that, that’s one thing: one should work to separate the artist from their art. ( EX: I like Philip Larkin’s poems even though Philip Larkin really didn’t like people who looked like me).
But defending “Nigger Cemetery” as a poem is neo confederate gibberish. Stevens was the probably the most sadistic racist to become a publicly known poet in the English language. Like so many of his white brethren, Stevens was acting on his cruelest impulses in imagining a vandalization of a black graveyard. The poem is sheer cruelty on the page. It was so cruel (even for it’s time) that it got ripped apart in The New Masses and was the reason that Stevens was treated as an eccentric creep for almost the duration of his poetry career. Only with the cult worship of Ezra Pound, the point when so much of American Modernist and Post modernist scholarship slipped into a white identity politics that it still can’t seem to shake, did Stevens come back to critical consciousness.
If I were to teach him in a modernist poetry class, I would teach everything. I would teach Harmonium. I would teach Ideas Of Order. I would teach Nigger Cemetery and the later poems. I would also teach him with Federico Garcia Lorca, Marianne Moore, Vicete Huidobro, Cesar Vallejo, and William Carlos Williams and ask them to compare. I would ask them to Read and study the backgrounds of the Gypsy Songs, Trilce, and Observations. I would ask them to see what is going on and each poem, form their own opinions on them, compare them to Stevens dicking around in a black graveyard, and have a discussion on what works for them as writers. I would ask them to note how many times in the later poems that Stevens leans on a similar, cliched language about ” The immortality of man” ” silly” women and “foolish” brown people; and I would ask them to read the aforementioned writers to see how they did not. I would also ask them to look at the longer later poems and see what exists as narrative and what exists as statement.
I’m not going to tell you Stevens wasn’t a great poet: Harmonium gave English language modernism a lyrical music and blank verse form a music it hadn’t seen before. However, his genius is far more limited than Harold Bloom says it is, and it is is “Nigger Cemetary” when Stevens stopped being an artist and became a glorified nature pamphleteer for the far right.
This biography is more readable than Hugh Kenner’s Paleo-con sermon on Ezra Pound. But where Kenner struggled to make convincing arguments about Pound’s symbols in relation to the fluid organic nature of a poem; Mariani has a hard time convincing the reader of that the glorified blue blood greeting card lyrics of Stevens’ later work are any more than that.