Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing

Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing

Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing

Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing


Often considered America's greatest twentieth- century poet, Wallace Stevens is without a doubt the Anglo-modernist poet whose work has been most scrutinized from a philosophical perspective. Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing both synthesizes and extends the critical understanding of Stevens's poetry in this respect. Arguing that a concern with the establishment and transgression of limits goes to the heart of Stevens's work, Bart Eeckhout traces both the limits of his poetry and the limits of writing as they are explored by that poetry.

Stevens's poetry has been interpreted so variously and contradictorily that no reading that does not first address the question of limits to the poetry's signifying potential can deepen one's appreciation of it. In the first half of this book, the limits of appropriating and contextualizing Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West, " and "The Snow Man, " among other works, are investigated. Eeckhout does not pursue the negative purpose of disputing earlier interpretations, but the more positive intention of identifying the intrinsic qualities of the poetry that have been responsible for the remarkable amount of critical attention it has received.

Having identified the major sources of Stevens's polysemy and of the seeming free-for-all of his critical afterlife, Eeckhout deals with most of the poet's major works and proceeds to analyze some of the most important limits of writing explored by the poetry itself. These limits all revolve around the nexus of perception, thought, and language -- three experiential categories that go to the core dynamic out of which Stevens's poetry is generated and to which it continuallyreturns.

Stevens's work presents one of the most poignant opportunities for letting the reader feel the ever-problematical relationship between specificity and generality that is at the heart of all literary writing. By negotiating bet


If you say on the hautboy man is not enough, Can never stand as god, is ever wrong In the end, however naked, tall, there is still The impossible possible philosophers' man, The man who has had the time to think enough, The central man, the human globe, responsive As a mirror with a voice, the man of glass, Who in a million diamonds sums us up.

∼Wallace Stevens, “Asides on the Oboe”

THE POETRY OF WALLACE STEVENS is full of limits and questions of liminality. At the most straightforward, thematic level, this is immediately obvious from a wealth of liminal scenes: whether it is twenty men crossing a bridge into a village, a blackbird marking the edge of one of many circles, flocks of pigeons winging their way down into darkness, the latest freed man sitting at the edge of his bed, one of the limits of reality presenting itself in Oley, an old philosopher on the threshold of heaven, or the palm at the end of the mind on the edge of space, we come across limits and liminal situations at every point throughout the collected poetry. This thematic focus is further enhanced by Stevens's well-attested predilection for the most archetypical binary divisions, such as day and night, sun and moon, sea and earth (or sea and sky, earth and sky), summer and winter (or their transitions, spring and fall), matter and mind, or reality and the imagination. The ubiquity of such poetically pedigreed oppositions in his work may even count as an important reason for his relatively smooth assimilation into the poetic canon, whose traditional topoi he so inventively and extensively developed as to . . .

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