chapter 3 of Alan Filreis's Wallace Stevens and the Actual
World (Princeton University Press, 1991)
From the depths of his distance from everything he extracts, because
he needs to extract . . . .
Because our "internationalism" lacks solid foundation it may be
difficult for us to see in any consistent way just what is to our
His places are places visited on a vacation.
--Robert Lowell, in a review of Stevens's Transport to Summer
--Stevens, writing about Leonard van Geyzel (L 513)
--Hadley Cantril, "How Real Is America's Internationalism?" April 29, 1945
--William Carlos Williams, "A Place (Any Place) to Transcend
All Places," a poem written in reply to Stevens's "Description
the crisis (at home)
peasant loyalties inspire
the avant-garde . . . .
From the depths of his distance from everything he extracts, because
he needs to extract . . . .
Because our "internationalism" lacks solid foundation it may be
difficult for us to see in any consistent way just what is to our
June 27, 1945. Not surprisingly, when asked to give the oration for the Phi Beta Kappa exercises at Harvard on the twenty-seventh of that month, Sumner Welles chose to refer to events of the moment. Former Undersecretary of State, author of the polemical Time for Decision (1944), theorist of postwar balance of power, vociferous proponent of the nascent United Nations Organization, Welles could offer the Harvard audience his "Vision of a World at Peace," a vision that enabled him to perceive "traditions of generations of isolationism" still working counterproductively though "subconsciously" in the minds of Americans. Yet he also saw that the United States would not be the primary stumbling block to a postwar peace. If anything, "[w]e have too often refrained . . . from maintaining any firm position, even on questions of the highest principle, in problems in which the Soviet Union was primarily involved. This has been the case even though we ourselves are known to have no axe to grind." Thus "we," unlike the Soviets, "have made it clear that we desire no territorial or material gain." Welles was giving the graduating class at Harvard its final and most important lesson in political science. "No student of the world's history" could deny at that moment that the American people would now make the decisions affecting "the destinies of the human race in the coming years." Nor, despite Americans' physical distance from the battle still raging, would such a twentieth-century historian deny in June of 1945 that the "tidal waves" of this second world war were "making their effects felt in every field of life."
If Welles's decision to refer straightforwardly to recent events came as no surprise at Harvard, what should we make of Stevens's decision not to? The final point of Welles's speech itself suggests that the poet who shared the platform with the politician that morning at the Fogg Museum would also surely have something to say about the present situation, for the politician's way of speaking about the effect of the war "in every field of life served to enlarge the relevance of his position from politics to politics-as-including-culture. Welles could easily sustain the wartime conception of art, too, as a war effort that must not relent in the postwar period, and in his Harvard speech he pushed that point by rhetorically creating a moment in which he acknowledged the situation of his fellow speaker. Traditionally, indeed, the annual PBK Oration and Poem--ritually capitalized in all correspondence files of the Harvard PBK chapter--complemented each other. Yet Stevens's offering, a long poem called "Description without Place" (CP 339-46), evidently had nothing to say about the present situation.
The organizers of the occasion had not in fact given him much guidance. Theodore Morrison, Chairman of the Literary Committee of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter and member of the Harvard English department, when inviting Stevens to read, informed him that while "no custom determines the kind of poem to be presented," it should be new and unpublished. William C. Greene, Secretary of the chapter and classics professor, wrote in mid-March to say that "no strict limits" had ever been placed on the length of the Poem; yet it had been held customarily to ten or fifteen minutes. Stevens broke with this custom if not all others as well; "Description without Place" would grow to 152 lines in the next thirteen weeks and, at his sometimes exasperatingly slow pace of reading, would take twice or three times the length his audience expected. Morrison pointed out from the start that the world war had transformed the occasion to the extent that it had become "progressively more informal," and as Stevens looked through the newspapers in the late spring he must have realized that events surrounding university activities elsewhere had been less than traditionally festive, even subdued. Typically, commencement speakers that season took time to commemorate the dead and wounded among students and alumni. Guest orators of all kinds were instructing the college and university classes of 1945 in "the struggle for domination, for power and gain," urged competing factions among the nation's future leaders to cooperate now as never before to end the "cruel and murderous conflict" caused by nationalism. We must guard, another speaker argued, against "emotional lassitude in the years after the war." On the contrary, another said, by making postwar tasks "as personal and as concrete as you have made your war-work services," Americans can constructively and happily make the transition from "total war" to peaceful cooperation (although competition was still the key: "our youth must be as enthusiastically devoted to our way of life as the Russian youth is to theirs"). America's youth, said another, must exhibit utmost loyalty and yet somehow at the same time learn to resist the temptation to join a "hideous scheme" as German youth had done in the thirties. We can no longer "avoid all possible participation in public life," announced the commencement speaker at the University of Pennsylvania; students must learn to refer to a world of "political facts," he said, and recognize that they "can no longer dwell apart."
Stevens may have finished his poem before he fully comprehended the oratorical custom of the season. And although the PBK exercises, as he himself said, were "in a general way part of" the college commencement (L 506), it is possible that he saw the two events as sufficiently distinct, so that the Poem would not be out of place if it departed from the usual topicality inherent to the commencement genre. That Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Poems before Stevens's had been explicitly topical and occasional, however, is a matter of record. They uniformly took as a subject the contemporary political theme, the American response to the war. The 1942 Poem, Christopher LaFarge's "The Great and Marching Words," was a patriotic marching song, its own language intended as active military steps taken: "These are the great words marching with high proud steps / Over the valleys of effort, pain and war: / Liberty, Democracy, Sacrifice." Theodore Spencer's "The Alumni," the Poem of 1943, profiled the quotidian lives of Harvard alumni and set them against regular martial refrains--such as "The footsteps heavily march, tramping on stone, / And down the darkened street march heavily on." The total effect of Spencer's Poem was to conjure a favorite new-nationalist image: every able, responsible Harvard man leaving the safeties of job and home for enlistment. In 1944 Winfield Townley Scott presented his Poem "Contradictions in an Ultimate Spring" guiltily "as one / Too old and too preoccupied to go" to the front; yet Scott did his part, referring directly to the "one piece of news"--the Normandy landings--that would have been on everyone's mind by the late-June date of that year's exercises. Moreover, Scott's Poem had to consider the very moment of its recitation to be the "Ultimate" moment of all, supposing no future beyond its utterances. Thus the Poem immediately preceding Stevens's met the sense of crisis head on: Scott's was overtly "Written for reading in a public place / Perhaps even after the terror has begun."
Yet if Welles's 1945 Oration, by its rhetorical form of consensus politics, acknowledged the 1945 Poem, the Poem did not seem in any way whatsoever to return the acknowledgment in kind. In other ways, of course, Stevens was trying to concentrate on the world crisis, as we have seen in his letters and other poems. And even as he had begun to ponder the subject of his Phi Beta Kappa Poem, a few months earlier, his thoughts turned sympathetically toward Barbara Church's German family, whom he imagined trapped "in the area of the fighting." Still, it is hard to read the two main paragraphs of this April 4, 1945, letter to Henry Church without seeing some irony in the relation between two distinct notions of place. (I have emphasized and lettered the contending notions.)The [A] situation on the other side must be terribly upsetting for Mrs. Church. . . . People in Germany must be in an incredible predicament, in which even correctness is incorrect. This makes it difficult to chatter about the things that interest me, but, in any case, I have only one piece of news, and that is that I am going to read a poem before the Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard [in] June.
I am about to settle down to my subject: DESCRIPTION WITHOUT PLACE. Although this is the second or third subject that I have had in mind, unless it develops quickly and easily as I go along, I may change it. It seems to me to be an interesting idea: that is to say, the idea [B] that we live in the description of a place and not the place itself, and in every vital sense we do. This ought to be a good subject for such an occasion. (L 494)
If we are to trust Stevens's compassion for Barbara Church in her awkward exile--and my argument in "The Postcard Imagination" is that we should trust it--we will also learn to accept his intention of imagining her ancestral "place" now on the front lines. Yet insofar as the notion of a German place provides a politically odd context for thoughts on a new, occasional Poem about place in the abstract (B), the geographically precise sense of place (A) at this pivotal historical moment would seem to be the main exception to his otherwise unremarkable generalization that "in every vital sense" we do not live "in the place itself." For the very idea that actual places are not indeed where we live (B) would seem unnecessarily abstract, even silly, if meant as a genuine consolation (A) at an unbearably bad moment. And what is the "one piece of news" Stevens reports here, in the spring of 1945, when the nation's news was full of costly victory in Europe and strategies of attrition in the Pacific? The "news" of the day was, apparently without irony: an American poet satisfies with his idea about place for a poem that must befit the time and place, an occasion, a June 1945 commencement.
If a postwar context can even be partially recovered for Stevens's Harvard appearance, it will perhaps no longer seem so strange that a poem whose "rhetorical aim is a queerly hypnotic one . . . enclosed in a kind of baby talk" (as Helen Vendler has put it), "one of the most private of Stevens's poems" and "not likely to earn for [him] many admirers" for its "dangerous aridity" (Joseph Riddel), and one showing the poet "at his most arid" (Harold Bloom), should be indeed the poem Stevens chose to write for an occasion so dramatically public. One recent critic, Michael Beehler, in an essay devoted to "Description without Place," examines a tendency even among Stevens's historicist critics to view a poem as "not refer[ring] to any system of meaning outside of itself" and as having "no referent beyond its own 'closed systems.'" Beehler demonstrates that "Description without Place" continually plays on a double sense of referentiality, but in this instance the critic, when pointing out the poem's resistance to external reference, merely assures us of the poem's own deconstructive work; that is, Beehler's words for Stevens's project best describe the critic's main operational assumption: "description, and language in general, 'cannot coincide' with its object." Although convincing in its own terms, this sort of reading will not recognize that if there is a particular historical situation inscribed in Stevens's very resistance to referentiality, it is what promoted that resistance in the first place; I shall argue here, in other words, that that situation is the emerging postwar moment, characterized by a new-found imaginative power in which American intellectuals, emerging from a period of partisanship, were presented with the apparently liberating idea that ideologies had exhausted themselves and that political writing was to be outmoded. Vendler is right, then, to suggest of the manner of "Description without Place" that with its mere "appearance of logic" and "baby talk" it glances at the thirties. In its "lapsing back to the old dazzle of 'Owl's Clover'" and its "Blue Guitar"-like "hum of reiterated syllables" it does entail a kind of total collapse of reference and apparent plain sense while at the same time it was also very shrewdly marked by the politics of 1945 and beyond, with a special, post-political reversion to outmoded styles of a bygone era of social realism in which Stevens tried to play the role of the poet as reliable commentator on events. In my reading, he was attempting to play such a role again, though the role had radically changed since the thirties and had been undergoing further change in recent wartime months. For this reason alone, Tate's response to the new poem will be instructive.
Despite Morrison's initial assertion that no custom had guided Phi Beta Kappa poets previously in their choice of topics, the annual Poem was in fact a stylized and narrowly defined genre--as the wartime contributions amply indicated; obviously the most important rules were unwritten and unspoken. Stevens's "Description without Place" simply violated those rules, not only by excluding topical references to the war but by making a theme of resisting referentiality itself. This resistance characterizes its very point but also in the end suggests that some discerning reference is indeed being made. Given the overwhelmingly obvious concerns of the time, the poem's choice of abstraction deliberately incites controversy, or at least disappointment, as its point is to frustrate the usual effort to hear topicality in a poem recited on such an occasion, to contextualize the very decontextualization of the historical moment in the face of an overwhelmingly clear expectation that it would plainly describe that moment. The poem defies this expectation incessantly, the strongest variation of the point appearing in the seventh and final section: "Thus the theory of description matters most. / It is the theory of the word for those / For whom the word is the making of the world . . . . / It is a world of words to the end of it, / In which nothing solid is its solid self." On a morning when a programmatic former Undersecretary of State put forth the point that we live in a period in which it will be the duty of Americans not only to help in "the task of reconstruction" but "to impose world order," the Poet's notions appeared to be politically perverse. The identity of an era "is merely a thing that seems" (CP 340). History, "the integrations of the past," is "so much" and also "so little, our affair" (342; emphasis added). What we "see, / Hear, feel and know" is in the actuality of seeming (340). If history is no less or more than history-writing, a "theory of description" that "matters most," then a past of men made out of words is description without place (345). If we think we are referring our experiences to our sense of seeming, then we must also know that knowledge derived from such experience is but "a knowledge incognito" (343). Being, in short, is constantly subject to seeming.
In this context of a world without context, great personages are not historical figures but random examples. The "green queen" of the first section is "this queen or that," a figure chosen casually, with a rhetorical informality that resists historiographical exactitude. She remains unidentified. Paradoxically she has "the illustrious nothing of her name." The usual distance between us and historical figures like John Calvin, Queen Anne, Friedrich Nietzsche and V. I. Lenin may be narrowed, as history may suddenly be reduced to a moment of temporary clarity and truth. As being is seeming, and history language, so the representative scenes of which political biography is constructed are fictional displacements of imagined personage onto imagined place. "Things are as they seemed to Calvin and to Anne / Of England, to Pablo Neruda in Ceylon, / To Nietzsche in Basel, to Lenin by a lake."
But are these examples as random as they seem? And if they are not random, how must we modify the idea that they are set in representative scenes? The three modern displacements--Neruda in Ceylon, Nietzsche in Basel, and Lenin by a lake--bring to mind Nietzsche's own characterization of biographical truth: "Three well- chosen anecdotes," he said, "can achieve the portrait of a man." (The remark was once quoted by Paul Rosenfeld in a Nation review with the alluring title, "History for Art's Sake.") By just such a scenic method, Stevens offers densely allusive slices of three lives made seemingly unimportant, and removes them to sites apparently unconnected with their historical significance. Stevens is obviously less concerned to "achieve" portraits of Neruda, Nietzsche and Lenin than to allude to the very idea of indicative portraiture. Nietzsche in Basel is probably the most densely allusive reference of the three, for, as Rosenfeld suggested, Nietzsche could be used to refer to the displacing impulse itself.
Urged by Henry Church to read Nietzsche all the way through, Stevens had trouble sticking with the theory, and came away only with an odd sense of place: "[W]hat I really got out of Nietzsche last winter was a sense of Basel and of Burckhardt living there. If the war was over I should fly to Basel this afternoon and perhaps buy a set of Burckhardt (in French) and a few photographs, and, possibly, an autograph letter or two. Then I should return by way of Paris." But he wrote this letter in late June 1944, and his fanciful idea of sauntering across the Atlantic several weeks after D-Day to purchase a few rare odds and ends was clearly a message to Church, saying in effect: I crave not Nietzschean ideas but a taste of things far more remote at the moment--of Basel, Switzerland. That Stevens's fantasy included a "return by way of Paris," long a contested place, certifies the allusion to cool, neutral Basel as filling an uncontested zone with an untheoretical Nietzsche. When preparing his Mt. Holyoke lecture, Stevens had decided at one point to scrap the idea of "provok[ing] a discussion of poetry as an academic subject" because he had just then read, as he told Church, "Jakob Burckhardt (who was a friend of Nietzsche's at Basel)"; as we have seen, he learned that Burckhardt, influencing the younger Nietzsche on this very point, had used poetry "as an aspect of history" (L 452-53). Church always regretted Stevens's inability to enjoy Nietzschean ideas for their own sake, feeling that his friend's error was perhaps in putting down The Genealogy of Morals before reading far enough into it. As a remedy for what he assumed was Stevens's indifference to Nietzsche's theories, Church decided to encourage his friend to continue with the anecdotal image of Nietzsche in Basel. And when Stevens told Church of his plans for his Phi Beta Kappa Poem, in April 1945, Church's reply deliberately returned to the subject of Nietzsche; Church went out of his way to applaud Stevens's talent for reducing the abstract to a telling image. "I have by no means a philosophical mind," he admitted, envying Stevens his. "I have enough material in my head to write half a dozen books on Nietzsche and I don[']t know where to begin." Stevens's starting point with his new poem was perhaps the intention of proving to Church and to himself that he knew where to begin. The allusion in "Description without Place" thus serves the double purpose of removing Nietzsche from the level of the abstract to that of the biographical-- confirming Church's praise of Stevens's particular talent--and connects just such a reduction to the very place (Basel) that he and Church associated with his own 1945 decision, contra the Burckhardt of 1943, not to speak of poetry explicitly in the sense of history.
The reference to Lenin traces a history of dehistoricizing in the same way. To strip Lenin of historical sense, meaning inevitably to deradicalize him, is clearly in itself an effort made within an historical context--postwar anticommunism--a context Sumner Welles was at that very moment helping to create. In other words, to depoliticize Lenin in just such a way is to politicize oneself; again, the stripping of context was now wholly in context, just as generally the poem can tell the story of how the postwar intellectuals, facing their objectivity crisis, need not have forgotten that even that ultimate-seeming crisis had its basis in political fact and event. Here is the second half of the fourth section of the poem, the Nietzsche-Lenin canto:Lenin on a bench beside a lake disturbedI will eventually have something to say about the way in which Lenin's relation to the distant beaches both described and epitomized a perilous world-absorbing view. For now it will be sufficient to note how the end of this passage pays some respect to Lenin's attempt, even in his reduced state, to control "the far-off shapes" and to transform a harmless, local poetic observation of receding swans into advancing, transregional "apocalyptic legions." This qualified admiration carries the implied claim that the revolutionary imagination itself eschews a specific sense of time and place in order to do its exclusively forward-looking work-- work done in the name of history. But the initial image of Lenin is not nearly so serious. This biographical Lenin, poorly dressed, exiled to Zurich, sitting on a bench by a lake--ruminating, not causing trouble-- "disturbed" no more than the swans he sees. He is without effect, and feels rather out of place: "He was not the man for swans."
The swans. He was not the man for swans.
The slouch of his body and his look were not
In suavest keeping. The shoes, the clothes, the hat
Suited the decadence of those silences,
In which he sat. All chariots were drowned. The swans
Moved on the buried water where they lay.
Lenin took bread from his pocket, scattered it--
The swans fled outward to remoter reaches,
As if they knew of distant beaches; and were
Dissolved. The distances of space and time
Were one and swans far off were swans to come.
The eye of Lenin kept the far-off shapes.
His mind raised up, down-drowned, the chariots.
And reaches, beaches, tomorrow's regions became
One thinking of apocalyptic legions.
The inspiration for this Lenin is to be found in Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station. Knowing that van Geyzel admired the American intellectual left, Stevens sent Wilson's book to Ceylon in 1941 as a gift. Van Geyzel's response probably sent Stevens to an issue of the Partisan Review; van Geyzel had found Wilson's book "admirable in the biographical parts--couldn't be better--but in the critical parts I agree with the man in P.R. who found fault not with his conclusions but his method." "The man in P.R." was Meyer Schapiro, whose review of Wilson was called "The Revolutionary Personality." Schapiro chose Wilson's "artistic conception of Lenin as a man"--presented by Wilson in a chapter attractively entitled "Lenin Identifies Himself with History"-- to criticize Wilson's idea that "the revolutionary movement, and history in general, is not only a product of reason and social conditions, but also of the peculiarities of the men who led it." Describing Lenin's power as a function of personality, Wilson set scenes that had the unintended effect, Schapiro decided, of trivializing radical thought. The result was just what Stevens presented in "Description without Place": "He wants us," Schapiro said of Wilson, "to read in a literal sense the images of writers whom he has already held up to us as poetic minds," and so "metaphysics [is] the poetry of abstract imaginations." Such a "mechanics of personality" leads to an unhistorical "improvised 'depth' psychology" that "encourages a purely analogical fancy." Stevens's comment to van Geyzel about Wilson only partly reveals his interest in this analogical fancy. "Wilson's TO THE FINLAND STATION," he wrote, ". . . is thought particularly well of in respect to the portraits of the figures with which it deals. People are reaching a point where they are very much interested in the personalities of the Marxians, early and late. That is about as far as I myself go" (L 381). Stevens's Lenin in "Description without Place" took Schapiro's dissent from Wilson's revisionist story of Marx's inheritors a good bit further, pushing Wilson's novelistic, reductive method to the point of undoing Lenin's effectiveness entirely. By stuffing Lenin's pockets full of bread (not stones), dressing him in old clothes--he is punningly suited to such a state--Stevens ironized the Marxist cry of decadence, certainly a claim to be made against the poem that contained this irony. But the complaint would have to be made against Lenin. Here, then, Lenin himself participates in the decay of purely imaginative, inconsequential, rumination.
Even if the audience that morning at the Fogg Museum caught none of the points in the long poem Stevens read to them, they would surely have been astonished, nevertheless, by the contrasts between the manner of these dense dislocations (precise references having the contrary effect of abstraction) and Sumner Welles's straightforward references to people and places. As the politician held that at a moment when war was being won "the United States need not abstain from seeking the realization of its own objectives when the world knows that these objectives are neither selfish nor material," so the poet seemed to abstain from this new version of the well-worn story of power. To decline comment, as it were, on such a situation, might be a repudiation, further, of a worldly force based on conventional diplomatic knowledge. After all, according to Stevens's program for describing a place without a sense of place, one might find "the invention of a nation in a phrase" (CP 345). Welles's speech concluded with a line plainly scripted by the commencement-address genre: "[E]ven though the immediate present be darkened, we can look forward with confidence to the future." Stevens did not allow even this. "The future," he ominously intoned, "is description without place." And yet, at such moments, despite what must have been an overwhelming impression of difference, the exhortations of Welles and Stevens were basically one, for insofar as Welles articulated American benevolent assimilation, Stevens's conception of place embodied it. Welles, while describing places and urging an American knowledge of the foreign, implied no less than Stevens that the future entailed description without place.
If "Description without Place" proposed the paradoxical idea that a sense of place--of a nation--can be can be conveyed by a "text we should be born that we might read," it also offered its curious idea of the province of poetry. It thus challenges us to imagine how a "provincial," non-American but place-bound reader must respond to a characteristically American text whose two strongest claims are its status as autotelic and its audacious definition of describing a place. It can be said, then, that Leonard van Geyzel, living in faraway Ceylon, successfully created out of his own sense of dislocation a "text" to be read by his American friend Stevens, whom he knew to be an avid reader of Ceyloneana. The Stevens-van Geyzel friendship may be summarized in this way: one man's isolation inspired both to acquire a book-knowledge of the world. Periodically through this seventeen-year correspondence, Stevens admitted that he wanted to know the real Ceylon as a "background" of reality for the objects he arranged to purchase. He was delighted when boxes of tea shipped from the renowned Scrubbs Estates arrived with "a pile of postcards" that would enable the Hartford man to visualize the distant place where the tea had been grown. "These," he told van Geyzel with delight, "helped me to see what Newara Eliya is really like. There cannot be a moment's doubt about the interest of the place as a background for one's tea." He meant not tea, of course, but himself; he wanted an exotic context for himself. He toyed further with this metonymy, commenting to one young poet who visited him at his office, as they sipped tea sent to Stevens overseas by diplomatic pouch, "I would love to sail in a pouch."
This is not to say Stevens took either van Geyzel or the correspondence lightly; he sensed it was an unusual ethnographic encounter and he really hung on every letter. During Frank Jones's 1942 visit Stevens recalled from memory pleasing details of the exchange (WSR 127). Indeed Stevens seems surely to have intended a benevolent relation between himself and the East to be established by his book- or postcard-knowledge of an otherwise (for him) unknowable place. After all, van Geyzel was well aware that his correspondent was engaged in a form of culture collecting; when he explained how he depended on imported texts to know the world, he knew that he was providing a "constructed domain of truth" in James Clifford's specific sense--knew well that the roots of a tradition he often described as straight and deep had been many times cut and retied. To know van Geyzel's small world, in turn, just as deliberately as van Geyzel set out to know the world beyond, was a matter both of common sense and of constructed cultural interchanges of truths; and, despite the unevenness of the two projects, Stevens saw cultural truth-trading as a kind of balanced trade. At the same time, notwithstanding Stevens's best efforts, poems expressing a distant obligation do read, as Randall Jarrell decided, as the writings of "some Travel-Diary of an Aesthetician, who works more for pleasure than for truth"; in this view Stevens "turns out to be not Robinson Crusoe but Bernard Berenson," and the relationship with van Geyzel was imbalanced. Stevens did feel that the need of a metropolitan Ceylonese person wanting things from the world beyond was keener than that of a person from the world beyond who wanted things from Ceylon. But again, this was an agreed-upon process; and van Geyzel understood that Stevens's interest in Ceylon was in part generated by the Eurasian's culturally mixed sense that the poems' mimetic claims were at bottom the issuance of social practice and that whatever bits of the U.S.-Ceylon relation got reproduced in poems would be based on an intentional though unwritten contract wherein poet and indigene, like the writer and reader of the text, temporarily shared an agreement about the conditions under which those texts can be composed and comprehended. I should not want to be understood, that is, as leaving van Geyzel unimplicated in what I will nevertheless describe as a relationship in which the American extracted and the Ceylonese produced. Stevens himself wanted to think of van Geyzel as the one extracting. His description of van Geyzel for Jose Rodriguez Feo revealed a great deal about the reversal: "In the depths of his distance from everything he extracts, because he needs to extract from poetry and from reading generally far more than you and I extract from the things that we have in such plenty, or that we could have because they exist in such plenty near at hand" (L 513; emphasis added). Stevens did not quite acknowledge here that his own sense of Ceylon, in return, also confirmed the titular thesis of "Description without Place." Even when van Geyzel's letters provided first-hand information about the complex cultural differences and relations between the majority Sinhalese (Buddhist) and minority Tamil (Hindu) cultures, or suggested that descendants of the island's early European, mostly Portuguese and Dutch settlers (the latter called "Burghers") formed a class different from the Sinhalese and Tamil on the one hand and yet still quite distinct from the officially colonial British (the more purely European) on the other, Stevens mistakenly told van Geyzel: "I know that you regard yourself as English." Van Geyzel's sense of himself as a racially and culturally mixed, urban ‚lite was not so reductive as that. And Stevens clung to British representations of Ceylon from books designed for the Western coffee table, such as Ashley Gibson's Cinnamon & Frangipanni and Lord Holden's Ceylon. He thrilled to have the things van Geyzel packed in crates and shipped to the U.S. for the Stevenses at Christmas: brilliantly colored saris, cans of jaggery, milk punch, "beach" hats, a "simple and explicit" reclining Buddha for the poet's bedroom window, necklaces for Elsie, woodapple jelly, and five pounds of the very best tea. The tea, he had warned his Ceylonese friend, should be of a kind not procurable anywhere else (L 324, 327, 333, 337).
When Stevens received these things, he was elated to find that Gibson's book, Cinnamon & Frangipanni, which he assumed van Geyzel had read, spoke of the items his friend had sent him as truly representative of a place (L 327). These acquisitions, he thought, authenticated his picture of van Geyzel's place. Stevens did not apparently consider the possibility that van Geyzel had sent what he thought his new Western friend would want--to oblige Stevens or endorse his Western view of the exotic (a view that van Geyzel, the ‚lite metropolitan, might somewhat share)--and that this would quite as easily explain why the saris, beach hats and necklaces were all items to be found in Gibson's travel book in the first place. On the one hand, "It has always made Ceylon seem more reasonable to know someone like oneself out there" (L 838; emphasis added); too, the great difficulty of making contact with places as distant as Ceylon in an effort to get a true sense of "the actual thing" (L 327) was "to find people of taste" (L 328). Yet on the other hand, van Geyzel was sufficiently strange to Stevens--seemed foreign and cut off from culture--to have chosen for him "things most truly representative of Ceylon." Would not the happy discovery of a person "of taste," because it was considered rare by the Westerner whose sense of taste guided the search, disqualify rather than authenticate the things sent as "truly representative"? "It is, of course," Stevens admitted, "difficult for anyone on this side of the earth to realize with any definiteness just what Ceylon is like. But I think that your box, with your very interesting letter, together with a book or two, helps to create a pretty clear impression" (L 327). Thus Stevens retained rights, as it were, to the perspectives of both parties to the exchange. He wanted his foreign correspondent to be someone very much like himself, so that the foreign correspondent would know intuitively the sort of thing Stevens desired from so foreign a place. Yet he wanted van Geyzel to remain "hard to realize" (L 327), "faraway" (L 381), living "in an unchangeable center" or, as van Geyzel himself agreeably put it, "heavily assisted by Geography" in remaining unaffected by world events.
In Stevens's effort to make Ceylon "reasonable" he either stressed a basic equation between the people of Ceylon and the people of Connecticut, and thus avoided confronting a radically new cultural disposition, such as that of the Sinhalese Buddhists in particular, or he ignored human culture entirely to emphasize the total domination of nature over will. He could thus conceive of the distant land as a natural, depictable scene, what Edward Said has called "the vision of the Orient as spectacle, or tableau vivant"--wholly realizable in pictures and yet pleasingly unavailable to the distorting processes of political thought as well as inimical to poetic theory. (Stevens confessed to being astonished that the Sinhalese had a poetic theory and a critical tradition.) When turning over the pages of a Ceylonese calendar van Geyzel had sent him in 1940, he was drawn to a photograph of villagers returning from the market at dusk and noted, "This sort of thing goes on, no doubt, even in the depths of the jungle"; a "shopping trip" was "exactly the same," no matter if the market were Colombo or Manhattan (L 353). Yet, at the same time, because he wanted to let Ceylon remain Ceylon, impervious and "unchangeable," he was more likely to overlook the people. Reading Leonard Woolf's novel The Village in the Jungle, the "Colonial Cloth" edition of which Stevens added to his growing collection of Ceyloniana, surely endorsed the idea that the recuperative powers of the inhuman world of Ceylon far surpass any effort of will made by the people (as by Westerners observing those people) to endow local institutions with significance. Watching helplessly as the jungle draws "its ring closer round the remaining huts," the poor villagers who have barely subsisted throughout the novel finally realize that the human idea of order is useless against the "impenetrable disorder" of timeless nature. When Stevens wrote that Woolf's novel "is full of pictures of Ceylon and ideas about Ceylon" (L 332), he meant a Ceylon naturally inimitable, impenetrable to Western eyes, yet full of things that could be possessed; but most of all it had to be natural and inhuman, in his special sense of the word. And his reading relentlessly support this double impression. "Ceylon," he said, "is the sort of place with which one can come to grips and still be fascinated" (L 353).
Perhaps Stevens's rhetorical colonialisms were unintentional. If so, his attitudes were hardly less colonialist than those expressed by The Village in the Jungle, despite Woolf's obvious intentions to the contrary. "Somehow," Stevens once wrote van Geyzel, "the presence of the English in a place of this kind has a way of turning what might be a steamy mess into something reasonably fastidious" (L 353). Given such remarks, I find it entirely unsurprising that van Geyzel, who enjoyed (and if Stevens was right, craved) contacts with educated Westerners, would obligingly if unconsciously defer to the extent that he must, offering up the "reasonable" version of his place Stevens seemed to want so badly--and to which he himself partly subscribed.
At one point van Geyzel sent Stevens "The Essence of Buddha's Teaching," the transcript of a radio address by the Venerable Nyanatiloka Maha Thera, the German Buddhist scholar-monk, founder of the Island Hermitage of Dodanduwa in 1904, who was then, in October 1941, a prisoner in a British internment camp. Van Geyzel hoped Stevens would appreciate Nyanatiloka's pamphlet, the best "short statement on the subject" van Geyzel knew. Stevens seems to have been impressed by it to some degree at least, finding "an exquisite poverty about the book's appearance" (WSR 127). "Montrachet-Le-Jardin," a poem published in the January-February 1942 Partisan Review, reproduces elements of the pamphlet and seems to combine a Buddha figure (a "root-man," "tortured by his mass" as Nyanatiloka's Buddha fasts, becomes a "skeleton" and teaches himself "corporeality") with the interned scholar-monk: "Delivering the prisoner by his words / So that the skeleton in the moonlight sings, / Sings of an heroic world beyond the cell, // No, not believing, but to make the cell / A hero's world in which he is the hero" (CP 261). And:Consider how the speechless, invisible godsOf special interest here is the resemblance between Stevens's imprisoned scholar and the dark rabbi-scholars of earlier poems, familiar to us from "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" (1918), "The Sun This March" (1930) and "Life on a Battleship" (1939)--"scholars bent upon their books." For Nyanatiloka's Buddhism is typical of some scholarship since the late nineteenth century of Western and urbanized Ceylonese Buddhists, who tended to infuse original Buddhism with rationalistic European philosophy, somewhat disentangled from dogma, belief and history, portraying it as a straightforward, demystifying method. The source for Nyanatiloka's presentation of Buddha is almost as much in Nietzsche as indeed in traditional South Asian belief. Thus it tends to underestimate the value of traditional Sinhalese Buddhism as practiced in rural Sri Lanka, where it has been replete with mythology, worship and prayer, and steeped in its own history. Despite his references to his particularly Asian major man, Stevens's god, speaking in the voice of men in "Montrachet," endorses the modern rationalization. Does man need to believe outright? "No," the poem stresses, belief is rational and man understands by "not believing" but studying the texts of pure will. Even if the poet got no further than the pamphlet's second page, he would have found a Europeanized creed: Nyanatiloka immediately lays stress on the "absolute soberness and clearness of Buddhism," as Nietzsche is extensively quoted at the head of the pamphlet, boldly insisting that "Buddhism is a hundred times more realistic than Christianity," that "The notion of 'god' is done away with," and that "Prayer is out of the question." Hence the Buddhism Stevens saw in this pamphlet is not altogether as unfamiliar to the curious Westerner on one might think. Indeed it does little to challenge "those of a different faith." Nyanatiloka accepts Nietzsche as gospel: "The teaching of the Buddha is perhaps the only religious teaching that requires no belief in traditions, or in certain historical events." "Montrachet-le-Jardin" does little to strain Stevens's imagination in its effort to absorb an abstract, uncorporeal philosophy-- South Asian in aesthetic form, undeniably, but European in philosophical content. The replication of the foreign place, an "inaccessible, pure sound"--like "Serendib" itself, the sound "Ceylon" as a sweetness produced for the delighted foreign ear--is thus quite easily realized, in orientalized images of things; in Said's sense, these are itemized, decontextualized and objectified:
Ruled us before, from over Asia, by
Our merest apprehension of their will.
There must be mercy in Asia and divine
Shadows of scholars bent upon their books,
Divine orations from lean sacristans
Of the good, speaking of good in the voice of men.
All men can speak of it in the voice of gods.
A little while of Terra Paradise
I dreamed, of autumn rivers . . . . (CP 262-63; emphasis added)Item: The green fish pensive in green reedsThe poem works its distant obligations handily into the typical Stevensean tropical meditation, not unlike the much earlier Florida-Cuba poems. And yet it denies a special past to a particular religion, rhetorically asking, "what good were yesterday's devotions?" (L 264)
Is an absolute. Item: The cataracts
As facts fall like rejuvenating rain,
Item: Breathe, breathe upon the centre of
The breath life's latest, thousand senses. (emphasis added)
Such a denial seems inevitable when one considers the bits of Ceyloneana Stevens then had at hand. We have seen how the philosophy of "Montrachet" is borrowed from the rationalized Buddhism of Nyanatiloka's pamphlet. Similarly, the orientalized images-as-items themselves are surely derived from the delicious catalogings of Lord Holden's Ceylon, a book Stevens bought in 1939, the year it was first published. Holden's book consists of a series of standard views presented in writing and accompanying plates. These Stevens found stimulating, admiring "the photographs of the ruins and particularly of the statues" (L 337). But the views are refracted through the long lens of Holden's intense subjectivity, through his evident wish that the reality described and photographed might remain as still as the words and pictures freezing them along the described tour. Holden's Ceylon continually expresses the fantasy of the Ceylonese remaining unchanged. He deplores Western dress, "since no coloured race gains in either dignity or comfort by imitating the customs of Europe." He encourages his Western readers to "do" Ceylon as he has, yet reinforces the naturalization of the Orient by quoting the "classic lines" penned by Amelia Heber, the wife of the Lord Bishop of Calcutta, who, Holden half-jokingly suggests, might have been pondering the irritation caused by the slowness of native hotel servants when she wrote: "What though the spicy breezes, / Blow soft on Ceylon's isle, / Though every prospect pleases, / And only man is vile." A century after Mrs. Heber, in Ashley Gibson's Cinnamon & Frangipanni (1923), the Sinhalese servants fare no better, "lurk[ing] slackly in corners . . . smirking and rather limp . . . masking their native boredom behind the inscrutable smile of the well-fed tom-cat." Yet these were the very same typical "boys," Gibson notes, who "failed on first acquaintance to make me feel at all Oriental"! Gibson's manner of apprehending Ceylonese reality is steeped in the rhetoric of sentimental imperialism:
A writing man I knew once, who had never sailed those seas but in the ships of other people's fancy, but whose wit erupted sometimes in flashes intuitively illuminating, announced that the East was only an invention of the nineteenth century, an expression not of philosophy, of geography, but of temperament; a dream, in short, that had led many to leave their people for its people, their homes for its desert tents, in an effort, it might be, to turn its conventions into realities. It was a dream, he would have it, made possible by the discovery of local colour. Vulgarised by the rude touches of many fingers, its glamour has all but departed, but not before it has caught some of us and whisked us out of our proper orbit, leaving us writhing, like stranded starfish, in hot discomfort beneath alien rays. Bastard Orient though the modern capital of that Serendib may be, the tale of whose wonders kept even Scheherazade's lord from pondering on unpleasant matters, yet Colombo has its sights, its scents, its sounds, whose memory will be always with us albeit we contemned them before they had time to become familiar.
Clearly Cinnamon & Frangipanni excludes itself, its own words, its incessant felicitations, from the category of the "rude touches of many fingers"; "stranded" on a foreign beach, under "alien rays," lamenting departed glamor, lost sights, gone scents and sounds, Gibson's "friend" evinces what Renato Rosaldo has called "imperialist nostalgia" ("where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed"). The particular figure of Gibson's nostalgia--repeated rude touches by foreign fingers--makes reading the book a physical act of complicity; poring over this book, as one would a ethnographic collectors' catalogue, to see what new exotic-yet-truly-representative items he could ask van Geyzel to send him, Stevens did not apparently conclude that Gibson's mourning disqualified him from describing what purchases could still be made that were not typical of tourists but indeed of a fantastically unified "East." Stevens was delighted to note, for instance, that Gibson "puts a taboo on ebony elephants and the sort of thing that tourists pick up," so that when Cinnamon & Frangipanni goes on to speak "of precisely the things that you have sent as being things most truly representative of Ceylon" (L 327) a certain reality--Gibson's and now Stevens's--is endorsed. Here is the sort of passage Stevens read, then, in order to form a judgment as to the soundness of Gibson's advice to foreign collectors:Of course the taste of the native craftsman working in tortoiseshell runs to "riveted shields and whatnots" at least partly because he believes they are the things Westerners want to possess. Gibson himself, however, wants to buy those things the craftsman produced before the moment when indigenous values were altered to suit a Western market. This is what Stevens admired about Gibson's respect for the "taboo" that had been placed on the ebony elephants; it is the quintessence of an anti- colonialism nevertheless imperial. Such a logic endorses what Gibson and Holden finally present as true to the sentimentalized scenes they describe, their anti-tourist credentials having been ostensibly affirmed. So when, on the day after Holden's book arrived in Hartford, Stevens wrote, "Ceylon has taken a strong hold on my imagination" (L 337), he obviously had in mind those special credentials. The Ceylon he imagined had specific origins: Holden's and Gibson's pictures of the jungle ruin, the lonely Tamil picking tea, the complacent elephant bathing in an ancient tank, the bullock cart pulled along a Colombo street, the indolent fisherman sitting on a pole.
you can buy quaint and not unattractive grass mats and baskets from Galle, and notably Kalutara hats woven also of grass [one of the items van Geyzel did send] . . . and . . . not lacking in artistic merit, the trade being a resuscitated and now thriving village industry which receives every encouragement from Government and private patronage. And you can get lovely things, from a complete dressing-table outfit downwards, in native tortoiseshell, though it is well to interview your workman to see that he executes his task exactly to your order, his own taste probably running to ungainly riveted shields and whatnots in gold and silver foil. . . .
We find van Geyzel's Ceylon in Stevens's poetry almost immediately after he began consulting books like Cinnamon & Frangipanni. In "Connoisseur of Chaos" we are asked to imagine the hard-to-imagine, Englishmen living "without tea in Ceylon" (CP 215); in "Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas" the same far-off place is somehow so far as to be "past apocalypse" (CP 257); and in "A Weak Mind in the Mountains" "the wind of Iceland and / The wind of Ceylon" improbably meet (CP 212). These references are much more than what George Lensing calls mere "playful interjections of geographical fancy," though they are that, and Lensing's reading of them is otherwise accurate and suggestive. The meteorological improbability involved in the convergence of Icelandic and Ceylonese winds, for instance, occurs only in relation to a troubling butchery, a bloody grappling of North/West and South/East that requires far more indeed than a sense of Stevens's well-developed playfulness to explain it:One wants to know much more about the logic of "so," about the relation of time (before and "afterward"). Does Stevens believe that the convergence of North and South, as cold and hot, spare reality and steamy fantasy, really follows from (and masks) the violent climate, or does he believe such merging inspires the violence? "A Weak Mind in the Mountains" savagely comes to grips with a geographical sense that can only be imagined.
There was the butcher's hand.
He squeezed it and the blood
Spurted from between the fingers
And fell to the floor.
And then the body fell.
So afterward, at night,
The wind of Iceland and
The wind of Ceylon,
Meeting, gripped my mind,
Gripped it and grappled my thoughts. (CP 212)
In "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction," a few years later, Ceylon is a little more definitely realized, though at moments the reference falls familiarly into the tourist's trap. Canto five of "It Must be Abstract" (CP 384-85) is divided into two distinct parts. The first is given in reductive travel-book language, resembling--perhaps satirizing--Gibson's and Holden's stilted style of accumulation, with its compounded predicates. "The lion roars . . . / Reddens the sand . . . / Defies red emptiness," and so on. Here, in turn, is depicted the lion roaring, the elephant trumpeting, the bear snarling. The second part of the canto, beginning with "But you, ephebe . . ." in the fourth of seven triadic stanzas, turns from the seen and known to the view and the viewer framed by his Western window:But you, ephebe, look from your attic window,This adventure, we are to assume, is seen wishfully by the ephebe from his attic apartment furnished with rentals, a viewer's site as safe and civilized as the place he imagines is violent and rude. Struggling with his writing, pressing his face against his pillow, the ephebe emits "A bitter utterance" that is paradoxically "voluble of dumb violence." The ephebe is one of many children, a generation deemed "heroic," with irony due a novice going about the hard work of inventing "a nation in a phrase"--an apprentice whom only "time" trains (or "breeds"). But, over the course of time, trained to do what? Trained to look across from hypercultural West to inhuman East, from the "celestial ennui of apartments" ("Notes," I.2; CP 381) to outlying deserts, jungles, and mountains, and to tame and then possess in a verse circus the "supple challenger" of the Western imagination--"to lash the lion, / Caparison elephants, teach bears to juggle"; trained to be "ward" of such seen territory even though his status as immature is never questioned; fit now to turn "violence into circus play," as Vendler has put it. The problem of caparisoning elephants (gussying them up for show) can be considered closely here, as it is an idea arising directly from Stevens's perceptions of Ceylon. In the first section of the canto we learn that "The elephant / Breaches the darkness of Ceylon with blares, / The glitter goes on surfaces of tanks." Not long after finishing "Notes," Stevens remembered having imagined the scene precisely enough to explain the image of the tanks to Hi Simons in such a way as to suggest an insider's information. He admitted that the word "tanks" would not be understood by those who did not know the usage in Ceylon, where a tank is a water reservoir or pool with particular ritual significance, "a basin which may have been . . . the excavation for an ancient building" (L 434). Once again, the source of this image was probably Cinnamon & Frangipanni, a chapter on the ritual capture and caparisoning of bull elephants, entitled "Beasts and Super-beasts." Here Gibson tells the story of the big beast Billigamanaya who, having escaped from his mahout, spends an odd night in an abandoned bungalow, where he not only "Breaches the darkness of Ceylon with blares"--in Gibson's excessive words, "a perfectly horrific blast of trumpeting set every piece of furniture in the place a-rattle"--but then appropriates a nearby tank "for bathing purposes." The chapter is full of objets sauvages domesticated yet maintained for their power to disconcert and delight. In the story of Old Bill, "[t]he childlike fondness of the Sinhalese for 'dressing up'" is the reason for the elephant's eventful escape in the first place; the mahout's "wonderful habiliments" had frightened the big animal in his stall and drove him into a frenzy. The point of the chapter is not to describe the mature Ceylonese elephant in the wild, but to narrate the most humorous aspects of their abduction and, indeed, their "dressing up," child-like, for performance--to "caparison elephants" indeed. The subject-position of this orientalist travel narrative overpowers the viewed, admired object. So, too, the purpose of "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction" at this early point (in the fifth canto of 31) is to teach the ephebe his first lesson about fulfilling the distant obligations of the modern imagination. He need not be ashamed of his too-obvious creative effects (juggling bears), much as they are "voluble of dumb violence" in the face of roaring, blaring, snarling actualities from places about which he admittedly knows nothing. If he is eventually to succeed in creating a fiction sufficient for making existence pleasurable, he must learn to bridge that distance only as he can, and to avoid obvious questions of heroism and cultural insight--and, in short, to "caparison" Ceylon itself.
Your mansard with a rented piano. You lie
In silence upon your bed. You clutch the corner
Of the pillow in your hand. You write and press
A bitter utterance from your writhing, dumb,
Yet voluble of dumb violence. You look
Across the roofs as sigil and as ward
And in your centre mark them and are cowed . . . [Stevens's ellipsis]
These are the heroic children whom time breeds
Against the first idea--to lash the lion,
Caparison elephants, teach bears to juggle.
Some of the pride lost in this bold and clever admission was regained, of course, when Stevens realized that he could explain with authority the Ceylonese use of the word tank to Hi Simons, for its connotation was determined exclusively by a knowledge Stevens had attained and which he believed was unavailable to his reader. Moreover, he realized he was explicating his poem for a critic who had a great deal invested in authorial intentions. Simons was by now mired in the critical biography he would never finish, an all-consuming "'life's work.'" Because it took him "an inordinate amount of time to analyze" Stevens's poems, the critic came to depend greatly--sometimes emotionally--on the poet's explications. "It is always difficult for me to acknowledge the letters you send me," Simons once wrote, "because, to confess the literal truth, I get so excited over them that I don't sleep." In a sense, then, the sleepless, intention-oriented Simons trying to understand the exotic, fluid Stevens is, for Stevens, as the ephebe is to the "tank" of Ceylon. When Stevens explained "tank" for Simons, in 1943, he had not worked out a coherent theoretical position to support inconsistently defended but perhaps visceral doubts about explications de texte. Here he found himself caught between his desire to view his new poem as having spoken with special insight into the subtle formalities of language and an equally strong desire to write a major modernist poem (the thirty-two-page "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction") that would not require annotations and displays of sourcework of the sort provided by Eliot and Moore and evidently required by Pound. The allusiveness, he felt, must seem natural. These conflicting impulses carried over into the explanation he prepared for Simons:There are several things in the NOTES that could stand a little annotating. For instance, the fact that the Arabian is the moon [in "It Must Be Abstract," canto iii] is something that the reader could not possibly know. However, I did not think it was necessary for him to know. Even without knowing -- -- -- [Stevens's dashes] But in the line . . .Only when he put into his poetry a final and still more difficult reference to Ceylon, in "Description without Place," where Pablo Neruda washes up on van Geyzel's distant shores, would Stevens be forced to articulate his position on the value of authorial intention and explanation. The "invention of a nation in a phrase" and the articulation of the critical attitude were in fact a single, pivotal occasion.
"The glitter-goes on the surfaces of tanks"
the word tanks would be obscure to anyone not familiar with the use of that word in Ceylon. It was not an affectation on my part to leave the word unexplained. (L 434; emphasis added)
For seventeen years letters traveled back and forth between Colombo and Hartford. In that time two events threatened to cancel Ceylon's distance and difference and thus its basic attraction to Stevens. The first had been the coming of war. Growing international tensions in the late thirties had only encouraged van Geyzel's already well-developed cosmopolitan habit of following European and American cultural politics. The second event, far less dramatic, was the arrival and rapid institutionalization of a special form of academic criticism at the outposts of the British Empire, a critical and pedagogical practice recently described by some of its critics to have been itself a response to the political conditions that gave rise to war. We do not know much for certain about Stevens's reaction to the first of these new challenges, the Ceylonese westernization in wartime, since van Geyzel's desire to know the U.S. began to emerge in the correspondence just as the mails stopped moving. We do, however, know Stevens's response to the idea of Practical Criticism arriving at the ends of the Empire, because this response is preserved in "Description without Place."
Van Geyzel's realization in 1941 that Ceylon was implicated in the world at war threatened Stevens's fantasy of having his Ceylonese friend remain isolated and abstracted from history. After all, to understand the U.S., van Geyzel turned not to American commentators but, for instance, to Denis William Brogan's Oxbridge monograph on America, U.S.A. (1941), with its extraordinary generalizations about life in the United States in 123 small pages. Stevens was certain to resist such an attempt by van Geyzel to internationalize and modernize himself. Yet if Stevens could read British and French characterizations of Ceylon and then declare to a Ceylonese man that he now knew a true Ceylon, surely van Geyzel could unapologetically read Brogan's British pamphlet on the United States and write Stevens exuberantly, "Yes, I am getting to know America pretty well." Van Geyzel was also reading the Americans themselves, of course, a trend he made quite clear to Stevens, dropping in a single letter the names Steinbeck, Faulkner, Cather, McCullers, and Delmore Schwartz and knowingly referring to Wilson's To the Finland Station. Van Geyzel went quite a bit further than name-dropping, however. He proposed that T. S. Eliot was best suited of all living poets to translate the Mahabharatha and hatched the plan of commissioning Eliot to supplant Edwin Arnold's "sadly" outmoded English translation done "in a Hiawatha rhythm." Being privy to such a bold scheme only gave Stevens further indication of van Geyzel's dependence on Western reproductions of the native literature available to him in his own world. (Van Geyzel, Stevens discovered, did not write Sinhalese.) That his isolated friend "would welcome greater American influence in the world than there has hitherto been" may have troubled Stevens, not because he had come to oppose Americanization but because van Geyzel's ambitious cosmopolitanism would hasten the end of the pure Serendib Stevens loved to imagine; in fact, it only demonstrates that van Geyzel, when pushed a little, was willing to make it clear that knowledge for him had to be a hybrid--that, in Clifford's terms, "the concrete activity of representing a culture . . . is always strategic and selective" and that "The world's societies are too systematically interconnected to permit any easy isolation of separate or independently functioning systems." Making just this point, van Geyzel was perfectly capable of his own culture collecting--not so unlike Stevens, in this respect, he collected paintings and "valuable Chinese vases," and his house was "aesthetically furnished" in the Victorian sense--and thus could turn the collector's gaze on Stevens; van Geyzel professed to have a new understanding of "American politics which seemed up to now to be a sort of esoteric cult." Again, because the correspondence was cut off, we can only guess how Stevens responded to this shrewd ethnographic reversal, the Ceylonese studying him like an esoteric cult. Now America was itself one of those exotic places that could be made accessible and yet remain fascinating.
When the correspondence was firmly re-established, in the spring of 1945, Stevens tested what he hoped was van Geyzel's renewed isolation-- though he probably knew better. He offered this challenging remark: "Ceylon, for all the distance between it and Connecticut, is almost a familiar place to me; I don't think you can possibly say the same of Connecticut" (L 485). Interestingly, Stevens would soon say the same of postwar Europe. While many other places were forced by the world war to remain themselves, with certain recalcitrant political factions looking nationally inward and seeking to manage a return to premodern separation, or merely picking themselves culturally up among the ruins, America had extended its image and knowledge of the world far outward to the world, its international vision now sharpened, to use Sumner Welles's nascent cold-war trope. (One of the key elements of Welles's Spring 1945 lectures, in fact, and not only the Harvard speech, was the idea that U.S. policy must prevent these small nations from returning to separateness; he urged that Western policy be formulated to respond to "the rising forces of nationalism in the Near and Far East" so that these movements do not become culturally isolationist even as they become politically separatist.) If van Geyzel no longer had easy access to the modern, international texts to be used in the effort to close the distance from the cultural powers that produced them, he and others among the Ceylonese ‚lite did now have at hand a critical ideology that was deemed well suited to colonial students who had always struggled to find a context for Western literature read in the extremities.
Among van Geyzel's friends was a subscriber to this new critical practice, Professor Evelyn Frederick Charles Ludowyk, also a Christian- born Eurasian, a Burgher, and like van Geyzel one whose "interest in the folkways of Sri Lanka was insatiable." Ludowyk's three books on Sri Lankan religious and cultural history, including The Footprint of the Buddha, attest to the validity of the description provided me by Ludowyk's former colleague, H. A. I. Goonetileke, who describes for his friend's case the difficult double game played by many of the Oxbridge- educated Eurasians in Ceylon: Ludowyk "yearned to enter the mainstream of Sri Lankan culture, rather than nourish the flickering flame of his Burgher inheritance." Ludowyk taught literature at the University of Ceylon, and as the war was ending attempted to convey to his Ceylonese students, in their teacher's words, "the general subject of the place in poetry of a cognitive or meaning aspect, and the extent to which that must influence evaluation"--a view of literary meaning and of pedagogy, and all expressed in a vocabulary, that was unquestionably shaped by I. A. Richards. When Ludowyk had studied at Cambridge in 1929 and 1930, with Leavis and then Richards himself, "the reverberations of the lectures on which Practical Criticism (1929) was based still echoed not only in the lecture rooms of the English Faculty but throughout the University." After obtaining First Class Honours in the newly liberalized English Tripos, and claiming the Oldham Shakespeare prize, he returned triumphantly to Colombo, Scrutiny literally under his arm, with the intention of proselytizing the new anti-philological approaches and of reforming the curriculum there.
Keenly sensitive to the failures of the colonial procedure by which members of the indigenous ‚lite were educated in the Imperial Tongue and then trained in England to man the upper ranks of the Colonial Service, Ludowyk apparently did not view the critical method he himself had brought back from England as itself part of the larger intellectual impression of West onto East. He did not see, apparently, how so illuminating and reformist a method as Richards's could itself fall prey to accusations of imperialism, for it held the power, if any educational method did, to "save" (that Richardian word) the otherwise dull Colonial Service students schooled in the unreformed Ceylonese curriculum. Seeing Practical Criticism in the Third World as a rational yet redemptive liberating force, Ludowyk was its tireless promoter; by 1945, with his ground-breaking book Marginal Comments--its "Reading List" contains sixteen titles, no fewer than eleven of which are works by Richards, the Leavises, Eliot or Brooks--he became closely associated with the new critical revolution. He went so far as to propose an analogy between the reforms of Practical Criticism, with its effort to illuminate a benighted world of literary study, and the effort the English and Americans could make (but probably would not) to comprehend the Ceylon it intellectually and culturally dominated. "Such a task as this"--that "The West has to unlearn a great deal it has come to believe about the East"--had, he thought, its most recent and most powerful precedent in Practical Criticism. The task of de-imperializing the world, Ludowyk wrote, "might seem too vast a scheme for human imaginations fretted as they are with the frustrations of political misunderstandings . . . . Yet one cannot help remembering, and still being bewitched by, the clarity of analysis and the fervour of Dr. I. A. Richards. . . . [Given] the feeling engendered by the aftermath of global wars . . . he believed . . . that if understanding could save, then there was indeed something practical our universities could do." This practical educational procedure, Ludowyk had been taught, might be gotten underway with the intense study of a single poem. "The single-poem assessment," Ludowyk's colleague has recalled for me, "was one of his favorite gambits, and he relied a great deal on this method."
It so happened, then, that at exactly the time Stevens and van Geyzel renewed their regular correspondence, Ludowyk decided to use a Stevens poem as a New Critical classroom experiment. Learning that his friend van Geyzel was a correspondent of the oft-anthologized American poet, Ludowyk presented van Geyzel with a detailed report of an assignment he asked his students to fulfill. Van Geyzel not only knew about Ludowyk's 1944-45 project of compiling and evaluating student interpretations; he helped Ludowyk prepare Marginal Comments, a work largely taken up by descriptions of those results of the interpretive experiments. Ludowyk's students were told to write out their responses-- "I didn't want a paraphrase," he afterward insisted--to "The Emperor of Ice Cream" (CP 64). Their teacher was attempting to assess in Ceylon what Richards had tried to measure years earlier at Cambridge and wrote up in Practical Criticism. Sample audiences read poems stripped of titles and author's names, generating protocols; Richards's method, of course, had been to analyze in these responses various evaluative misdirections and then to identify the causes underlying students' inability to approach a poet's "mental condition." Van Geyzel enclosed Ludowyk's typewritten comments about his own students' response to such a psychoaesthetic test with his own March 18, 1945, letter to Stevens, certain that Stevens "would be interested to see what happens to . . . your poems . . . in unfamiliar circumstances." And despite the fact that Ludowyk's exercise was aimed at demonstrating to the Ceylonese, in Ludowyk's words, "exactly why they were using the poem as something outside themselves not a private fantasy of their own" (emphasis added), van Geyzel's own summary of the students' failure to understand the function of ice cream in the poem included a very clear warning. "The most serious obstacle to appreciation," he wrote, "would seem to be provincialism." ("The Emperor gave quite a lot of trouble + when I met Ludowyk in Colombo a few days ago he told me that one ingenius person even suggested that it was addressed to a refrigerator.") It would seem that what had failed was the idea that if only "understanding poetry" were made more "practical" it could also become universally effective. Ludowyk himself admitted that "the difficulty was the too powerful draw of ice cream as a luxury here"; he was not unaware (as Mr. Goonetileke recently recalled) of "the problems of teaching English literature at a sufficiently high level to undergraduate students whose cultural backgrounds and everyday experience were poles apart from the themes and spirit of Western thought."
The only conclusion to draw from the students' failure to understand Stevens's poetry was that the cognitive value not of all poetic discourse but of particular words (the free American's inevitably ironic or unfamiliar use of emperor, for instance) was contingent on place only when that place happened to be as extremely dislocated--in Stevens's and van Geyzel's view--as Ceylon. If Richards's demonstrations at Cambridge had sought to identify routines and customs of feeling that students brought with them to a text, deforming or blocking their responses to it, then Ludowyk had discovered not only that a culturally relative sign was likely to block non-Western students but evidently suggested to Stevens the specific conditions in which the central idea of even so basic a poem might be missed when so much attention is paid to psycho-physiological response. The student protocols focused almost exclusively on the single image that attracted these readers because of its--and Stevens's-- exoticism; this may have led them to ignore the philosophical relation between seeming and being, the poem's central idea, summed in the famous line, "Let be be finale of seem" (CP64).
When he received van Geyzel's letter and Ludowyk's report, in mid- May 1945, Stevens was just beginning to think about how the seeming-being question might inform his occasional poem about place, "Description without Place." Here, then, his poems ran up hard against "unfamiliar circumstances" in his own "true" Ceylon, and so his old sense of seeming had been lost in a site that had given him such a strong and apparently clear impression. "The occasion," Professor Ludowyk had written of his students' responses to Stevens, "was completely left out." Ludowyk asked van Geyzel to ask Stevens how far the idea that being is the "finale" of seeming could be taken. Convinced that a poem should not merely mean but be--he told his students to avoid denotation because it "becomes a kind of here we go round the synonym bush"--the critic evidently introduced the poem by speaking hopefully of its relevance to his own methodological goals in such a way as to as emphasize being. One response to the odd Ludowyk-Richards encounter was to take seeming to extremes in the project of "Description without Place," updating the crux of "Emperor" to the postwar sense of place.
Van Geyzel's plain summary of practical criticism in Ceylon--he could not have known that Stevens had already read Richards at least twice--takes up one page of a lively, five-page letter that goes on to discuss things much more indigenous to Ceylon than Richards and "The Emperor of Ice Cream." His discussion of an unusually dry spell of weather (on the third and fourth pages of this letter) and of Pablo Neruda's experience as Chilean consul in Ceylon (pages four and five) were certainly more in keeping with the topical customs of the correspondence. Even van Geyzel's discussion of postwar politics here-- despite his praise of the Russian contribution to the allied war effort, and despite his engaging semi-Marxist language about change--supported Stevens's notion that in Ceylon all change is natural and inhuman (I have emphasized two bits of dogmatic rhetoric):If, as you say, socialism is disruptive, it may well be so because we are still in the grip of forces that are imperfectly understood, and any "advance" that comes can only do so convulsively, like earthquakes, or the migration of birds.So, too, in van Geyzel's description of the recent drought he was trying to point out that the unusual weather had not ruined but encouraged the exotic beauty of the island. He described the blossom of a fruit, waxing perhaps consciously poetic (just as Jose Rodriguez Feo sometimes did) because, having seen Ceylon appear in four poems already, he knew such gorgeous imagery might stir the poet to write about his place a fifth time: "It is really quite extraordinary how this delicate colouring produces an effect of coolness, almost of spring against the burnt grass and the hot purples, reds + yellows of bouga[i]nvilleas + poinsett[i]as. . . ." The urgent natural language here, in a letter that had begun with the importation of the Empire's latest form of critical power as an aid to reading "The Emperor of Ice Cream," is itself derived from an importation: van Geyzel informed Stevens that the flower described in the passage just quoted (Madre) "is in fact a native of South America." This reminded the letter-writer of his interest in keeping up with the latest South American literature, and so brought himself to the topic of Pablo Neruda, a poet who had actually traveled to, and lived in, the places he described in his poems. Van Geyzel was certain to observe, as if to reiterate his usually less subtle invitation to Stevens to come to Ceylon for a visit, that Neruda's work as consul had not been taxing; the Chilean government had been enlightened enough to "provide its artists" with easy access to the world. And the mere fact of Neruda's having once made his presence felt in Ceylon showed van Geyzel how his feelings of cultural isolation might occasionally abate: "Few people as interesting and attractive as Pablo Neruda," he wrote, "seem to get washed up on these unpropitious shores. . . ."
In Stevens's polite but firm response to this long letter and its enclosure (the typewritten account of Ludowyk's protocols), he mostly rejected the critical practice. As for the search for cognition in poetry, he insisted, in theoretical language that Richards's student could not have accepted, that "the cognitive element involves" not psychological astuteness so much as a plain sense of the real. "If poetry is limited to the vaticinations of the imagination," he continues, "it soon becomes worthless. The cognitive element involves the consciousness of reality" (L 500). Despite this apparent affirmation of the actual world, Stevens went on to speak of the "place of poetry." He explained that poetry "is simply the desire to contain the world," an idea that would seem to go against a positive identification "of the real," and against any assumption of limits to the imagination--against, in other words, the positing of objective conditions. Moreover, Stevens was bold enough here to implicate van Geyzel and Ludowyk (and by extension Richards) in this world-absorbing view, by assuming that at such a great distance from cultural centrality Ceylonese readers of "The Emperor of Ice Cream" "share this need" to contain the world (L 500-01), a need identified by Welles (among many others) as the new American need. He may have sensed that the assumptions underlying Ludowyk's liberal enterprise were themselves hardly liberal. When Ludowyk lamented his students' misapprehension of "The Emperor of Ice Cream," was he not, after all, complaining about "the known docility of the Ceylon schoolboy, and his inability, in spite of his natural dislike of the English, to measure things except by English values," and about "the bad English produced by the eccentric development of words in Ceylon"?
"Description without Place" follows directly from Stevens's response to the van Geyzel-Ludowyk-Richards reading. Reacting specifically to van Geyzel's remark that it is rare to find so distinguished a figure as Pablo Neruda washing up on these "unpropitious shores," the poem offers its three biographical constructions--van Geyzel's Neruda in Ceylon, Henry Church's Nietzsche in Basel, and Edmund Wilson's Lenin sitting by a lake. Stevens's deradicalized Lenin, tossing bread to the receding shapes of the swans, reinforces the effect of obscuring the "distances of space and time," as in the post-revolutionary imagination these forms flee "outward to remoter reaches, as if they knew of distant beaches" (emphasis added). How different really is this act of imaginative extension from Sumner Welles's vision of the new American hegemony, this conception of Western attitudes as reaching toward and defining "distant beaches," a new innocent American "desire to contain the world wholly within one's own perception of it"? By creating a context in the act of generally eschewing context, the displacements of a neutralized (Swiss) Nietzsche, a shabby, harmless-seeming Lenin and an ambassadorial (pre- Marxist) Neruda establish the extensive reach of the imagination as natural and harmonious with things as they are. In the Nietzsche-Lenin section of the poem, the fourth, the transitive reaches is made to rhyme simply with those remote beaches (Stevens's version of van Geyzel's phrase "unpropitious shores"). Thus here, in the poem evidently designed to resist reference to current events, an important reference is indeed made to contemporary cultural politics: the long arm of American poetry extends itself outward, hardly unlike Welles's thesis allowing Americans who share his internationalist "Vision" to see and seize a near future shaped by a United States that "desire[s] no territorial or material gain." "Regions," a grammatical object of reaching rhyming with advancing "legions," brings to formal completion the poem's densest lines: "And reaches, beaches, tomorrow's regions, / One thinking of apocalyptic legions." These words help us to follow Stevens's nontemporal, nongeographical swans in their flight from historically significant, human figures. Perhaps the swans know what Lenin, theorist of "convulsive . . . forces that are imperfectly understood," does not himself know, that change comes naturally (to revise van Geyzel's dogmatic language)--not "convulsively," like earthquakes, but beautifully and imperceptibly, "like the migration of birds." The Harvard poem takes its theme of extensiveness seriously, and even the humorous scene of Lenin sitting on a bench in old hat, shoes and clothes serves the generally grim procedure of satisfying the desire to contain and naturalize even the most resistant elements of the actual world. If Lenin at first "disturbed" the swans, finally the silence in which he sits is described by "decadence"; so the swans' smooth path away from him remains unblocked by his presence.
To be sure, when it was presented to him in an extreme form, Stevens was capable of recognizing imperial imposition on a world that resisted American knowing. It happened that at about the time he received Professor Ludowyk's report on Ceylonese difficulty with ice cream, he also received a letter from an association of American ice cream manufacturers, who wanted the poet to explain the role of ice cream in the same poem that had caused the tropical islanders to view it not as a universal image producing a measurable response but as an actual American product. Apparently these ice cream executives hoped the famous businessman poet would explicate the poem in a manner they could use to advertise their product. Putting the two dislocated readings of his old poem together, Stevens wrote Alfred Knopf about this strange request and joked that the delectables of Harmonium created out of the East a new market for the West. He now saw that Ludowyk's students' readings, expressing the Ceylonese craving for ice cream, provided "an interesting business vista" for the manufacturers. His own ample imagination had identified a strong colonial demand; now others were asking him to explain the American supply. For Knopf's amusement, he quoted a brief portion of E. F. C. Ludowyk's letter, and added: "It is entirely possible that the Secretary of the Almagamated [Ice Cream] Association would have the edge on even Buddha in Ceylon" (L 502).
On June 27, 1945, a few hours after the Harvard reading, Stevens scrawled Allen Tate a note from Boston, on Hotel Statler stationery, and enclosed the Phi Beta Kappa invitation card. We know that Tate appreciated "Description without Place," if only enough to be willing to publish it. He wanted the autumn issue of the Sewanee Review to contain a poem by Stevens to accompany Hi Simons's critical essay, "The Genre of Wallace Stevens." The apparently barren absractions of the poem seemed nicely to confirm Simons's earnest effort to prove that Stevens was a philosophical poet; Simons was trying to counter Horace Gregory's 1942 essay in Accent that had asked, point-blank, "Is Mr. Stevens a philosopher?" Gregory's answer there had been: "Mr. Stevens is not an intellectual, and . . . the value of his poetry cannot be measured in intellectual terms." It is safe to assume that the new poem, even if like Simons's essay it was motivated by an effort to offer poetry "measured in intellectual terms," suited Tate's taste for Stevens's abstractions, just as the choosy editor of Sewanee was rejecting some of Theodore Roethke's experimental greenhouse poems on the grounds that they were all imagery and no intellectual structure. ("Serves you right," William Carlos Williams jabbed Roethke, "fer trying to play around with them Taters.") The new Stevens poem was, in comparison with what Kenneth Burke would soon (in the Sewanee itself) call Roethke's "vegetal radicalism," all intellectual structure and no imagery. Others' difficulties with Stevens were exactly what Ransom and Tate, though Ransom more than Tate, liked best: the tendency to render subject matter "trifling" and to take no "moral, political, sociological or religious" position. It was precisely that Stevens's poems were not--so it seemed-- suited to be "about 'res publica,' the public thing," that made Stevens attractive. If Tate now had those sorts of problems with "Description without Place"--much later he wrote that "one gets tired of being told in almost every poem how ingenious [Stevens] is in not knowing anything"-- the Sewanee editor chose for the moment to focus his criticism on the reticence with which Stevens had presented the poem in public at this moment of crisis. In Tate's view, once the poet chose to make his poem "the public thing," then he always deserved time equal to that given over to the politician, certainly to one of Roosevelt's old programmatic cronies and at a time when a rollback of New Deal thinking was finally possible (the 1946 congressional elections would bring just that). "I can't let the little card to the Phi Beta Kappa literary exercises pass," Tate replied to Stevens on July 3, "without an obvious sociological comment. I observe that the orator was the Honorable Sumner Welles while the poet was not even Mr. Wallace Stevens." Tate recommended that Stevens consult Ransom's early poem "Amphibious Crocodile," obviously because he wanted to suggest, with the help of Ransom's boorish Mr. Crocodile, so recently emergent from the primeval slime and already claiming a stake in the world's high culture, that opportunistic politicians like Welles, with their persistent reptilian instincts, frustrate the true citizen-poet's efforts to do the properly human things. Stevens's letter in response to Tate's criticism does not apparently survive, but from Tate's next note we may infer that Stevens, in the lost reply, simply would not allow Tate to get away with saying through Ransom's Crocodile or otherwise that the poet's point of view had been slighted at Harvard in favor of the politician's. In his earlier note, posted from Boston, Stevens had written: "Mr. Welles on the new World Charter sounded more like a poet than I did." And Tate replied: "I can see that the honorary Phi Beta Kappa was a way of compensating you for the 'Honorable' prefixed to the name of Sumner Welles. I am not sure that statesmen should be quite as honest as you seem to think Mr. Welles is." Tate could not resist ironizing still further the political implications of the occasion. The postscript of his letter reads: "Anything addressed to the Hon. Allen Tate at Sewanee, Tennessee, will reach me."
If Tate was amused or perhaps a bit irritated by Stevens's willingness to distinguish the poet from the politician in "Description without Place," Williams was furious. Not long after reading the poem in the November issue of Tate's Sewanee, Williams sent to Ransom's Kenyon Review a long riposte, "A Place (Any Place) to Transcend All Places," a new work about a specific place. On November 11 Williams wrote Byron Vazakas, a young poet from Stevens's hometown, Reading, Pennsylvania (a coincidence Williams relished), informing Vazakas that Ransom had accepted his piece, adding: "It is a reply to Wallace Stevens' poem in the last Sewanee Review which I didn't like at all." At this very moment Williams was revising proofs of Paterson 1. The main idea of the first book of Paterson was that the poem about place not only had to be rooted in a real, referred-to place, but that it should figuratively be peopled by place, as Dr. P embodies Paterson itself; the poem would underscore Williams's ethnographic modernism, the "a perpetual veering between local attachments and general possibilities" that Clifford and others admire, in which "local cultural breakdown" leads the American poet to believe he shares the fate of the impure American product. Stevens, in apparent contrast, staked his own claim to a theory of locality, the Connecticut poet whose conception of modern, heterogenous urban life, insofar as it extended into Williams's territory, included Jersey City but only condescendingly: "Polacks pass in their motors / And play concertina all night; they think that things are all right . . ." ("Loneliness in Jersey City," CP210). Williams would theorize about place only through concrete particulars, he insisted, following the idea he had long nourished. Consistent with Williams's addiction to reality, Paterson, the grand poem about place, had been delayed by the war; in 1944 he had written Walter Arensberg, his and Stevens's mutual friend from their New York days, "I am working like mad at my [medical] practice largely because it is a necessary war effort and I . . . find the war an essential devotion. But after the war, if I live, the related work of literary composition will go on . . . ." Now the war was over and the first part of the masterwork of locality was nearly ready, a few months after V-J Day; yet here was Stevens, whose "war effort," the "related work" of poetry or business, had never been obvious to Williams, and whose poetic career seemed impervious to the crisis: Stevens had put out three wartime volumes! Worse, this was the man who now proposed to contain the complexities of the postwar world in a single abstract poem, officially--at Harvard-- making clean theoretical work of Williams's hard-earned, grounded sense of place. Stevens knew how passionately Williams believed in the local, for Williams had made a point in 1944 of telling Stevens how important the postwar project of reconstructing American poetry would be. He had praised Stevens's willingness to write an introduction for Sergeant Sam Morse's Time of Year, putting Stevens and himself in a select "elder group" of writers who must oversee the transition to peace and who together would encourage "an art that is slowly acquiring reality here in our God forsaken territory."
Because Williams's anger at "Description without Place" took the form of a poem in reply, we may read the poem to reconstruct, in turn, a valuable contemporary reading of "Description without Place." Williams evidently interpreted the seventh and last section of the poem (beginning, "Thus the theory of description matters most") as an attack directed at him. Williams himself was the Spaniard, he thought, the figure whom Stevens saw as limited by its devotion to locality, playing the subaltern role Williams was certain others wanted him to perform, as "Carlos the wild Spaniard." Setting aside the Spaniard of section 7, however, we can still see that Stevens's theory of place contested every earthy thing Williams had ever said on the issue--that American poets should, in the words of the old Contact group, "seek only contact with the local conditions that confront us." "Description without Place," by displacing people, violates an idea Williams now brought prominently into Paterson: poetry should situate the individual in his primary relation to place.
The riposte contains the valuable idea that "Description without Place" could suggest to a poet like Williams the new importance of the American poet who really lived to describe his local context, whose verses excavated the real, down to the sewers if possible, "draining places from which New York / is dignified, created. . . ." Williams contests the American poet's sense of place with a new vengeance.New York is built of such grass and weeds: a modern tuberculin-tested herd white-faced . . . . Sweatshops and railroad yards at dusk (puffed up by fantasy to seem real) . . . . (emphasis added)
The poem-reply posits this reading of Stevens's first postwar poem: as place is the basis of all things, so poems-about-places should contain not ideas about place in the abstract but a detailed, fundamental sense of the place itself. The appearance of Stevens's poem about place in Tate's Sewanee seems only to have strengthened Williams's critical reading; it is of special interest here that this context confirmed for Williams Stevens's betrayal of a postwar poetry that would return to the American scene and encourage the otherwise unrewarding work of "slowly acquiring reality." The Harvard poem clinched for Williams the postwar alliance between Stevens and the Tate-Ransom group, an irony in this case since Tate did not entirely sympathize with the original political context of the poem he saw into print. Williams objected that the Tate- Ransom group, called "Southern writers" in his poem-reply, had uncritically absorbed Eliot's ideas of impersonality and abstraction, which meant that poets who wanted to respond to actual American experience had no chance once the Tate-Ransom formalism held sway over the magazines.
We may generalize further about the broad, controversial claim made in "Description without Place" by associating the new readings formed by Williams and Richards's colonial student Ludowyk, and adding the implied significance of Sumner Welles's political speech--a point brought home by Tate's comment on Welles's relation to the postideological politics of the occasional poem. The result of such a combination is a clearer sense of Stevens's new notion of historiography, offered at precisely a time when Americans were being asked to have an enlightened, internationalist view of the historical moment and to situate America's new, undeniable centrality within that moment. A "revisionist" reading of Welles's apparently liberal speech, with its One-World utopianism, would suggest that its main goal was indeed to prepare Americans rhetorically for policies of unprecedented economic expansion and political neo-colonialism. "Description without Place" depends on two ideas that are likely to be seen as contradictory in such a revisionist approach. The point of the strongest language in the poem, in section 3, is that in a moment of intense change, a temporary state of complete, super-ideological observation, the world "shrinks to an immediate whole that we do not need to understand." Yet in the seventh section, the portion Williams found especially offensive, Stevens argues that provincial people live in the character of their speech. Can he have it both ways? Stripped deliberately of a sense of place, description is thus reduced to describing its own functions. But the poet still cannot reduce difference to a "whole," eschew the conventional desire to "understand" a world of basic cultural distinctions and still, finally, in section 7, celebrate its linguistic vividness by citing the mountain of men in Spain who merely reproduce a local speech (lines 7-11)--like Carlos Williams himself in Williams's anxious view. It is left to section four, the only section of Stevens's Harvard poem in which vivid description is sustained, to resolve this dilemma. The dilemma is recognizable from Stevens's struggle to see in his Ceylonese contact a "reasonable" man, a man like himself, and yet to sustain distance from and imperviousness to the "longed-for lands" ("Ordinary Evening in New Haven," canto 28) as different. By placing historical thinkers out of time and place--or, in Williams's reading, by disconnecting the individual life from its primary site, whence the imagination springs-- and by testing, as van Geyzel noted about Ludowyk's use of Richards in Ceylon, a familiar poetic idea in unfamiliar circumstances, Stevens stipulates a definition of time and place at the end of ideology. This new, powerfully disarming definition substitutes the expectation of cooperative rhetoric about things for the things themselves. So he may argue (generally in section 5) that description without a "solid" sense of place is actually proficient in the business of acknowledging difference. Description without place is "The difference that we make in what we see, / And our memorials of that difference." "Description without Place" does more than save the cognitivist from his failure to entice exotic, ill-prepared readers of American poems beyond meanings overdetermined by provincialism, produced by classics of modernism like "The Emperor of Ice Cream." More, it accomplishes this feat by tipping the seeming-being scale irrevocably toward seeming, by pushing points Professor Ludowyk's benevolent dogma prevented him from emphasizing to his students: that being cannot be an end in itself; that actuality, the world of reference, must become, rather, the goal or end-point (the finale) of seeming. To be envisioned as being, this new world must be described as becoming. Significantly, again, such an idea finally endorses rather than resists Secretary Welles's official American notion of a reconstructive moment. The resulting American "Description" of a place, then, would indeed be the postwar description Stevens proposed at Harvard, a text "we should be born that we might read," a text whose possible significance for history, it argues deceptively, can be known without any sense of time or place, in a whole world of texts that "we do not need to understand."
Van Geyzel's letter to Stevens, dated August 30, 1945, marked a change in their relationship. It inscribes a coda to the story of Stevens's first postwar poem, for here van Geyzel withdrew his support from the critical formalism that had partly suggested the poem in the first place. Bowing to Stevens's strong language about Ludowyk in the letter the poet had written while he was composing his Harvard poem, van Geyzel now made an important admission. "The business of nitpicking poems has I think been taken too far," he confessed. "To note all its possible meanings is to relieve a poem of vital overtones, even though the critic's intention is to present a poem not merely as an integration of a number of ideas." From his post in Ceylon, from this point on, he would rather resist the temptation to interpret, would rather leave a Stevens poem unexplicated, would rather be its source than its expositor--its stable, knowable object--than act in concert with Stevens as the constantly shifting subject. In effect van Geyzel apologized for having forced Stevens to speak of his poetry at all in his letters to Ceylon. And he somewhat timidly retreated into the image Stevens had originally suggested was most pleasurable, that of the isolated but cultured man extracting reality in small doses by reading modern poetry and criticism, knowing and being known at an "unchangeable center." This was precisely the relation between knowledge and power set out in "Description without Place." "Knowledge means rising above immediacy," Said has argued, "beyond self, into the foreign and distant. The object of such knowledge is inherently vulnerable to scrutiny; this object is a 'fact' which, if it develops, changes, or otherwise transforms itself in the way that civilizations frequently do, nevertheless is fundamentally, even ontologically stable." Thus "Description without Place" must seem abstract to a fault. Said observes that when the Orientalist, viewing his peripheral object-in-flux as an unchangeable center, tends to gather his thoughts beneath the binary, exclusive labels West and East, "reasonable" and inscrutable, "reasonably fastidious" and "a steamy mess," he has left himself no choice but to "conceive humanity either in large collective terms or in abstract generalities." It is important to note that this postcolonial idea would not have been unfamiliar to van Geyzel, as E. F. C. Ludowyk often drew very similar conclusions: "it is surely ironical that fixed entities with antithetical adjectives . . . should designate what used to be regarded as East and West. Wherever in the geographer's world of our acquaintance the West has come up against the East--the preposition slips in so readily that it is worth noting-- the more ancient culture has been rebuked, and practically all its values have been thrown into the discard."
Yet in re-explaining how and why he liked Stevens's poems, van Geyzel retreated somewhat from Ludowyk's and others' harder line, suggesting finally that to read Stevens's poetic observations on Ceylon was to involve oneself in a "continual process of discovery," as if each new Stevens poem he received was itself a staker of claims establishing beachheads on the unpropitious shores of Ceylon. Van Geyzel withdrew into a passive understanding, a mode of receiving poetry from afar embodied in the postwar American poem that served as its own cultural diplomacy; he would praise ambiguity and yet be careful to deny that in Stevens's case ambiguity ever amounted to obscurity. He cited the pink and white flowers of "The Poems of Our Climate" (1938) in this letter, noting that his reading of that poem "finds endorsement" in the line, "the imperfect is our paradise" (CP194). Acknowledging his own desire to contain the world, and referring to Stevens's response to Professor Ludowyk, where there was outlined a project for locating "the place of poetry in thought"--"place" in the abstract sense--the foreign correspondent expressed the hope that Stevens "will undertake the job" of describing, in some new poem, "the genuine difficulty that arises out of the enigmatic quality that is so essential a part of the satisfaction that a good poem gives." Stevens evidently wrote the poem van Geyzel suggested. In "Man Carrying Thing," composed soon after van Geyzel's letter, and beginning, "The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully," Stevens did "undertake the job."
Van Geyzel never showed a sharper awareness of Stevens's desire to receive by air mail descriptions of exotic places than here, in this long and at times morose letter, where he hoped for a new discovery of the imperfect paradise of poetry. At least for Stevens's sake, Leonard van Geyzel, cosmopolitan, urban, cultural and racially heterogenous, was willing to retreat into a role he never actually played in Ceylon, that of the guileless islander. Despite once having made a strong case in favor of more American influence, now he readily acknowledged his desire to have the Western military defenders depart quickly, "and let us revert once more to being just a small island." And despite having used a good deal of internationalist language in earlier exchanges, he declared that Ceylon's "status of 'a bastion of freedom' or whatever it was we were supposed to be . . . is altogether too exalted for a little place like this." He now wanted no part of the effort to position him politically in the postwar world and, having deeply internalized the strong desires of his American friend, learned to wish to remain innocent of history.
FILREIS HOME | HOT | STEVENS HOME | POETRY | FIFTIES
Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Stevens/vangeyzel.html
Last modified: Thursday, 20-Nov-2003 05:43:31 EST