CA. Other Poets and Works

7. Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Poems and verse drama, 1916-23.

  Certainly Stevens read Okakura Kakuzô in 1909 and thereafter made reference to Okakura’s work in journal entries and letters, and during his days at Harvard he had a close association with Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke and shared their East Asian interests. Beyond this, Stevens himself was characteristically straightforward about the degree to which his work owed to East Asian subjects and forms: he was ‘influenced by Chinese and Japanese lyrics’, ‘never studied haiku’, had only a ‘casual’ interest in Japanese art, and ‘hated orientalism’.  

John Gould Fletcher (BH15) was the first to assert an assimilation of Japanese technique in Stevens’s work, but Miner (A25 and 42), Fukuda (A31), Ôtake (A35), Durnell (A55), and Kawano (A57) have followed, as have Henry W. Wells (A34 and Introduction to Wallace Stevens [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964]), Robert Buttel (Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967]), James Baird (Introduction to The Dome and the Rock [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1968]), Ricciardi Caterina (‘Wallace Stevens e l’Oriente’, in L’esotismo nella letteratura angloamericana, ed. Elèmira Zolla [Florence: La Nuova, 1978]), and William W. Bevis (Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature [Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1988]). The suggestions of influence focus particularly on four matters: the ‘colour impressionism’ of Harmonium (New York: Knopf, 1923) and its possible relation to ukiyoe; similarities to hokku in several poems from that collection, particularly THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD; Stevens’s one direct reference to a Japanese subject in his poetry, in another Harmonium poem, an image derived from ‘Utamaro’s beauties’ in the third stanza of LE MONOCLE DE MON ONCLE; and a possible link to the nô in Stevens’s only play in verse, THREE TRAVELLERS WATCH A SUNRISE (Poetry 8 [July 1916]: 163-79). In spite of such critical interest, however, with the exception of the one image derived from Utamaro in 534 pages of Stevens’s Collected Poems, proposals about a direct link between his work and Japan, as Baird puts it, ‘seem hazardous’. Notably, the fullest study of Stevens’s work during the years in question, Joan Richardson’s prodigious Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879-1923 (New York: Morrow, 1986), makes no claim for such a link. The Letters of Wallace Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1966) includes numerous passing references to Japanese subjects (see index), but on present evidence all that may be claimed with certainty is that in 1909 Stevens read Okakura (D16) and made reference to his work in journal entries and letters (see Letters, p. 137, Buttel, p. 70, and Richardson, p. 341), that during his days at Harvard he had a close association with Bynner and Ficke and shared their interests in East Asian art (see especially Richardson), that in 1950 he owned ‘a half dozen volumes of Chinese and Japanese poetry’ (see Letters, p. 291, n. 9), and that he claimed variously in his letters to have been ‘influenced by Chinese and Japanese lyrics’, to have ‘never studied’ haiku, to have only a ‘casual’ interest in Japanese art, and to ‘hate orientalism’ (see Letters, pp. 290, 291, n. 9, and 796). Surely some of the poems in Harmonium reflect the general interest in ukiyoe and haiku among poets in Cambridge and Boston in the years that Stevens, Bynner, and Ficke were at Harvard, but any claim beyond this, unless further evidence comes to light, remains speculation. See also A60, 70, BK3, and 146.





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