The less legible meanings of sounds, the little reds
Not often realized, the lighter words
In the heavy drum of speech, the inner men
Behind the outer shields, the sheets of music
In the strokes of thunder, dead candles at the window
When day comes, fire-foams in the motions of the sea
“The less legible meanings of sounds” – a phrase that embodies its meaning(s) as almost no other I can think of – is the theme of this special issue of the journal. Guest editor Natalie Gerber, a scholar on the faculty of the State University of New York at Fredonia, says the essays here “pay attention not only to sound as vocalizations by human and nonhuman speakers (e.g., the sound of words, preverbal sounds, including onomatopoeia, and the sounds of the earth itself) but also to the content and context of non-source sound(s), what one might call the ambient sounds of modernity itself.” Like Gerber’s introductory essay, the writing here is sophisticated and serious. These are scholarly essays intended for an audience of readers who love Stevens’s work (which I do) and who have the patience for critical or analytical essays (which, for me, depends on the essays). Fortunately, these essays, while “academic,” do not rely on insider jargon. They are written to be read, clearly intended to provide accessible insights into the work of Wallace Stevens, and, for the most part, not self serving.
Alan Filreis considers why, since sound was so obviously important to Stevens, there was so little critical response to the notion of sound in his work. Beverly Maeder explores, with a close analysis, the various sound strategies in Harmonium. Alison Rieke offers a close reading of “Description Without Place,” with particular attention to effects of repetition. Peter Middleton considers the poet’s theory of how poems begin or should begin. Sam Halliday, who begins with a wonderful quote from Stevens about the radio that is fascinating when considered now against the context of the Internet, considers the sounds of “contemporary life” in Stevens’s poems. Tyler Hoffman discusses the ambivalence Stevens expressed about the oral performance of poetry. Lisa Goldfarb compares the musicality of Wallace Stevens and Paul Valéry and their theories of the role of music as a kind of metaphysical architecture in their work. She concludes: “Valeryan theory helps us to imagine Stevens’ larger, more unified musical project and to understand more fully the ways he brings a poetic world to life through sound.” The issue also includes several original poems in the style of Steven or in homage, and review, also by Goldfarb, of a work of literary criticism on Stevens and Eliot.
While “lit crit” often seems to defeat its own purpose, turning us off to the very subjects it hopes to elucidate, this is happily not the case with The Wallace Stevens Journal. The essays here remind me why I love Stevens, what I can learn from scholars who have studied his work closely and thoughtfully, and why he continues to be a poet worth studying whose poems are worth reading – and re-reading.