These are not the days when most educators would be inclined to turn to a writer with the profile of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). A Eurocentric white male upper-middle-class poet, academically installed during those years when canons were unthinkingly composed of such figures. A reserved lawyer who rose to the position of vice president of a big insurance company. (He would be a CEO making millions today.) Never much of a progressive in politics, he was among the happy few (all men) to attend Harvard around the turn of the twentieth century and ended up a supporter of Eisenhower. Unhappily married, nobody’s favorite buddy, and basically a hermit during the final twenty years of his life when he wrote most of his poetry. Not much bothered by the occasional racist and sexist remark he made either. Most important, uncompromisingly elitist, a seemingly cerebral and impersonal poet who would have been horrified to find this kind of art-making contested today.
And yet. He survives. With the help of some strangely unexpected friends, too. For who would have thought that in 2021 it would still be easy to whip up interest in putting together an edited volume under the banner of The New Wallace Stevens Studies? Who could have predicted that neither of the editors would hail from, or even teach in, the US? That one would be a Turkish woman (Gül Bilge Han) who moved to Sweden, where she is strongly committed to literary pedagogy in a context of global justice? That the other (myself) would be a queer activist in Belgium? Neither of us were ever pushed in the direction of Stevens’s poetry, nor did we think of it as a great career move; we just discovered it, got hooked, and wound up writing complete dissertations on it.
The best qualities of Stevens’s work are such that, despite the author’s profile and much of his politics, it continues to provide deep and intimate pleasure to poetry lovers around the world. His celebration of the powers of the imagination, his playful and inimitable language, his aesthetic transformations of everyday reality continue to charm. Experienced translators keep trying to breathe in his verse and breathe it out again in their own language. The Wallace Stevens Journal is in its forty-fifth year of uninterrupted publication, though the limited corpus to which contributors return has barely changed for decades. Conferences devoted to the poet are now more frequent in Europe than in the US. Many visual artists, composers, singer-songwriters are triggered by Stevens’s verse, which remains fresh to them.
When Gül and I drew up our list of invitees for The New Wallace Stevens Studies, we made a special effort to step outside the established community of Stevensians with whom we had built up a close working relationship in the context of the Journal and the various conferences we’ve organized. But we met with general enthusiasm all the same. With the help of these contributors, who turned in a series of beautiful, nuanced essays, it proved possible to open up a range of underexplored perspectives: even to readers with a primary interest in questions of imperialism and colonialism, utopian thinking, literary community-building, transnational aesthetics, world literature, ecological poetics, urban studies, queer studies, or intersectional thinking, Stevens’s poetry is apparently still able to speak and present its own rewarding enigmas.