Wallace Stevens, Freezer of Slang

A lecture delivered at the École normale supérieure on March 14, 2013

Stephen Sturgeon

Rarely in Wallace Stevens’s poems do we find speech, find instances of what we recognize as one person speaking, to another person or people, to himself or herself. One may want to write this off as the poet’s personal inclination bleeding into the form of his art: Stevens’s letters and journals consistently display him, throughout his life, skirting misanthropy, and on all occasions as a man reticent with his own conversational voice who finds little to savor in the voices of others. As a young man on a hiking holiday in British Columbia in 1903, Stevens’s campmate, he records in his journal, ‘is just behind me talking platitudes in his monstrous voice.’[1] After a long walk in 1906, he tells his journal that ‘I loathed every man I met, and wanted to get away, as if I were some wild beast. People look at one so intimately, so stupidly’. On his walk he stopped into a church, where he saw

a doddering girl of, say, twenty—idiot eyes, spongy nose, shining cheeks . . . One sees the most painful people, wherever one goes. Human qualities, on an average, are fearful subjects for contemplation. Deceit—how inevitable! Pride, lack of sophistication, ignorance, egoism—what dreadful things! Necessity, too—. I can’t make head or tail of Life.

This entry ends with the polite observation ‘I think I’d enjoy being an executioner, or a Russian policeman.’[2] After another walk, in April of the same year, taken this time not by himself, he explains

I detest “company” and do not fear any protest of selfishness for saying so. People say one is selfish for not sharing one’s good things—a naively selfish thing in them. The devil take all of that tribe. It is like being accused of egoism. Well, what if one be an egoist—one pays the penalty.[3]

Later that month he writes, cryptically, perhaps drunkenly,

There is a robin’s nest nearby and at twilight the trees are full of music.—There are three women I know—one in gray, one in purple, one in green. I wish I could bury them all during the afternoon, and, after tea, listen to the robin again.[4]

In surviving extracts from his letters to Elsie Moll, the woman he would marry, he writes in 1907-8, ‘The fact is, most people are a great nuisance, and my own disposition is not remarkably lenient in such things. Perhaps that is why my own likes are more often for things than for people: because of intolerance’ and ‘I don’t believe in holding up the microscope to one’s self, or to you, or to my friends,—but only to the dolts and others whom I dislike.’[5] With few exceptions his tenor concerning sociability and especially talking and conversation would go unchanged, and Stevens would say it most simply in a letter to Henry Church of December 23, 1940, responding to an invitation to deliver a lecture on poetry: ‘It is very unlikely, however, that I should lecture. I am very definitely not a public speaker: in fact, hardly a private one.’[6] The following year he would write to Hi Simons that ‘The sort of literary conversation that you suggest in your letter is the last thing in the world that I should be likely to engage in, except casually and quickly. In any case, I am not a good talker and don’t particularly enjoy exchanging ideas with people in talk.’[7]

A preference for solitude is not uncommon among artists, nor is difficulty with speaking—Ezra Pound is good here: ‘many good artists are incapable of talking about their art comprehensibly, or of talking sensibly, or of even talking at all’[8]—, and pointing out that Stevens didn’t write his poems in the way that people speak may at first sound like someone complaining that Cezanne did not go after painting haystacks. However with Stevens, one can’t say he didn’t write with speech in mind and stop there, because in his poems we frequently come across various components of speech, divided from one another. He seems not to have wanted to write poems where people talk to one another, but he did want to use in his poems the way people speak in order to achieve something other than the effect of dialogue. We can go through 1923’s Harmonium, for instance, and find speech components arranged like the parts of a car engine ordered across the floor of a mechanic’s shop. ‘Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores’ begins with a person declaring he is speaking to someone else, who then goes on to say words in a language different from conversation:

I say now, Fernando, that on that day
The mind roamed as a moth roams,
Among the blooms beyond the open sand;

And that whatever noise the motion of the waves
Made on the sea-weeds and the covered stones
Disturbed not even the most idle ear.

And we often find Stevens beginning his sentences in the pitch of banal conversation. The phrase ‘it is true that’ normally prepares you to hear a truth not worth knowing, offered as a matter of officious self-defense: ‘It is true that I am late for lunch, but it’s because there was a lot of traffic, it’s not my fault.’ However in ‘Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs’,

It is true that the rivers went nosing like swine,
Tugging at banks, until they seemed
Bland-belly sounds in somnolent troughs,

Yeats’s poem ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, from 1921’s Michael Robartes and the Dancer, carries a similar moment in its fourth stanza.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-legged smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

‘It’s certain’ that the ‘fine women’ do this because ‘it’s certain’ is an insipid tic of speech these figures of society would commonly use. We are overhearing them as they are being described to us. Then, we find speech-marks in Stevens, the ‘inverted commas’ of dialogue, as in ‘Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et Les Unze Mille Vierges’, containing something other than talk:

She said, “My dear,
Upon your altars,
I have placed
The marguerite and coquelicot,
And roses
Frail as April snow;
But here,” she said,
“Where none can see,
I make an offering, in the grass,
Of radishes and flowers.”

The line breaks here, inimical as they are placed to the flow of spoken words, further tell us that if this is a portion of dialogue, it is not a dialogue with human participants. The line lengths of ‘Le Monocle de Mon Oncle’ would fit units of speech, and the poem starts with speech marks, but the words are those of a character and not a person.

“Mother of heaven, regina of the clouds,
O sceptre of the sun, crown of the moon,
There is not nothing, no, no, never nothing,
Like the clashed edges of two words that kill.”

The two lines that follow the character-speech are fitting and unsettling.

And so I mocked her in magnificent measure.
Or was it that I mocked myself alone?

Fitting, because this is an alien way of speaking and its direction and effect are uncertain: do the negations in line three translate to ‘There is something, yes, yes, always something, that is like the clashed edges of two words that kill’? Or does the line say that the reality of there being ‘not nothing’ bears similarity to those ‘clashed edges’ themselves? The construction again derives from a banal conversational idiom, that of idle, hyperbolic praise—‘I love tennis, there is nothing like it’ or ‘There’s nothing like a cold beer on a hot summer day’—but Stevens inverts the emphasis, takes it away from the thing being singled out as unique and places it on the ‘nothing’ that the thing is like (this is an emphasis Stevens makes repeatedly in his poems; the best-known example of it is the ending of ‘The Snow Man’, also in Harmonium: ‘beholds | Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’). The concept of nothingness is, after all, always more fascinating than whatever a person says he likes because it has no equal. More unsettling than this is the information that these lines that have such a feeling of ‘Salve regina’ about them contain mockery. What is the derisive element in them? the form of exalted address that begins them? the six negatives of line three? Who is in on the joke? What is the mind making it, or finding it?

Examples go on. Stevens’s most famous poem, ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’, begins with a person giving instructions so precise as to be probably unintelligible to the person receiving them, who must then pass them on to another: ‘bid him whip | In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.’ And the women of ‘The Ordinary Women’ do not talk in an ordinary way (or have anything else recognizably ordinary about them: their ordinariness is of the world in which the story of the poem is set, which is not ours):

Insinuations of desire,
Puissant speech, alike in each,
Cried quittance
To the wickless halls.

As I said, these examples so far all come from Harmonium, Stevens’s first collection of poems, but he would keep doing this sort of thing in poems throughout his life. Ideas of Order, published in 1936, has the poem ‘Some Friends from Pascagoula’, in which the speaker asks the ‘friends’ of the title to speak to him.

Tell me more of the eagle, Cotton,
And you, black Sly,
Tell me how he descended
Out of the morning sky.

Describe with deepened voice
And noble imagery
His slowly-falling round
Down to the fishy sea.

Here was a sovereign sight,
Fit for a kinky clan.
Tell me again of the point
At which the flight began,

Say how his heavy wings,
Spread on the sun-bronzed air,
Turned tip and tip away,
Down to the sand, the glare

Of the pine trees edging the sand,
Dropping in sovereign rings
Out of his fiery lair.
Speak of the dazzling wings.

Another poet might have used the occasion of this poem to write a dialogue, for the purposes of showcasing complementary or contradictory psychologies, or of blending the regional speech that people named Cotton and Sly would likely use into a poetic form—for the purposes of, essentially, saying something about people. Stevens never lets the conversation happen, in order, among other things, to make the poem finish upon the sense that speech is to begin imminently. The speaker makes plain in the language he uses that the scene’s vividness has been embedded solidly in him, that he needs no repeated performance to form a clearer mental or verbal image of the fall of the eagle. The information conveyed through speech has stayed with him. What has not survived the moment, and never does, is the motivation for speech, which, as we have seen from Stevens’s personal writings, is something that the poet did not come upon with ease. The poem is longing on the surface and through and through, and not, as Hugh Kenner thought,

a sad poem, underneath, because no eagle swoops here, where you are, for instance in Hartford, Conn., and if an eagle’s descent is to be recreated here (in Hartford) only the tricks of noble imagery and deepened voice will suffice. Yet, in commanding that these be adopted, you concede that they are tricks, as empty as would be any effort to tell (“again”) of “the point / At which the flight began”—a point in the empty air: how tell of that? What a noble imposture is language. We may learn from Wallace Stevens, through its use, what occurs in the mental country of imaginary friends from a Pascagoula identical only in name with the Pascagoula on the map of Mississippi; we shall never learn of the quiddities of Hartford. Words make a world of words. Local quiddities evade them.[9]

Here, I think, is someone complaining that Cezanne did not go after painting haystacks. I’ll have more to say about Kenner’s unfairness to Stevens, as well as criticism Kenner makes of him that is apt, in next week’s lecture.

For now, a poem that similarly plays with our expectations of speech and timing is ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’, collected in 1947’s Transport to Summer, which begins with the imperative ‘Begin’, and the poem’s second word makes you stop: ‘Begin, ephebe’. There are many reasons to stop: one might have to go to the dictionary to look up ‘ephebe’, or the stoppage may come with realizing that you, the reader, are not the one being asked to ‘begin’, or you may pause to imagine the circumstances and the personal relationship that would suit one person addressing another as an ‘ephebe’. These are the complications that arise out of identifying conversation, or aspects of one, in a Stevens poem. We never find in Stevens the vernacular, deeply simple, domestic intimacy of ‘This is Just to Say’ by his contemporary William Carlos Williams, and never anything like ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, where we are convinced by subtlety of poetic form and cadence that we are hearing someone say naturally, perhaps in confidence but in an easy confidence, what no one would ever say outside the hallucinations of a deathbed.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Compare this with a stanza from section XVIII of ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven’, from The Auroras of Autumn, published in 1950:

The life and death of this carpenter depend
On a fuchsia in a can—and iridescences
Of petals that will never be realized,

I don’t see Stevens wanting to make an allusion to Williams here, but the coincidence of diction is useful for my purposes. The meaning of Stevens’s lines is, I think, clearer than that of Williams’s poem: there is a carpenter, a person who constructs things, practical things like tables and chairs and houses, and his existence, the craft he practices in life and the worth he made of that craft that will remain after his life ends, are mixed up with things that exist to be, or are only noticed because they are, beautiful. But beauty can be troublingly ephemeral, there are ‘iridescences’ ‘that will never be realized’, and there can be a great conflict between eminently real things like the constructions of a carpenter and eminently ideal things like things of beauty—their natures are different and yet they occupy us equally, life cannot all be about the practical but if it is only about the beautiful and ephemeral one becomes affected and isolated in an intangible place, and so on. Our lives and deaths depend on this complex balance, and achieving that balance becomes more complex the more one is devoted by necessity to either side of the scale, as a carpenter must be to one of them. The Williams poem on the other hand has no meaning at all. And yet, through a perfection of illusion, we instantly believe it. It, as it were, speaks to us, in part because it sounds like someone speaking. Its speaking-syntax happens to be one that Stevens uses to create an effect opposite of speech. The closest Stevens comes to natural speech in a poem is in ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, where people complain that they cannot understand what another person is communicating.

These comments have so far been descriptive in a local way. From here one might want to start taking a broader view, and ask if these observations about speech in Stevens’s poems connect to anything larger, if there is a way to make more than incidental use of them. What one cannot do is take the broken components of speech in Stevens’s poems and combine them into a working conversational sentence, the way one could take up the disassembled car engine parts ordered on a mechanic’s shop floor and make a running engine out of them. The analogy I made earlier is not accurate. Words, despite what some poets and critics have insisted lately, do not function as objects. Screwing a spark-plug from a Mercedes onto a bicycle frame does not impact how one pedals the bicycle, unless it is attached to an inconvenient spot of the frame and prevents you from pedaling the bicycle at all. Transplantations of language from an original, native context into an unfamiliar one do occur in poems, and if they are performed with intelligence the fibers of the two contexts will entwine, grow into each other, and make a new linguistic plot that is dependent on both original contexts in isolation but similar to neither. After examining a few of the many examples one can find of Stevens using bits and pieces of speech to make lines of poetry that are unrecognizable as speech, I feel provoked when an explicit patch of idiomatic, conversational language gets worked into a Stevens poem. Among the stocks of commentary on his poems Stevens gave his publisher Ronald Lane Latimer, on November 26, 1935 he wrote to him that ‘Titles with me are, of course, of the highest importance’ and that when writing poems ‘Very often the title occurs to me before anything else occurs to me.’[10] The slang phrase Stevens used for a poem of 50 epigram-like sections on death, permanence, and impermanence, ‘Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery’, calls, then, particularly for our attention.

I say ‘slang’ but the word as applied to that poem’s title may meet objections. The phrase is an instance of colloquial speech that Stevens picked up from his friend Judge Arthur Powell as the two men were taking a walk in Key West, Florida. Powell had

stopped to look through a fence. I explained that I thought it enclosed a graveyard, as some of the rubbish looked ‘like decorations in a nigger cemetery.’ [Stevens] was interested when I explained the custom of negroes to decorate graves with broken pieces of glass, old pots, broken pieces of furniture, dolls heads, and what not. The poem [“Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”] itself is an olio, and the title is fitting.[11]

As far as I know the phrase never had the wide usage that would qualify it as slang as the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it, ‘The special vocabulary and usage of a particular period, profession, social group, etc.’, although it does meet the dictionary’s meaning of slang as ‘Language that is regarded as very informal or much below standard educated level’. The definition is wanting in that one may not immediately see how the technical language of a special trade could be the same thing as the casual speech of, say, a high school dropout farmhand. One of Stevens’s contemporaries fortunately was much possessed by slang. H. L. Mencken, in the fourth edition of The American Language, starts his chapter on ‘American Slang’ by citing the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition in its first edition.

Slang is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “language of a highly colloquial type, considered as below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense.”[12]

Mencken finds enough wanting in this definition, and finds the meaning and usage of slang complex enough, to amplify on it in his own words and those of outside sources:

Slang originates in the effort of ingenious individuals to make the language more pungent and picturesque—to increase the store of terse and striking words, to widen the boundaries of metaphor, and to provide a vocabulary for new shades of difference in meaning. As Dr. Otto Jesperson has pointed out, this is also the aim of poets (as, indeed, it is of prose writers), but they are restrained by consideration of taste and decorum, and also, not infrequently, by historical or logical considerations.[13]

One wishes that he had not stopped with observing that the effect of slang is something poets aspire to, that he had gone on to say that this aspect of slang often entices poets to put slang, as they have found or heard it, into their poems unmodified. But Mencken’s book is not a study of literature, it is a study of everyday language in America. In any case, R. P. Blackmur saw the words of Stevens’s poems working in much the same way as this:

If Mr. Stevens stretches his words slightly, as a live poet should and must, it is in such a way as to make them seem more precisely themselves than ever. The context is so delicately illuminated, or adumbrated, that the word must be looked up, or at least thought carefully about, before the precision can be seen. This is the precision of the expert pun, and every word, to a degree, carries with it in any given sense the puns of all its senses.[14]

Strangely, or perhaps not strangely at all, Mencken and Blackmur are writing about two opposite types of words. What Mencken sees slang doing by its nature, Blackmur sees non-slang words doing when Stevens puts them to his poems’ uses. Words that may sound ‘ornamental’ at a first hearing, such as ‘fubbed, girandoles, curlicues, catarrhs, gobbet, diaphanes, clopping, miniscule, pipping, pannicles, carked, ructive, rapey, cantilene, buffo, fiscs, phylactery, princox, and funest’, these,

each, in its context, was a word definitely meant. The important thing about Mr. Stevens’ vocabulary is not the apparent oddity of certain words, but the uses to which he puts those words with others. It is the way that Mr. Stevens combines kinds of words, unusual in a single context, to reveal the substance he had in mind, which is of real interest to the reader.[15]

Or, as Mencken goes on to say about slang,

What chiefly lies behind it is simply a kind of linguistic exuberance, an excess of word-making energy . . . The best slang is not only ingenious and amusing; it also embodies a kind of social criticism. It not only provides new names for a series of everyday concepts, some new and some old; it also says something about them. “Words which produce the slang effect,” observes Frank K. Sechrist, “arouse associations which are incongruous or incompatible with those of customary thinking.”[16]

Again, according to Blackmur, the words of Stevens’s poems could be the subject of observation here. More pertinent to the title ‘Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery’,

The essence of slang is that it is of general dispersion, but still stands outside the accepted canon of language. It is, says George H. McKnight, “a form of colloquial speech created in a spirit of defiance and aiming at freshness and novelty. . . . Its figures are consciously far-fetched and are intentionally drawn from the most ignoble of sources. Closely akin to profanity in its spirit, its aim is to shock.” Among the impulses leading to its invention, adds Henry Bradley, “the two more important seem to be the desire to secure increased vivacity and the desire to secure increased sense of intimacy in the use of language.”[17]

That ‘increased vivacity’ integral to slang brings with it slang’s most problematic quality, short-livedness, so that the element of ‘general dispersion’ becomes an extreme variable. As Christopher Ricks articulates it, ‘clichés and slang can be very different, but they are both likely to have a short life-expectancy, if life is vividness and vitality. Then they can become zombies or ghosts; dead but they won’t lie down, like that phrase itself.’[18] This, Ricks says, is particularly at issue in the American version of the English language, and though it is an issue of difficulty it can make a way for achievement rather than defeat.

For some of the best American writers, there has been a reward—for them and for their readers—in seeing the decay of language, or its transitoriness (not necessarily the same thing), or its prompt obsolescence, as not simply a condition of life but a condition for art. The distinctive poignancy of American English within American literature has much to do with its making its own linguistic transience—the unlikelihood that the battery could be charged afresh with energy—an acknowledgment and not just an admission. The sense that some of the most vivid words in today’s language are—to take up Eliot’s terms of disparagement—‘inherently transitory’, ‘certain to be superseded’, ‘certain to pass away’, and ‘cannot endure’: this sense can then itself be constitutive of some of the great effects of distinctively American literature, so that the degradation and deterioration of the language become, though always losses, the source of new gains.[19]

Slang, then, can have a much deeper effect in poems than that of adding to a portrait of a region or a regional people, can do something other than display a dialect. For a poem that tells us ‘No man shall see the end’, that tells us

She was a shadow as thin in memory
As an autumn ancient underneath the snow,
Which one recalls at a concert or in a café.

—for a poem that has death all about it—and when it does not present death, presents things effortlessly, insouciantly unchanged by the forces that change living things, such as ‘A bridge above the bright and blue of water | And the same bridge when the river is frozen’—for such a poem, a suitable title would be one that belongs to a class of language that exhibits ‘the degradation and deterioration of language’, by the very nature of its belonging to a colloquial idiom heard in passing conversation and by its containing a word used to degrade humans. Sections of ‘Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery’ that do not at first look like slang or the language of idiom can be found to be the cousins of these things, a person’s thoughts to oneself, the informal, idiosyncratic language one speaks in solitude that does without the connective tissue necessary for the linking of associations when talk is directed at others. Section XXXVIII:

The album of Corot is premature.
A little later when the sky is black.
Mist that is golden is not wholly mist.

Helen Vendler identifies this as a place where the poem’s lines ‘speak in ellipses’: ‘Stevens’s truncated dismissal of art is flavored with epigram in the punning near-chiasmus of sound—mist, golden, wholly, mist—and where something like malice supervenes on the foreboding of the second line.’[20] In addition to this, I hear the homonym ‘mist/missed’ working hard here: it is the final word of the section and looks forward to the time when summer will indeed be missed and the album of Corot will be valued, toward a time when art will be needed to appreciate something that the world is lacking. Some have similar feelings about dead loved ones, and leave objects, decorations, on their graves to remember and honor them. I will not have the chance this week to talk about Stevens’s relationship with the ‘decorative’ and I hope to speak briefly about the word ‘decorations’ next time. What needs to be said here is that the poem title should be taken literally, must be taken literally for the artistic function between it and the poem’s body to be complete. Its sections must be ‘rubbish’ put toward a sacred use, common things transplanted into a place where they take on a function that transcends their everydayness. So we have the ellipsis-like, internal speech of section XXXVIII. So we have section XXX, another direct quotation from the Georgia country-speak of Judge Powell. So we have section XXIII,

The comedy of hollow sounds derives
From truth and not from satire on our lives.
Clog, therefore, purple Jack and crimson Jill.


Like all of Stevens’s best poems, ‘Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery’ sees into the nature of poetry as it has been conjured to suit the occasion of that particular poem’s cry. Section XXXII:

Poetry is a finnikin thing of air
That lives uncertainly and not for long Yet radiantly beyond much lustier blurs.

Poetry, like slang, is a thing simultaneously thriving and dying. A slang term’s fall into disuse is where Mencken is the least instructive in The American Language.

If, by the fortunes that condition language-making, his neologism acquires a special and limited meaning, not served by any existing locution, it enters into sound idiom and is presently wholly legitimized; if, on the contrary, it is adopted by the populace as a counter-word and employed with such banal imitativeness that it soon loses any definite significance whatever, then it remains slang and is avoided by the finical.[21]

For better observations on this, we must go far elsewhere. I would like to know what Victor Hugo would have thought of Wallace Stevens’s poems. Part Four, Book Seven of Les Misérables tells us that

Being the idiom of corruption, slang is corrupted fast. On top of this, as it always seeks to conceal itself, as soon as it feels understood it transforms itself. In contrast to all other vegetation, every ray of light that falls on it kills what it touches. And so slang goes on decomposing and recomposing itself endlessly; a murky and swift labor that never stops. It covers more ground in ten years than the official language does in ten centuries.[22]

It is in this that it is poetic, for

No idiom could be more metaphoric than slang . . . Slang lives off the language. It does whatever it likes with it, dips into it at random, is often content, when the need arises, to summarily and grossly distort it. Now and then, with common words thus deformed and jumbled up with words of pure slang, colorful expressions are created in which you can feel the melding of the two preceding elements, direct invention and metaphor.[23]


If the philosopher manages to set aside a moment to observe this language that is endlessly evaporating, he lapses into painful yet useful meditation. No study is more effective and more fruitful in instruction. There is not one metaphor, not one etymological derivation of slang that does not contain a lesson[24]

Although Hugo brings into play the aspects of slang that Mencken and others emphasize (its exuberance, the intimacy that it comes out of and creates, the varying diameters of the circles that use it), the one thing he thinks is fundamental to the nature of slang is its origin in corruption and degradation. Slang

is nothing else, we repeat, than the ugly, fretful, underhand, treacherous, venomous, cruel, sleazy, vile, profound, fatal language of misery. There is, at the extreme of all debasements and all personal disasters, one last form of misery that rebels and decides to do battle with the whole raft of happy facts and resigning rights; an appalling battle where, now cunning, now violent, at once morbid and wild, it attacks the social order through the pinpricks of vice and through the club blows of crime. For the requirements of this battle, misery has invented a language of combat and that language is slang.[25]

Slang consequently plays an important role in works of literature, for ‘if the language spoken by a nation or a province is worthy of interest, there is something still more worthy of attention and study and that is the language spoken by any form of misery.’[26] To a reader who says ‘ “Slang is vile! Slang makes you shudder!” ’, Hugo says, ‘Who denies it? Of course it’s all true.’ However, ‘When it comes to probing a wound, or sounding an abyss, or a society, since when has it been a crime to go too far, to descend to the very depths?’[27] It is not merely permissible for an author to write in slang, it is necessary, it is his obligation, because ‘studying social deformities and infirmities and identifying them in order to cure them is not a job where choice is allowed.’[28]

Of course when it comes to Stevens, this takes things rather too far, and too virtuously. The social role Stevens thought art played is hard to summarize, but to distinguish him from Hugo it is enough here to note that the inequalities and injustices black people faced did not weigh heavily enough on him to prevent his casual and callous use of racial epithets. The title did not come out of a motivation (as it would have, had Hugo invented it) to deploy a racial epithet for its own undermining, or for the exposure of its reader to an awareness of his own complicity in maintaining a racist society. Stevens did not put slang, or poetry, or art in general, to such purposes. He did, however, want to place slang-like language in his poem for all of the other reasons discussed above. The question we are left with, I think, is, if Hugo’s ‘social justice’ is absent from Stevens’s intentions in using slang, is there some other, higher achievement Stevens is after? Or is it nothing more than an affair with exuberant metaphor?

Eighty years after Hugo’s writing about slang, we find Judge Arthur Powell, Stevens’s friend and the source of the title of his poem, defending his own use of slang in a memoir chronicling his coming of age in the town of Blakely, Georgia (population 300 persons in the year of his birth, 1873) and he would come to his own conclusion as to what purpose slang serves in the telling of a story, in the depiction of a scene, in the exact relating of thought and emotion. Powell relates an anecdote that concludes with a drunk man in church telling his minister he feels ‘like a God damned son of a bitch’, and the author continues:

I feel a shock as I see the phrase, “son of a bitch,” upon the page. Yet, on reflection, I realize that this feeling is merely a throwback to that Victorian prudery which in my early days often characterized our speech and conduct. Though this phrase may be a vulgarism generally to be avoided in the interest of good taste, unless the point of the incident or story inheres in the words themselves, or unless a raucousness of style is necessary to support the mood or the theme of the writer or the speaker, yet there is nothing inherently obscene or indecent in it. In the South, and perhaps elsewhere, it has a special use and meaning. When one wishes to use, of or to another, insulting language of such intensity that no known word or combination of words is opprobrious enough for the purpose, the phrase, “son of a bitch,” seems to satisfy. It thus takes on a transcendental meaning capable of expressing insult or opprobrium to an infinite degree.[29]

For Hugo, the main point of literature and art is a social one, with the promulgation of justice as its ideal consequence. For Stevens, the power of poetry is closer to what Powell saw as the power of the phrase ‘son of a bitch’ that justified his using it in his memoir: transcendence. This approach of course brings with it its own problems, for aiming to find transcendence in this way may instead bring you to transitoriness, or transience. Again,

Poetry is a finnikin thing of air
That lives uncertainly and not for long
Yet radiantly beyond much lustier blurs.

Using slang, or language otherwise susceptible to linguistic ghosting, in poetry is an efficient way to illustrate this, one might think. But the illustration depends on something of the slang not vanishing, depends on it freezing as a consequence of its being put into a work of art, on the slang becoming something more than slang. Whether poetry when it works like slang achieves a sufficiently stable radiance to make it transcend the labile uncertainties of this environment is the question, and that is the question I hope to find a way into next time. Merci.

STEPHEN STURGEON is the author of a book of poems, Trees of the Twentieth Century (Dark Sky Books, 2011). 'Wallace Stevens, Freezer of Slang' is one in a series of lectures he delivered this spring as a professeur invité at Paris's École normale supérieure. More excerpts from his poem 'The Ship' can be found here. He is the English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/stephensturgeon.

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  1. See Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 65.  // back
  2. Ibid., pp. 86-7.  // back
  3. Ibid., p. 89.  // back
  4. Ibid., p. 91.  // back
  5. Ibid., p. 107.  // back
  6. Ibid., p. 382.  // back
  7. Ibid., p. 391.  // back
  8. From Ezra Pound's Gaudier-Brzeska, a Memoir (New York: New Directions, 1970), p. 20.  // back
  9. From Hugh Kenner's A Homemade World: the American Modernist Writers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), p. 53.  // back
  10. Letters, p. 297.  // back
  11. Quoted in Peter Brazeau's Parts of a World, Wallace Stevens Remembered: an Oral Biography (New York: Random House, 1983), pp. 100-01.  // back
  12. From The American Language, an Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, fourth edition, by H. L. Mencken (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936), p. 555.  // back
  13. Ibid., p. 563.  // back
  14. See R. P. Blackmur's 'Examples of Wallace Stevens' in The Double Agent: Essays in Craft and Elucidation (New York: Arrow Editions, 1935), p. 72.  // back
  15. Ibid., p. 68.  // back
  16. The American Language, pp. 556-7.  // back
  17. Ibid., p. 556.  // back
  18. See Christopher Ricks's 'American English and the Inherently Transitory' in The Force of Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 432.  // back
  19. Ibid., pp. 424-5.  // back
  20. From Helen Vendler's On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 71.  // back
  21. The American Language, p. 564.  // back
  22. See Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, trans. Julie Rose (New York: The Modern Library, 2008), p. 814.  // back
  23. Ibid., p. 813.  // back
  24. Ibid., p. 814.  // back
  25. Ibid., pp. 807-8.  // back
  26. Ibid., p. 808.  // back
  27. Ibid., p. 805.  // back
  28. Ibid., p. 808.  // back
  29. From Arthur G. Powell's I Can Go Home Again (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), p. 25.  // back