Friday Night Fights in Florida: Contention From Wallace Stevens to Jay Hopler
Wallace Stevens traveled to Florida as a businessman for the first time in 1922, and took two-to-three-week winter trips there for the next twenty years, leaving the wife at home. His right hand broke on making contact with Hemingway’s jaw at a hotel bar in Key West in 1936, so one assumes he came to feel like one of the boys while in the Sunshine State, not “mixing business and pleasure” so much as enjoying the pleasures of business. We also know he occasionally wrote poetry in Florida. There is no rift between businessman and poet—but there is a between. The senior lawyer, poring over files on surety bonds, spent his day minimizing risk and cutting the best deals for his company. Then, on an ordinary evening, he would go home to his desk and cut the best possible deals for himself.
Did he also minimize his personal risks, extending a rutted daily pattern into the night? “Even before Stevens began to specialize in surety bonds, he had the insurance lawyer’s horror of uncalculated risk,” Milton Bates claimed in his study of Stevens subtitled A Mythology of Self. 1 In that case, Stevens miscalculated when swinging at Papa, though perhaps the gin was figuring the odds. My guess is that poetry for Stevens was essentially a more highly nuanced approach to ordering the always potentially unprofitable world of his workdays using similar tools, of language. He established, in an industrious American manner, that the thing at greater risk is always the poem, not the poet; the bankruptcy of a company is always a bigger story than the layoff of any one employee. (It’s over for the poet soon enough.) He bragged about getting socked, overmatched and knocked down twice by a famous quasi-pugilist. It’s been said that Key West was a symbol of the world Stevens felt compelled to control, to create order out of tropical havoc. In doing so, he disparaged the mere rendering of scenes or anecdote which suggested to him a failing passivity. His gains would be fought for, through the willful illusions called supreme fictions. “The great conquest is the conquest of reality,” goes one of his Adagia. “It is not enough to present life, for a moment, as it might have been.” 2 Some of his peers took offense. “It is a pity that such a rich and special sensibility should be content with the order of worlds and music, and not project itself more vigorously upon the present-day world,” wrote Theodore Roethke in 1936 about Ideas of Order. 3 What first sounds like a demand for verisimilitude soon reveals itself as resentment for the very vigor that is supposedly missing. Since that time, most of the debate about Stevens has consisted either of celebrations or indictments of what is alternately described as selflessly liberating or selfishly insular. Stevens responded, “A poet’s words are of things that do not exist without the words,” 4 and that was that.
Now, when a talented young poet comes along whose materials are Floridian, who projects an obsessive, reflexive imagination, and who mentions Stevens directly, he knows quite well which buttons he’s pushing. Jay Hopler is the poet, winner of the 2005 Yale Younger Poets Prize with Green Squall. 5 His is a peninsular world of deprivation; the poems are recourse against what is missing. “Poetry is an effort of a dissatisfied man to find satisfactions through words,” wrote Stevens, “occasionally of the dissatisfied thinker to find satisfaction through his emotions.” 6 So thinking is only “occasionally” central, and “emotions” come in last. His definition suggests that the reader may be moved by the poet’s sense of deprivation, but that poetic success is measured by gradations of a secret pleasure, not necessarily either intellectual or emotional in nature. Perhaps more chemical, physical, mythical, psychical? Just so, the occasion of the poem, imbued with pathos, may move us—but we suspect the occasion of the poem is rarely its cause. Stevens snapped back, ordering us to dispense with these suspicions in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”: “The poem is the cry of its occasion, / Part of the res itself and not about it.” 7 In love with legal contracts, Stevens still knew the value of wiggle room and exit clauses.
About Hopler’s book, Louise Glück writes in its introduction, “Insouciance and bravura notwithstanding, there is a solitude in this art as deep as any in American poetry since Stevens. For all the explosive vitality and wild fantasy, there are almost no people here.” Further, “Stevens is the presiding influence” of Green Squall, the unappeased solitary attaining a postponed pleasure in the brain. Stevens was keenly aware that his poetry entailed an attrition of other humans, as noted in another famous adagia: “Life is an affair of people not of places. But for me life is an affair of places and that is just the trouble.” 8 Stevens the poet of joy reveled in the imagination as the authentic way to perceive the glare of reality; he instructed us on how to view the scenery. Simultaneously, the poet and essayist of despair reflected on the inevitability of a world (natural and human) intent on stilling, or killing, the mind. This paradox is just as potent in Hopler’s poetry. But also, Stevens and Hopler each fulfill a confrontational impulse, an aggressiveness toward the overbearing world, and an assertive nudging of the reader. Glück also names the garden as the book’s locus. The garden, regardless of a poet’s attitude toward it, is the world as given. This is the mythic status of the garden. In response to the threatening otherness of this garden, mute and cold, Stevens and then Hopler chose to (or simply had to) be counter-punchers. Against the one who will not accept his strange love, the poet articulates the very detached non-compliance around him as his own comeback:
The despair is an a priori element of Green Squall. To name its cause would be to degrade it, to objectify something which is pervasive, native, environmental. But the oppression is simply too great not to shout about it. Is there a poet in recent memory who has used the exclamation point as naturally and stubbornly as Hopler? (I count thirty-four of them.) The first line of the book is “And the sky!” The humid, heat-searing, light-piercing air and terrain of Green Squall—trees, grasses, ponds, gardens, flowers—are the main characters. They fill every space in the mind, mercilessly, an intrusive world that hurts the eye. This, from “Self-Portrait with Whiskey and Pistol”: “How disappointing it all is! / The lemon trees, the banyan trees, the sky— / How disappointing it all is.” (Interesting, the effect of removing the exclamation mark for the repetition.)
If the human is a beleaguered and ineffectual thing in these poems, the voice of the poems is often as aggressive as the weather, as sampled in the last two sections of “With Both Eyes Closing”:
Ultimately, Hopler is asking questions about the sheer presence of things: moon, weather, plants, humans. There is a grand equivalency. In the seven-part “A Book of Common Days,” Hopler revisits the question about soul, reinforcing the presence of the questioner: “What am I that my soul should hide from me? / From the evening fields, the black moon rose. // So fierce-some was that moon upon its rising, / It made the world on which it rose grow cold.” From blistering heat to grim frigidity, the forces at work are “fierce-some” —the neologism suggests a refreshed view of the elemental.
Perhaps these excerpts make Green Squall sound like a collection of grievances and narrow visions. It is neither. The book unfolds with an ingenious rhythm, encompassing and modulating extremes of expression that run parallel to the extravagances of the portrayed world. Hopler can chat and orate, moan and praise. In “Academic Discourse at Miami: Wallace Stevens and the Domestication of Light,” we hear the conversational voice. The main link to Stevens here is in the inflated title, promising the scholarly but delivering sensible insight:
This poem services Green Squall in a shrewd way, layering more calculation and provocation on the book’s vocal identity, and letting us know, in a Stevensian gesture with a post-modern nod, that Green Squall is a staged world. But also, it signals the distance a current poet has traveled (must travel) away from Stevens. One reason why Hopler is such an intriguing poet is that he draws from a repository of everything that has occurred in American poetry since Stevens; his book is rich enough to offer an occasion for such assessment. It also points the way, as recent Yale poets Peter Streckfus and Richard Siken have also done, to a renewal of the art. Stevens asserted that “One must have a mind of winter” to perceive deeply a wintry world; Hopler converts the assertion into its sub-tropical exhibition, its proof.
Stevens made us accept the disappointment of calling to a world that won’t answer, and then repeatedly spelled out the compensating responsibility of the triumphant poetic imagination. Hopler starts here. But the native Floridian has been more profoundly affected by that world’s extremities, or at least he places the greater emphasis on that affective presence. The mind tilts away from formulation and toward utterance, toward becoming a like presence, but not quite able to make it (“Tonight, I’m no more resigned to light / Than some canary, / Its eyes pried open with pins”). The tone may then shift to the analytical, the declarative. This inveterate familiarity with the mind’s wavering status accounts for Hopler’s discretion, the alternately vibrant and depressive humanism, the shifts in diction and syntax, the willingness to swear off the very conclusions he blurts out. So what at first sound like end-points (“Emptiness: the only freedom there is / In a fallen world” in “And the Sunflower Weeps for the Sun, Its Flower”) or ecstatic vistas (“For so may I be forever in maniacal elation!” in “Joy on the Edge of Vertigo”) cancel themselves out, leaving a balance of passivity, an air-conditioned shiver in an oppressive summer. In Hopler’s splendid middle sequence “Of Hunger and Human Freedom,” the liberating imagination touted by Stevens turns back on and probes itself. The lines below are from the poem’s final section, in which a bird has flown into a room:
The statement is remarkable enough, a clarification as well as an addition. We think back to Hopler’s other poems in which the speaker is cooped up with a “Mother” who occupies a house and torrid garden with him: “Look in my mirror, Mother. / Tell me if my good / Heart isn’t bad luck.” (Mother, like the world, never answers.) There are great poets who write with an embedded, empowering grudge that asks us more than implicitly, “Have you understood?” Hopler asks us this question less than implicitly, from a shakier, more porous position. Again, the lines above about our defining bonds may sound definitive, and they certainly make us reassess our experience of the poems and lines that precede them—but somehow we want to break free of them, and Hopler lets us, through a complex generosity, much as Stevens wished to free us from an overdose of reality. He wrote about “Domination of Black” that he was “sorry that a poem of this sort has to contain any ideas at all, because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with the images & sounds that it contains.” 9 But neither Stevens nor Hopler is consistently all that sorry, and the vacillation creates interest.
Stevens’ tone is almost always balanced, assertive, and impersonal, such that even his foppish exclamations don’t create new vectors; a major man is imagined, solid but animated by the cerebral. In contrast, Hopler’s tones and modes of address are various, spun out from an ill-defined center, the child of just-yesterday still squalling. With Stevens, one sometimes feels that assertion and order were all he wanted, a proof of his power—and that perhaps the poet was too satisfied with a certain rhetorical repetition, a crucial routine. With Hopler, the poem forestalls its own satisfaction (the mark of a highly sophisticated, adult pleasure), insists on groping, and attains shapes inspired more by the unevenness of experience than by an insistent belief in one’s potential heroism, the “major man”;
Even if the poem, not the poet, is the thing at greater risk, Stevens did not neglect what he called “the spiritual role of the poet,” though ‘role’ underscores the service offered, not the poet’s spiritual health. The poet assists other artists “in restoring to the imagination what it is losing at such a catastrophic pace, and in supporting what it has gained.” 10 Hopler starts here. But where Stevens often showed his hand with a palpable design on the reader, Hopler executes his role without the lecturer’s implication that he’s doing us all a favor. I think of Mr. and Mrs. William Blake (Hopler and “Mother”), sitting in their little garden, naked, reciting Paradise Lost to each other:
This is the speaker’s way not only of telling his companion that more attentiveness is an impossibility, but that his own canceling desires for essence and/in the world result in an unworldliness—a sort of updated throwback to Blake. The impossible, some sort of transcendence, is the potentially invented thing, ultimately rejected by the poem’s own tone. Plus, there’s a muted rejection of the other person. “Where is this God I’ve heard so much / About?” he asks in another poem. Stevens’ Professor Eucalyptus in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” had said, “The search / For reality is as momentous as / The search for god.” 11 Sickness in Paradise, frustrated angels. These speculations are saved from musty quaintness by Hopler’s timely reversions to the “dense, eccentric” environment.
“Everything is overwhelmingly real now-a-days; and accordingly we are interested in reality,” Stevens wrote in a letter in the same year Hemingway slugged him. 12 That “pressure of reality” threatened to kill the imagination; doesn’t it still? And in the dust jacket statement for the book Roethke disliked, he wrote, “I believe that, in any society, the poet should be the exponent of the imagination of that society.” 13 Hopler’s speaker is the man who, having purged his florid space of people and media, enacts a paradigmatic drama of how an individual creates his own pressure and presence, here perfectly aligned temperamentally with the mind of wilting summer that disregards Florida’s big-box store boulevards. It is a gross mistake to think Stevens had no feel for location—or that Hopler’s post-modernist resistance of depth indicates a too-ready complacency about the surfaces of place. Location has a way of triggering tensions in both Stevens and Hopler. Here is Stevens’ in “The Course of a Particular” (1951), explaining the dynamic: 14
In “And the Sunflower Weeps for the sun, Its Flower,” Hopler enacts the same dynamic; his speaker first implores, “Father Sunflower, forgive me—. I have been so preoccupied with my backaches and my headaches.” Then the conflict flares, the resistance is aggressive:
Jay Hopler has displayed this “ferocity” in his first poems. He may sound at times done in by the unprecedented doing. But in fact, Green Squall, cranky and speculative, is a lively affair of a whole being. If Stevens didn’t cry out explicitly enough for some of his colleagues, or create sufficient strings of adjectives to glorify an anecdotal world, in this latest version of Florida it is he, and not they, who has lived to fight another day.
All excerpts from Green Squall are reprinted by persmission of Yale University Press
1 Milton Bates, Wallace Stevens, A Mythology of Self (University of California Press, 1985), p. 53.
2 Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous (Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), p. 168.
3 Theordore Roethke, New Republic, LXXXVII (July, 1936), pp. 304-5. One-paragraph review of Ideas of Order.
4 Wallace Stevens, “The Nobel Rider and the Sound of Words” in The Necessary Angel (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1951).
5 Jay Hopler, Green Squall (Yale University Press, 2006), 71 pp. Selected for the Yale Younger Poets Prize and introduced by Louise Glück.
6 Opus Posthumous, p. 165.
7 Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), p. 473.
8 Opus Posthumous, p. 158.
9 Holly Stevens (ed), Letters of Wallace Stevens (University of California Press, 1966), p. 251. Letter to L.W. Payne, Jr., 3/31/1928.
10 Letters, p. 340. Letter to Henry Church., 4/27/1939.
11 The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, p. 485
12 Bates, p. 127. Quoting Stevens’ letter of 12/8/36 to Stevens T. Mason.
13 Ibid., p. 193.
14 Opus Posthumous, p. 96
15 Opus Posthumous, p. 260.