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Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen out of Desire Paperback – December 18, 1986

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Editorial Reviews


[This book] tells the reader a good deal more about Wallace Stevens's poetry and Stevens as a poet than many a weighty tome...The shining merit of these lectures is their capacity to elucidate single poems, some familiar anthology pieces, others much less familiar, so that they stand alone as comprehensible entities. The key to this success is the devotion that has accompanied her patience, a devotion that responds, in particular, to the warmth and sadness, the emotional depth, that Vendler finds in Stevens...Those readers who have sensed both the urgency of feeling and the forlornness in Stevens's poems, but have found the obliquities of his manner and diction often impenetrable, will be grateful for the tact and moderation of these fresh interpretations. Their special achievements are that they convince, movingly and with a simplicity not often found in Stevens commentary, and that they then leave the poem to reassemble in the mind as wholly itself. (Lucy Beckett Times Literary Supplement)

[Vendler] has found the right way to talk about [Stevens], and is quite right to say that he is a genuinely misunderstood poet. On the very late poems she is exceptionally good and provides some reasons for the belief (which I share) that they are great poems indeed...She writes throughout with admirable firmness...Altogether this little book seems to me a triumph. (Frank Kermode)

About the Author

Helen Vendler is A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 86 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (November 18, 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674945751
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674945753
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.5 x 0.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #320,302 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAME on September 2, 2006
Format: Paperback
Vendler is one of the great critics of the writing of Stevens. In this small work she focuses on shorter works, " Anecdote of the Jar" " The Emperor of Ice Cream" "Postcard from the Volcano" "The Rivers of Rivers in Connecticut" " Of Mere being " "The Dove in Spring" "Somnambulisma". She sees Stevens as tormented by thwarted desire , and gives a certain degree of detail regarding his difficult personal life, including his unhappy marriage.

She writes of his ' sexual loneliness in old age' as reflected in his poem 'The Dove of Spring' of the claims of 'sensual desire against the reasoning mind'(To an Old Philosopher in Rome)of his writing in a posthumous voice about the collected poems, (The Planet on the Table) where "he sees his life work contained in a single object, the potential book lying before him on a table'. She writes of his especially close relation to Keats, another one of the great musical poets.

Vendler's work is filled with profound and arresting insights, though often difficulty and awkwardly expressed.

This small book helped me read and understand Stevens poetry in ways I had not before.

And I suspect it will do so for other lovers of the poetry of Stevens.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Richard R. Horton on August 5, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is a collection of four lectures on Wallace Stevens, concentrating on shorter poems, and mostly (though by no means entirely) late poems. She argues for Stevens as a poet of passion, particularly the passion of one who desires but cannot have the object of desire -- or desires to desire but can no longer fulfill his desire, perhaps because of age.

I found this very helpful, very readable, very acute. And definitely a prompt to read some of the intense shorter poems more closely -- I had lately been concentrating on the remarkable long poems. My appreciation for Stevens only grows with each closer reading, and Helen Vendler's work is very helpful in pointing the way to more perceptive reading.
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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Robert Hoeppner on September 3, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I recently finished reading this. It changed my perception of Stevens from an aloof obscurantist into a poet of melancholic desire. It's a short book which reveals his harshness, desire, secrecies and perfection of magnitude. He could be harsh with himself, he desired even as a septuagenarian, his secrecies were: using "he" or "she" instead of "I"; burying the emotional heart of a poem in the middle instead of stating it in the beginning or end; placing the context of the poem in his own work as well as his predecessors (particularly Keats); misleading titles; and his allusiveness. The final chapter covers Stevens' handling of the orders of magnitude between body, mind, garments, environment and nature. It illustrates how he reimagined the differences of magnitude between these elements in successive poems, culminating in The River of Rivers in Connecticut (which I happen to cross twice daily on my commute.) Included are some quotes from Stevens' Opus Posthumous, which prompted me to want to check that out, too.

My vote for favorite Vendler sentence in this book is on page 58: "If there is no medium of verbal solubility, perhaps one can only imagine two immiscible liquids with a metonymic impermeability." It seems that every book I've read of hers is usually very clearly written, but has one trademark sentence like that in it. I love it!
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By T. McLaughlin on May 18, 2007
Format: Paperback
I was reading yesterday a review in The New Yorker about the recent books on atheism: how good it is and how true, and it struck me how little room there is in our culture's collective mind for independent question. We know all about God, both his existence and his non-existence. We're big knowers of metaphysical things. But really we know next to nothing, and mostly we are not aware enough to even realize that. But if one begins to realize, one finds oneself with very little personal or cultural company, which is why I am so grateful to Helen Vendler for this group of lectures on Stevens.

Her discussions of Emperor of Ice Cream and A Plain Sense of Things in another book were my introduction to Stevens' work, prior to that I had thought he was not worth the trouble. It turns out that he is, to use a phrase he never would have used, an incredible poet - incredible in the sense of astoundingly good, not literally incredible. But incredible because often in his work one all at once recognizes a thought, an intellectual intuition one never expected to find expressed anywhere, let alone a 20th cenury poem. Like an unexpected sequence of chords that tears you apart.

Helen Vendler has a talent for getting to the essence of poems and poets, getting to the question at the core of the words. Poetry isn't really an end in itself, no art is. It is the artifice by which we understand better that of which we are merely moments. Which is to say that great poets and those who introduce them do truly help the angels as they try to save mankind.

Getting back to gratitude, I'm glad that Stevens wrote the way he did, that he was the way he was. I'm glad he insisted on his singular path, this shy, honest, loving being.
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