Mr. Stevens goes to Washington
As an English teacher in a university, I offered for a number of years a series of graduate seminars in American poets of the 19th and 20th centuries. My favorites among these were Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Stevens, Frost, and the major writers since World War II.
My life is different now, most of it spent in a congressional office dealing with constituent requests and such national issues as social security, the defense budget, and assistance to businessmen and farmers. I seldom look at the full range of poets who once occupied my days. Poetry, in fact, has become the remote luxury of another time and place, an exotic jewel put up on a shelf in a house I no longer inhabit.
Recently, I was writing the first draft of a commencement address to be given by the senator I work for, and I struggled for just the right line or two to illustrate a point. The speech dealt with the presence of change in our lives - hardly a new theme for a commencement but an idea worth repeating to any new set of graduates. I wanted to show how we must adapt to change and recognize that it affects everything of importance to us.
A poem by Wallace Stevens kept coming back to me as a perfect expression of this idea, but I was uncertain of its location and could recall only a fragment:
... each one
And the giant ever changing, living in
Dogged by this shred of verse, I went home and thumbed through my collected Stevens, spending far too much time tracking it down. And when I did find it - in the last stanza of ''A Primitive Like an Orb'' - it wasn't what I wanted at all. The syntax was too complicated for a speech, and the passage needed more explaining than I thought appropriate for a graduation exercise. In the end, I abandoned the idea of a poetic reference and went on to something else.
But my search produced an odd and lasting effect. It brought me back to Stevens and the shimmery elegance of his poems. I sat in my reading chair long enough to allow the old sounds and images to work their considerable magic on me again. It was years ago that I had last read ''The Emperor of Ice Cream'' and ''Peter Quince at the Clavier,'' and the excitement of rediscovery kept my attention through the next few days.
That Friday, speech written and dispatched in a plain blue folder with the senator's weekend schedule, I took down my copy of Emily Dickinson and read through those poems I remembered best. I was astonished at the number I could recall almost by memory, and how the puns and intricate rhythms came back after so long a time. It reminded me of the feeling I had once when I drove through a town I used to live in and saw the familiar houses and trees, each corner of the neighborhood recurring as though I hadn't been away at all.
Stevens and Dickinson sent me back to Eliot, whose cool abstractions in ''The Four Quartets'' made me long for the precision of Frost and his hard-bitten farm tools in ''North of Boston.'' After Frost came Lowell and Jarrell. And then Plath and Snodgrass, Wilbur and Berryman. My weekend filled with the reacquaintance of former friends.
Still alive in the back of my mind was the notion of change in the speech I had written for the senator. I wanted the change outlined for the senior class to take its place in my reading of these poets. I expected to bring home to myself the subtle ways I've altered my appreciation of poetry since turning from teaching to politics.
I'm surprised to find that nothing has changed in the years spent away from poetry. There are no new insights, no acquired sensibilities. What I left in Stevens and Eliot and Dickinson remains exactly where it was in 1974, when I walked out of my classroom after a final lecture on confessional poetry. The neighborhood remains intact and unaltered.
Maybe this is the way we respond to art, always with a kind of static awe and appreciation. I don't mean to say that nothing changes. Certainly we're altered by every day - our looks and habits, our preferences, our tastes and enjoyments, even our professions and the ways in which we spend our time. But the object of our admiration, whether poetry or painting, never changes. And once we fully grasp the work of an artist, our understanding and pleasure remain fixed as well.
The only stronger emotion I felt as I reread Stevens was gratitude. I was grateful that I had once read and understood a sometimes difficult poet, and that I could pick him up again and begin where I had left off years earlier. That same feeling applied to Dickinson and Eliot and the others. So I had my change, after all.