The Raw and the Cooked

One of the things I've been kicking around in my head lately concerns the whole "cerebral" versus "emotional" dichotomy the Alfred Corn interview re-raised.

While there are a few Wallace Stevens poems I really enjoy, by and large his poems, to me, are big brick walls. When reading him I feel like there isn't a way in for me. But I think that's because I have different expectations about how a poem should speak to me (I mean, we all do). I know a lot of poets I treasure in turn treasure the work of Stevens, and so I end up feeling really complicated about it and I continue to ask myself why I can't get into him, or Elizabeth Bishop (who is less brick wall and more privet), or Marianne Moore. Or why "oppositional" poetries like Plath—who is also listed as being counter to the "cerebral" poets—appeal to me more.

But then again, someone like Cavafy, who is a bit "cool" but not what I would consider "cerebral," is very homelike for me.

I know that I prioritize the personal over the universal in nearly every instance. It might be that what I respond to in the cerebral poets is the objective distance they take to their subject. I don't want to understand the world from the outside in. I want it from the inside out. Extrapolation over interpolation.

And it's not that I need first-person narratives or voice. I do tend to dislike third-person narration in poems. I almost prefer not to notice a narrative source.

Feeling muddled today.


  1. Interesting post. I feel much the same way, and love how you described Bishop as having not a wall but a privet!

    I want to be moved by a poem first and foremost; to feel it somewhere in my body below the neck line.

    I know there are some people who claim that we are just being "emotionally manipulated" by a poem if it causes us to feel. And that we should resent such an intrusion.

    But if it's all up in the head, what's the point? I lose interest quickly (unless there is some interesting word play or anagrams or such to fuss over ~grin~ but even that only lasts so long).

  2. Ah, for one who is muddled, you are quite elegant here.

    I love Bishop partly because what fascinates me is the personal emotions lying just beneath the surface of the poems. The need to control them, to bring restraint in, is touching to me. I guess because she can never fully restrain her feelings in her poems.

    Stevens I love for the pure quirkiness and oddity of his mind.

    But I know what you mean. There are certain poets that are like brick walls to me, too. Frost is one. And it seems like everyone I know admires Frost's work. But I just can't stand it. I just shut down when I start reading it.

  3. I like your characterization of Bishop as a privet as well---I've never enjoyed her work, maybe just the unpublished stuff that doesn't fit her usual mode, maybe just the end of "At the Fishhouses," where the emotion swells. I like Moore because I'm obsessed with syllabics, because of her edges, her quirks, even though they're not emotional edges. And Stevens I'm just now coming to appreciate. It has taken a while, though, and, like you, I'm drawn to him through other writers, I have to come to him because of ___ & ____, etc.

  4. Bishop as privet; I imagine she herself would've dug it. I love her letters but feel the same as you about her poetry.

    Stevens, on the other hand...yeow. I love that guy and, just as with Stein, I think you can find so much emotion in even the tiniest phrases (one of my favorites from WS is "Shall I uncrumple this much-crumpled thing?"--and the one Doty used as an epigraph to one of his books: "What more is there to love than I have loved? And if there be no more, O bright, O bright..."). I'm a sound freak and cherish WS a lot for soundwork too. And the titles, just read through a list of his titles: an effing riot.

    I heard a lecture by Jorie Graham years ago, remember her saying the one thing that interested me out of the entire lecture series: that Whitman is often considered a poet of feeling, Stevens of ideas or intellect--that she herself read it the other way around. I agree in many ways. Stevens's language is so much more sensual than Whitman's...

    I also find Moore an absolute scream. Not cold at all, although occasionally a parody of cold. I'm not thinking well today and will have to post sometime on this, why the hell I like Stevens and Moore. Hmm.