Anne Stevenson Essay - Critical Essays

Stevenson, Anne

Stevenson, Anne 1933–

Anne Stevenson is an American poet and novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

[Reversals] should secure a place for [Anne Stevenson] as one of the most promising young women poets. Her main themes, as announced in a compressed prefatory poem, are childbirth and death, but they extend to love, landscapes, and some subtle but haunting forays into the interior life. Ideally, she seeks to come upon the poem that lies in wait amidst the "dissolving chromatics/of the commonplace/absorbed by the listening eye" which so often go unseen and hence unrealized…. The poems of place display a personal responsiveness to the features of a particular location that never let subjectivity overbalance them, so the resulting detail is always fresh, discriminating, and independent. In pieces treating love, childbirth, and death, however, intimacy and inwardness assume greater control…. (p. 334)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1971.

Correspondences … is a sequence, a kind of historical novel about a New England family from its original presbyterian migration to its present neurotic survival. Each poem is an epistle, identifying its author and his (her) time and place. Since they are not long, it follows they are overloaded, and the story is reduced to familiar types: stern preacher, stoical wife, wild son into rich tycoon, philanthropist bankrupt in 1929, and so on. Some gestures are made towards period pastiche, but indecisively, and mimicry is not Anne Stevenson's talent (a Southern Belle in 1840 is weak, and a protest singer on the road in 1968 is embarrassing). A novelist would do more than this; a poet should not do less. Attention shifts increasingly towards women and marriage; the most recent ones are not very interesting…. (p. 79)

Nicholas Brooke, in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London W1V 5LE), October, 1974.

[In] Anne Stevenson allegory and fiction seem to usurp the poetry's centres of interest. Her [Travelling behind Glass] show a varied achievement. Early poems focus on the psychology of women, some of them subtle exploiters, but all, to an extent, emptied by marriage…. Her style then expands to treat essentially the same theme—a lack of control over one's own life—in a metaphysical, slightly Audenesque fashion. The title poem seems to mark the dissolution of this style, which, with one or two fine exceptions, 'Reversals' and 'England', never really became conclusive. The strength with which she returns to earlier territory, in 'Generations' or 'At Thirteen', suggests that here was the poetry's real subject all along.

This impression is rather confirmed by her sequence Correspondences, 'A Family History in Letters', spanning the period 1829–1972. The hopelessness of such external reconstructions is proved, I think, by the air of the grotesque which hangs over the early sections. The flashes of humour virtually admit this: 'Alkalis are thought to be / metal oxides. How I rejoice in this fact.' Only with modern times does the sequence come alive, on familiar ground: 'Women in Marriage', the mother's renounced affair, the daughter's breakdown and divorce. Moving as some of this is … one is left wondering what it has achieved that a novel couldn't have achieved, and, more important, whether a more intimate and telling exploration, accessible only to poetry, hasn't been missed. The feminine experience, in literature at least, is still largely uncharted territory, marked 'Here Be Dragons'. Anne Stevenson may have the wit and honesty to cut her way into it…. (pp. 116-17)

Roger Garfitt, in London Magazine (© London Magazine, 1974), October/November, 1974.

Anne Stevenson's work has an especial piquancy…. The main formal debt is to Eliot. There is a pleasing luminosity and rhythmic assurance; a careful control of the long line that would be prosaic but for its poise; and a welcome avoidance of stridency in the poems dealing with love and child-bearing.

The final impression [in Travelling behind Glass], nevertheless, is of resources garnered rather than released. The real reward is to see this promise dramatically fulfilled in a simultaneously published sequence, Correspondences. This takes the form of a New England family history, mainly in letters. With penetrating insight, Anne Stevenson depicts successive generations blighted by drink and estrangement, woe within marriage and a wonderment that man has deserved propagation at all in this wicked world. (p. 717)

In one beautiful poem, she relates woman's role to the plight of Persephone, 'brilliantly consumed, a sacrifice sufficient for each summer'. This provides an inspirational key to the sequence. The concluding poems, like drumbeats at the end of a requiem, are memorable in themselves and a resolution (so far as is possible) of all that has gone before:

        Dear Father, I love but can't know you.
         I've given you all that I can.
         Can these pages make amends for what
                     was not said?
         Do justice to the living, to the dead?     (p. 718)

Stewart Conn, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Stewart Conn), November 28, 1974.

[Correspondences] has been worked hard at, not only as a poem, but as something to hold the reader's attention; unfortunately, the impression is that the clever writer was conjuring with too many gimmicks, for all the weightiness of her critique of America. "It is America I can't contain", says Kay Boyd, the pivotal character of the poem, and there's enough here to turn that line into bearing the weight of the poem. Kay Boyd asks if the poems can "Do justice to the living, to the dead?" The answer, I think, is No; but whether that's intended or not is uncertain. It would have been a purpose too mighty even for Shakespeare. Yet Kay Boyd's question suggests the angered compassion which is the spirit in which Correspondences is written. Though impressive as a sustained work of the imagination, it fails on the level of not providing enough detail, enough proof of veracity. It's an attempt to get away with a massive subject in the wrong form. (pp. 75-6)

[Travelling behind Glass] … gives a better measure of what Anne Stevenson's poems are like. For example, she can write like this.

    Thick phosphorescence
    gathers in the spaces between window
    and black window. Something subtle, like a moon,
    has been creeping under surfaces,
    giving them queer powers of illumination….

which is mysterious description, and impressive, though, like most contemporary poets, her ability to describe loses, as if in the act of description itself, cadence and rhythm.

Like Erica Jong, Stevenson writes about women. She is more gracious of understanding, less emphatic on weird, overstated sexual topicalities, and, even if less lively, more likely it seems to me to write more convincing truths of femininity…. [The] movement and sound of her words, the things she says, have an economy of bitterness Jong lacks…. [Unlike Jong's, there] are no … moments of originality beaten down by spontaneity in Stevenson's poems. She can be clumsy, but it's a careful clumsiness, and the same care leads her to her best lines….

In "The Dear Ladies of Cincinnati", her imagination takes more into account than the dryness of the old ladies. With that same sense of history she draws from in Correspondences, she pays attention to the social responsibility of a poem, not just the moral obligation of "fulfilment", or stupidity, which would have been a temptation Erica Jong would have found difficult to avoid if writing the same poem…. Again, however, ideas and decently comprehensive social attitudes find themselves abandoned to a rhythm inadequate to the task of galvanising them. Stevenson's more or less traditional idea of how a poem should be is weak on the percussive and melodic side. An original musicality is perhaps the rarest phenomenon in poetry at any time. Lyricism appears now more a matter of a few arresting, sigh-inducing phrases in the context of a supporting incident, held together by secondary words more stray than cohering. Metre would bring that back, but only with surrounding associations of obsolete, worn-out practices. From time to time, in Stevenson's poems, half-muffled cadences do almost break through as auditory accompaniment to sense, but not quite…. (p. 76)

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), December, 1974.

Anne Stevenson's Correspondences is an epistolary family chronicle. It is an ambitious book and, I think, a good one. The mosaic of letters (along with the occasional newspaper clipping and journal entry) achieves its effect by appealing to what Ms. Stevenson can safely assume is a well-cultivated and characteristic mid-century taste in many readers for documentary method. In fact, the method may be mock-documentary. Feeling a little embarrassed, I picked up the phone to see if there really was a Chandler Family Archives in Clearfield, Vermont. There seems to be no Clearfield, Vermont: it was like phoning Mississippi and trying to get in touch with directory assistance for Yokna-patawpha County. Of course this doesn't mean that there are no originals for the letters—however distant from their style and content the poems may have been driven by the logic and aesthetic of this very schematic book, however strange the names might seem to the correspondents. It would be interesting to know. I have read one review that criticizes Ms. Stevenson for awkwardly made-up period pastiche, and another that congratulates her for transmuting into poetry such difficult and recalcitrant materials. She must be amused. (p. 105)

John Matthias, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1975.

[Correspondences: A Family History in Letters] is an ambitious book—one wants to say historical novel; in some ways as ambitious as, say, Dos Passos' USA. A short volume of poems, Correspondences just burns to be an American epic, to combine the insights of history with the characterizations of fiction and the fine aesthetic harmonies of poetry. And it works, in the end, far better than it has a right to—particularly as a very readable form of history, a mythopoeic look backward.

Anne Stevenson, writing sometimes in contemporary narrative style—spare, occasionally telegraphic, reserved in imagery, fast-paced—and sometimes in imitation of well-known 19th century voices—Emily Dickinson's, for instance, and even those of the heroes and heroines of sentimental novels—builds an epistolary history of the Chandlers, a New England family of First Presbyterians…. The cast of characters is large and the genealogical chart is a welcome inclusion. (p. 56)

[There are] both the strengths and weaknesses [in] the method. On the one hand, it is history humanized and dramatized. And Stevenson is a sufficiently good historian to be able to sketch in very economically American 19th century intellectual history….

On the other hand, the very representativeness of her characters keeps pushing Stevenson toward parody. Many of her nineteenth century characters are too pure to seem anything but artificial. (p. 58)

The final section, "Living for Now," is the one in which Stevenson's poetry does most deftly what poetry can do better than history: hold the ambiguities of the lives of the surviving members of the family in lifelike suspension, unwilling to resolve them into finalities, swirling them round and round in a mixture rhetorically rich enough to seem almost a resolution. (p. 59)

Richard Caram, in Open Places (copyright 1976 Open Places), Spring/Summer, 1976.