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Voyages over Voices

Voyages over Voices: Critical Essays on Anne Stevenson

Volume: 59
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 257
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  • Book Info
    Voyages over Voices
    Book Description:

    Voyages over Voices is the first book length critical exploration of the internationally acclaimed American-British poet Anne Stevenson. A past winner of the The Poetry Foundation's Neglected Masters Award, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award for Poetry and the Northern Rock Foundation Writer's Award, Stevenson has long been admired by poets and critics alike as one of the most important contemporary poets on either side of the Atlantic. Angela Leighton brings together a distinguished list of contributors, including Jay Parini, Carol Rumens, Tim Kendall and John Lucas, in a collection that provides a significant and invaluable contribution to understanding Stevenson's work as poet and critic. Voyages over Voices will be required reading for scholars contemporary British and American poetry.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-627-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. x-x)
  5. ‘Making Poetry’
    (pp. 1-2)
    Anne Stevenson
  6. 1 ‘Voyages over voices’: Introduction
    (pp. 3-13)

    Some twenty-five years ago, as a young lecturer at the University of Hull, I was invited late one cold, winter afternoon to attend a poetry reading. For some reason the organisers, Oxford University Press, had failed to alert anyone to the occasion, and I was part of a last-minute whip-round for an audience. In the event there were just three of us sitting in an empty back room in the student union, trying not to look so uncomfortably few. I shall never forget, however, listening to a fiery, diminutive woman reading her poems, one of which in particular made the...

  7. 2 The Melting Metaphor
    (pp. 14-27)

    One of the twentieth century’s most memorable and amusing figures for the writing of poetry is Robert Frost’s ‘Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.’¹ Typically, it was Frost who undermined his own simile, insisting, in a 1931 talk called ‘Education by Poetry’, that ‘all metaphor breaks down somewhere’. By viewing the whole concept of figurative language as inconclusive, he freed it from carrying too much responsibility for consistency. ‘It is touch and go with the metaphor,’ he wrote. ‘That’s the beauty of it. Until you have lived with it...

  8. 3 ‘Between us’: Letters and Poems of Stevenson and Bishop
    (pp. 28-54)

    In 1961 Anne Stevenson attended Donald Hall’s poetry workshop, where she was first introduced to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Bishop and Stevens particularly impressed her with ‘the originality of their intelligence’.¹ At the time, Bishop’s poetry was not studied very seriously. She was chiefly admired, as Stevenson pointed out in a 1995 lecture, ‘for the finely observed details she “painted” into her poems’.² Stevenson resisted this clichéd view of Bishop’s poetry from the outset. She saw her not as a miniaturist of everyday life but as a sophisticated poet of ideas. In 1962 Twayne...

  9. 4 Mothers, Mirrors, Doubles: Anne Stevenson’s Elegies for Sylvia Plath
    (pp. 55-70)

    Anne Stevenson’s elegy ‘Letter to Sylvia Plath’ (1988) is a curious performance. It hovers between conventional pastoral elegy, with its summoning of the natural forces of ‘English springs’–the Grantchester willows, the Cam, the bull thrush shouting from the thicket – and rather cool assess ment of Plath’s poetic forces, as though sitting in judgement on the fragile and ferocious intensities of the dead poet’s art. Clearly issuing in part from a complex sense of relief at the release from the grip of Plath’s life story, after the agon of Stevenson’s controversial biography,Bitter Fame(1989), the poem is streaked through...

  10. 5 Staging Second Thoughts: The Poetry of Anne Stevenson
    (pp. 71-82)

    Self-reproof, Self-correction, apostasy, disavowal, revision, regret – explicitly stated versions of all these can be found throughout the poetry of the twentieth century, from Yeats’s ‘Did that play of mine send out /certain men the English shot?’ to Eliot’s ‘That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory / A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion’, and Auden’s rebuking himself, halfway through ‘In Praise of Limestone’, for ruining ‘a fine tenor voice / for effects that bring down the house’. Asked to account for the prevalence of the motif, a cynic might suggest that, in such self-flagellating circumstances, an...

  11. 6 ‘Making Poetry’: The Exemplary Anne Stevenson
    (pp. 83-97)

    This, the opening stanza of Elizabeth Bartlett’s poem ‘Stretchmarks’, comes from her collectionThe Czar Is Dead, published in 1986, which seems a bit late to be complaining. In the bibliography at the back ofConsorting with Angels: Essays on Modern Women Poets, Deryn Rees-Jones lists nearly 150 collections of poetry by women which appeared during the 1980s, and although a few were editions of dead poets, and some neither lived nor worked in the UK, they were all published here.² Two decades earlier matters were very different. A. Alvarez notoriously excluded women from the twenty poets featured in his...

  12. 7 ‘A curved adventure’: Romanticism and the Poetry of Anne Stevenson
    (pp. 98-115)

    In her nimbly rhymed and deftly redefining ‘This’, Anne Stevenson finds synonyms for an erotic ‘X’ that might also be ways of describing the poem she is writing:

    This is negation of adulthood’s rule

    that talks by rote.

    This is travelling out to where

    a curved adventure

    splashes on planes of sunlight to become

    one perfectly remembered room…¹

    The ‘curved adventure’ is a phrase that surfs the off-rhyming wave of sound coiled up in ‘travelling out to where’, and it seems peculiarly right for this ‘travelling’, daring poet that ‘where’ should find a sonic and semantic companion in the onward-moving...

  13. 8 The Nature of Anne Stevenson
    (pp. 116-124)

    Anne Stevenson, by upbringing if not birth, is an American, although she has spent most of her adult life in Britain, living in a variety of locales in England, Scotland and Wales. Most often she is talked about in terms of contemporary British poets, but I believe this is misguided in some ways. In my view, she might more usefully be considered a poet with strong ties to Emerson, Dickinson, Frost, and the vast traditions of American nature poetry, as one hears the accents of these in much of her work, although the Emersonian note, with its divine afflatus and...

  14. 9 Anne Stevenson and the Poetry of Place
    (pp. 125-150)

    At some point in the late 1960s or the early 1970s, while she was living in Glasgow, Anne Stevenson penned the following lines:

    Pigeons, pee-gulls,

    urchins, equals,

    civic defecators,

    public decorators,

    deacons, dowagers,

    skarters, scavengers,

    earth-boats, roof-ducks,

    doxies for noon-drunks,

    puffed up anyhow,

    citizens of Glasgow.¹

    An ordinary scene in the middle of an ordinary day: it is easy to imagine her having stopped for lunch in the sunshine and pausing to take stock. The poem is titled ‘Pigeons in George Square’ and was published in an anthology , but it has never been collected in any of Stevenson’s own...

  15. 10 Compacting Time: Anne Stevenson’s Poems of Memory
    (pp. 151-163)

    What we say about time is that it passes. But toknowthat it passes, we must remember and anticipate, engaging in a garden-variety form of transcendence. In order to be aware of our human temporality, our awareness cannot simply flow with the implacable, straight, one-way passage of time.¹ However, we also know very well that when we revisit the past in memory, we are notinthe past, but have only made the past present for a while as a representation. And we know that our reliving of the past is imperfect: we have forgotten or repressed or transposed...

  16. 11 ‘Not exactly a persona’: Pronouns in Anne Stevenson’s Poetry
    (pp. 164-172)

    In an interview forOxford Poetryin 1983, Anne Stevenson explores the role of the personal pronoun in her work, explaining that ‘the “I” I writeasis not really the “I” I know, or other people know. It’s not exactly apersona, this “I” in the poems. It’s more a reflection in a mirror.’¹ Her claim that she does not know, and others do not recognise, this reflected version of herself, coupled with her assertion that it does not refer to a fictional ‘persona’ either, is intriguing. This foreign mirror image is halfway between an autonomous figure, without personal...

  17. 12 ‘To serve a girl on terrible terms’: Anne Stevenson’s Writing Selves
    (pp. 173-190)

    What does it mean when a poet refers to poetry as ‘the shared comedy of the worst blessed’? Does it mean that poets make up a select community of the tragic-comic? Are they the ‘worst blessed’ because they are the worst kind of people that could be blessed, or because their gift is in fact the worst kind of blessing that could be received? Anne Stevenson makes this statement in ‘Making Poetry’ (reproduced here on p. 1), which is the first in her own thematic arrangement of poems written between 1955 and 2005.¹ Heading, as it does, a section entitled...

  18. 13 Talking and Singing: Anne Stevenson’s Variations on a Rhythmical Theme
    (pp. 191-205)

    During an interview with theCortland ReviewAnne Stevenson declared ‘poetry has to either sing or talk’.¹ That poetry may ‘talk’ rather than ‘sing’ might seem a surprising concession from a poet whose work is distinguished by its exceptional musicality. In much of her commentary, too, Stevenson emphasises the importance she assigns to the rhythmic and auditory qualities of language.² However, it has always struck me as over-simple to define her work as exclusively lyrical. Certainly to regard her as a formalist, ‘new’ or otherwise, implying a poet with narrow, metrical criteria of poetic rhythm, is wide of the mark....

  19. 14 ‘Time will erase’: Anne Stevenson and Elegy
    (pp. 206-213)

    In the autumnal opening section of Anne Stevenson’s book-length elegyA Lament for the Makers(2006), ‘the season of deciduous souls’ provokes a sobering thought about the endurance of poetry:

    A last, late finger of grace

    still brightens far reaches

    of a barbarous empire

    lyrically and lovingly.

    Most of what we write

    time will erase.¹

    Such small comfort as can be gleaned from this world of decay comes from the word ‘lyrically’, which signals the poem’s self-representation as a ‘last, late finger of grace’ before the dying of the light. The word ‘grace’ connotes secular sanctification: poetry has replaced religion...

  20. 15 Observing the Overhearing: The Anne Stevenson Papers in Cambridge University Library
    (pp. 214-241)

    ‘The pathway up Parnassus is strewn with the litter of abandoned drafts’, Anne Stevenson wrote in an essay in which she analysed the composition of her sonnet ‘Moonrise’ and transcribed a series of its worksheets.¹ Her metaphor is hardly flattering to archivists, casting them in the necessary but unglamorous role of litter-pickers, and perhaps even less so to academic researchers, who become analogous to the grubby sort of criminal who tears open refuse sacks in the hunt for personal details. But even in writing her essay, Stevenson acknowledged the legitimacy of interest in the processes by which her literary works...

  21. 16 Bibliography of Anne Stevenson’s Published Works
    (pp. 242-246)
  22. General Index
    (pp. 247-253)
  23. Index of Stevenson’s Works
    (pp. 254-258)