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Graham Foust

Wallace Stevens’s Manuscript
As If in The Dump

This piece is 4,500 words or about ten printed pages long

It would appear that Alexander received from him not only his doctrines of Morals and of Politics, but also something of those more abstruse and profound theories which these philosophers, by the very names they gave them, professed to reserve for oral communication to the initiated, and did not allow many to become acquainted with. For when he was in Asia, and heard Aristotle had published some treatises of that kind, he wrote to him, using very plain language to him in behalf of philosophy, the following letter. “Alexander to Aristotle, greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.” And Aristotle, soothing this passion for pre-eminence, speaks, in his excuse for himself, of these doctrines as in fact both published and not published: as indeed, to say the truth, his books on metaphysics are written in a style which makes them useless for ordinary teaching, and instructive only, in the way of memoranda, for those who have been already conversant in that sort of learning.

               — Plutarch’s Alexander

The manuscript is not to be copied nor published in any form, nor are extracts from it to be published. I am not trying to use exact language, but the sense of what I am trying to say is that this manuscript would ordinarily go into the waste basket now that it has served its purpose, and that I don’t want anything more to come of it as if it had, in fact, been thrown into the waste basket, except that you can keep it and show it to anyone who may be curious about that sort of thing: exhibit it, but not make any other use of it.

               — Wallace Stevens, letter to C.D. Abbott, director of libraries at the University of Buffalo (September 16, 1937)

For Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poetry is a kind of money; “A Sonnet,” he writes in 1880, “is a coin”:

                                its face reveals
The soul, — its converse, to what Power ‘tis due: —
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue
It serve; or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to death.

Charon, the mythical ferryman of the dead, crosses the river Acheron with the souls of the properly buried, who must pay him an obolus (a coin) for their passage; for this reason, an obolus was placed under the tongues of the dead upon burial. It is fitting that Rossetti should call a sonnet a coin — and also fitting that he should invoke the name of Charon — as the manuscript containing many of the poems in The House of Life , the volume which the above poem introduces, was tossed into the casket of his wife Elizabeth Siddal upon her death in 1862, only to be unearthed seven years later in order that the poet could begin the project of revising and publishing his poetry.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

    A strange reversal of Rossetti’s assertion appears across the ocean over fifty years later in Wallace Stevens Adagia : “Money,” writes the literary lawyer, “is a kind of poetry.” Rossetti’s influence on Stevens is evident in some of Stevens’s early work — most notably “Vita Mea,” which begins with the line “With fear I trembled in the House of Life” — and so one wonders if Stevens’s aphorism is a response to the Pre-Raphaelite’s “introductory sonnet.” Stevens, too, was prone to burying manuscripts — very few drafts of his poems are extant — and so perhaps it’s possible to see his transposition of Rossetti’s words as rooted in the fact that Stevens, unlike Rossetti, wasn’t one to exhume his manuscripts unless solicited to do so.
    In a 1937 letter to C.D. Abbott, the director of libraries at the University of Buffalo, who had that year sent requests to many poets for manuscripts for the library’s collection, Stevens writes:

My way of writing things is to jot them down on scraps of paper and then to copy them off and, finally, to have them typed from the latest copy. The result is that the kind of manuscript one sees illustrated in the catalogues of the dealers does not exist in my case.

This absent and accounted-for manuscript reappears in Steven’s correspondence in 1949. In a letter to Samuel French Morse, Stevens writes: “I think that I was right to say that I did not want the manuscript at Buffalo to be anything more than an autograph, which was about what was wanted [...]” (641). Stevens’s use of the word “autograph” is interesting for two reasons. For one, it further locates the manuscript within the realm of the collectible and removes the greater part of its usefulness.

    Secondly, the word “autograph” denotes a signature, which points to one of Stevens’s many quirks of personality, many of which manifest themselves in his handwriting. In an early journal entry, Stevens describes a return to his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania during which he discovered the initials “W. S.” carved into the seat of a summer house. Noting that the “S” was written backwards, Stevens recalls that this particular letter was “a monster of difficulty” for him as a child, a description which anticipates a letter to his wife Elsie a few years later in which he ascribes the word “monster” to his body (176). His difficulty with his second initial would continue into adulthood, until finally, “in his mature hand,” the letter S becomes “indistinguishable, in most cases, except for context, from his capital I ” (Richardson 224). Stevens, as is well known, will encounter much toil and trouble trying to reconcile his lives as a poet and a man of business — trying, that is, to adjust his I’s to each other.
    Nearly a year after Abbott’s request, Stevens sent him the manuscript for “The Man with the Blue Guitar” with the following stipulation attached:

The manuscript is not to be copied nor published in any form, nor are extracts from it to be published. I am not trying to use exact language, but the sense of what I am trying to say is that this manuscript would ordinarily go into the waste basket now that it has served its purpose, and that I don’t want anything more to come of it as if it had, in fact, been thrown into the waste basket, except that you can keep it and show it to anyone who may be curious about that sort of thing: exhibit it, but not make any other use of it.

According to a note in Letters of Wallace Stevens , edited by Holly Stevens, the University of Buffalo “has been most scrupulous in observing Stevens’s request,” and indeed, the manuscript, for all practical purposes, does not exist in the usual literary sense, although a few sections have been typeset and published, at great cost to the publishers, in the revised edition of Opus Posthumous and in the Library of America’s edition of Stevens’s collected works. The pages of the “Blue Guitar” manuscript contain both the “sea surface” of Stevens’s profession (they are on legal paper, and it is the legal profession which kept him financially afloat) and the “clouds” of his extra-professional, artistic life.

Wallace Stevens and his daughter Holly

Wallace Stevens and his daughter Holly

    Abbott asked Stevens for some of his working notes; Rossetti presented an illustrated version of his poem to his mother as a birthday gift. While Rossetti’s present was to eventually became the introduction to a published version of a much-revised manuscript featuring previously discarded material from the past, Stevens’s gift saves (or creates) just a trace of the act of the discarding of the initial material of one of his long poems in order that it might take the form of a mysterious literary keepsake.
    If Rossetti’s poem is a testament to the moment made permanent (a present made public and perfect), Stevens’s manuscript is a literary investment which profits by making that which is written difficult to find and fix: the meaning of his manuscript lies — perhaps in both senses of that word — in its value.
    Stevens was a product (however pure or impure) of the United States of America, “the historical birthplace of the widespread use of paper money in the Western world,” and he was born just after a fifty year period (1825–1875) during which the debate about coin and paper money — a debate which, as Marc Shell observes, was as much about aesthetics as it was about economics — dominated American political discourse (5). The poet came of age at a time when the question of how to deal with money’s connection to the valuable “representative” metals of silver and gold was of major political and economic importance.
    From the year of Stevens’s birth (1879) to the end of the century, a constant agitation for the expansion of the money stock swept the States. Political parties like the Inflationist Party were founded whose sole purpose was to make, by one means or another, the total money supply rise. Some favored the issue of paper money, like the extremist Greenbackers, some the return to the Bimetallic Standard. An 1876 cartoon with the Stevens-esque title of  “A Shadow is Not a Substance” depicts a personified coin casting a shadow behind it labeled “Greenbacks,” thus speaking to the sentiment that a paper money economy was shadowy and suspicious.[1]
    Another cartoon (“Milk Tickets for Babies, in Place of Milk”) links paper money to the aesthetic practice of the willing suspension of disbelief by featuring a dollar-like piece of paper which reads “This is money by the act of Congress” amidst pieces of paper which say such things as “This is a cow by the act of the artist,” “This is a house and lot by the act of the architect” and “This is milk by the act of con.” Apparently, the idea that a piece of paper is money just because someone says it is did not sit well with some members of the populace, just as poem titles like “Anything Is Beautiful if You Say It Is” might have contributed to some readers’ dismissal of Stevens as “marginal, ivory tower, and escapist” (Grey 21).
    Twenty years after these cartoons were penned, the young Harvard poet cast his first presidential vote, selecting Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who railed against the gold standard and advocated the free coinage of silver, over William McKinley, who advocated a Gold Standard (and who would eventually win the election). Stevens vote is metaphorically telling, as it renders him a “paper money man.”
    Given Stevens’s idea that “[p]oetry and materia poetica are interchangeable terms,” we might be able to read “money is a kind of poetry” as a phrase which speaks to both the meaning and the material of money. A great deal of Stevens’s writing (and his recording of the writing of others) was done on “small pieces of paper that it had been his habit to keep in his pockets since his youth” (145). These “little slips of paper,” as Stevens himself calls them, these scraps of value, resemble nothing if not dollar bills; a dollar, like a Wallace Stevens poem, is a thing and a measurement, an object and an abstraction.
    Biographer Joan Richardson claims that poetry and money were Stevens’s “prayers,” and while both may have saved him, the fact of the matter he saved and the manner in which he saved such matter, is also telling.
    Let me propose that Stevens, who sees poetry as “the subject of the poem,” is a kind of miser of the manuscript, in the sense that this generous man, who often gave away large quantities of money to family members, younger men whom he mentored and small press publishers, would, in the words of George Simmel, “part with a sheet of paper or the like from their stationary stock only after exercising genuine will-power” (236). At times, it seems that Stevens wishes (or writes) for representation to be anti-allegorical; “Instead of allegory,/” he writes of a particularly moving statue in “Examination of the Hero in a Time of War,” “We have and are the man.” The Greek agoreuein, from which the word allegory comes, does not mean simply “to speak,” but rather “to speak in the marketplace”; allegory, then, means not simply to “speak other,” but rather “to speak other than in the marketplace.” And yet despite Stevens’s disdain for allegory, his manuscript in SUNY-Buffalo’s Lockwood library presents us with a strange kind of delayed agoraphobia. Let us, then, allow the words in allegory’s definition to remain in order, but let us also pierce them with a dash. Let us say that Wallace Stevens speaks other-than in the marketplace.
    In a letter to Henry Church, written shortly after the delivery of “The Noble Writer and the Sound of Words,” the nearly unbearably self-conscious poet writes, “I am very definitely not a public speaker: in fact, hardly a private one.” In his poem “The Creations of Sound,” Stevens writes that “We say ourselves in syllables that rise/From the floor, rising in a speech we do not speak.” In addition to recalling his tendency toward silence, Stevens’s lines also speak to the notion of commodity language as it spoken by books. In other words, “we” don’t speak in poems; poems speak as if they were us.
    We see a hint of this in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who singled out money and books as two objects which at first glance might not appear to adhere to his metaphysical doctrine of right, in which “division must be made in accordance with a priori principles, abstracting from the matter that is exchanged (which could be conventional) and considering only the form” (68). In the “What is Money?” and “What is a Book?” sections of his Metaphysics of Morals , Kant discusses what he calls “lawful money, that is, coinage,” or metals and paper which have been “stamped, that is, provided with a sign indicating how much they are to be worth” (71). Money falls under his doctrine, then, because we do not consider it as paper or metal, but rather because we read it as a sign.
    Money, Kant says, “represents all goods, since it is conceived as a universally accepted mere means of commerce [and has] no value in itself as opposed to things which are goods (i.e., which have value in themselves and are related to the particular needs of one or another in the nation)” (69). Money sublates; it is and is not a commodity. It is and is not a thing in a way that rises above a commodity’s being and not being a thing, and so it is both more perceptible and more imperceptible by the senses than a commodity. When we read a commodity, we behold something that is not there and something that is, but when we read money — that is, when we hear what it, as a commodity, has to say and also what it must say if it is to remain outside the realm of commodities — we behold everything that could be there and so everything, there or not, that is for sale.

Stevens's business colleagues

Stevens's business colleagues

The value of money, Kant states, is “indirect,” and although it is useful — is, in fact, “the most useful means human beings have for the exchange of things” — it cannot be enjoyed or used for any immediate purpose in and of itself. Wallace Stevens, a poetic miser who reveled in the “pleasures of merely circulating,” calls money a “kind” of poetry, but what kind of poetry is it? Let us say that it is Stevens’s kind of poetry, for whenever poets speak of poetry — and Stevens poems speak of poetry more than those of any other poet I know — they are almost always (already or eventually) speaking of their own. But if one uses money as an analogy for poetry, then one must call poems both commodities and money, for poetry is what all poems have in common; it is that “common substratum” to which all poems are subject.
    Poems, to which we are subject, are themselves subject to books, and, like money, a book’s adherence to Kant’s metaphysical doctrine of right results from the fact that a book is a legal agreement between two people. In the case of books, a publisher is given “a mandate” by an author; both the publisher and the author speak to the public, and although each speaks through the other, only the author can claim the right to the discourse contained within the object of the book. Only the author speaks in his own name.
    Kant acknowledges that this is confusing due to the fact that books, because they are things, “corporeal artifacts that can be reproduced,” can be published in an unauthorized manner and still appear to be rightful because human beings do have a right to objects which they rightfully possess. But, for Kant’s purposes, we must ignore the fact that books are things and see them almost as if they were the speaking voice of the author, a occurrence without substance, an anti-matter of writing, time and right which can only be rightfully possessed by the particular speaker from which it originally emanated.
    Books, for Kant, are not a “moment’s monument,” but rather a continuous present (read now, read gift) passed from author to an authorized publisher and then to the public. In his analysis of commodity language, Werner Hammacher speaks to the poetics of commodities, which, as he writes, “‘normally’ and ‘naturally’ do not speak”:
    Yet commodities are not natural; rather, as Marx correctly says, they are things with a “supernatural quality,” their value “something purely social.” Only — and this follows from the analysis of the simple value-form — this “supernatural quality,” this being a value thing (Wertding ), is of such a kind that it does not remain supernatural but becomes an objective quality , quickly dons a “natural skin,” becomes “sensuously super-sensuous,” that is, supra-sensuous in a sensuous way, and begins to speak as a relatively independent thing.
    Marx thus does not use a metaphor or a prosopopoeia, but the commodity of which he speaks is itself structured as a prosopopoeia. The cloth does not speak figuratively but, because it is a commodity and hence a figure, it actually speaks.
    When Stevens writes that “We say ourselves in syllables that rise/ From the floor, rising in a speech we do not speak,” he reads the Kantian notion of the book through Marx’s eyes, those microscopes of the potent poetry of the commodity.
    “A writing,” writes Kant, “is not an immediate sign of a concept (as is, for example, an etching which represents a certain person in a portrait, or a work in plaster that is a bust)” (71). Though a signature is a piece of writing, one might, more often than not, consider a signature akin to a portrait or a bust; if we see it this way, we can read Stevens desire that his draft of “The Man with The Blue Guitar” function simply as “an autograph” as a desire for the negation of discourse, a desire for an “immediate sign” of the concept that is Wallace Stevens. And yet we’ve seen how even Stevens’s signature can function as a kind of discourse, how the form, look and placement of writing can mean.
    For Kant, money and books are the same in the sense that we are able to look past their material in order to obtain their legal meaning. In the case of money, the material is provided with a sign from a governing body that speaks to its worth; in the case of books, the publisher is provided with a sign that speaks to his worth, though not necessarily to the worth of the book’s content. An unauthorized publication might still have the same literary value as an authorized publication, but it would not be “right” in the Kantian moral sense.  This is all, of course, a matter of rights and ownership, and, at first glance, it may seem irrelevant in the context of poetry. But Kant is discussing the law, which we will remember was Stevens’s profession. We must also remember that in the letter accompanying the “Man with The Blue Guitar” manuscript, Stevens expressed concern over the rights to his trash, which is to say the evidence of his poetic work as enacted upon the materials of his working life.
    Just as he rewrites, backwards, Rossetti’s concept of poetry as a kind of money , Stevens also holds a mirror up to Kant’s notion of the book. The twentieth-century poet renders an instance of discourse (the draft of a published poem) a sign (“an autograph”) by way of another instance of discourse (a letter), while the eighteenth-century philosopher calls for the “authorization” of a publisher, by way of the author’s signature on a contract, in order that a discourse-become-object (“a writing”) might both retain its own status as discourse and adhere to the discourse of moral law. Kant’s abstract author’s invisible signature keeps the profits of his discourse safe from theft and bestows upon a physical object (a book) something like a voice, a non-physical, though representable entity which can, in turn, stand for an individual.
    The restricted status of the notes for “The Man with The Blue Guitar” — let us say the law of Stevens’s manuscript — is a signature on a discourse and keeps the content of his published discourse safe; the poet’s letter makes possible a privacy in a public space, as if Lockwood library were a bank, and the manila folder in which the manuscript is contained were a safe-deposit box rather than the “waste basket” for which it stands.
    For Stevens — a poet who commissioned Adolph Alexander Weinman to produce a bust of his wife Elsie Stevens, who in turn would become Weinman’s model for the Liberty dime and half dollar — poetry was a search for precious mettle, the book a sort of currency.

Elsie Stevens and Wallace Stevens

Elsie Stevens and Wallace Stevens

As Joan Richardson observes, Duchamp’s The Great Glass — a work with which Stevens, being both an acquaintance of Duchamp’s and an avid art aficianado, was certainly familiar — was “an application of the idea of the alchemist’s ‘Great Work,’” and Stevens’s desire to write “The Grand Poem” was perhaps influenced by Duchamp’s gold-digging christening. “The original purpose of the alchemist’s ‘Great Work,’” writes Richardson, “was to discover the philosopher’s stone, the catalyst that would transform base metals, like lead, into gold” (464). “By the fifteenth century,” she continues:

...this pursuit had already become a metaphor for finding the gold understood as a medicinal unguent that would cure human ills. By the time this idea itself became transmuted over the centuries separating the early alchemists from twentieth-century initiates, the literal aspect had crystallized and been transformed into chemistry, while the metaphorical aspect had sublimed into a search for a spiritual catalyst that would change the base elements of human experience into a golden rule to help individuals live their lives in a better way.           (465)

Poetry, for Stevens, was “a health,” a practice which advised its makers and listeners as to “how to live” and “what to do,” and so we might say this attitude, coupled with his linking of money and poetry, finds the poet reuniting the chemist and the philosopher in order to embark on a return to alchemy. And yet he does so in a country that will in 1933, cease to use the gold standard.
    Money both changed Stevens’s world and changed in it, and so, in closing, let me speak briefly of moneychanging. “Agio” is a word used to denote the premium paid for changing one kind of money to another. Its root word is the Greek allagion , which means “exchange” and can be traced back to the word allos , or “other.” Allos , of course, plays a key role in the literary term “allegory,” a word which, as we’ve seen, also comes to us from economic discourse.
    Stevens, dictionary cormorant that he was, would no doubt have known this, and as a poet who delighted in frequent wordplay, he seems to have perhaps put these roots to good thought and to good use. He kept a notebook of Adagia , adages, a word which comes from ad agio , meaning “I say.” His Collected Poems , as Joan Richardson observes, “presents an elaborately conceived opera, which at the same time preserves classical sonata form,” and so he must have been familiar with the musical term adagio , which indicates a tempo between largo and andante and calls for the music to be played in an easy, graceful manner. Some dictionaries claim that the monetary term “agio” arises not from the Greek “allos” but from this musical “at ease.” “Agio,” in this case, would be the price one pays for the convenience of having one’s money changed into a different money.
    Scraps of paper were convenient for Stevens; he used “the backs of laundry bills and other odd left-overs, cut into two-by-four inch size,” which he then tossed into the wastebasket (Richardson 146). And yet Stevens’s relation to paper was often one of similarity rather than difference.
    In an article on “Surety and Fidelity Claims,” published in a 1938 issue of the Eastern Underwriter , Stevens claims that a “claim man” such as he “finds it difficult sometimes to distinguish himself from the papers he handles and comes almost to believe that he and his papers constitute a single creature.” Like money itself, Stevens’s great success is his failure to be only a matter of the substance of which he was made, and yet, as a poet, he also refused to simply be the markings which he made on paper. If Kant wanted moral discourse to be true to the creators of particular discourses, Stevens only wanted an at-once more romantic and more business-like version of aesthetic discourse. Stevens situates his writing not as if it were in a book, but rather as if it were a piece of his self, but only in the way that a voice is a part of the body.
    By forcing his manuscript to be treated as if it were in the waste basket, despite the fact that it is located in a building full of books, Stevens makes an oral issue of the moral. By making sure that his notes for “The Man with The Blue Guitar” remain at least figuratively in the dump, Stevens takes Kant’s laws of publication one step deeper into writing, one step closer to the author as person. By writing his own laws of publication and bringing them to bear on published and unpublished words, on leaves from his legal pad, the ever-keen Stevens is able to mark and demarcate the values of his ghosts and remark upon and question the materials of his trades.


[1]One might argue that Stevens, had he written a poem with this title, would have shown us the process of tying and/or untying said “Not.”  In a letter to Hi Simons, Stevens offers the following analogy for poetry:

[...] a poem is like a man walking on the bank of a river, whose shadow is reflected in the water. If you explain a poem, you are quite likely to do it either in terms of the man or in terms of the shadow, but you have to explain it in terms of the whole. When I said recently that a poem was what was on the page, it seems to me now that I was wrong because that is explaining it in terms of the man. But the thing and its double always go together. (L 354)

Works cited
Grey, Thomas C. The Wallace Stevens Case : Law and the Practice of Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Hamacher, Werner. “Lingua Amissa: The Messianism of Commodity—Language and Derrida’s Specters of Marx.” Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium of Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Ed. Michael Sprinker. London: Verso, 1999. 168–212.
Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. 1785. Trans. and ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Richardson, Joan. Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879–1923. New York: Beech Tree Books, William Morrow and Company, 1986.
—— . Wallace Stevens: The Later Years, 1923–1955. New York: Beech Tree Books, William Morrow and Company, 1988.
Shell, Marc. Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophic Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
Simmel, George. “On the Psychology on Money.” Simmel on Culture. Eds. David Frisby and Mike Featherstone. London: SAGE Publications, 1997. 233–43.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954.
—— . Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
—— . “Surety and Fidelity Claims.” Opus Posthumous. 1957. Ed. Milton J. Bates. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. 237–39.

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