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The Challenge of Inventing Modern Melodies

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The Poetic Music of Wallace Stevens

Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in Music and Literature ((PASTMULI))

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Abstract

This chapter, principally authored by Eeckhout, addresses a second feature of music rarely explored in relation to Stevens’s writings—that of melody. In poetry criticism, melody is not part of the traditional arsenal of concepts and analogies. There are some good reasons for this, which we acknowledge at the outset. Yet we argue that the potential of the concept as an analytical tool that can serve to enrich the experience of poetic texts has been insufficiently recognized. We attempt a methodical dissection of the notion of melody so as to understand its relevance to the act of reading poetry in general, and Stevens’s work in particular. For this chapter, we focus principally on three material elements and investigate how they might inform a musical reading of Stevens’s verse: the vertical axis of the units out of which verse melodies may be composed; the combination of such units along a horizontal axis; and the rhythmical organization and pacing of Stevens’s characteristic melodies. The chapter is supported by a wealth of examples from both the poetry and the prose that gradually build up to a more sharply etched sense of the particular features of Stevens’s melody-making qualities as a poet.

Words are the only melodeon.

—Wallace Stevens, “Adagia”

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Here and throughout this chapter, we will be using the term “phonetic” to refer to the level of phonemes, which are the more abstract building blocks of linguistic sound production (rendered in linguistics between slashes, for instance, /t/) and which are to be distinguished from the specific features of their material realization. Peter N. Ladefoged defines phonetics as “the study of speech sounds and their physiological production and acoustic qualities. It deals with the configurations of the vocal tract used to produce speech sounds (articulatory phonetics), the acoustic properties of speech sounds (acoustic phonetics), and the manner of combining sounds so as to make syllables, words, and sentences (linguistic phonetics).” Ladefoged further explains that the “phonemes of a language are the segments that contrast in the underlying forms. American English may be said to have at least 13 vowel phonemes, which contrast in the underlying forms of words such as bate, bat, beat, bet, bite, bit, bout, but, boat, dot, bought, balm, and boy.”

  2. 2.

    Despite the substantial length of this chapter, it won’t be possible to address what a full investigation of the topic would nevertheless require: an anchoring of claims not only in a wealth of illustrations but also in a handful of extensive close readings of individual poems; detailed and consistent attention to the evolution of melodies over the course of Stevens’s poetic career, supported by hypotheses about the rationale of historical shifts; and, insofar as this would be possible, an inquiry into the purpose of Stevens’s melodies within particular aesthetic, semantic, and/or sociopolitical contexts.

  3. 3.

    As Eleanor Cook reminds us, according to the 1893 edition of the OED the word “euphonious” was “often used ironically” (336). That Stevens reacted to a largely Romantic tradition, whose “aspiration toward a transcendence” in the production of vocal sound and “ponderous or aestheticizing poetic forms” he sought to “overturn,” is most compellingly argued by Maeder (“Sound” 27, 31).

  4. 4.

    If we follow John Hollander’s distinction between Frost and Stevens, then the former poet’s interest in straightforward tunes may betray a deeper lack of interest in the musical-compositional dimension of poetry writing, while Stevens’s ongoing modulation of melodies does the opposite. “It is always the speech, and never the music, that the Frostean protagonist is striving to hear and to decipher,” writes Hollander, while “Stevens will be overwhelmed with the music of our own listening” (247).

  5. 5.

    For an experimental pantoum that intentionally heightens the chanting quality of Stevens’s many interspersed one-liners in “Notes,” see Eeckhout 89–90 and the explanatory note on 104–05.

  6. 6.

    See also Gerber’s brilliant contribution to the metrical understanding of Stevens’s poetry in “Stevens’ Mixed-Breed Versifying.”

  7. 7.

    For further compelling readings of Stevens as a walking poet, see Gilbert as well as Goldfarb, “Walking.”

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Eeckhout, B., Goldfarb, L. (2022). The Challenge of Inventing Modern Melodies. In: The Poetic Music of Wallace Stevens. Palgrave Studies in Music and Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-07032-7_3

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