Done In By Wallace Stevens


I guess I was feeling pretty confident, more or less, after my however tentative understanding of Dylan Thomas. I actually fell in quasi-love with him for a while and listened to the Caedmon recording of him reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The first ever paperback book store–Brian Thomas books-had opened across the street from the Central Library, and I found a copy of the Christmas tale and took it home

(As a side note, paperback books were a true rarity in my high school days. Hard cover books were relatively expensive, so the library was my main source for reading. The sudden availability of paperback books, selling for between .95 and 1.95 was intoxicating.)

However, the next poem Mr. Sanders handed us was Peter Quince at the Clavier.
Too lengthy to post here, the link will send you to the full text. Here, I was an unfortunate victim of formalist criticism. The poem centers around a text from the Bible about Susanna being spied on in her private garden by elders of the synagogue. I had no knowledge of the Bible, so the allusion was lost on me. There were numerous other references too. Context, history, allusions, and author biography were superfluous to a true formalist reading, as I understood Mr Sanders’ assignment. But the poem totally flummoxed me.

When I later became an English professor, I tried to walk a line between telling my students what something meant and leaving them completely adrift if I thought some background might help their reading. Sometimes sitting with a hard poem and no clues is just frustrating.

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