Gerke: At the end of your book you write about Stevens’ warning to young poets about being too much in books and not experiencing the world [...]. Stevens sent out this quote from Henry James’ notebooks to a young poet:
“To live in the world of creation–to get into it and stay in it–to frequent it and haunt it–to think intensely and fruitfully–to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation–this is the only thing.”It seems the upshot of this is to do one’s own thinking instead of filling one’s head with more ideas–to live in the world, to experience people and nature and have these experiences inform one’s writing. Do you think Stevens counseled this because of the great sadness of his own life–though his isolated existence did provide for him in terms of his own art?
Longenbach: This is a hard question, and I’m not sure if today I’d answer it the same way I would have twenty years ago, when I wrote my book about Stevens. One person’s intense engagement with the most visceral aspects of life is inevitably going to look to another person like retreat or denial. Somebody like Jim Morrison represents one kind of lived intensity, but somebody like Wittgenstein represents another. I think Stevens had real doubts about the shape his life ultimately took; increasingly, his poems seem to me at times unbearably sad: “Her mind will never speak to me again.” (Sixth line of “Farewell to Florida” – a gorgeous pentameter!) But he also made something extraordinary from the limited means of himself, and that’s what we all do, or try to do. In some ways, Stevens lived with an intensity that terrifies me.