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8 - The Nature of Anne Stevenson

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 July 2017

Jay Parini
Affiliation:
Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College in Vermont
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Summary

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way? (Emily Dickinson)

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 native optimism, runs against the grain of Stevenson's secular, empiricist streak. (In a letter to me, she once wryly called herself an ‘old-fashioned Darwinian curmudgeon’.)

I have been reading her poems and critical writing with admiration for almost forty years. (We met in Scotland in the early 1970s, when I was a postgraduate student at the University of St Andrews and she had a teaching fellowship at Dundee, and we have remained good friends ever since.) I have always admired her close adherence to the natural world, as well as her intuitive understanding of Emerson's famous notion, so vividly expressed in Nature (1836), that ‘nature is a symbol of spirit’. In this sense, nature in Stevenson seems kinetic, a world of living objects that shift and respond to human needs, physical and shifting, strangely alive. Her landscapes have a kind of listening air, as if expecting to hear something. There is a famous passage in Nature – a passage so well known that it is difficult to read it freshly – where Emerson describes walking across the Boston Common and experiences nature in a way that seems emblematic of all Transcendentalist thinking:

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Voyages over Voices
Critical Essays on Anne Stevenson
, pp. 116 - 124
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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