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5 - Staging Second Thoughts: The Poetry of Anne Stevenson

John Rredmond
Affiliation:
University of Liverpool
Angela Leighton
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

Self-reproof, self-correction, apostasy, disavowal, revision, regret – explicitly stated versions of all these can be found throughout the poetry of the twentieth century, from Yeats's ‘Did that play of mine send out / certain men the English shot?’ to Eliot's ‘That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory / A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion’, and Auden's rebuking himself, halfway through ‘In Praise of Limestone’, for ruining ‘a fine tenor voice / for effects that bring down the house’. Asked to account for the prevalence of the motif, a cynic might suggest that, in such self-flagellating circumstances, an author can only win. A reader who is not immediately disarmed by authorial self-reproof can at least be expected to feel surprise. Since writers are wont to puff and preen, it makes a nice change to hear a mea culpa. And for the author there is the further potential side-benefit of being credited with a range of desirable qualities, including modesty, realism, honesty and a sense of proportion. Eating humble pie can be an opportunity for taking pride.

One of Anne Stevenson's main influences, Elizabeth Bishop, is fond of second thoughts like these, finding that repeated glances often occasion a change of mind. As Denis Donoghue has written, when Bishop repeats a word, ‘watch out, it never means what it has already said’. Examples of this revisionary habit abound in her poetry: one thinks of the italicised, self-contradicting, final verse of ‘The Armadillo’, the self-critical despair which climaxes in the ‘Write it!’ of ‘One Art’, and the poker-faced, introductory doubling-back of ‘The Monument’:

Now can you see the monument? It is of wood

built somewhat like a box. No. Built

like several boxes in descending sizes

one above the other.

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Voyages over Voices
Critical Essays on Anne Stevenson
, pp. 71 - 82
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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