The Poem as a Work on Paper: The Illustrated Esthétique du Mal

Thomas Gould

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LIKE OTHER LONG POEMS by Wallace Stevens, the composition of his wartime poem “Esthétique du Mal” was partly shaped by the dimensions of the legal notepad sheets on which it was drafted. When critics address the genesis of Stevens’s poems, they reflexively—and rightly—recall the image of Stevens composing his poems on walks to and from work, his lines the product of a perambulatory rhythm and thinking. But equally pertinent to a poem like “Esthétique du Mal” is the image of Stevens as a kind of draftsman, rounding off his rhetorical flights according to the space of the notepad. Think, for example, of the retroactivity of Stevens’s phrase in an interview on the composition of the poem, where he explains that he “was writing on a pad of paper, and the contents of each sheet became a separate stanza” (qtd. in Jaeckle 236). This is not to say that each stanza or canto ends simply because Stevens ran out of space, but that each section of the poem fits the page in a loose but crucially determined way.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-47
Number of pages15
JournalThe Wallace Stevens Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023

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