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Modernism and the Ordinary$
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Liesl Olson

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195368123

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195368123.001.0001

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Wallace Stevens’s Commonplace

Wallace Stevens’s Commonplace

(p.115) Chapter Four Wallace Stevens’s Commonplace
Modernism and the Ordinary

Liesl Olson (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

This chapter explores Wallace Stevens’ theory of the “commonplace,” a word he starts using in the mid-1930s. The “commonplace” initially refers to contemporary events, but it also takes on a sense of local concerns—the patterns of work, the changes in the weather, or the best place to buy bread and fruit. Stevens’ theory of the commonplace deeply registers his awareness of the politics of his times, even as his poetry may not seem as politically engaged as the work of some of his contemporaries (Auden or other 1930s poets). Ultimately the particularity of the commonplace is less important for Stevens than the approach to the commonplace. The chapter looks closely at “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” to illuminate this approach: a circular, meditative style that never pins down the elusive subject. Stevens’ affirmation of the commonplace is distinctly linked with his interpretation of pragmatist principles. The chapter concludes by considering how Stevens’ concept of language is affected by his understanding of the commonplace: while other modernist writers were preoccupied with ordinary experience and how best to represent it, what makes Stevens unique is how he dwells on language as a satisfying, pleasing medium despite what he accepts as language’s limitations.

Keywords:   Wallace Stevens, modernist poetry, commonplace, pragmatism, World War II, W.H. Auden

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