June 21, 2010

Dear Tom van de Voorde, and Dear Amsterdam, Dear the Netherlands,

Last week, a few of us trotted down to Rotterdam for the Poetry International Festival, an annual to-do of (usually) great poets from around the world. This year, the festival highlighted American poets and poetry, and so we had the opportunity to listen to Katherine Coles, CK Williams, Christian Hawkey, Michael Palmer, Katia Kapovich (billed as an "American transplant" or some such other),

and...Wallace Stevens.

Here's the text from the English version of "Wallace Stevens: last Dutchman of America":

"A few decades after Peter Stuyvesant, the famous immigrant from Friesland who founded New York, another Dutchman, a certain Michiel Stevens, boarded ship to sail to the new world. What happened to him after that is anyone’s guess. All we know is that he married a certain Ryertie Mol, sired a few children, and in a jiffy a century and a half had passed. Apparently he didn’t leave much of a mark on history. Nonetheless, his legacy was invaluable, if only for the fact that he contributed his DNA to the grandson of the grandson of his grandson: Wallace Stevens (1879–1955), a well-to-do gentleman and solicitor for an insurance company, who earned enough money to maintain a couple of expensive hobbies."

From the rationale of ancestry follows, somehow, and very much in both the Dutch and English versions of this text, a kind of Dutch claim on (or colonization of, if you will) a major American poet. The text goes on to describe Stevens' impact on literature, which apparently would have been "completely different" without him.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy Stevens' work. But I was rather dumbfounded by the exaggeration of an ancestry. I mean, hell, America is what it is because of a lot of horrible colonization. The majority of us are not from there, if you go back far enough. Using the logic of this text, the Dutch could likely lay claim to most of our nation, thanks to their exploratory philandering.

(And for the sake of hammering my goofy point home, the text from the Dutch version in the festival program actually begins:

"Peter Stuyvesant is not the only Dutchman who earns a star on the American flag."

Insert appropriate expletive here. Never mind that the stars represent states, not people.)

I have seen this subsumption of American-ness occur before. When Obama was elected President, an article came out in the Dutch press which claimed that he is part-Dutch, and through this or that verbal maneuvering, by the end of the piece the Netherlands was given credit for his progressive politicking. Then there was that whole weirdness that was NY400 (i.e. New York is the coolest city in the world because the Dutch founded it). Is subsuming each other just something we do? I grant that since I live in Amsterdam, I may just be able to see this from one side; the intense love/hate relationship that the Dutch have with America likely does not help my general refusal to suffer fools.

So sociological/psychological wonderings aside: Tom van de Voorde's less-than-scholarly article on Wallace Stevens simply has an unnecessary starting point. You don't need to claim Stevens as Dutch before you argue his importance to Dutch literature. Nor do you need to do so in order to market him to the festival audience. Van de Voorde's piece obstructs any "real" engagement with his work, especially for those in the audience who may have come across him for the first time.
Stevens--as most poets, as most people--stands on his own feet without claims to place or place's claims on him.

Must we locate something before we can find even the will to engage with it?

No comments:

Post a Comment