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Unexpected Affinities

Modern American Poetry and Symbolist Poetics

Lisa Goldfarb is Professor at the Gallatin School of New York University, President of The Wallace Stevens Society, and Associate Editor of The Wallace Stevens Journal. She is author of The Figure Concealed: Wallace Stevens, Music, and Valéryan Echoes (2011), co-editor of Wallace Stevens, New York, and Modernism (2012), Poetry and Poetics after Wallace Stevens (2017), and three special issues of The Wallace Stevens Journal.

Unexpected Affinities: Modern American Poetry and Symbolist Poetics studies the impact of Stevensian and Valéryan poetics, and symbolist poetics more broadly, on a range of Anglo-American poets in untypical fashion. Pairing poets who are not usually studied in their relation to one another reveals mutuality and dissimilitude. Chapter I looks at Stevens and Valéry from the vantage point of the senses as opposed to the more usual lens of their similar cerebral or philosophical temperaments. Although critics have largely and justifiably seen Stevens and Eliot in oppositional terms (Stevens proclaims them “dead opposites”), Lisa Goldfarb asks what happens when we look at them from the vantage point of their mutual interest in creating a musical poetics. Auden is principally known for his distaste for the symbolists and their magical poetics, yet he reserves special praise for Valéry and considers him as his poetic mentor; Chapter III studies their poetics side-by-side. With Stevens’ and Auden’s mutual appreciation of Valéry as a starting point, Chapter IV turns to a closer comparative study of Auden and Stevens, two poets who have traditionally been seen as operating in distinct poetic spheres. While Elizabeth Bishop famously eludes categorization in terms of poetic school or affiliation, a fifth chapter addresses her poetic music in relation to French symbolist poetics, one of the many poetic schools she admired. A sixth and final chapter examines Stevens’ musical legacy, in large part derived from the symbolists, and addresses the work of a range of modern and contemporary poets, with a final section devoted to the work of contemporary poet, Susan Howe.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-856-5
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $74.95
Release Date: May 2018
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-947-0
Paperback Price: £27.50 / $39.95
Release Date: February 2019
Page Extent / Format: 160 pp. / 224 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Preface: Unexpected Affinities

I – Thinking through the Senses: Stevens and Valéry (with Echoes of Du Bellay and Proust)

II – Three Voices of Modern Musical Poetry: Stevens, Eliot, Valéry

III – “Thinking-Intuitive Types”: Poetic Affinities in W.H. Auden and Paul Valéry

IV –“An Unalterable Vibration” or “An Altering Speech for Altering Things”: Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, and Symbolist Poetics

V – Music of the Sea: Elizabeth Bishop and Symbolist Poetics

VI – “The Huge High Harmony”: Wallace Stevens’s Musical Legacy


Goldfarb’s project orchestrates some of the most distinctive voices in modern poetry around the central motif of sound and sense as theorized by Valéry. . . . On the whole, Goldfarb’s Unexpected Affinities is a highly organic and readable take on the connections between French symbolism and modern American poetry. It does not rely on others’ theory, but creates its own. One marvels at the dexterity and grace with which Goldfarb moves from one poet to another and back again, often crossing poetic schools and styles, without ever losing her thread.
Reviewed by Feng Dong, Qingdao University, in the Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 43, No. 4 (2020) 

Lisa Goldfarb’s Unexpected Affinities: Modern American Poetry and Symbolist Poetics is an indispensable sequel to her first book, The Figure Concealed: Wallace Stevens, Music, and Valéryan Echoes. Together they are essential reading for anyone interested in the overlooked affinities between American poetry and French symbolism, the indelible inheritance from Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and others, most fully articulated as a poetics by Valéry. Unexpected Affinities, like its predecessor, is a wonderful introduction to the ideas of Valéry, ideas that, directly or indirectly, permeate American poetry throughout the twentieth century. While symbolist elements have long been recognized in Stevens and Eliot, Goldfarb makes these connections distinct, vivid and fresh through her emphasis on the link between thought and the senses, and especially between thought and music. Her method of triangulation helps to clarify the different ways that symbolist ideas and practices have entered American poetry. Goldfarb reveals many “unexpected affinities” here – the French side of W.H. Auden, for instance, or Susan Howe’s Valéryan encounter with Stevens. Elizabeth Bishop’s connection to symbolism, in her poetry of the sea, is revealed in her musical modulations. The last chapter on contemporary poetry inspires the reader to pursue the symbolist “musical legacy” further, for Goldfarb’s close readings are models for how to think about the interplay between knowledge and the senses.
Bonnie Costello, author of The Plural of Us: Poetry and Community in Auden and Others

We thought we knew what French symbolists gave to anglophone poetry at the beginning of the century, but Lisa Goldfarb’s book comes as a revelation of a longer and wider conversation, illuminating startling kinships and influences that shift our conceptions of several major anglophone poets, among them Eliot, Stevens, Auden, and Bishop. Homing in on the French poet Paul Valéry, she uncovers a denser set of rhizomic connections that our recent engagements with the canon have overlooked. We see how these poets think about ideas of poetic music, setting up subtle plays of motif, repetition, and response, as their theorizing informs the notes they strike in their poems, and vice versa. Interlingual and intercultural, Goldfarb’s work is transnational in the best of senses, reminding us how attentive and fine-grained criticism of poetry must be, even as it ranges more widely beyond borders. Her book enlarges and enriches our idea of poetry in the last century.
Justin Quinn, author of Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry

Goldfarb has given us not only new insights into how Stevens, Eliot, Auden and more recent poets may be read comparatively but reveals the surprising ways in which French Symbolist poetics, not least through the post-Symbolist work of Valéry, illuminate a wide range of poets not usually discussed in the same critical breath. Such unexpected affinities are central to this study’s revisionist stance and originality. The clarity of Goldfarb’s critical prose also makes her analysis especially approachable for student and teacher alike. Avoiding hollow comparative generalisations, Goldfarb deftly sifts between lines of influence and appreciation, helping us consider in light of Symbolism and its aftermaths not only Stevens, Eliot, and Auden but their later poetic descendants in refreshing new lights.
Edward Ragg, author of Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

Goldfarb studies the impact of Stevensian and Valéryan poetics, and symbolist poetics more generally, on a range of Anglo-American poets. She pairs poets who are not often seen in relation to one another except to note how opposite their approaches to poetry are, and looks at poets typically seen in one school of poetics from the perspective of a different school. Among her topics are thinking through the senses: Stevens and Valéry (with echoes of Du Bellay and Proust); thinking-intuitive types: poetic affinities in W. H. Auden and Paul Valéry; music of the sea: Elizabeth Bishop and symbolist poetics; and the huge high harmony: Wallace Stevens’ musical legacy.

The preface to Unexpected Affinities calls its approach “essayistic”; it might be more accurate to say the book unfolds a broadening range of inquiries into how poems work, even as it maintains Goldfarb's signature mixture of addressing theoretical questions (among other things about what counts as influence or affinity) and offering powerful new close readings of poems.
The Wallace Stevens Journal (Vol. 42, No. 2), Lisa Steinman (Reed College)

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