English prof honored by Wallace Stevens Society


The Wallace Stevens Society recently honored one of MCLA's newest professors, Dr. Zack Finch, as this year's recipient of the John N. Serio Award for the best published article on poet Wallace Stevens at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago, Ill.

Finch's essay, "He That of Repetition is Most Master: Stevens and the Poetics of Mannerism," was published in The Wallace Stevens Journal in fall 2012.

Judges for the award praised his analysis for being "grounded in both a knowledge of the history of mannerism since the Renaissance and also critical theory. It is an original and exciting approach that promises to open the field for future criticism."

Finch an assistant professor of English who teaches a range of literary and creative writing courses - including poetry - is the faculty advisor to Spires, the campus' literary magazine.

"Stevens has always inspired and influenced my work as a poet," Finch explained. "Because his writing is notoriously complex, several years ago I began trying to understand my personal attraction to his poetry in greater detail by writing some criticism about it."

While a grad student, Finch studied with experts on Stevens.

At Warren Wilson's MFA Program for Writers, he wrote a critical thesis to supplement his creative writing manuscript under the guidance of poet James Longenbach, the author of a well-known book on Stevens.

Finch's award-winning essay was part of a dissertation chapter he wrote on Stevens while working on his Ph.D. at SUNY-Buffalo, under the mentorship of poet Susan Howe, also a fan of Stevens'.

"What I love most about Stevens is that his philosophical inquiries take shape through very playful, irrational and innovative styles of language," Finch said. "There's a great deal of humor, wildness and irony involved in Stevens' grandest aspiration: to imagine a "supreme fiction" in the place of God, in whom he, as a skeptic, no longer quite believed."

"What my essay was trying to get at was the contradiction between his genuine belief in poetry as a high form of spiritual happiness - something I believe in, too - and his acknowledgment that poetry is something ultimately artificial, hopelessly stylized, and always finally partial or incomplete, something else I believe in," he explained.

Finch finds himself moving between these two poles with his own poetry.

"In order to understand Steven's predicament better, I turned to the art-historical concept of 'mannerism,' and used mannerism to explain the mind-bending capabilities and also the inevitable limitations of Stevens' project." 

Finch said he loves poetry because "it extends what the writer Stendhal once called la promesse de bonheur, the promise of happiness."  

He hopes to pass along to his students that poetry can be "an amazingly rich activity, a kind of meditation on life and all that you value about it."

"It's like jazz - it's an improvisational activity which you get better at the more you practice it.  It's like prayer, too: you get to address your most highly charged, most emotionally complex, most desire-ridden thoughts and images to a hidden interlocutor who may or may not be listening. And like prayer, it changes you in silent ways."