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On Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens was a consummate refutation of the impression that life must be frantic. He was a lawyer, born in Reading, Pennsylvania, October 2, 1879, entered Harvard when eighteen and was a graduate of The New York Law School. In 1934 he became Vice-President of the Accident and Indemnity Company of Hartford, having been associated with the company while in New York previous to 1916, the year in which he moved to Hartford. He died August 2, 1955. He was in magnificent contrast with the two Dromios in The Comedy of Errors—“They must be bound and laid in some dark room.” He was equipoise itself, although he could be displeased—in fact, angered by an imposter. People have a way of saying, “I don’t understand poetry. What does this mean?” The query does not seem to me contemptible. However, Wallace Stevens did not digress to provide exegeses for bewildered readers. It should be known, I think, that fees which he received for lectures and readings, he gave anonymously to young poets whose ability and sincerity impressed him, or young magazines with a spirit he liked. He did not mix poetry with business. The more you feel a thing, he felt, the less excuse there is for being irresponsible. Phrases sometimes came to him on his way to the office in a taxi, he said, but you may be sure that “Frogs eat butterflies, snakes eat frogs” was not written in the office. Regarding “the sense of tragedy hanging over the world,” he said, “What the poet has, is not a solution but some defense against it” (p. 697, Lives of the Poets by Louis Untermeyer). “My final point,” he says in his book, The Necessary Angel, “is that imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos.”

Quoting “order is mastery” from the poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” I have a picture in my mind, of the office and desk of Wallace Stevens at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. On my way home from New England one time, I had an errand at Trinity College—to save an English Department student the trouble of coming to Brooklyn to ask questions about a paper involving a degree. My brother that day was to take me to meet relatives, and finding me with half an hour to spare, said, “If you have shopping to do, there is a good store nearby; or is there anything else you might like to do?” I hesitated, then said, “I’d like to call on Wallace Stevens, but have no appointment.” My brother said, “Here’s a nickel; call him up.” I said, “With Wallace Stevens, you aren’t haphazard…” and deliberated. “He is formal.” My brother stepped into a telephone-booth, saying, “I’ll call him up.” The door of the booth was open and I heard him say. “Have you had lunch, Mr. Stevens?” He came out. “What did he say?” I asked. “Said ‘Come right over.’ ” The building where we were expected stood on a grassy eminence and has eleven or twelve white marble columns along the facade. (Mr. Stevens’s offices previously had been at 125 Trumbull Avenue; he occupied the office where we saw him after 1921, the year in which the building was finished.) We were escorted down a wide corridor to his door which was open. His desk, of mahogany or other dark polished wood, had nothing on it—no pen stabbed into a marble slab at an angle. It faced two armchairs. The shade was half down, of a rather wide window. It was summer. Opening a drawer presently, Mr. Stevens brought out a post-card, a Paul Klee reproduction from Laura Sweeney (Mrs. James Sweeney) explaining that she was in Paris, said, “Such a pleasure she always is, don’t you think?” and after other comment, when we said we must go, Mr. Stevens said, “Since this is your first visit, let me show you the building.” We crossed the corridor and through a short connecting one, entering a large room with many windows, its desks not too near together and not too small. As we passed the many desks, each of the persons working on papers or at a typewriter looked up at Mr. Stevens with a pleased smile, reminding me of a visitor to a writing-conference I had attended who said when Hartford insurance was mentioned, “They aren’t bothered with strikes there; the girls at the Hartford have it nice,” and explained that she had a friend, a clerk in the Hartford Indemnity and Accident Company. We left by a door opposite the one by which we had entered, descended a few stone steps to a row of tall green arbor vitae at right angles to a drive. I said we had not wished to interrupt at a bad moment—that I owed the visit to my brother’s initiative. Mr. Stevens said to him, “If you let me know when you are going to be here again, I’d like to take you for lunch to the Canoe Club, and to the house.”

I first met Wallace Stevens in 1943 at Mount Holyoke where my mother and I were attending the Entretien de Pontigny, presided over by Professor Gustave Cohen, the mediaevalist. Mr. Stevens—sitting at a table under a tree—gave a lecture, “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet” (included later in The Necessary Angel) about imagination, and spoke of Coleridge dancing on the deck of a Hamburg packet, dressed all in black, in large shoes and worsted stockings. Mr. and Mrs. Henry Church had brought Mr. Stevens in their car from the Lord Jeffrey Inn at Amherst at which all three had been staying. At luncheon, to which participants in the Conference were invited by the College, a moment of silence made conspicuous, this question—asked by a feminine aesthete: “Mr. Stevens, what do you think of the ‘Four Quarters’?” The answer was quick; “I’ve read them of course, but I have to keep away from Eliot or I wouldn’t have any individuality of my own”—an answer which in its scientific unevasiveness seemed a virtual self-portrait.

Henry Church was a littérateur whom Wallace Stevens liked—perhaps his favorite. He had inaugurated in Paris the magazine Mésures, to which Mr. Stevens and others of us contributed. He died in 1947. Some years later, Mrs. Church invited Mr. Stevens, Marcel Duchamp, Bernard Dubuffet, and me to luncheon. Anecdotes were mentioned which were considered amusing—one, about goats, which Mr. Stevens had told previously, and he was asked to tell it again. He shook his head—insistently begged to tell it—and I said, “Do; I’d like to hear it.” He said with almost intimidating emphasis, “You need not look at me with eyes of entreaty. I shall not tell it,” “Order is mastery”—his own words; also, perceptiveness heightened, might describe him. The Times Literary Supplement (in London) complains that poets today lack maturity—adding that maturity includes, “governance of the emotions.” You might say, I think, that Wallace Stevens was characterized by impassioned perceptiveness and governance of the emotions.

One other recollection, permissible perhaps because not induced—as decriptive of Mr. Stevens’ diction. When I was leaving a reception given by Mrs. Church, Mr. Stevens detained me a moment to inquire for my brother, adding, “Your brother is an ornament to civilization.” Why? perhaps because my brother had suspected that it might be time to go, after having only recently come? Or had Mr. Stevens found visitors too self-determined to preface a visit by considerately inquiring, “Have you had lunch?

Musically, “Wallace Stevens is America’s chief conjuror” I felt, and said so long ago, in a book review* ‘as bold a virtuoso, with as cunning a rhetoric as we have produced.” His “Bantam in Pine Woods” is the best example of alliteration that I know—the “inchling bristling” under pines, Mr. Stevens calls the bantam, to whom he says,

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caf- tan
Of tan with henna Hackles, halt.

The bantam with henna hackles is standing on henna-red pine needles. Pictorially, we have in Wallace Stevens an opulence of jungle beauty, arctic beauty, marine beauty, hothouse beauty; and natural beauty. His “Domination of Black” depicts hemlocks “in which the sun can only fumble,” that have the majesty of peacocks. He admired the blue-green of pines, could be called “the spokesman for pines,” his own phrase. He brings alive “the green vine angering for life, meet for the eye of the young alligator.”

In 1935 he said in a Note on Poetry—in the Benét-Pearson Anthology of American Poetry:

My intention in poetry is…to reach and express that which, without any particular definition…everyone recognizes to be poetry. And because I feel the need for doing it. I am rather inclined to disregard form…. The essential thing in form is to be free in whatever form is used. A free form does not assure freedom…. So that it comes to this, I suppose, that I believe in freedom regardless of form.

In “The Idea of Order at Key West,” one has a clue to how poetic imagination works. Man “becomes an introspective voyager” for whom

The lights on the fishing-boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea.

He cries,

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon.
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,…
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

He becomes a musician capable

Of one vast, subjugating final tone,
Polyphony beyond the baton’s thrust.

Imagination is the musician, playing “what is beyond us, yet ourselves.”

They said, “you have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are”—

Ourselves and yet beyond the baton’s thrust. “The subject matter of poetry is life,” as Wallace Stevens says. “The power of poetry leaves its mark on whatever it touches, unites the most disparate things, unites them all in its recognizable virtue”…”using the familiar to produce the unfamiliar,” and thereby “helps people to lead their lives”

  1. *

    See Literary Opinions in America by Morton Dauwen Zabel (Harper)

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