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 …

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