The Hunting of Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self

by Milton J. Bates
University of California Press, 302 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879–1923

by Joan Richardson
William Morrow, 591 pp., $21.95

It is just over thirty years since Wallace Stevens died. Those of us who wrote on Stevens during his lifetime or within the first ten or fifteen years after his death were occupied in sorting out what his wonderful constructions—tempting, seductive, solacing, impertinent, resistant, teasing—were up to. We learned his language, and instructed others in its odd grammar and lexicon. It was a delightful period, in which his poems were still fresh and (especially the later ones) relatively unknown. It was also a time of preliminary evaluations: Was Stevens good? great? original? or reactionary? conservative? derivative? Was he the dandy and hedonist that Yvor Winters thought him? the elephant to which Randall Jarrell compared him?

Opinion has always been rather sharply divided on Stevens, both as a poet and as a man. As a poet, he tends to write second-order poems. First-order poems (this distinction is a crude one) have a first-person, narrative base (“I went out to the hazel wood”); second-order poems reflect on that first-order plane (“Doing a filthy pleasure is, and short”). Indeed the distinction is so crude as to be false, because all good poetry pretending to be first-order poetry (“I did X, I thought Y”) is in fact implicitly second-order poetry by virtue of its having arranged its first-order narrative in a certain shape; the shape is the implicit second-order reflection made manifest. Nonetheless, for crude purposes we can say that there are many poems of the pure second order, which either do not exhibit a visible first-order human narrative, or exhibit it in a subordinate or oblique way. Such poems are most digestible when they imitate prose and treat familiar subjects (“The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action”). But they are baffling to the ordinary reader when they enact the thinking of thoughts, or the sensing of sensations, or the supposing of suppositions (activities for which we do not have the usual narrative plots).

Stevens was particularly interested in such activities, and in the moments when things were coming to be or turning away from what they had been. Those “insolid billowings” of change are of course quite as much a part of “life” as narratively marked events, incidents, or endings in the life of action. Stevens loved

…The first wick of night, the stellar summering
At three-quarters gone, the morning’s prescience.

For readers who want to find in poetry robust “real-life” events, decided opinions, political platforms, or wounded outcries, Stevens is disappointing. John Berryman—certainly a man delighted by poetry—could not find it in his heart to give unreserved praise to Stevens. Berryman’s own Dream Songs made up a long first-order autobiography, a series of explicit disasters accompanied by their own tragicomic outcries. Stevens’s preference for the poem as a projection of experience onto another plane, rather than as a narrative of experience, seemed to Berryman to take the force out of poetry, to rob it of its capacity to wound …

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Letters

Reading Wallace Stevens May 7, 1987