For some time past all the important buildings that have been erected have been memorials—until it has become the fashion to memorialize. The Yard which was once a purely college affair has become lugubrious with its architectural “pomp of woe.” Every other thing one sees is in memory of somebody. Of course this may seem a rather heartless point of view on our part, but certainly there should be other incentives to generosity than death; just as there should be buildings which one could look at and live in without a pang.
Of course the surprising implication of these remarks is that whenever Stevens entered, say, Memorial Hall (dedicated to the Union dead of Harvard), he felt “a pang.” Among the stained-glass windows in Memorial Hall there is one bearing the inscription “PAX” under the image of a warrior returned safely home. In Stevens’s day, undergraduates ate dinner every night under those windows; perhaps that is why he much later wrote mysteriously in the poem “Puella Parvula,” “Write pax across the window pane.”
Another, very different, Stevens can be seen in what he called a “note… written lightly” on “Insurance and Social Change” (1937), where he winsomely imagines insuring against “the worm in the apple…the tack in the can of sardines…the piano out of tune.” A brief glimpse into his own life appears the following year in “Surety and Fidelity Claims,” where, after saying that people think insurance must be interesting because “after all, over a period of time, you spend an immense amount of money, millions,” he continues wryly,
But, actually, you never see a dollar. You sign a lot of drafts. You see surprisingly few people. You do the greater part of your work either in your own office or in lawyers’ offices. You don’t even see the country; you see law offices and hotel rooms. You try to do your traveling at night and often do it night after night. You wind up by knowing every county court house in the United States.
The piece ends with a fantastical third-person self-portrait: a man, Stevens says, after twenty-five years of handling paper in an insurance office, “finds it difficult sometimes to distinguish himself from the papers he handles and comes almost to believe that he and his papers constitute a single creature, consisting principally of hands and eyes: lots of hands and lots of eyes.”
Stevens was never apologetic about working as a lawyer. Answering a 1939 Partisan Review questionnaire asking its respondents whether they had been able to make a living “without the aid of such crutches as teaching and editorial work,” Stevens answered tartly,
The fact that writers commonly take advantage of “such crutches as teaching and editorial work” is nothing that entitles writers to indulge themselves in spasms of self-pity. Most people avail themselves of crutches of one sort or another: lawyers promote business enterprises; doctors marry rich women….
The uncollected prose now brought together may do something to change the popular, but mistaken, image of Stevens as a man who stayed apart from “real life” and “real people.” He could not have succeeded in law—where, as a young man, he had to travel all over the country evaluating surety claims about cows and trains—had he not had a shrewd sense of ordinary experience. That his poems, with intense concentration, project the real in language that is often symbolic only intensifies (because of the concentration required) the acute sense of the real that they convey. As he said on the occasion of receiving the National Book Award for Poetry in 1951,
There is about every poet a vast world of other people from which he derives himself and through himself his poetry. What he derives from his generation he returns to his generation, as best he can. His poetry is theirs and theirs is his….
And when he received an honorary degree from Bard College, he reminded his audience that the poet commits himself to reality, “which then becomes his inescapable and ever-present difficulty and inamorata”:
In all his poems with all their enchantments for the poet himself, there is the final enchantment that they are true. The significance of the poetic act then is that it is evidence. It is instance and illustration. It is an illumination of a surface, the movement of a self in the rock. Above all it is a new engagement with life.
The nearest thing to a self-portrait in prose that Stevens ever wrote can be found in an homage, included here, to his friend Henry Church. In describing Church, he reveals himself:
This sort of duality: being withdrawn and at the same time being eager to make friends, was characteristic of him…. He was a simple man who had little interest in things that were not complex. He was a plain man who lived in a certain luxury which he ignored. He was most literate yet had only a few books on his table…. He clung to his American origin faithfully and affectionately…. He was not in the least sentimental.
Some of Stevens’s sharpest statements of his position as a poet are to be found in this volume. In answering a second, and rather tendentious, questionnaire from the Partisan Review in 1948, he asserted without any qualification—in a manner worthy of Mandelstam—the independence of poetry from politics:
The basic meaning of the effort of any man to record his experience as poet is to produce poetry, not politics. The poet must stand or fall by poetry. In the conflict between the poet and the politician the chief honor the poet can hope for is that of remaining himself. Life and reality, on the one hand, and politics, on the other, notwithstanding the activity of politics, are not interchangeable terms. They are not the same thing, whatever the Russians may pretend.
There are many such assertive moments in the prose, but their polemical energy should not lead us to ignore the Stevens of the senses, exquisitely aware of the slightest shift in the seasons as he takes the train from Hartford to Boston:
And spring was coming on…. The man who loves New England and particularly the spare region of Connecticut loves it precisely because of the spare colors, the thin lights, the delicacy and slightness of the beauty of the place. The dry grass on the thin surfaces would soon change to a lime-like green and later to an emerald brilliant in a sunlight never too full. When the spring was at its height we should have a water-color not an oil….
I hope Stevens’s appearance in the Library of America will draw new readers to his poems, his eloquent essays, his fresh pensées. The volume will also offer a second chance to those who may have been baffled (as I was at seventeen) by a poem hermetically beginning “Complacencies of the peignoir,” but who will instantly understand the opening of “Red Loves Kit,” Stevens’s poem of a hopelessly incompatible marriage:
Your yes her no, your no her yes. The words
Make little difference, for being wrong
And wronging her, if only as she thinks,
You never can be right. You are the man.
You brought the incredible calm in ecstasy,
Which, like a virgin visionary spent
In this spent world, she must possess…. That you are innocent
And love her still, still leaves you in the wrong.
Where is that calm and where that ecstasy?
Elsie Stevens became a recluse: Holly Stevens (who was never allowed to invite other children in to play) believed that her mother, always subject to depressions and obsessions, was mentally ill. Stevens too must have come to believe something of that sort:
You do not understand her evil mood.
You think that like the moon she is obscured
But clears and clears until an open night
Reveals her, rounded in beneficence,
Pellucid love; and for that image, like
Some merciful divination, you forgive.
But the “clearing” of the moon does not last even though the hard-won forgiveness tries to maintain itself. “You forgive,” says Stevens, addressing himself in the second person,
…because the hemisphere
And still the final quarter, still the rim,
And still the impassioned place of it remain.
(“The Woman Who Blamed Life
on a Spaniard”)
The most devastating recognition in Stevens’s life was his realization that he had made a huge mistake in his early love for Elsie. Since that love represented for him the most profound single engagement of his imagination—in which, deluded by Elsie’s unusual beauty, he believed her to be a radiant inamorata rather than the commonplace and uneducated girl he courted for five years and then married—the dialectic between the imagined and the real became for him his insoluble but inescapable subject. He was aware that in order to recreate life one must imagine it freshly (erotically, philosophically, imaginatively, politically); but to imagine a newness does not guarantee the potential of that new reality to emerge, especially if one misapprehends the reality one starts from.
Stevens’s most tragic stanzas, as well as his most exhilarated ones, spring from this central topic: the constant exhaustion of reality, our urge to destroy it as we watch it become exhausted, and the potential ecstasy of the renewal of thought, love, and spirit. The sublime arctic aurora borealis (in the late poem “The Auroras of Autumn”) becomes Stevens’s symbol of the fundamental dynamic of destruction and creation in the universe. On the one hand, we recognize inescapable fate:
It leaps through us, through all our heavens leaps,
Extinguishing our planets, one by one,
Leaving, of where we were and looked, of where
We knew each other and of each other thought,
A shivering residue, chilled and foregone….
On the other hand, we know the mind’s delight in ever-renewed speculation and mental change:
It is a theatre floating through the clouds,
Itself a cloud, although of misted rock
And mountains running like water, wave on wave,
Through waves of light….
The cloud drifts idly through half-thought-of forms.
Stevens’s three names for the language of poetry—abstraction, pleasure, change—are all present in the celestial mutations of the auroras. But the cost of igniting memories of an old world is terrifyingly high for the person who must, on destroying them, construct a new truth:
This is nothing until in a single man contained,
Nothing until this named thing nameless is
And is destroyed. He opens the door of his house
On flames. The scholar of one candle sees
An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.
Stevens’s bravery in realistically acknowledging continuously changing experience must move anyone following his poetry from its impudent beginnings to its bleak end. He began as the little bantam rooster of the American personal lyric ordering the imposing chief cock-of-the-barnyard, the epic propounder of the Aristotelian universal, to halt:
Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!
Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.
Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.
You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
(“Bantams in Pine Woods”)
And he ends as the poet writing “Seventy Years Later,” a seventieth-birthday poem, in which he at first sees us all as helpless dupes of biological star-energy as we rush out, in the noonday of our life, to meet and “fall in love” with the girl next door (who is herself rushing forth to the same meeting):
The meeting at noon at the edge of the field seems like
An invention, an embrace between one desperate clod
And another in a fantastic consciousness,
In a queer assertion of humanity:
A theorem proposed between the two—
Two figures in a nature of the sun,
In the sun’s design of its own happiness….
This is Stevens’s most bitter view of the erotic imagination, that it is delusive and merely biological. But within a few lines, he passes from retrospective judgment to actual recollection—he summons up what it was to be ecstatically actualized, body and soul, by sexual passion: it was
an illusion so desired
That the green leaves came and covered the high rock,
That the lilacs came and bloomed, like a blindness cleaned,
Exclaiming bright sight, as it was satisfied,
In a birth of sight. The blooming and the musk
Were being alive, an incessant being alive,
A particular of being, that gross universe.
To judge retrospectively, but also to remember chronologically—to hold reality and justice in a single thought (as Yeats said at the end of his life): that, for Stevens, is what any imaginative account of the emotions must do. To illuminate such binocular emotional and moral vision with the speculative and unforeseeable spectrum of the auroras of language was Stevens’s aim, reiterated in all his remarks on poetry. “Every poem is a poem within a poem: the poem of the idea within the poem of the words.” He was certainly not unaware of the social conditions necessary to perceiving esthetic reality—indispensable not only for the production of art, but also for any response to it. Poverty, oppression, and emotional starvation could, he knew, kill art in any culture:
In the end, the esthetic is completely crushed and destroyed by the inability of the observer who has himself been crushed to have any feeling for it left.
That, in a life which often seemed joyless, Stevens resisted being crushed, and won back the esthetic moment (“those crystallizations of freshness”) time and time again, is the chief testimony of the thousand pages of living words we now have in one volume.
In a prefatory note to the Library of America edition, we are told that the poet James Merrill gave financial support for its publication, and that it will be kept in print by another gift, one in memory of Merrill. Two more links are thereby added—the anonymous giver and Merrill, Merrill and Stevens—to Milton’s transhistorical elegiac garland of poetic honoring:
So may some gentle Muse
With lucky words favor my destined urn,
And as he passes turn,
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.
If the Stevens volume is, for us, an urn and a shroud, those images of darkness, it is also, for any responsive reader, the brilliant sky where the auroras—“the color of ice and fire and solitude”—play perpetually from any turned page.