Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose
by Frank Kermode elected and annotated by, by Joan Richardson
Library of America, 1032 pp., $35.00
The principal works of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) have been available for some years, but in maddeningly inadequate form. The Collected Poems, which appeared the year before Stevens’s death, had been preceded in 1951 by a collection of his essays, The Necessary Angel. The Collected Poems did not include Stevens’s juvenilia, his plays, and poems completed too late for inclusion (among them some of his very best). In 1957 Samuel French Morse gathered together poetry and prose not previously collected for a volume called Opus Posthumous, and in 1966 Stevens’s daughter Holly, who devoted much of her adult life to editing her father’s work, published the Letters (a selection, well-chosen) and a book of excerpts from her father’s early journals and letters entitled Souvenirs and Prophecies.
Shortly afterward, in 1971, Holly Stevens published an extensive selection of poems, entitled The Palm at the End of the Mind, but in choosing to print the poems in chronological order she sacrificed the individual structures Stevens had carefully planned for his single volumes, from Harmonium (1923) on. Opus Posthumous was enlarged, re-edited, and corrected by Milton Bates in 1989; he also published material from Stevens’s commonplace book in Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujets (1989).
In the past, anyone trying to read Stevens entire had to resort to all the books I have mentioned, and to track down, in various periodicals, the other bits and pieces of uncollected prose and letters that continued to appear. Now at last—in a handsome thousand pages—Frank Kermode, the first critic to write knowledgeably on Stevens in England, and Joan Richardson, the author of a biography of Stevens, have given us, in the durable and elegant Library of America format, a Stevens for the foreseeable future. The volume does not include the collected Letters, still in print (reissued this year by the University of California Press), but it contains all the poetry and prose and plays (together with some uncollected letters, and a selection from the notebook material). The volumes of poetry published during Stevens’s lifetime are kept intact. These are followed by a group of lyrics headed “Late Poems (1950-55).” There are annotations, mostly brief, but they include the whole first draft of Stevens’s early autobiographical poem “The Comedian as the Letter C.”
The only dubious aspect of the Library of America’s Stevens is the grouping of all other poems, early and late, good and bad, under the heading “Uncollected Poems.” This group should in my view have been broken down into “Juvenilia,” “Poems Published in Book Form But Not Included in the Collected Poems,” and “Poems Never Published in Book Form.” There is something inherently absurd in assembling, under the catchall rubric of “Uncollected Poems,” callow undergraduate exercises, excellent and mature short lyrics (such as “Red Loves Kit” or “As You Leave the Room”), and, most damagingly of all, the full version of the powerful twenty-five-page sequence Owl’s Clover (1936), which was, after all, published as a …