by Wallace Stevens, edited by John N. Serio
Knopf, 327 pp., $30.00
This is the first selection to be made of Wallace Stevens’s poems in nearly two decades. Stevens had contemplated making a selection of his own, in 1954, to mark his seventy-fifth birthday. Instead he allowed Knopf to publish his collected poems, appending a section of new poems, “The Rock,” partly written with the collection in mind. The result was one of the most beautifully shaped and satisfying books of poetry ever printed. It was, in its way, a selection, since Stevens chose to omit “Owl’s Clover,” the long poem of the 1930s he came to find “rather boring,” as well as several magnificent short lyrics, some finished too late to be included.
“One poem proves another and the whole,” Stevens once wrote; accordingly, he had wanted to title his first book The Grand Poem: Preliminary Minutiae. Someone, probably Alfred Knopf, brought him to his senses, and the title Harmonium entered literature. When it came time to publish the collected poems, Stevens made a serious push to call it The Whole of Harmonium, echoing the biblical phrase “the whole of creation.” In the end he acquiesced, again wisely, to what he called the “machine-made title” suggested by Mr. Knopf, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.
The Collected Poems is still in print, as is its companion volume, Opus Posthumous. Stevens’s entire body of poems, along with much of his prose, is readily and cheaply available in the Library of America, edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. And yet this new book makes a real contribution. It is wonderful to see the poems printed one to a page, as they have not been since their original book publications. One’s sense of their variety is refreshed. And it is revelatory to come to the poems after reading John N. Serio’s excellent introduction. Serio has an argument: “no other poet [besides Stevens] has written so elegantly and so persuasively about the beauty and significance of poetry in everyday life.”
The phrase that leaps out is “everyday life,” since Stevens has seemed to many readers not to have lived one. His poems are utterly without the props and sets we associate with the quotidian. No poem in Stevens features, say, a speaker washing dishes and staring at Lake Willoughby. The problem is not helped by Stevens’s working his entire life as a surety claims expert for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, a fact that seemed to bisect his life into two distinct regions. Poetry prospered in one by never visiting the other (surety claims prospered on their side of the line, too: long before anyone thought of Stevens as the greatest poet of his age, he was famous in the industry as the greatest surety claims man).
“What was it missing, then, at the man’s heart/so that he does not wound?” John Berryman wondered in his sublimely unjust elegy for Stevens. Berryman, who had spent lots of time on …