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The Invented World of Wallace Stevens

Selected Poems

by Wallace Stevens, edited by John N. Serio
Knopf, 327 pp., $30.00
Wallace Stevens, early 1950s


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 both sides of the verb “wound,” found in Stevens a colleague neither in sin nor in suffering. Stevens’s “brilliant” poems were nevertheless “a metaphysics…hefted up until we could not breathe/the physics.”

Plenty of people like metaphysics better than physics. It has been easy, therefore, for critics to accommodate Stevens to their own theoretical interests, drawing on aesthetics, linguistics, anthropology, epistemology, and so on. All poets describe and theorize, but Stevens describes description and theorizes theory. The problem in Stevens is not his abstractions but rather his abstracted abstractions, developed and defended in passages that nevertheless demon- strate their difficulties:

Description is revelation. It is not
The thing described, nor false facsimile.

It is an artificial thing that exists,
In its own seeming, plainly visible,

Yet not too closely the double of our lives,
Intenser than any actual life could be….
(“Description Without Place”)

It has been easy for Stevens’s detractors to point to such theory-ready passages as confirmation that his poems were theory to begin with. And yet what other poet of his era would have used the phrase “actual life,” albeit momentarily to downgrade it? This shuttling between abstraction and “the thing described,” contemplating the one from the vantage point of the other, then changing sides, is Stevens’s unique activity.

At the same time, one reason Stevens exists is to make these distinctions impossible to draw. He was indeed a man of “chilling reticence,” as Helen Vendler put it, and yet both the reticence and the wild imagination that prospered in its atmosphere registered as emotional facts. He knew his “mind and nerves” outfitted him poorly for the collaborative language-games of social life. In his chosen social worlds (there were, in his life, very few alternatives) there was little place for the imagination, and therefore small possibility of its miscarriage. His poems were unread at the office and unread at home, where he and his wife were about as intimate as two adjacent gravestones. And since these social worlds ruled out poetry, his poetry ruled out much of what we think of when we think of society. For him, life was not, he said, “an affair of people” but “an affair of places.” (He then added, “And that is the trouble.”) His poems start with the thinking and stay there. Interiority for him was not canceled sociability: it didn’t require trekking out to a bower or a tower to take place.

And yet what he admired in philosophy, its capacity to unleash the philosopher’s “natural amiability,” we find too in his poetry. He may be the least literary poet ever to write, since he viewed poetry not as an endeavor but as an aptitude. He treats the construction of his poems with a care that exceeds aesthetics. In fact he has no interest, or only a superficial interest, in aesthetics. His regard for poems is an ethical, not an aesthetic, value. He found new grounds on which to reestablish an old tone, one of the oldest and most forceful tones in poetry: the tone of moral instruction. Seeing was to Stevens what beekeeping was to Virgil: a technical procedure leading to a moral result:

You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it.

These are not easy commands to know how to follow. But to be in their presence is to feel somehow exempted or furloughed from the modern world. This is a passing sensation in Stevens, but it recurs; here, despite the fact that nobody believes anything anymore, a poet has found new grounds for prescribing conduct.

Accuracy of observation is the equivalent of accuracy of thinking,” Stevens wrote. But seeing accurately nearly mandates that what’s seen has to be perceived as being so detailed, filigreed, and fine-grained as to require close scrutiny. The English language has adjectives to do that work, and Stevens was a master of them. But what if the object of our observation isn’t Marianne Moore’s “paper nautilus” or a Brueghel painting, but rather the sun and the moon? Stevens considered it to be absolutely necessary to have these building-block perceptions without leaning on prior modes of description. This was not an arid philosophical problem but a human one—which is why, when he contemplates it, he seems most fully immersed in real life.

Since as readers we encounter literary concepts in reverse chronological order, terms like “real life” tend to coalesce into their latest manifestations in the work of the most recent writers. The poets who came after Stevens—Berryman, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and others—claimed a special stake in “real life.” But their vision of it, however brilliant, is not Stevens’s: Stevens never wants “to say what happened,” as Lowell sometimes did. These later poets were by and large flummoxed about what to with Stevens’s sense of the real as distinct from the factual.

Randall Jarrell, who had loved Harmonium, was particularly nasty about Stevens’s later work. Since Stevens refused “contact with lives,” he suggested, we “poor, dishonest people” became, to him, “no more than data to be manipulated”: “He often treats things or lives so that they seem no more than generalizations of an unprecedentedly low order.” How could Jarrell, the subtlest critic of his age, have made so catastrophic a mistake? Stevens does no such thing as treat “things or lives” as “generalizations.” Rather, he laments the fact that “things and lives” settle in so few, and such brittle, forms—forms that will not withstand the buffetings of time and change. I know of no passage in modern poetry more heartbreaking than the canto in “The Auroras of Autumn” about Stevens’s mother:

Farewell to an idea… The mother’s face,
The purpose of the poem, fills the room.
They are together, here, and it is warm,

With none of the prescience of oncoming dreams.
It is evening. The house is evening, half dissolved.
Only the half that they can never possess remains,

Still-starred. It is the mother they possess,
Who gives transparence to their present peace.
She makes that gentler that can gentle be.

And yet she too is dissolved, she is destroyed.
She gives transparence. But she has grown old.
The necklace is a carving not a kiss.

The soft hands are a motion not a touch.
The house will crumble and the books will burn.
They are at ease in a shelter of the mind

And the house is of the mind and they and time,
Together, all together. Boreal night
Will look like frost as it approaches them

And to the mother as she falls asleep
And as they say good-night, good-night. Upstairs
The windows will be lighted, not the rooms.

A wind will spread its windy grandeurs round
And knock like a rifle-butt against the door.
The wind will command them with invincible sound.

What Jarrell mistook for general-ization—“the mother” instead of “my mother,” “the house,” and so on—is Stevens’s way of representing one fact, his mother’s presence (“the purpose of the poem”) with respect to a second fact, elapsed time. Stevens was sixty-eight: these memories are at the very bottom of a pile of time. Another poet might assign presence to frame one and absence to frame two, when in fact “the mother” is presence entangled with absence, inextricably so.

Stevens wants to represent those haunting memories of his mother (memories he first recalled in a letter soon after her death) but he must also represent the encroachment of time, first upon the mother herself (“dissolved” along with all the contents of her house by night, then “destroyed” by age), then upon his memory of her. To say “my mother” would be to expose her to the ravages of time in frame one (a frame that compiles multiple views of her across the arc of her life) but also to protect her image, and thereby to protect Stevens himself, from those same forces in the subsequent frame.

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