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.
“The purpose of the poem, or at any rate of the Stevensian poem, is to recover the memory of the mother’s face,” Harold Bloom argues, rightly and movingly. But, Bloom writes, “memory itself grows old.” To respond to all of these nested challenges—to represent the mother under the aspect of memory, and memory under the aspect of growing old—poetry has to compromise its customary bias for particulars. It is just as Stevens says in ” Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” : it must be abstract.
Stevens began as a poet of the over-particular. Harmonium proposes itself as a regimen for refreshing the senses, instruments long dulled by culture. And it outfits its new-world sensorium with the most extraordinary vocabulary, a language that earned Stevens “a bad reputation among those who dislike the finicky” and a good one, “unfortunately, among those who value the ornamental sounds of words but who see no purpose in developing sound from sense.” That was R.P. Blackmur’s premise in a now-famous defense of Harmonium. But it was too little, too late, and, since Stevens took thirteen years to publish his second book, his reputation as a writer of “bric-a-brac” (Robert Frost’s insult) coalesced. To the general reader, Stevens is still known for only a few poems, all of them from Harmonium : “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” among a handful of others.
It was Frank Kermode who first observed that what Stevens wanted was to “make a world.” In Harmonium, this meant inventing a vocabulary, but the result was that Stevens and his poems then had to make do with an invented vocabulary. This is an absurd predicament, and the absurdity of having gotten himself into it is one subject of the Harmonium poems. These poems make their way in the world guided only by their sense of the world. The weird words—“fubbed” and “funest,” “pipping” and “panicles” (my spellchecker is going berserk)—represent the severity of the crisis. Blackmur was right to say they weren’t merely “precious,” but neither are they “definitely meant” as he claimed. Whatever else “funest philosophers” may be—baleful, downcast, melancholy—they are first and foremost philosophers consigned to thinking of themselves in adjectives nobody understands.
What does it feel like to be—as with the woman Stevens describes in “The Idea of Order at Key West”—“the single artificer of the world/In which she sang”? Stevens had grown up in a place, Reading, Pennsylvania, at a time, the end of the nineteenth century, when and where people were mere characteristics of their worlds. In “Dutch Graves in Bucks County,” from Transport to Summer, he described his forebears lying “in the shrivellings of your time and place.” That poem, written during World War II, gives an especially brutal picture of what self-fashioning—the alternative to “shriveling”—feels like:
Freedom is like a man who kills himself
Each night, the incessant butcher, whose knife
Grows sharp in blood.
Stevens came to write primarily in tercets, little spheres, complete in themselves, that made moving forward in a poem a process of incessant starting over. His long poems (“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is a good example) are in fact exercises in starting over as many times as possible in a single unified composition. His model for this process of incessant self-fashioning was the Sun, who, like the butcher, is consigned to endless cycles of dying and being born, spilling his reds and purples every night over the western sky. The Sun is Stevens’s great self-sufficient celebrity, making his own world, shining his own light upon it, then seeing it by the light he shines.
From the outside this feels like a lonely operation, but Stevens is a poet of aloneness, almost never of loneliness. In “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” the Sun defends himself against an unnamed antagonist who has equated setting with diminishing:
Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself….
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
“I was the world in which I walked”: Stevens could be counted on to be circular whenever the occasion beckoned. He liked rhetoric, like everything else, to rotate on its axis.
The word “world” occurs 219 times in Stevens’s poems, as does the word “men,” following, among nouns, only “night,” “things,” “sun,” “mind,” and “man” in frequency. (“Moon” and “rock” are also common and important.) It is hard work coming to terms with Stevens’s later style, where complex thought meets this dwindled and wearying idiom. It is like doing calculus on an abacus. The quotidian was illuminated by the queer light of his early style, but it hadn’t yet saturated the cloth. By the time he wrote “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” his last long poem, he had devised a kind of anti-poetry that renounces, even while it renews, his early “Flickings from finikin to fine finikin.” He was at war with his medium, which, in imposing form on experience, falsifies it. At its best, this tension produces the extraordinary tug-of-war we associate with his finest passages, as he flies from clause to clause, evading “final form” but seeking “the edgings and inchings” of it, resisting statement while registering “the swarming activities of the formulae/Of statement.” This is the sublime final canto of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”:
The less legible meanings of sounds, the little reds
Not often realized, the lighter words
In the heavy drum of speech, the inner men
Behind the outer shields, the sheets of music
In the strokes of thunder, dead candles at the window
When day comes, fire-foams in the motions of the sea,
Flickings from finikin to fine finikin
And the general fidget from busts of Constantine
To photographs of the late president, Mr. Blank,
These are the edgings and inchings of final form,
The swarming activities of the formulae
Of statement, directly and indirectly getting at,
Like an evening evoking the spectrum of violet,
A philosopher practicing scales on his piano,
A woman writing a note and tearing it up.
It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dust, a force that traverses a shade.
Stevens had once, in “Sunday Morning,” observed those “sweet berries ripen[ing] in the wilderness.” It is hard for readers, just as it was for Stevens and for the same reasons, to allow “the little reds/Not often realized” to take their place: one can eat a bowl of berries, but not a bowl of reds. Stevens had seen too much decay to throw his lot in, this late in life, with matter. “It is not in the premise that reality/Is a solid.” Nor, in these late, invigorating poems, is poetry.
The reader who picks this book off the shelf where it sits alongside Shakespeare and Shelley and Stein—if such shelves still exist—and reads Stevens for the first time, or reads him at length for the first time, may not right away sense his ambition to write poems “to help people live their lives.” But this book is well poised to remind them that even the least reflective of us lives a life inside the mind. Having a mind and wondering what to do with it is not an intellectual predicament: it is a human one. No poet gives us more to think about or greater reward for thinking. But compassion for thinkers is at the base of his poetry.
Because of a few spasmodic boasts on the imagination’s behalf, usually swatted down in the next phase of his poetry, Stevens is sometimes rejected as an anti-realist, a solipsist, an escapist. But the imagination is, in Stevens, merely a neutral fact: everybody has one in his head. Most people are baffled their entire lives by the problem of what to think about, so they think about whatever the moment requires. But Stevens is the great poet of the continuity of thought: one of his definitions of the hero was “the man who has had the time to think enough.” Stevens’s abiding fear was that he might live his life with a rudderless imagination, swelling with whatever mood swept through it: a “turbulent Schlemihl” embodying “desire without an object of desire.”
He knew that, like Pygmalion, he would fall in love with whatever he imagined. It was important then to imagine correctly. Mistakes of the imagination are, after all, the worst kinds of mistakes. Stevens had made a bad one in his courtship of Elsie Moll, a girl from Reading who had little to offer him and plenty of reasons to resent being conscripted into their largely silent marriage. How baffling it must have been to him to have made these mental steps, as though walking in his sleep: he had failed at the most important act of imagination a person ever performs, imagining his own future. Early, in poems like “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” this could be cause for some levity. Late, it produced poems like “World Without Peculiarity” and its desolating verdict: “She that he loved turns cold at his light touch.” Dwelling in that poorly and partially imagined future, his poems took on the extraordinary interior spaciousness that his life, by an error of his own, lacked.
His is one of the most varied and surprising accounts we have of human inwardness, and yet he saw himself, saw his quietness, in others’ eyes. What he said of his own father, Garrett Stevens, his daughter Holly later said of him: “he lived alone.” His father, Stevens wrote, “wanted quiet and, in that quiet, to create a life of his own.” His many poems of beheld solitude suggest how deeply Stevens thought about the social limits of the imagination. To the outside world, a person imagining looks like any other person just sitting there. The spectacle can be fearsome: “we were afraid of him,” Stevens wrote of his father. Drawing on that memory, but also imagining his own silences, he wrote (in “The Auroras of Autumn”) these lines that suggest the pain of having, and of being, the brooding father:
The father sits
In space, wherever he sits, of bleak regard,
As one that is strong in the bushes of his eyes.
He says no to no and yes to yes. He says yes
To no; and in saying yes he says farewell.
Those volleyed “yesses” and “nos” are family life stripped to its bare bones. “The father,” presiding with “bleak regard” over his house, becomes a chieftain, “strong in the bushes of his eyes”; around him, the little tribe hangs upon his whim.
Stevens’s last achievement was to make the withdrawal of feeling from one’s life and work, the handing in, as it were, of one’s life and work, itself intensely moving. The poems in “The Rock” are utterly without romance: standing atop “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain” and “breath-[ing] its oxygen” (“its oxygen” should not be confused with oxygen; a person cannot live inside his representations of the world, no matter how capacious they are), he could see how a person writing a lifetime of poems writes himself out of his own life. And what he saw from that mountain was not “his unique and solitary home”—these poems have often been sentimentalized—but rather the history of his own hopes:
There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.
It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go in his own direction,
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,
For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,
Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.
A coda: “Not all objects are equal,” Stevens wrote in “Materia Poetica.” It was true for him: having the correct objects was enormously important to filling out his sense of the world. (Famously, he never traveled outside the United States.) At the time of this writing, you could purchase, from Elliot’s Books of Northford, Connecticut, for $2.2 million, many of the significant objects Stevens collected throughout his life, including his bed. Here is part of the ad:
The collection consists of twenty-seven works of art that Wallace Stevens purchased, starting in 1931, while living in Hartford, Connecticut, mostly through the Parisian bookdealers Anatole and Paule Vidal. Included are the still life by Tal-Coat that inspired “Angels Surrounded by Paysans” and Marchand’s “Les Oliviers,” alluded to in “Connoisseur of Chaos.” The collection also contains a Georges Braque color lithograph “Nature Morte III: Verre et Fruit,” pulled by Braque himself, an oil painting by Bombois, entitled “Le Loiret a Olivet,” a Kandinsky lithograph, a Renoir sketch, a pair of 19th century miniature jade carvings of Pekingese dogs, a Chinese woodcarved “Shouxing,” and a Korean scroll [depicting] “Flowers and Birds” and a “Portrait of Emperor Chenghua.” In addition there are two portraits of Stevens…. In addition to the original art belonging to Wallace Stevens, his very own over-sized walnut bed and matching armoire, his mahogany writing desk and chair, his ornate writing secretary, an exquisitely carved bedside stand, plus additional personal furnishings are included in this offering, including lamps with Asian motifs, Chinese tea tins and many other objects, including his pocket watch, pillbox and humidor for cigars.
This sad inventory of orphaned objects should send anybody who cares about Stevens to his letters, where so many of them make important appearances. The painting by Pierre Tal-Coat, the French abstractionist, pleased him “curiously and constantly” in his last years, as the letters make clear. I wish some rich person would buy these things that Stevens consecrated with his attention, run them through thumb and forefinger, then donate them to a college or a museum. I would like to see them.
November 19, 2009