Wallace Stevens: The Real and the Made-Up

The poetic imagination projects a world, says the poet Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) in a letter from 1940, but it is difficult to make that world believable to everyone:

It is impossible to project a world that will not appear to some one to be a deformation. This is especially true when the projection is that of the volcano Apostrophe, the sea Behold: poetry.

Adopting a slightly sardonic tone, Stevens translates his metaphors personally:

A man who spouts apostrophes is a volcano and in particular the volcano Apostrophe. A man full of behold this and behold that is the sea Behold.

Wallace Stevens with his daughter Holly in front of their apartment in Hartford, Connecticut, 1929
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Wallace Stevens with his daughter Holly in front of their apartment in Hartford, Connecticut, 1929

A volcano, unpredictably exploding with smoke and fire, manifests the dormant underlying violence of the world and of its poet, and its stream of lava parallels the passionate language flowing in the wake of that violence.1 Apostrophe is the figure of speech that addresses an absent person or an abstract idea: “O thou.” A sea (here an adjective modifying the noun “Behold”) is illimitable. The sea “Behold” spreads out its powers horizontally to the panorama of sense-spectacle. A poet who defines himself as a volcano and a sea has two functions: as a volcano, he addresses the upper air of the invisible; as a sea, he displays the depth and volume of things worth beholding.

How is one to write a biography of a person composed of vertical rhetoric (Apostrophe) and horizontal sense-perception (Behold)? In his new biography of Stevens, Paul Mariani, a professor at Boston College, experiments in recording the psychic substrate of a life in which remarkably little—in the way of significant external events—“happened,” but out of which there emerged phenomenally idiosyncratic and moving poems of order and chaos, humor and perplexity, desolation and rapture, the ornamental and the unadorned.

As earlier biographers have already done, Mariani narrates the external episodes of the poet’s existence: his birth in Reading, Pennsylvania; his Presbyterian upbringing with a lawyer-businessman father and a mother who played the piano, sang hymns, and read the Bible nightly to her children; his three years at Harvard studying languages and writing poems; then—after a period of penury in journalism—the New York Law School, followed by some flailings-about for employment, and some enjoyable years in New York among literati and artists. At last there was a stable job with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Insurance Company and, after a long courtship, marriage at twenty-nine to Elsie Moll, a beautiful Reading girl who had dropped out of school in the ninth grade. (Stevens’s parents did not attend the wedding, and Stevens remained permanently estranged from his disapproving father, whose house he never again entered during his father’s…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.