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.
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 lifetime.)
The marriage was followed by years of taxing travel and work as a surety lawyer, brightened by the publication of the poet’s first book, Harmonium (1923), and by his late fatherhood (1924) of a daughter, Holly, but at the same time darkened by Stevens’s increasingly unhappy marriage, as Elsie became more and more reclusive and suspicious. Isolated from his Harvard and New York friends by his wife’s dislike of them, and isolated from his parents by their repudiation of Elsie, Stevens—while rising to the executive level at the Hartford—retired into an intense inner life, writing and publishing volumes of poetry in which there appeared feelings ranging from volcanic eruptions to oceanic meditations, from fierce self-castigation to bleak recognitions of public and private fate, from notable evocations of the seasons to a formidable poetry of death. Knopf brought out the Collected Poems ten months before Stevens’s death from cancer at seventy-five; his daughter subsequently edited his Letters (1966) and published Souvenirs and Prophecies (1977), an account of his youth that drew generously on his early letters and journals.
Critical commentary on Stevens’s poems began immediately with the publication of the stunningly fresh Harmonium, and grew exponentially after his death. Biographies were slower to arrive. The complete life was first investigated in Joan Richardson’s detailed two-volume biography (1986, 1988), which retrieved and ordered the available facts of the poet’s history—ancestry, family, education, readings, colleagues, intellectual interests, publications, and social relations—while adding responsible paraphrases of some of the poems. All subsequent biographies necessarily depart from her work. Peter Brazeau assembled, almost thirty years after Stevens’s death, a posthumous “oral biography” (1985) consisting of recollections and anecdotes from the poet’s acquaintances. (Late gossip has no controls for accuracy, and many of the people interviewed by Brazeau did not know Stevens at all well.) Historical and social information about Stevens’s work were brought together in two helpful volumes by Alan Filreis in 1991 and 1994.
What can another biography add to these? Paul Mariani hopes to contribute a fuller representation of Stevens’s inner life. If the attempt fails, it is because the biography does not, or cannot, adequately convey the complicated feelings evident in the diction of Stevens’s poetry. Mariani’s stream-of-consciousness recital, as he ventriloquizes Stevens’s presumed thoughts while composing, wants readers to live within the poem as it comes to birth. That desire, however bravely conceived, produces strange pages that slip in and out of a cascade of quoted phrases evoking neither real Stevens nor real Mariani, but rather a hybrid “voice” mixing biographical “facts” and deduced “introspection” (with occasional interpolated critical observations).
I offer, as an entirely representative example of Mariani’s method of “channeling” Stevens at work, his rendering of a part of the bitter 1924 sequence, “Red Loves Kit,” in which the forty-five-year-old poet declares that even sexual ecstasy has not remedied the disharmony between himself and his wife, who accuses him—because of his devotion to the Muse—of psychic betrayal. In the poem, the poet, reflecting on their marital discord, thinks to himself (addressing himself as “you”):
You brought the incredible calm in ecstasy,
Which, like a virgin visionary spent
In this spent world, she must possess….
That you are innocent
And love her still, still leaves you in the wrong.
Where is that calm and where that ecstasy?
Her words accuse you of adulteries
That sack the sun, though metaphysical.
Mariani’s commentary, quoted below, slips from critical language (“there’s a pun here”) to an immersion in Stevens’s supposed reactions as he writes the poem. But as he transposes Stevens’s presumed thoughts while composing, Mariani interpolates, here and elsewhere, external biographical “facts” nowhere mentioned in the poem. These include real facts (Elsie’s having served as the model for the Liberty dime); “facts” for which there is no basis (Stevens’s feelings on having a baby in the house); and anachronistic facts (here, reference to a poem—“Large Red Man Reading”—written twenty-four years after “Red Loves Kit”).
Since “Red Loves Kit” was published in the very month Stevens’s child was born (and therefore must have been written and submitted for publication sometime before the birth), the poet could not have been reflecting, as he composed the poem, on life in the house after the baby was born. Nor is it anywhere recorded that Stevens—who had long resisted Elsie’s wish to have a child—“agreed” to the late pregnancy that had occurred. And why bring up, gratuitously, the notion of the poet’s having had “a fling with a woman down in Florida”—a supposition for which, as Mariani concedes, there is no evidence at all?
Here is Mariani, beginning with Stevens’s use of the word “spent” in the lines of “Red Loves Kit” quoted above:
Spent: there’s a pun here too, as Stevens repeats the word three times in as many lines. Spent, as in sexually spent, as well as spending himself in agreeing at last to have a child…. And spent in the sense of money, and Elsie’s face on the Mercury dime and half dollar that seems to have evoked that “virgin visionary spent/In this spent world.” Having been relegated to the attic now by Elsie with the arrival of the baby, has it all been a waste, then? Has it been a terrible miscalculation on his part of the little that remains after one has spent oneself and been rejected? There is no evidence that Stevens ever had a fling with a woman down in Florida,…and in any event he denies that possibility in his poem. But to be accused of adulteries, even though they may be metaphysical only, as in giving oneself over to one’s poems, or if not, spending all of one’s time in the attic, where he reads book after book and listens to music on the radio, or perhaps escaping with the Atlanta crowd down to the Keys. What does it matter, now that the light has gone out of his marriage and the Large Red Man is consigned to the attic?
“Has it all been a waste, then? Has it been a terrible miscalculation?” This maudlin tone in no way resembles Stevens’s own, which, even in grief, was not self-pitying but philosophical and ironic.
Mariani’s decision to slide from poetry (with its aesthetically governed language, intrinsic rhythms, and compact symbolic structure) into paraphrased biography (with workaday prose, a popular frame of reference, and a desire for “relevance”) is bound to disappoint, especially when the biographer approaches the poet’s long multipart sequences. Stevens’s ambitious 1936 sequence “Owl’s Clover,” for instance, departing from Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, pursues the difficult question of the cultural specificity of artworks: in a global culture, could a Western image of sublimity—a marble sculpture of spirited horses—retain its aesthetic power if it were transferred from Rome to Africa? The sequence (disliked and subsequently suppressed by Stevens himself as both too topical and too labored) does not wholly escape stereotypes, but Stevens’s poetry of Africa is not illuminated by Mariani’s reductive language: “Here, then, was Stevens’s imagination, fed on Hollywood images of King Kong mixed with stereotypes of Uncle Remus.” There are no gorillas terrifying white girls in Stevens’s Africa, and no tar babies either.
In fact, parodying Mussolini’s attempt to colonize Ethiopia, Stevens’s sequence satirizes the colonizer’s violent imposition of one culture on another, white “Christian” Europe on remote “black” Africa. In imagining a philosophical antithesis to the classical and Christian sublime, Stevens creates and enthrones a god for Africa—one named not for any putative African tribal deity, but for inexorable Necessity, the “Ananke” of Greek tragedy. In the modern world, as Jesus vanishes along with Jehovah and the Greek gods, “Fateful Ananke is the final god,” and Stevens sings the doxology of Necessity:
Be glory to this unmerciful pontifex,
Lord without any deviation, lord
And origin and resplendent end of law,
Sultan of African sultans, starless crown.
That is the voice of the middle-aged poet, still hankering after a theological replacement for Christianity.
However, as Stevens grew older, he was interested less in exotica than in America. Confronting, in late life, contemporary relations between white and black, he writes “The Sick Man,” lamenting his own aesthetic failure to blend together the voices of his own North and the instruments of the segregated South. The sick man of the title, in the winter of his life, is listening to two collective musics—in the South, drifting instrumental sounds of harmonicas and guitars, in the North, drifting choral songs without words. Longing to harmonize them, the bedridden sick man knows he will die without succeeding:
Bands of black men seem to be drifting in the air,
In the South, bands of thousands of black men,
Playing mouth-organs in the night or, now, guitars.
Here in the North, late, late, there are voices of men,
Voices in chorus, singing without words, remote and deep,
Drifting choirs, long movements and turnings of sounds.
And in a bed in one room, alone, a listener
Waits for the unison of the music of the drifting bands
And the dissolving chorals, waits for it and imagines
The words of winter in which these two will come together,
In the ceiling of the distant room, in which he lies,
Surely a biographer willing to link Stevens’s poetry with King Kong ought to mention, in justice, “The Sick Man,” but Mariani does not.
Mariani’s biography may persuade some general readers that Stevens’s writings—poems, essays, and letters—are worth attending to as meditations on self, marriage, war, politics, art, religion, poverty, heroism, and much else. But a biographer’s assertions should not, at the least, be fallacious. The comic poem “Bantams in Pine-Woods” is (in Eleanor Cook’s summary a decade ago), “a spirited hyperbolic challenge from one bantam to the reigning chief cock.”2 As the little bantam rooster, standing among Appalachian pines, commands the big rooster to halt, Stevens sets the David of lyric against the Goliath of epic. Challenging his arrogant antagonist, the overbearing “ten-foot poet,” the bantam staunchly defines himself:
Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.
Inexplicably, Mariani misunderstands this famous poem, saying that it is spoken by a pine tree:
[“Bantams in Pine-Woods”] begins with its uproarious samba-like jigging cadences, the speaker in this case being a pine tree that puts the strutting poet/rooster firmly in his place…. And now a representative of that world, a pine tree, rebukes him and his blazing tale.
In another such instance of misinterpretation, the biographer’s carelessness is a matter of grammar. The grim poem “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” begins with a series of imperatives addressed by the poet-speaker to his alter ego, the Muse, his imagination as stage director. In the first of his two stanzas, the poet directs his invisible addressee to summon up the preparations for a reception after the funeral of a poor woman, including the making of ice cream: “Call the roller of big cigars,/…and bid him whip/In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” The poet’s imperatives continue into the second stanza, where the Muse is urged, in the presence of the exposed corpse of the dead woman, to prepare the corpse for burial: “Take from the dresser of deal,/…that sheet/…/And spread it so as to cover her face.”
Mariani seems not to perceive the addressee of Stevens’s imperatives. He thinks the words are addressed to the actors in the drama rather than to the dramaturge-Muse:
“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” begins with a series of commands: first to “the roller of big cigars/The muscular one,” bidding him “whip”…. Why command the boys to “bring flowers in last month’s newspapers”…?
But the commands are directed neither to the cigar-roller nor to the boys but to the poet’s own imagination. The poem’s two matching stanzas forcibly juxtapose two contrasting rooms, the kitchen and the bedroom; the poet acknowledges that if he doesn’t choose the corpse-room in the back he has to choose—however debased its pleasures may seem—the repellent life-room in the front. The only Emperor is the emperor of concupiscence: the indifferent presider over the funereal ice-cream.
At times—perhaps in a concession to his presumed audience—Mariani seems unable to enjoy Stevens’s constantly inventive poetry. Speaking of the poet’s exuberant autobiographical sequence “The Comedian as the Letter C,” the biographer says primly:
What makes the poem even more difficult to comprehend is the way Stevens hurls the Oxford English Dictionary even more forcefully than usual right at our heads, not unlike the brick that Ignatz loved to hurl at the head of Krazy Kat, who took that bizarre gesture as a veritable sign that Ignatz cared about her (or him).
“Poetry,” said Stevens, “is the gaiety of language.” If the gaiety of “The Comedian” sometimes affects Mariani like a hurled dictionary, its playful sound effects seem to him (in one of his more jarring similes) like a boom box:
What often comes across is the sense of a boom box blasting in a monk’s cell as the monk studies a complex passage of some sacred text, or the effect that boom box would have on a scholar trying to follow the twists and turns of a complex philosophical script amid uproarious, frantic laughter.
Such insistent similes detract from both biographical and critical credibility.
In passages rendering the inferred thoughts of the poet, Mariani often introduces into his own sentences (without quotation marks) lines from poems far afield. He will go as far as to alter, anachronistically, what Stevens wrote in a youthful letter to Elsie on March 10, 1907. The letter says:
I’ve been shovelling snow and it made my arms so tired that now my hand shakes as I write. It has been snowing all day—confound it!
In Mariani’s hands, this boyish annoyance becomes something entirely different:
Sunday, March 10, 1907: It was snowing and it was going to snow. He’d been shoveling wet snow from in front of his apartment.
It is true that Stevens wrote—ten years later, at the close of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”—“It was snowing/And it was going to snow.” Mariani, using no quotation marks—and inserting the famous line a decade early into Stevens’s thoughts on snow-shoveling—disfigures a somber prophetic line in a future poem, deflating it into banality. Elsewhere, lines baffling because removed from their original poetic context emerge irrationally in the commentary. The ending of “A Postcard from the Volcano”—“Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun”—presents itself gratuitously as Stevens (channeled by Mariani) muses on the poet’s obligation to shape reality to thought:
[He must do this] even as he realizes the impossibility of the task, even as something of the elusive real is smeared like the sun across the poet’s words. But is even this “reality” any more solid, finally, than a flapping of the gums…?
More erratically, Mariani represents as Stevens’s own thoughts the thoughts of another poet entirely: “Only the imagination is real, Stevens insists, so that, while everything will be reduced to whatever ash the world’s wildfire leaves behind,…what must remain is…” etc. Stevens is here imagined as recalling Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “World’s wildfire, leave but ash,” even though Stevens himself had not read Hopkins.3
Mariani does not always think his subject agreeable; admiring him as a poet, he finds him snobbish as a young man, racist and anti-Semitic as an adult, domineering as a father, intemperate in drink, and uncommunicative with most of his colleagues. But he does not mention with any countervailing force Stevens’s constant dry humor; nor his chivalry in never explaining or apologizing for his wife’s behavior; nor his fortitude in the midlife exhaustion of constant train travel; nor his unflagging support of the unemployed young mother Holly (who saved the envelopes in which her father mailed her a monthly check, sometimes with an accompanying note; these are among the Stevens holdings at the Huntington Library).
Mariani is most interested, throughout the biography, by Stevens’s meditations on religion, going so far as to assert: “He’d been leaning toward a resolution of the aesthetic and the religious for decades now.” He repeats without caveat the story (from Brazeau’s “oral biography” interview with a Father Hanley) that Stevens on his deathbed was converted to Roman Catholicism, was baptized, and was given Communion. This dubious anecdote—recited twenty-one years after Stevens’s death by the chaplain of the hospital where he died—was probably an unconsciously enhanced elaboration by an old priest of the importance of his visits to the poet’s bedside.
In a footnote to the interview, Brazeau adds that Holly Stevens “vigorously denies that her father was converted to Catholicism during his last illness. While at St. Francis Hospital, she recalls, Stevens complained of visits by clergy but he said he was too weak to protest.” Some years ago, Holly told me that she visited her father each day of the ten days of his final stay at the hospital, and that he spoke of nothing religious, nor did she see any religious tokens at his bedside; she had, however, at his request, brought him his small jade Buddha from the house. He turned it over and over in his hands, she said, during his last week.
Although canon law strictly requires, without exception, that all Catholic priests must record every baptism by name, date, and sponsors in the register of the nearest parish church, no such record was ever made of the supposed baptism of Stevens. Father Hanley’s rambling reminiscence—since it lacks any objective documentation in the form of parish registration—should not be presented as fact in any biography. Mariani’s own rendition of this “conversion” is that “what Stevens assented to is probably what Santayana had wanted, the beauty of the idea of an idealized Catholic Church, and—being a surety lawyer—he opted to sign on the dotted line at the end.” Although Mariani adds that Holly Stevens “seemed to brush off the priest as a minor nuisance,” he does not credit her dismissal of the chaplain’s claim, but continues to purvey as fact the unsupported “conversion.”
Mariani’s biography has already been warmly welcomed by some reviewers. His experiments in rendering Stevens’s thoughts while composing, unconvincing to me, must have seemed persuasive to them; his errant readings have apparently not disturbed them. As things now stand, readers will find Joan Richardson’s original biography still the one to consult.
Stevens may be remembering that Emily Dickinson referred to herself as “Vesuvius at Home,” and represented the Volcano as sinisterly pleased with its “projects pink.” ↩
Eleanor Cook, A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens (Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 66. She calls attention to the poem’s echo here of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which Rosaline reproves the lovers’ “inadequate wit: ‘gross, gross; fat, fat’ (V. ii. 269).” ↩
Mariani offers no published or unpublished source for his assertion that Stevens had “read and admired Hopkins years earlier [than 1952].” It is true that the aged Stevens rejected “Amber Umber” as a title because the words “sounded like Hopkins. But, as I have not read Hopkins, that was not a difficulty.” He would have heard of Hopkins’s sound effects even without having read him. ↩