Commentary Magazine


Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson

Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose
edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson
Library of America. 1032 pp. $35.00

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was a poet down to his fingertips. But his daily existence was of the purest prose: he settled in Hartford, Connecticut, and he worked as a lawyer in the insurance business. Few poets have dared to live a life so unabashedly humdrum. The solidest of citizens, Stevens was a firm believer in capitalism; a faithful, if not a happy, husband; a physically substantial man, on the meaty side; a good burgher who dutifully brought home the bacon and contentedly ate his share of it.

As a businessman, Stevens was a success, heading the department of fidelity and surety claims at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company for nearly 40 years and working almost up until his death. The demands of job and family took their toll. After the publication of his first book of poems in 1923, and the birth of his daughter a year later, he wrote hardly at all for ten years. When Marianne Moore asked him to contribute to the august literary magazine the Dial in 1927, he replied, “The extreme irregularity of my life makes poetry out of the question, for the present, except for momentary violences.”

It was more likely the extreme regularity of his life that left no room for poetry. But poetry elbowed its way back in. He would compose rough drafts on his way to the office, and refine them when he returned home in the evening. And once he got going again, no surety claims could stop the flow. Mostly, he wrote of matters very far removed from an insurance office.

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Decked with literary accolades during his lifetime, Stevens now has a place of deserved honor in the Library of America. This volume includes about 600 pages of poems; three one-act plays; essays on literature, philosophy, painting, cattle ranching, and the insurance game; and selections from his notebooks, journals, and letters. Admirably edited by Frank Kermode, professor of English at Cambridge, and Joan Richardson, Stevens’s biographer and professor of English at the City University of New York, this is an indispensable book for the reader of modern American verse.

Stevens wrote hundreds of brief lyrics and about a dozen longer poems. The main weight of his reputation rests on a handful of the shorter poems (“The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Anecdote of the Jar,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The American Sublime,” “Evening Without Angels,” and “Of Mere Being”) and two or three of the longer ones (“Sunday Morning,” “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” and perhaps “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”). His style ranges from the colloquial and terse to the rarefied and elaborate; sometimes he commingles the two.

Stevens did for American poetic language what Saul Bellow was to do for prose, extending its boundaries, taking in the magniloquent, the arcane, the plainspoken, the gaudy, the low-rent. He made up words that ring with a zany gaiety: gurrituck, ric-a-nic, skreak and skritter, whirroos, boo-ha. He employed words, common enough in themselves, that by studied repetition came to constitute a quasi-technical lexicon: reality, truth, intelligence, imagination, meaning, mind, knowledge. He is known for being lavishly brainy, even aridly intellectual, and with dismaying frequency his sinuous grace can indeed become a gnarled sententiousness. Yet Stevens is also capable of a remarkable sensuous precision and a ravishing melodic line, as in “Owl’s Clover”: “See how/On a day still full of summer, when the leaves/Appear to sleep within a sleeping air,/They suddenly fall and the leafless sound of the wind/Is no longer a sound of summer.”

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Among the themes that preoccupied Stevens for a lifetime are these: that the attempt to know the world by mind alone is futile; that the pure joy of being makes “knowing” paltry by comparison; that the poet must cure the madness of unrestrained logic with the restorative of imagination; that modernity consigns most men to a spiritually flattened existence, from which anyone who truly wants to live must break free; that happiness is to be had on strictly human terms, in ordinary life exalted; that Christianity is defunct; and that we must admit the only life we will ever have is this earthly one.

Stevens, in short, has a project to advance; his poems are not so much meditations on thinking, feeling, and being as they are exhortations to think, feel, and be in the ways that he prescribes. His aim is to free us from “philosophic truth” on the one hand and from Christianity (which used to be the official view of truth until modern philosophy got its teeth into it) on the other. Having achieved this liberation from the two most influential varieties of the unreal, we can then get at reality by way of poetry.

In The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (1951), Stevens spells out the project in some detail. The poet’s undertaking is to do what the philosopher, who holds reason paramount, cannot: to “accomplish a poetry that satisfies both the reason and the imagination.” Poetry, moreover, unlike philosophy, is on the side of life: “if the end of the philosopher is despair, the end of the poet is fulfillment, since the poet finds a sanction for life in poetry that satisfies the imagination.” As for religion, “in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent . . . poetry and painting, and the arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost.” Of course, some losses are made good more easily than Others; in Stevens’s view, this particular loss was not a great one.

However we judge Stevens’s project, there is a very great deal to admire in his poetry. He is like the village atheist who happens to be a gorgeous woman; she may not convince you, but she makes you wish she could. Such testaments of unbelief as “Sunday Morning,” “How To Live. What To Do,” and “Evening Without Angels” are undeniably seductive. For sheer rhetorical sumptuousness, the best of the emancipated Stevens, as in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” rivals the best of the believing T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets:

What am I to believe? If the
  angel in his cloud,
Serenely gazing at the violent
  abyss,
Plucks on his strings to pluck
  abysmal glory,

Leaps downward through
  evening’s revelations, and
On his spredden wings, needs
  nothing but deep space,
Forgets the gold centre, the
  golden destiny,

Grows warm in the motionless
  motion of his flight,
Am I that imagine this angel
  less-satisfied?
Are the wings his, the lapis-
  haunted air?

Is it he or I that experience
  this?
Is it I then that keep saying
  there is an hour
Filled with expressible bliss, in
  which I have

No need, am happy, forget
  need’s golden hand,
Am satisfied without solacing
  majesty,
And if there is an hour there is
  a day,

There is a month, a year, there
  is a time
In which majesty is a mirror of
  the self:
I have not but I am and as I am,
  I am.

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It is possible that some men are born to be surety-claims wizards; Stevens became one incidentally. Poetry is what he was made for, and he made the grandest claims for it. Neither the life of philosophy nor the life of faith was for him. Poetry was what he had, and, even if one might prefer he did something else with it, he does what he does about as well as it can be done.

T.S. Eliot, whom Stevens found a bore, observed that to believe poetry will save you when religion is gone is like believing the wallpaper will save you when the walls have fallen down. Wallace Stevens, who stands with Eliot and Robert Frost in the front rank of 20th-century American poets, hung paper with the best of them.

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