The following essay appeared in the June, 2003 issue
of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National
Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil
Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
Winner of the 1955 National Book Award for Poetry
"Now, at seventy-five, as I look
back on the little that I have done and as I turn the
pages of my own poems gathered together in a single
volume, I have no choice except to paraphrase the old
verse that says that it is not what I am, but what I
aspired to be that comforts me. It is not what I have
written but what I should have written that constitutes
my true poems."
And now, coming up on half a century since Wallace
Stevens made this characteristic pronouncement in accepting
the National Book Award, we beg to differ. How much
more lyrical, how much more oracular, how much more
evocative could his poems possibly have become -- beyond
the heights they had already achieved?
Indeed, it is testimony to the contagion of his rhetoric
and its insidious effect that this question itself feels
Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, the son
of a country lawyer and a school-teacher. While at Harvard
College, he published the occasional poem in the Advocate,
Trend Magazine, and Miss Harriet Monroe's iconoclastic
new journal, Poetry (Chicago).
Leaving Harvard without a degree, he worked briefly
as a reporter for the New York Tribune, graduated
from New York Law School, then entered the insurance
Stevens joined the American Bonding Company in New
York, then left the City to take a position in the home
office of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Insurance
Company in 1916, where he became head of its surety
claims department and was promoted to Vice-President
in 1934. He remained there for the rest of his life.
"It gives a man character as a poet to have this
daily contact with a job," Stevens once remarked
to an interviewer, adding that he could compose poems
"just about anywhere," most often while on
one of his habitual Saturday morning walks. Emerging
from Grand Central Terminal after catching an early
southbound train, Stevens was on the prowl by ten o'clock,
and his route never varied: up Madison Avenue to the
Carlyle Hotel on 76th Street he strolled, gazing into
the windows of art galleries and antique stores, taking,
as he fancied it, a "holiday in reality..."
with the tacit understanding that things of the world
"are real only if I make them so."
Stevens was a man of mental authority and unflinching
rectitude. Neighbors on Terry Road could set their clocks
by the sight of his tall, grey-suited presence passing
by on the way to work Monday through Friday without
fail. His marriage to Elsie Kachel Moll, a shopgirl
from his home town, lacked romance. He never traveled
abroad, preferring solitary sojourns in the warmth of
Havana, the Bahamas and Key West. He shunned social
visits, preferring the company of fellow writers.
daughter, Holly, was born in 1924, the year after his
first book of poems, Harmonium, was published.
It sold 100 copies. "From one end of the book to
the other there is not an idea that can vitally effect
the mind," wrote New York Times poetry editor
Percy Hutchinson, "and there is not a word that
can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering edifice
of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally
dead." Hutchinson concluded with a definitive prophesy:
"Hence, unpleasant as it is to record such a conclusion,
the very remarkable work of Wallace Stevens cannot endure."
Beyond honorary degrees from Columbia and Harvard,
two National Book Awards, the Pulitzer, and the Bollingen
Prize, stands a modernist giant with equally clear allegiances
to Picasso, Stravinsky, and Ezra Pound. Every poem provides
evidence of his mastery, whether it be the dry humor
of Botanist on Alp (No.1), the quirky mystery
of The Search for Sound Free from Motion, the
infinite variety of The Man With the Blue Guitar,
the metaphysical flights of A Thought Revolved,
the exploratory identity of The Blue Buildings in
the Summer Air, or the aesthetic assuredness of
God Is Good, It Is a Beautiful Night.
As Stevens declares in The Well Dressed Man With
a Beard, "After the final no there comes a
yes/And on that yes the future world depends."
Yes, the poetry of Wallace Stevens is "difficult"
- a difficulty we respect because he does not sacrifice
allegiance to the complexity of language in order to
facilitate making a point.
Stevens moderates difficulty by pointing out that "The
poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully."
Almost is the operant word; with repeated reading
his messages come through. Hope for meaning can be found
in the multiple points of view threaded throughout Stevens'
poems of a lifetime: "you" and "he"
and "she" and "I" and "one,"
sprinkled as if arbitrarily. The artificer is in utter
command of the medium and so it does not matter where
he stands, or what particular form the self assumes.
"My final point," he wrote in a 1951 essay
touching upon the transcendent, "is that the imagination
is the power that enables us to perceive the normal
in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos."
Wallace Stevens has high expectations of The Reader
in the brief excerpt herewith. But the rewards of
meeting his expectations are indelible and (fortunately
for us) inexhaustible:
It was autumn and
Covered the shrivelled forms
Crouched in the moonlight.
No lamp was burning as I read,
A voice was mumbling, 'Everything
Falls back to coldness,
Even the musky muscadines,
The melons, the vermilion pears
Of the leafless garden.'
The sombre pages bore no print
Except the trace of burning stars
In the frosty heaven."
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Baldwin photo credit: Sandra Wavrick