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National Book Award Classics

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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 Award.

Wallace Stevens
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 quintessentially "Stevensian."

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 business.

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.

Stevens' 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 falling stars
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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