Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on October 2, 1879, and died at the age of seventy-six in Hartford, Connecticut on August 2, 1955. He attended Harvard as a special student from 1897 to 1900 but did not graduate; he graduated from New York law school in 1903 and was admitted to the New York bar in 1904, the year he met Elsie Kachel, a young woman from Reading, whom he married in 1909. They had one daughter, Holly Bight, born in 1924, conceived on a leisurely ocean voyage California via the Panama Canal that they took to celebrate the publication of his first book.
Stevens became interested in verse-writing at Harvard, submitting material to the Harvard Advocate, but he would be 36 before his first work was published in 1915. He soon was contributing to Poetry (Chicago), and his first book Harmonium was published in 1923 by the distinguished firm of Alfred A. Knopf. Though he was always much admired by his contemporaries ("There is a man whose work," Hart Crane wrote of him in 1919, "makes most the rest of us quail"), Stevens felt that the reviews of his 1923 book were less than they should be, and discouraged, wrote nothing through the 1920s. For a second edition of Harmonium, published in 1931, he added only eight new poems.
If he was not writing in the 1920s, he was steadily advancing in business. After working for several New York law firms from 1904 to 1907, he had been hired as a bonding lawyer for an insurance firm in 1908, and by 1914 was hired as the vice-president of the New York Office of the Equitable Surety Co. of St. Louis. When this job was abolished as a result of mergers in 1916, he joined the home office of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity and left New York City to live in Hartford, where he would remain the rest of his life. By 1934, he had been named Vice President of his company.
All his life Stevens collected art from abroad and saw that packages of various gourmet foods were mailed to him regularly. Although he regularly traveled in the South, most notably to Florida and the Florida Keys and Cuba, he never ventured abroad. But his cosmopolitan yearnings were amply satisfied by regular jaunts to New York City. Trains leaving Hartford on a better-than-hourly basis guaranteed that any Saturday he could be on the streets of New York City by 10 a.m. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was welcomed as a member of the exclusive set centered around the artistic and literary devotees Barbara and Henry Church.
When Stevens began to write poems with renewed fluency in the 1930s, he arranged for them to be printed in limited editions at the same time as trade editions were prepared by Knopf. Ideas of Order (1935) and Owl’s Clover (1937) were limited editions by the Alcestis Press, while The Man With the Blue Guitar (1937) and Parts of a World (1942) were printed by Knopf, and Notes toward a Supreme Fiction (1942) and Esthetique du Mal were deluxe volumes issued by the Cummington Press in 1942.
In 1939, Stevens was sixty – an age when most poets are ready to look back on what career they might have made for themselves. But Stevens’s best writing still lay before him in the form of extended meditative sequences, quasi-philosophical in their ruminative wanderings but marked always by a vivid sense of the absurd and a darting, whirling inventiveness that took delight in peculiar anecdotal examples. In the loosely connected stanzas of these sequences, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" (1942), "Esthetique du Mal" (1945), "The Auroras of Autumn" (1947) and "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" (1950), Stevens perfected what had been, in effect, the work he had been producing all along – a metapoetry that took lavish delight in commenting upon its own making. At the same time, he began to grow interested in putting his thoughts on aesthetics together in prose sentences, essays he collected in 1951 as The Necessary Angel. And there was one final, magnificent turn to his development. Entering his seventies, he began to write a poetry of late old age, in which a sense of the disembodied, the purely mental, gave rise to a discourse that had grown newly austere, solemn, and strange even to its author.
Capturing so exuberantly yet so flawlessly the mind at play with an extravagance most often associated with youthful pleasure, with the sheer delights of the sensual body, Stevens preferred to mask his very great sensual satisfactions by suggesting that his doings were in fact all a highly proper set of speculations on "the imagination." (His prose essays were useful allies in this strategy.) But the sheer verve of local moments, the sumptuous texture of outstanding passages, simply dissolves as pretense the notion that a philosophical enterprise might be underway. Few poets have so fully enjoyed not just their indulgence in their own language but also the game that elaborately insists no such indulgence is occurring.
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
by Robert Pack
In the remarkable poem "The Snow man," Steven dramatizes the action of a mind as it becomes one with the scene it perceives, and at that instant, the mind having ceased to bring something of itself to the scene, the scene then ceases to exist fully.
[. . . .]
We, with the "one" of the poem, begin by watching the winter scene while in our mind the connotations of misery and cold brought forth by the scene are stirring. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snow man. We become the snow man, and we see the winter world through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort. To perceive the winter scene truly, we must have the mind of the snow man, until correspondence becomes identification. Then we see with the sharpest eye the images of winter: "pine-trees crusted with snow," "junipers shagged with ice," "spruces rough in the distant glitter/ Of the January sun." We hear with the acutest ear the cold sibilants evoking the sense of barrenness and monotony: "sound of the wind," "sound of a few leaves," "sound of the land," "same wind," "same bare place," "For the listener, who listens in the snow." The "one" with whom the reader has identified himself has now become "the listener, who listens in the snow"; he has become the snow man, and he knows winter with a mind of winter, knows it in its strictest reality, stripped of all imagination and human feeling. But at that point when he sees the winter scene reduced to absolute fact, as the object not of the mind, but of the perfect perceptual eye that sees "nothing that is not there," then the scene, devoid of its imaginative correspondences, has become "the nothing that is."
From Wallace Stevens: An approach to his poetry and thought. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1958. Copyright ?1958 by Rutgers, The State University.
by David Perkins
"… When we think of a snowman, most of us visualize balls of snow placed on top of each other, coals for eyes, a carrot nose, and the like. I mention these details only to point out Stevens does not. His poem does not describe but merely invokes "The Snow Man" by mentioning him in the title; thereafter the snowman is involved in the poem only as a metaphor of a metaphor. He is a metaphor of a "mind of winter," and this, in turn, is a metaphor of something even more abstract: a mind that entertains nothingness. …
But it is easy to imagine that whoever speaks or thinks this poem is himself looking at a snowman. In this case the poem may be related to the descriptive-meditative tradition in English poetry that comes down to us from the eighteenth century and the Romantic period. … A convention organizing all such poems is that the poet finds himself at some place or views some prospect or object. The poem describes what is seen and, as it proceeds, enacts a train of thought and feeling occasioned immediately by the place or object and referring repeatedly to it. Stevens’ "The Snow Man" presents the meditation with the description omitted. As "meditation," its form is thinking, the mind in activity, and this is also in part its subject, The poem is one sentence. It proceeds by amplification, illustrating the inherent dynamism of the mind, its fertile power to proceed on its own impulse.
Still dwelling on "The Snow Man," we may note that the poem posits two types of listener. One would hear a "misery in the sound of the wind." Through his own imaginative creativity he would project a human emotion into the scene and locate it there. Thus, he would make the landscape one with which human beings can feel sympathy. The other listener would hear nothing more than the sound of the wind. He would exert none of this spontaneous and almost inevitable creativity. The poem embodies Stevens’ central theme, the relation between imagination and reality. Endless permutations of this theme were possible. Was reality the world seen without imagination? If so, was imagination the world seen without reality? That was a bitter truth, if it was the truth. But perhaps the snowman, who heard no "misery" in the wind, was projecting himself into the scene just as much as the other listener. Perhaps the snowman beheld nothing only because he was "nothing himself," since, to cite a later poem, whoever "puts a pineapple together" always sees it "in the tangent of himself."
from David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1976), 542-544.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Anecdote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee
Of Modern Poetry
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.
NOT IDEAS ABOUT THE THING BUT THE THING ITSELF
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.
The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache...
The sun was coming from the outside.
That scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.