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09 April 2008 @ 03:00 pm
Wallace Stevens  
Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens looks happy.  Maybe it's because he's such a BA. 


     Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was born in Reading, PA.  He spent a few years attending Harvard before finnacial woes forced him to withdraw before getting his degree.  On campus, he wrote and edited for a number of the schools literary journals.  Although he became involved in writing at an early age, most of his literary output came much later in life.  After college, he spent time a short time as a journalist before recieving a law degree and working as a lawyer, another profession that did not last long.  Eventually, Stevens found himself selling insurance for The Hartford, and slowly worked his way up the company until he was named Vice President in 1934.  He spent the remainder of his life working for The Hartford, even turning down a job as Professor at Harvard to stay with The Hartford.
     His first book of poems, Harmonium, was published in 1923, when Stevens was 44.  The collection, now known as one of the most important collections of American Poetry from the 20th century, was met with decent critical reception, but ultimately was not a huge success.  One site I encountered even claimed that the first edition printing sold only 100 copies.  Stevens became dismayed with this lack of success and did not publish a new book until 1935 with Ideas of Order.  With a re-printing of Harmonium and the publishing of The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), Stevens began to receive widespread attention from the literary world.  His work was praised for it's imaginative spirit and it's Impressionistic composition.  He continued to publish until his death in 1955, winning along the way The National Book Award twice and the Pulitzer for his Collected Poetry.

     When reading Stevens, I couldn't help be struck by the imagination and exciting mystery that envelops much of his poetry.  His tone is simple but not brought to a lower level...he addresses objects, situations, and times with a degree of incredible precision and yet many of his poems had a very mystical quality to them, even when the relation between the object and poem was clear to me.  The poems constantly elucidated a feeling that I had not gleaned all they had to offer, even (or especially) those that I thought I understood best.  In that, Stevens is poetry is like the best of art: the more we understand the more questions we have.
    Much of Stevens' work, especially later work, directly addresses poetry itself in a metapoetic manner, and yet these poems didn't feel like Ars Poetica to me, but rather the development of a philosophy through poetry--He spoke of poetry to speak higher than poetry, and many critics have discussed Stevens' idea of "supreme fiction", or to put it plainly, how we make sense of a world in which the old comfortable religious notions have been replaced?  One of Stevens' answers was: poetry, not as an end, but as an example method. 
    Perhaps the thing I found most fascinating about Stevens is his attention to, to use one of his titles, "Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,".  I think one of the reasons that Stevens' poetry resisted a full capture for me is this address to the things themselves, to the objects of relation.  While the relation is certainly important, and makes up the "why?" of the poem, the "things" themselves seem to be given equal importance as whatever statement is being made with them.  The blackbirds are important, not just because of what they say about our humanity, but because they are blackbirds.  Stevens' accepts and plays with this notion, which led me to continue to draw thought from the poems long after I had "understood" the relation at hand.

    All in all, there's no denying that Stevens is a poet of extreme importance, not just as a lesson of "where we came from", but as a way to understand what we're doing now.  Therefore, check out some poems!




  • The Necessary Angel (essays) (1951)
  • Letters of Wallace Stevens, edited by Holly Stevens (1966)
  • Secretaries of the Moon: The Letters of Wallace Stevens & Jose Rodriguez Feo, edited by Beverly Coyle and Alan Filreis (1986)
  • Sur plusieurs beaux sujects: Wallace Stevens's Commonplace Book, edited by Milton J. Bates (1989)
  • The Contemplated Spouse: The Letter of Wallace Stevens to Elsie, edited by D.J. Blount (2006)


-A site containing a short biography and some stories about Stevens as told by those who knew him can be found here
-A few more poems, one reading, and an extended biography here
-A BIG biography and even more poems here


Some of Stevens' most well known/ my favorites.

From Harmonium:



From Ideas of Order

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

From The Rock

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.