April 9th, 2008


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:

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From The Rock

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