When Wallace Stevens published his 1951 book of essays The Necessary Angel he subtitled the collection "Essays on Reality and the Imagination," and the terms sum up the two central concerns of his poetry throughout his career. His poetry explores the role that imagination plays in our engagement with, understanding of, and interpretation of the world outside of the self, and conversely the role of the "facts" in that world - what we can know and say about those facts. "The poet," Stevens wrote in his essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," "gives to life the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it." In his poem "The Plain Sense of Things" Stevens asserts: "Yet the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined." And in "The World as Meditation," centered upon Penelope's long wait for the absent Ulysses to return, she senses that he may be "moving // On the horizon." Yet the question: "But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun / On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart. / The two kept beating together" is answered characteristically: "It was only day. // It was Ulysses and it was not. Yet they had met . . ." again insisting upon the role of "imagination" in shaping "reality."
Stevens took no firm position on the final relationship of the two; his poems instead explore propositions and suppositions about the balance, more playfully in his earlier work, and more meditatively in the poems of his last 15 years. Sometimes two poems taken together explore the extremes of the spectrum, almost as companion pieces. "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" and "Cortège for Rosenbloom," both poems about funeral rituals, is one such pairing; "The Snow Man" and "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" is another. The pairing of the physical and the imaginative are illustrated in the title and narrative of "Peter Quince at the Clavier." The bumbling mechanical's earthy response to female beauty (Quince is a character from a play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, itself about the interplay of the physical and the dream) is articulated lyrically and musically through his playing an instrument normally associated with lightness and order.
Stevens's theme was the poem recording the mind searching, weighing, and balancing, a meditation upon degrees of attention, order, and projection, as well as upon the making of metaphor. This search, for Stevens, was necessary because past systems of belief no longer provided an adequate framework for understanding and interpreting our world.
Thus poetry had a role. Stevens writes, in his essay "Imagination as Value": "the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written." "Why should she give her bounty to the dead?" asks the narrator of the woman in "Sunday Morning," who is pulled away from the present by "The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. / . . . Over the seas, to silent Palestine." For Stevens, the poet needed to invent a "supreme fiction" for the age, or at any rate to describe that fiction's characteristics, acknowledging among them the relative nature of its truths, and thus the need for them to be discarded at some future date when they too had served their use. As Stevens put it in "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 theater was changed To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
Characteristically, the claim for the end result is an understated one, "what will suffice." Equally characteristically, the theme is set in terms of performance, the "script" and "theater" now replaced by the performance of the mind upon the stage of the poem. Often in Stevens's poems, the issues are distanced from the poet himself, in this case through the performance metaphor and by the emphasis upon the act of thinking and writing rather than upon the particular writer of the poem.
This distance and emotional restraint in the poems has often been coupled in discussion of Stevens with his two apparently disparate careers, as poet and as a vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, although recent work has argued for a more integrated reading of his business and writing interests. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Stevens's interest in poetry was displayed in his years as a special student at Harvard (18971900), where, like T. S. Eliot a few years later, he was associated with and published in The Harvard Advocate. After a short career as a journalist in New York, Stevens attended New York Law School and was admitted to the New York bar in 1904. He began his career as an insurance lawyer in 1908, married Elsie Kachel from Reading in 1909, joined the Hartford company in 1916, and moved to Hartford, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was made a vice-president in 1934. Apart from a couple of short business trips to Cuba, Stevens never traveled outside of the United States, although an interest in French painting, Havana cigars, and postcards and news sent from abroad by friends and acquaintances were among his most important pleasures.
Stevens remained close to a number of his Harvard friends in his New York years, and with them published some poems in the journal The Trend and some subsequent short-lived magazines that reflected the group's interest in turn-of-the-century exoticism and dandyism, and also in such modern iconoclastic movements as Dada. His association with avant-garde literary and artistic circles grew to incorporate members of the Others group, which included Alfred Kreymborg, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. This group of writers, loosely centered around the artists' colony of Grantwood in New Jersey and the apartment of Walter Arensberg in New York (one of Stevens's Harvard friends) saw themselves and their sporadic journal Others (which was financed by Arensberg) as an alternative to the sometimes conservative pages of Chicago's Poetry. The group's association too with Alfred Stieglitz and the artists connected to his gallery and the journal 291 illustrates their closer ties to the European avant-garde than was the case with the Chicago movement. Marcel Duchamp was only the most famous of the many European artists who fled to New York with the outbreak of the First World War, reinforcing the impact upon the city of the ground-breaking Armory Show exhibit of European painting in 1913.
From 1915 to 1923 Stevens wrote the poems that make up his 1923 volume Harmonium. The themes of reality and imagination are displayed through an exuberant, sometimes comic, playfulness of language and through shifting points of view. "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" captures these elements in the dandified rhetoric and fastidiousness of its narrator, who is concerned about the possible crisis of turning 40, in his turn-of-the-century eyepiece, and in the title itself being a French schoolchildren's handwriting exercise. A playful poem about language, a way of life, and appearance, its subtext concerns aging, insecurity, and fears of impotence. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" displays Stevens's awareness of the experiments of imagism as well as the analytical cubism of Picasso and Braque. While this poem displays what the onlooker brings to an understanding of the object, "The Snow Man" argues that without this human-centered framework of interpretation (which, for example, would construct a human figure out of the blankness of snow) we would see only "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." And while "Sunday Morning" in its final stanza echoes Keats's celebration of change in his ode "To Autumn," Stevens's rewriting foregrounds the inevitable coming "darkness" that is the corollary of the imagination's freedom to inventively engage the earth's ever-changing present.
When Harmonium appeared in 1923, in an edition of 1,500 copies, it was little noticed. Stevens, then 44, apparently wrote little for the next few years, offering as an excuse to editors who asked for poems that he was focused for the moment on career and family (his daughter Holly had just been born). But the book garnered more attention when reissued in 1931 with the addition of 14 poems (three others were omitted), and Stevens began to write and publish volumes regularly for the rest of his life, beginning with Ideas of
Order (1935). The poems of the 1930s address their philosophical issues more directly than the more exuberant poems of Harmonium, and in a barer style, although their concerns are similar. In "The Idea of Order at Key West," a poem that echoes Wordsworth's "Stepping Westward" and "The Solitary Reaper," the idea of order produced through witnessing the girl's singing by the sea is as immediately present as, but more temporary than, the sound carried away by Wordsworth's narrator. For Stevens it is an idea of order rather than order itself, but it can be a communal force, one between observers as well as between nature and man. Nature, its essence finally unknowable although always being interpreted, is merely the "place by which" the girl sings:
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.
Stevens's response to criticism in the 1930s that his poetry was remote and more concerned with abstractions than the real world of the Depression and political debate led to his volume Owl's Clover (1936), which deals with the social responsibility of art, but Stevens and most of his readers were dissatisfied with the result. Returning to themes more congenial to him, Stevens went on to a series of volumes that, particularly in the 1940s with Parts of a World (1942), Transport to Summer (1947), and The Auroras of Autumn (1950), consolidated his reputation as a major poet. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1946, awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1950, and his Collected Poems published in 1954 won him his second National Book Award in Poetry as well as a Pulitzer Prize. Stevens is sometimes cited more by critics and scholars than contemporary poets, but at least two major poets of later in the century, James Merrill and John Ashbery, are important inheritors of his work.
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