When Wallace Stevens died, few of his Connecticut insurance colleagues even knew he was a poet. With the recent release of his "Selected Poems", Ryan Ruby revisits a man who proved that to be a great poet, no great experience is necessary ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
You can find them anywhere you go. Unshaven young men who slam down cheap liquor in remodelled dives. From their stools they hold forth on the doctrines of this obscure mystic or that obscurantist philosopher, and then they brawl for brawling’s sake. They swap stories about the tiny towns they reached by thumbing a ride or hopping the rails, tales that invariably end with a night in jail or the gutter and a rescue from some local angel. This is what’s known as Experience, to be distilled into stanzas that can fit within the circumference of the bottle stains on their cocktail napkins.
These are lifestyle poets, the Beats of yesteryear. Should you find yourself in the presence of one, ask him (always him) whether he likes the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Not one will say yes.
To a lifestyle poet, Stevens’s biography presents a problem. Born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Stevens never quite became a member of the Lost Generation. He considered moving to Paris to become a writer, but caved to pressure from his lawyer father and stayed in the States, where he studied at Harvard and earned a degree from New York Law School. In 1916 he and his wife abandoned the bohemia of New York's Greenwich Village for sleepy Hartford, Connecticut, where Stevens began work for a local insurance company. By 1934 he had become vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, a post he would keep until his death from stomach cancer in 1955, aged 75.
Stevens published "Harmonium", his first book and one of the most important collections of 20th-century verse, when he was 44. He went on to win two National Book Awards, a Bollingen and the Pulitzer, yet when he died, his office colleagues were surprised to learn that he had been anything but an insurance executive. "It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job," he once said in a newspaper interview.
“I have no life except in poetry,” Stevens once wrote to himself in the late 1930s. To put it another way, he was a square. But lifestyle poets–like autobiographical novelists–are wrong to believe that experience is the necessary foundation for what one writes. The faculty sustaining the literary enterprise has always been the imagination. This "is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos," Stevens wrote in "The Necessary Angel", a book of his essays published in 1951.
Lifestyle poets remind me of the critics in Stevens’s poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”, who tell the titular musician:
‘But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.’
What these critics fail to understand is not only that, “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar,” but that this transformation is necessary for any form of transcendence to be possible. Like the tune, a poem cannot be both "beyond us, yet ourselves" if it all it manages to do is describe things "exactly as
In Wallace Stevens the transformative power of the imagination has found an enduring champion. His oeuvre is densely populated with poems bearing unashamedly cerebral titles, such as “Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination”, “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”, “The World as Meditation” and “The Poem that took the Place of a Mountain”. According to the Online Concordance to Wallace Stevens’ Poetry, a handy tool set up by John N. Serio, the editor behind the recently released "Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems", the word "imagination" appears 47 times in his work (not including cognates such as “imagine”), beating out such poetic tropes as “sight”, “shadow” and “image.”
Stevens proved that to be a great poet, no great experience is necessary. You needn't go off to war like Byron or take to the road like Kerouac to have yourself an adventure. If your mind is expansive enough, you needn’t even leave your chair. “Merely in living as and where we live” the air is already “swarming / with metaphysical changes,” as he wrote in “Esthetique du Mal”, a long poem featured in the collection.
Yet Stevens’s mind was not merely expansive, but a universe unto itself. As he described in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
Even when he tries his hand at spare minimalist stanzas, for instance in his often anthologised “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird” (a poem whose depths a critic could surely plumb for obscure biographical references if so inclined), Stevens is simply unable to suppress his lyrical musings on whether to prefer:
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos.
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
More than any other American poet, Stevens became a visionary, a status
that Arthur Rimbaud–that great adventurer and mediocre poet–rightly
claimed was the goal of writing verse. In "Lettre du Voyant", Rimbaud wrote that poetry, through a poet's "long and systematic derangement of the senses", could change ordinary reality into something extraordinary, a "factory into a mosque". For Stevens, too, a poet’s “choice of the commodious adjective” could reveal the divine qualities of the objects that make up “grim reality”. This is because it is the poet’s “description that makes it divinity”, even when the reality may be nothing more than “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.”
"Selected Poems" (Alfred A. Knopf) by Wallace Stevens, edited by John N. Serio, out now
Picture credit: Bettmann/Corbis
(Ryan Ruby is a writer based in New York. He is working on a novel set among the bohemians in postwar Greenwich Village. His last article for More Intelligent Life was "How I learned to stop worrying and love Frank O'Hara".)