Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955) was a twentieth-century American poet, whose verse has been the subject of more critical study than perhaps any other modern American poet. Stevens was a contemporary of modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams, but lived and wrote largely outside of the artistic circles of other poets, spending four decades as an insurance executive at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He did not fully emerge as a poet of renown until relatively late in life. He was 44 when his first book, Harmonium (1923), appeared, and more than 70 when he twice won the National Book Award (1950 and 1954) and the Pulitzer Prize (1955).
His relation to Modernism (or any particular school of poetry) is a matter of debate. Scholars generally agree that Stevens' style, derived from his preoccupation with symbolic images and the peculiarities of language, has more in common with the French Symbolists and Stephane Mallarme in particular than with any previous Anglophone verse.
His late poetry is characterized by dense symbolism and intense concentration on philosophical questions, although Robert Frost and other critics (most prominently Randall Jarrell) have derided Stevens' late tendency toward impenetrable and abstract verse. Like many modernists, Stevens confronted doubt and loss of traditional verities. For Stevens, truth was approachable through what he called the "Supreme Fiction," best captured in the supreme work of art, the truth of which the mind can apprehend through the imagination. "Poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns," he wrote, and again, "God and the imagination are one."
Stevens approaches spirituality not through mysticism, belief, or tradition, but through poetic imagination. The imagination conjures a description of reality out of ever-changing phenomena. Such imaginative reasoning was not dry philosophical speculation for Stevens, but a passionate engagement in finding order and meaning.
Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania and attended Harvard, after which he moved to New York City and briefly worked as a journalist. He then attended New York Law School, graduating in 1903. On a trip back to Reading in 1904, Stevens met Elsie Kachel Moll, whom he married after a long courtship, in 1909. The marriage reputedly turned cold and distant, but the Stevenses never divorced. A daughter, Holly, would be born in 1924. She later edited her father's letters and a collection of his poems.
After working for several New York law firms from 1904 to 1907, Stevens was hired in 1908 as a bonding lawyer for an insurance firm. By 1914 he had become the vice-president of the New York Office of the Equitable Surety Company of St. Louis, Missouri. When this job was abolished as a result of mergers in 1916, he joined the home office of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and left New York City to live in Hartford, Connecticut, where he would remain the rest of his life. By 1934, he had been named vice-president of the company.
Stevens is an unusual example of a poet who lived a relatively quotidian life. Like the German-Czech novelist Franz Kafka, who was employed at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute in Prague while writing some of the most ground-breaking modernist fiction, Stevens continued to work full-time at the insurance company even after his literary reputation began to soar and until relatively late in life rarely associated with other artists. 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, but by then Stevens was already a luminary with his own voice. In comparison with most of the other Modernist poets, who for a number of decades functioned as a group centering around Ezra Pound, Stevens was a markedly solitary figure.
Stevens is a rare example of a poet whose main output came at a fairly advanced age. Many of his canonical works were written well after he turned fifty. According to literary critic Harold Bloom, no Western writer since Sophocles has had such a late flowering of artistic genius. The Auroras of Autumn, arguably his finest book of poems, was not published until after his seventieth year. His first major publication was Sunday Morning, written at the age of thirty-eight. As an undergraduate at Harvard he had written poetry and exchanged sonnets with George Santayana, with whom he was close through much of his life.
Stevens' first book of poetry, Harmonium, was published in 1923. In the opinion of Randall Jarrell and a number of other critics, Harmonium represents Stevens' finest work, with his later poems degrading into repetitive philosophical experimentation. A number of more contemporary critics, however, argue that Stevens' late spare genius far exceeds the more accessible verse of this early volume. Regardless of critical disagreements, some of Stevens' personal favorites were published in this first book. Memorable poems, such as "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," suggest both the poet's playful engagement with everyday experience and his intimations of the transcendence in a fleeting detail:
Stevens produced only two more major books of poetry during the 1920s and 1930s but three more in the 1940s. Some critics have argued that his best poetry was written after he turned 60. It was in this later period that Stevens began to be recognized as a major poet, and he received the National Book Award in 1951 and 1955. As Stevens grew older his poetry became more and more spartan; the wit and clear, piercing imagery of Stevens' earlier verse was sacrificed in favor dense philosophical symbolism. This led to the famous exchange between Frost and Stevens, where Stevens quipped "The trouble with you is you write about things"; to which Frost replied, "The trouble with you is you write about bric-a-brac."
Stevens' late preoccupation with philosophical questions is evident in one of his last poems, "Of Mere Being":
Stevens is very much a poet of ideas. "The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully," he wrote. His main ideas concern the interplay between imagination and reality and the relation between consciousness and the world. In Stevens' poetry, "imagination" is not equivalent to consciousness, or "reality" to the world as it exists outside our minds. Rather, reality is the product of the imagination as it shapes the phenomena that make up the world. Because the world is constantly changing as we attempt to find imaginatively satisfying ways to perceive it, reality is an active, not a static, object. We approach reality with a piecemeal understanding, putting together parts of the world in an attempt to make it seem coherent. For Stevens, such imaginative reasoning was not dry philosophical speculation, but a passionate engagement in finding order and meaning. Thus Stevens could write in The Idea of Order at Key West, echoing the timeless opening of Homer's Iliad:
For Stevens, the greatest difficulty for the poet is the fact that a direct apprehension of the world is never possible. In his essay, "Imagination as Value," Stevens says, "the truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them." Stevens suggests that we live in the tension between the phenomena that the world puts before us, and the ideas of order that our imagination imposes upon the world. The world, according to Stevens, is a vast panorama of influences, which must (so our imagination demands) cohere. As he writes semi-ironically, "The dress of a woman of Lhassa...is an invisible element of that place / Made visible." In another poem, one of Stevens' most famous, he goes through the thought-experiment of how placing a jar on a hill in Tennessee irrevocably imposes a new order onto that place. Something that had never before been there before—something that was not, like everything else around the hill, made of grass or bark or rock—is now there, and however infinitesimal it might seem, the landscape has been forever changed. This, in a sense, is Stevens' ultimate allegory for what a poem is: a fragile thing, placed upon a vast immensity, that perhaps, somehow, will change the way we think of the world.
"The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real, Stevens wrote in a collection of essays, The Necessary Angel. "When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have."
Throughout his poetic career, Stevens was concerned with the question of what to think about the world now that our old notions no longer suffice. His solution might be summarized by the concept of a “Supreme Fiction”; in the place of any ultimately satisfying knowledge of the world, Stevens suggest that we must place our faith in a supreme work of art. In this satirical example from A High-Toned Old Christian Woman Stevens plays with the perspective of immediately accessible, but ultimately unsatisfying notions of reality:
The supreme fiction is that conceptualization of reality that seems to resonate in its rightness, so much so that it seems to have captured, if only for a moment, something actual and real. Of course, Stevens acknowledges that such a supreme apprehension is impossible for any human being to have; and so, as he ultimately came to believe, all of our knowledge of the world is a sort of fiction: vague and imprecise and ever-changing. Stevens later personified this ultimate knowledge of the world as "The Necessary Angel", a force which we must believe in, though it never appears:
In one of his last poems, Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour, Stevens describes the experience of an idea which satisfies the imagination, something which can finally satiate our hunger for reality and put our minds at rest: "This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous / it is in that thought that we collect ourselves / Out of all the indifferences, into one thing." This one thing is "a light, a power, the miraculous influence" wherein we can forget ourselves, sensing a comforting order, "A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous, / within its vital boundary, in the mind."
This knowledge necessarily exists within the mind, since it is an aspect of the imagination which can never attain a direct experience of reality.
In this way, Stevens puts forth in his poetry an idea of poetry, and of the supreme fiction, that might be described as a spirituality of the imaginative. “The poem refreshes life so that we share / For a moment, the first idea…It satisfies / Belief in an immaculate beginning / And sends us, winged by an unconscious will, / To an immaculate end”.
Stevens often writes directly about poetry and its human function. The poet “tries by a peculiar speech to speak / The peculiar potency of the general,” he says, “To compound the imagination’s Latin with / The lingua franca et jocundissima.” And, “The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate.” In a manner reminiscent of Wordsworth, Stevens saw the poet as one with heightened powers, but one who was fundamentally like all ordinary people and whose life could be taken as representative for all humankind. In Stevens, the act of writing and the act of creating poetry are both analogous to all the other activities, both mental and physical, that a human being can undertake.
Thus Stevens writes, "It is a world of words to the end of it, / In which nothing solid is its solid self." And in a poem called "Men Made out of Words", he says, "Life / Consists of propositions about life.” Poetry is not "about" life, it is intimately a part of life. As Stevens wrote elsewhere, “The poem is the cry of its occasion, / Part of the res itself and not about it. / The poet speaks the poem as it is, / Not as it was.” Modern poetry is “the poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.”
From the first, critics and fellow poets recognized Stevens’ genius. In the 1930s, the critic Yvor Winters criticized Stevens as a decadent hedonist but acknowledged his great talent. Hart Crane wrote to a friend in 1919, after reading some of the poems that would make up Harmonium, "There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail." Beginning in the 1940s, critics such as Randall Jarrell spoke of Stevens as one of the major living American poets, even if they did so (as Jarrell did) with certain reservations about Stevens’s work. Stevens’ work became even better known after his death. Harold Bloom was among the critics who have ensured Stevens’ position in the canon as a great poet, and perhaps the greatest American poet of the twentieth century. Other major critics, such as Helen Vendler and Frank Kermode, have added their voices and analysis to this verdict. Many poets—James Merrill and Donald Justice most explicitly—have acknowledged Stevens as a major influence on their work, and his impact may also be seen in John Ashbery, Mark Strand, John Hollander, among others.
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