The European poet Paul Celan once said that a poem “intends another, needs this other, needs an opposite.” For Wallace Stevens, this otherness was the world at large—the reason, perhaps, why his poetry contained so little but expressed so much.
Stevens was born October 2, 1879, and died August 2, 1955. Between these two dates quite a lot happened in the world. Fanatical ideologies were born, took control of states, and were defeated. Two global wars were fought: the first began with skirmishes on horseback and the second ended with the splitting of the atom. Human aviation was established, then militarized, and, finally, commercialized. Economic depressions wiped out the general optimism of the 19th century, and welfare systems were put in place as acts of material expiation. Frantic voices—either approvingly or with alarm—cried out that politics had replaced religion as society’s moral centrifuge. Telephones, cars, and antibiotics became commonplace, and the modern computer was already beginning its ascendancy toward societal ubiquitousness.
Stevens, however, was always somewhere else when the action happened and never spoke intelligently afterward about what took place. In Paul Mariani’s biography of him, The Whole Harmonium , one of the things that stands out is how little effect any of these tragedies or trends had on Stevens’s life or his poetry. Modern technology rarely appears in his poems. Planes don’t naggingly fly overhead and the telephone doesn’t interrupt the neurotic aesthetician. Scant political images can be found in a handful of his poems but never any political ideals. Within his letters, one occasionally finds the grievances of a “Hoover Republican” (labor unions are jeopardizing the country’s economic security) and the conventional prejudices of his age (“Jews,” “Jewesses,” “negroes,” and “colored men” are now and then complained about), but nothing particularly nasty or noteworthy. In the ’30s, most Americans endured economic chaos and misery; in the ’40s, they endured war service and rationing. Stevens suffered none of those, instead enjoying the life of an insurance executive who could afford frequent trips to Key West and a brand-new Corvette for his teenage daughter.
It’s Stevens’s peculiarly high level of detachment from the world around him that perhaps best explains the cerebral abstractness and verbal exuberance of his poems. As a contemporary reviewer of his put it, “Is there not fundamentally a kinship between the sensory discriminations and comfortable tranquility of Wallace Stevens’ poetry and the America that owns baronial estates?” Mariani skillfully emphasizes Stevens’s obsession with ignoring the petty realities of life—for he didn’t want to lose focus on the perennial issues of death, despair, and taste by getting bogged down in the provincial ideas of his day (fascism, communism, technological utopianism). Following this line of concerns, Stevens went so far as telling a friend that “in the long run the poet owed nothing to the political and moral exigencies of the time because poetry was about life itself, and it was the poet’s task to make his imagination a light for the minds of others and thus help them live.” Still, Stevens wasn’t entirely immune to influences from the outside world. As Mariani points out, Stevens’s morose fixation with violence and death during the First World War was probably a result of him being so far away from any actual experience of either.
Stevens wanted his poetry to appeal to everyone and believed the best method for achieving this was to “create a poetic atmosphere” rather than worry about literary nuisances like character or plot. (This method fails for the obvious reason that it’s the artist who is most concrete and most interested in expressing a precise narrative who appeals to the most readers.) What Stevens’s method fleshed out to in his poetry, however, was little different from the pyrotechnics of an “art for art’s sake” poet—in fact, if you read aloud some of his poems, they almost sound as if they could’ve been written by a more obtuse, less dyspeptic Allen Ginsberg. Stevens denounced “art for art’s sake” as “both indiscreet and worthless” in his journal as a teenager, but later, in his twenties, became preoccupied with the notion and in truth never fully shook it off. Up to his last poems, he held onto the looseness of romanticism without its associated sentimentality.
As Mariani demonstrates in the book, a good deal of Stevens’s poetic output conveyed a feeling of sehnsucht (“inconsolable longing”). For example, in “Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz,” Stevens writes of American southerners (although the words just as easily apply to their author) as “voices crying without knowing for what, / Except to be happy, without knowing how.” The object of Stevens’s inconsolable longing changed over time. In his early professional days, when he first moved to New York City, it was his hometown of Reading, Pa. Writing to his future wife, Elsie, Stevens lamented that he “lost a world” when he left there.
He also longed for an imagined Southern culture—tough and gallant (“good ol’ boys”)—that for Stevens was embodied by his longtime friend Judge Powell. Stevens and Powell made frequent trips together to Key West. During one of their trips, Stevens got drunk at a literary party and started bad-mouthing Ernest Hemingway in front of the novelist’s sister. She left the party to tell Hemingway what Stevens had said, and Hemingway accompanied her back to the party and beat Stevens up. Stevens asked Hemingway if the whole incident might be covered up, which Hemingway mostly agreed to do, notwithstanding telling a few friends in letters what happened and describing Stevens to one of them as “one of those mirror fighters who swells his muscles and practices lethal punches in the bathroom while he hates his betters.” Mariani suspects Stevens was looking for a fight that evening and thought Hemingway was (if not strategically, then professionally) the ideal opponent, as Stevens viewed Hemingway as “the very nemesis of his Imagination—the antipoet poet, the poet of extraordinary reality.”
The last of Stevens’s longings—for the Catholic Church—began shortly after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer at the age of 75. Stevens had always enjoyed visiting churches when traveling for work but could never commit himself to any one denomination’s dogmas. The theological certainty of Hell particularly bothered him; he was sure “a merciful God, knowing the weakness of mankind, would not fashion a place like that to punish anyone.” Not that Stevens was uncomfortable with using eschatological language for rhetorical effect. His invocations of heaven and hell in his poem “Esthetique du Mal” and in his famous essay “Imagination as Value” are both wonderfully evocative.
These longings, so eloquently conveyed in Stevens’s poetry, belied the truth of his mundane and superficial life as depicted by Mariani in The Whole Harmonium. Stevens was in an unhappy marriage, had a checkered relationship with his family, and was disappointed with how little time he had for writing poetry. But that’s about it. He did work for the insurance company six days a week, refused many speaking opportunities because he didn’t want to be recorded, and folded to most of his editors’ suggestions because he didn’t have the time or confidence for rewrites. Occasionally, he would speak faux profundities about some subject (say, the relationship between poetry and philosophy), then move on from it and never address the matter again. He spent a small fortune trying to prove his family had descended from the original Dutch settlers of New York, so that he could gain entrance to an exclusive social club. In some cases, Stevens’s philistinism was so sharp that he wielded it almost as a weapon—for example, effusing to a friend, “I pride myself on being a member of the Long Key Fishing Club of Atlanta, and I take damned little stock in conversation on philosophy, aesthetics, poetry, art, or blondes.”
Of course, none of this prevented him from publishing some of the most linguistically inventive poetry in American history, and it’s a testament to his talents that he’ll be remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, despite not being a particularly intellectual or even reflective one.