Whose Words These Are (7): Vendler’s Stevens

What is it about Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955), that such a variety of our contemporaries speak of an attachment that does not hang on “meaning”?

Ask who or what drew them to poetry and, over and over, the answer is: Wallace Stevens. Typically it was long before they quite knew what he was up to.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Helen Vendler. (44 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Helen Vendler, the eminent “close reader,” gifts us here in her Harvard office with a short course on her “closest” poet. Her cool sage of Hartford was a Harvard-educated lawyer and vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He was an aloof patrician and sometimes pugnacious martini drinker. In private life he was a discreetly, resolutely unhappy husband; he was a post-religious modernist who seems to have reversed field and chosen a Catholic baptism on his deathbed.

It’s a big clue, I think, that Wallace Stevens was a museum goer who loved the formal near-abstractions of the Swiss painter Paul Klee (1879 – 1940). Stevens was himself a “cubist” inventor of his own forms in poetry, as in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” He was a fine jeweler in immortal phrases: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” “Death is the mother of beauty.” “We say God and the imagination are one.”

And he was a genius not least in his unforgettable titles, like “The Auroras of Autumn” and “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.” He was a poet of ideas who, according to his friend the composer John Gruen, “told me that he didn’t know what his poetry meant at times, that he really had to think hard as to what he meant by that image or that phrase or that word, even.”

I asked Professor Vendler to do as she did with William Butler Yeats last year: take a few of the Stevens poems she loves and talk about them, as the spirit led her. The poems turned out to be “Sunday Morning,” “The Snow Man,” “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” and “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.”

Helen Vendler makes it all clear, but not too clear. Shouldn’t Stevens be taken as proof of the wisdom that poetry can communicate before it is understood? Or, as he wrote in many different ways: that imagination goes ahead of reason. And still, the great Vendler has answered our question:

HV: He is a great poet of Modernity and of American-ness. Eliot and Pound tried to turn themselves into European poets. Even Frost had to go to London to be published. I mean nobody was going to publish him in this country. They felt repudiated by the indifference to poetry that this country has always shown. It was connected, with the other arts, to an elite tradition and seemed to be the decadent occupation of aristocrats instead of something practical Americans should engage in. That was true of music, of course, as well. I was told it took a full vote of the board of trustees at Swarthmore in 1879 or something to allow a piano on campus. It was that severe.


CL: It’s true of jazz, too. Duke Ellington was not taken seriously until he went to London in the 30s.


HV: You couldn’t get an audience for native American productions, except at the popular level, but not at the reflective level, which Stevens is occupying. It was true of novelists too… Like Faulkner, Stevens stayed home, and thought of it as part of his duty to become a poet of America and not to give up on America and go over to London or Paris or wherever else there was to go, Sao Paolo. So that I think that’s one reason why he seems so attractive to contemporary poets, because he took on what they’re taking on. You really can’t be an Anglophile poet any longer, or go and live in Paris and think you can write from there as an American. Of course it could be done; anyone can go anywhere and do wonderful work. But the impulse now is to try to create an American art that can be viable on its own terms. He and Faulkner are the two big examples of that.

Helen Vendler with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, October 1, 2009.


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  • Potter

    Wow- how did I miss this? Back atcha after a listen.

  • Potter

    I love the loving way Helen Vendler goes through a Stevens poem, line by line, making sense of it- making it easy, and then says that that is not even necessary to enjoy his poems. I know what she means. It’s a sensual thing- one absorbs it through the skin or a 6th sense. But there is no mistaking the love with which she holds these poems, the value she places on them as works of art, the beauty of them… which is infectious.

    Helen Vendler reminds me. Long ago, my (now old) art history professor Leo Steinberg spoke with a twinkle in his eyes of the joys of looking at and unraveling the meanings in paintings.

    Somehow I think of Edward Hopper in connection with Stevens. Now also I will think of Klee and look for the whimsey.

    Chris, thank you so much . Wallace Stevens comes off the shelf!

  • Paul

    Chris, this is as good as it gets. I listened to this show on my iPod as I walked along the coast of Rockport on a gorgeous October day. I got more spiritual nourishment from Vendler’s breakdown of Sunday Morning than I’d had in months at church. It’s all there: life, death, love, nature, mortality, eternity.

    I wish we could make a documentary film with Professor Vendler discussing four poems that changed her life––one for each season. Get some famous actor types to read the poems just like they read letters in the film Trumbo. Vendler’s getting older now. We should preserve as much of her knowledge, wisdom and love of poetry as possible for future generations. Great teachers should be venerated in the same way we venerate great artists.

    in closing, let me just say this: MORE VENDLER PLEASE!

  • Grace Bress

    What a lovely time, to listen to Helen ( a friend from over fifty years ago) reading and talking about a poet she cherishes: her gentle, soft voice, her perfect choice of words, her astute and sensitive explications of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. I must confess that I have never responded to Stevens’ work and have never wanted to work harder to learn more in order to do so (in spite of Helen’s fine book about his poetry). To me the aural beauty is just not there–too many Latinate words, too much (deliberate?) obscurity, very little charm of rhythm, etc. With Yeats I always responded to the sheer beauty of sound of his lines and language: I always wanted to find out the greater meaning that his beauty had lured me with. In this excellent radio interview I thoroughly enjoyed Helen’s wonderful, richly wise interpretations of Steven’s phrases and ideas ( with the bonus illuminations about Keats, Hardy, Arnold, Eliot, Pound, etc. from Helen’s treasure house of knowledge about other poets) . I enjoyed and was moved by Helen’s thoughtful words more than by Stevens’ ! Her explanations were to me much richer, more evocative than his poems themselves! (The self-effacing interviewer was a master of unobtrusive but insightful questioning.) What a beautiful hour. I listened with my eyes closed. Now I will make sure that a few other friends hear this program too. I have never heard anything quite like it: memorable and to be treasured.

  • Dear Grace:

    Hooray! You found it.

    You’ll want now to listen to the great Vendler on W. B. Yeats, too.


    Thank you for writing,

    Chris Lydon

  • Helen is a prodigy. The undercurrent of her chemistry background accounts for the alchemy of the free flowing continuity on the autobahn, and the more illuminating detours through the glades and chaparrals of her love of life and letters.

    I have heard her presentations on Emily, Yeats and Stevens more than once. And I will continue to re-listen till the dinosaurs come home. I have 40 years of Eng Lit under the belt. That should call for a celebration, Helen. Nothing short of a magnum of the supernaculum, preferably distilled by the Muses.

    More of Helen Vendler please.