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.
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.