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Wallace Stevens: A Spirit Storming

By (February 1, 2012) 7 Comments

One of the ways to love poetry is to share it, ideally with someone you care about. For many years my wife and I had a bedtime ritual of reading a few poems out loud before the – well, you know. Or sometimes after the well you know. We’re not together anymore, and reading the poems now that we read then can be a bit searing. Pe Fung’s favorite poet was Wallace Stevens, whom she studied in a graduate course at New York University before pregnancy and childbirth terminated any further academic plans. And I think I remember reading with her these lines from “The Rock,” in which the elderly Stevens looks back on the courtship of his wife Elsie, who had been as ripe and pearly in her youth as Pe Fung was to me then:

                The words spoken
Were not and are not. It is not to be believed.
The meeting at noon at the edge of the field seems like

An invention, an embrace between one desperate clod
And another in a fantastic consciousness,
In a queer assertion of humanity.

Talk about searing. Yet it’s still strangely comforting to me to read Stevens. The magisterial aesthetician, the abstract reasoner, the obsessive formalist endlessly scrutinizing the gulf between language and reality was also a lonely man who wrote heart-wrenching poems of love, loss, and longing. Stevens’ reputation for difficulty, sometimes thoroughly justified, should deter no one from approaching his many poems of lived experience and elemental pathos. Familiarity with the philosophies of Ernst Casserier and Henri Bergson is not a prerequisite. “You must become an ignorant man again / And see the sun again with an ignorant eye.”

I was born in the year that Wallace Stevens died (1955), a perfectly meaningless coincidence that nonetheless bonds me to a poet who can seem inaccessible. That’s not my only irrational connection with Stevens. In the early 1940s, before the war interrupted their lives, my parents lived in Hartford, Connecticut, a few blocks from the Stevens’ on Westerly Terrace. I like to think they would have occasionally seen him in Elizabeth Park or passed him on his way to and from work as an insurance executive. (And not just any insurance executive – according to one colleague, Wallace Stevens was “the dean of surety-claims men in the whole country.”) Not that either party would have taken much notice. Stevens composed in his head on those walks to work and my parents, like most Americans in 1942, didn’t know who the hell he was. I do recall a volume of the Selected Poems in our library. In his brief, post-war career as an academic, my father couldn’t have escaped Stevens, but as an orthodox, guilt-ridden Catholic, he preferred the agonized mysticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and the early Robert Lowell.

My last irrational connection with Stevens was my participation as an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut in a poetry contest named in his honor and sponsored by his colleagues at the Hartford Indemnity Life Insurance Company. Perhaps if my wretched submission (including a Stevens-like pastiche called “The Committee Against God”) had merited even an Honorable Mention I might have gone on to become Connecticut’s second most celebrated poet. As it was, my failure persuaded me that henceforth I would do better – and find more pleasure and fulfillment in – reading good poems than writing bad ones.

Although Stevens’ poetry about love and its decline resonates all too plangently with me, the tragedy of eros was hardly his only theme. He also wrote about the formation and deformation of language, the interdependence of reality and the imagination, the making of order out of chaos, and the displacement of religious mythologies through art. Stevens scholars aren’t making it up. Their poet really did engage complex philosophical problems in enormously sophisticated ways. But I’ll tell you something: I’m interested less in Wallace Stevens’ metaphysics than in his emotions, and although he sometimes hid the latter in the former, he didn’t hide them carefully enough. That’s why he was a poet.

“Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” a twelve-stanza, semi-comic poem from his first collection, Harmonium (1923), is about such characteristic concerns as the inadequacy of language and the illusiveness of reality. It’s also about the failure of his marriage. Some might argue that a biographical reading of the severely formalist Stevens can only be reductive. My answer to this objection is (a) I don’t care, and (b) despite his native Pennsylvania farm country reticence, Stevens’ poetry is often intensely if disguisedly autobiographical. Obviously no one interested enough in Stevens to read him in the first place would discount the ideas about aesthetics and epistemology so central to his work. But I don’t think the poet would have been shocked to learn that readers find in his lines “a being, breathing frost,” “a spirit storming in blank walls,” as he described his legacy in “A Postcard from the Volcano.” After all, he said so.

It’s not necessary to know that Stevens, the Harvard-educated lawyer, was seven years older than his bride Elsie Moll, the hometown beauty from the not quite respectable family who never had a chance at the education her husband took for granted; or that she preferred Ladies Home Journal to symbolist poetry; or that, as she told the astonished members of Walter Arensberg’s Manhattan salon, “I like Mr. Stevens’ things when they are not affected; but he writes so much that is affected.” (Would prim Elsie Stevens have shared a sofa with Marcel Duchamp or Mina Loy? Although it sounds like the scenario of one of her husband’s more outlandish poems, it must have happened once or twice.) Exactly how their youthful ardor (poignantly expressed in Stevens’ letters and journals) cooled into permanent misunderstanding and strained cohabitation is beyond – and should be beyond – the scope of our knowledge; as Robert Graves wrote of another doomed couple, “the hazards of their love-bed / Were none of our damned business.” Without any foreknowledge of the author’s life, we would still read “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” as the marvelous fantasia on eros that it is. Nevertheless, I’m glad I know a few things about Wallace Stevens’ domestic life. They help me to understand his poetry more intimately, and his poetry helps me to understand myself.

The “Uncle” who narrates the eleven-line stanzas in more or less regular blank verse sees life and his own middle-aged, romantic disillusionment through his monocle; that is, myopically, through a filter. Middle-aged, romantic disillusionment is an inherently comic subject, and so the Uncle “mocks [himself] in magnificent measure.” But it’s not quite so funny if you happen to be the one experiencing the disillusionment. As in most good comedy, the pain leaks through the humor. Which is pretty much how poetry works – why settle for A or B when you can have A and B? (And C and D and E and F.) And if you think poetry is too august to indulge in such practices as laughing to hide the tears, well, you haven’t read “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.”

The Uncle isn’t Stevens exactly; he’s fat and bald and forty, whereas Stevens was merely fat and forty. Elsie by then might have been losing her bloom too. I’ve always felt that Stevens could write about her and his mutual disappointment, secure in the knowledge that she wouldn’t read his work, and if she did, that she wouldn’t understand it. Elsie was right: he was “affected.” But it’s that “affectation,” which, apart from its wit and elegance, allowed him to write about intensely personal feelings without fear of exposure. For the “warty squashes” of stanza VIII are none other than Wallace and Elsie Stevens:

        Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof.
Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
The laughing sky will see the two of us
Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.

Much of Stevens, then, is in the Uncle, and much of the Uncle, I’m afraid, is in me. “The sea of spuming thought foists up again / The radiant bubble that she was.” I wish the sea of spuming thought would stop doing that. But it won’t. Notwithstanding my particular associations with Stevens’ domestic sorrows, “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” is in fact a poem, of which the sad, sublimated story of Elsie and Wallace forms only a part. And the biggest part of all the parts – autobiographical, philosophical, psychological – is language. Stevens, especially the later Stevens, was capable of writing about the plainest things in the plainest style: “Ariel was glad he had written his poems,” “Bad is final in this light,” “Have I lived a skeleton’s life?” But he was also capable of a baroque exuberance that is a delight (most of the time) in itself and that turns form into substance and substance into form, as if in continual reference to the grand theme of reality versus imagination. “Le Monocle” is very much in this baroque vein. It exemplifies what Stevens called “the essential gaudiness of poetry,” as in these lines from stanza XI, where the high-flown rhetoric descends into a slapstick thud:

                    Anguishing hour!
Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,
Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,
Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog
Boomed from his very belly odious chords.

“Anguishing hour!” nicely encapsulates the mood of the poem: half comedy, half agony. There are a few Stevens poems, however, in which the balance is overturned: all agony, no comedy. These poems tended to be “uncollected,” and for good reason. In “The Woman Who Blamed Life on a Spaniard” even Elsie would have known who the woman was and who the Spaniard (“You do not understand her evil mood”). Stevens didn’t want these unguarded poems out there for his wife and the world to see, and critics have mostly obliged him by ignoring them. But if they fail to achieve his usual dialectical balance, they succeed as harrowing depictions of imbalance. “Red Loves Kit”:

        Your yes her no, your no her yes. The words
Make little difference, for being wrong
And wronging her, if only as she thinks,
You never can be right. . . .
That you are innocent
And love her still, still leaves you in the wrong.
Where is that calm and where that ecstasy?
Her words accuse you of adulteries
That sack the sun, though metaphysical.

In the third and last of its fifteen-line stanzas, “Red Loves Kit” backs away from its examination of erotic failure to a vague philosophical cheerleading. The “fecund” and “rapt curious” with which it ends seem more wish fulfillment than poetry. Oh well, they can’t all end with a bang. The problem is that in his retreats from the personal to the impersonal, the air sometimes goes out of Stevens’ poetry. “I am the personal. / Your world is you. I am my world,” declaims the pompous inchling in “Bantams in Pine-Woods.” The bantam is a deluded solipsist, but he’s hilariously alive. Not so “MacCullough” and “major man,” the weighty signifiers of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” One of the aesthetic dicta that govern that poem is “It Must Be Abstract.” I would have preferred “It Can Be Abstract.” To the extent that abstraction allows for the freedom to speculate unconstrainedly and to range across a universe of ideas, Stevens make brilliant use of it in “The Auroras of Autumn” and many other works. At other times, however, he seems to be writing for an audience of one, suggesting, as M. L Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall wrote in The Modern Poetic Sequence, “a mind so swaddled in its ponderings that the poetic instinct mummifies out of sheer empathy with its surroundings.” It seems, then, that I’m not alone in finding the endless discursiveness of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” or “Things of August” a tad deadly. Stevens wrote a lot of poems. I prefer some to others.

So did Stevens. According to “As You Leave the Room,” a late and elegiac summing up, his favorites were “That poem about the pineapple, the one / About the mind as never satisfied, // The one about the credible hero, the one / About summer.” Personally, I like that poem about the blackbirds, the one about the heart as never quiet, the one about the dancing mice, the one about the river in Connecticut. I like the ones that speak to my emotions, the ones that make me feel less lonely, the ones that make me think and wonder. If that sounds too easy, consider the massive simplicity of “The Planet on the Table,” in which Stevens speaks of himself as Ariel (a touching conceit for a man as hulking as he was), looking back on the wondrous edifice of his collected work:

        Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked. . . .

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

If I keep looking for Wallace Stevens the man in these somewhat secretive poems, it’s partly because I wish to discover myself. How autobiographical is “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” for example? Not very. Wallace Stevens, the stolid businessman-lawyer, was not known to have dressed in purple, sprinkled ointment on his beard, or rained golden ointment out of his mind, as does Hoon in that marvelous and mysterious poem. Not exactly Hoon-like myself, I can easily imagine myself “more truly and more strange,” as, for instance, when I read poetry like this:

        Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself. . . .

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.

This extravagant parable of self-creation points to Stevens’ doubleness as businessman-poet. Not to mention our own dividedness. I’m every bit as bourgeois as Stevens was. But my inner Hoon rages.

Diffident by nature and half believing in something “invalid” in his personality, Stevens hid his autobiographical impulses in outlandish titles that constitute the most splendid Table of Contents in American literature: “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch,” “Saint John and the Back Ache,” “The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade,” “Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs.” For all their self-defensive mockery, the titles are valuable clues, revealing as much as they conceal. Consider “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad,” the title of which will remind no one of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “In Memoriam” or “Meditations in Time of Civil War.” The oddness of the title, however, shouldn’t disguise what’s at stake. Something is “bad,” and what’s bad is the pharynx, that is, the voice, the thing that more than any other distinguishes one poet from another. True to its title, the poem depicts a state of spiritual, creative, and even climatological muteness:

        The time of year has grown indifferent.
Mildew of summer and the deepening snow
Are both alike in the routine I know.
I am too dumbly in my being pent.

Not the least of the paradoxes of poetry is that it is often at its best when describing the worst – complex form expressing formlessness or sumptuous language bewailing the failure of language (as in much of T.S. Eliot, for example). Stevens was especially good at depicting failure successfully, so to speak. Whatever else it might mean, the title “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters” falls like three hammer blows. Although the couplets admit a hint of transcendence at the end (“It is here, in this bad, that we reach / The last purity of the knowledge of good”), this wintry landscape of the mind says “no” in ice:

        He is not here, the old sun,
As absent as if we were asleep.

The field is frozen. The leaves are dry.
Bad is final in this light.

In this bleak air the broken stalks
Have arms without hands. They have trunks

Without legs or, for that, without heads.

Poetry for Stevens was a “health”; he usually wasn’t this gloomy. But even the gloomy poems are healthful; there’s nothing “depressing” about Wallace Stevens. How could there be? The masterful use of poetic form to explore disturbing themes expands rather than contracts the consciousness, even in poems as unsettling as “Domination of Black” (“Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks / Came striding”) or “Esthétique du Mal” (“Pain / Audible at noon, pain torturing itself, / Pain killing pain on the very point of pain.”) Stevens was a late romantic, an Emersonian of sorts, believing almost willfully in the secular imagination as the greatest good. Maybe it’s because he was a lonely, unhappily married man living a life of burgherly reticence and routine that he was able to imagine a counter life so rich and strange. I do not know which to prefer, the beauty of pathos or the beauty of transcendence, Stevens’ happy poems or the not-so-happy ones. I’m drawn to Stevens as a poet of disillusionment and personal loss, but his poetry of triumphant self-invention speaks just as powerfully to the Emersonian romantic in me. In fact, my favorite moment in Stevens is the opening section of “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” which, apart from the deplorable title (for which he was justly censured in his time), is an ecstatic vision of spiritual connectedness that invokes and nearly surpasses his great forbear:

        In the far South the sun of autumn is passing
Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.
He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him,
The worlds that were and will be, death and day.
Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end.
His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.

The American sublime! O Father Whitman! Stevens couldn’t sustain this energy – maybe only Whitman could have – and the poem eventually trails off into cloudy abstractions. I’d like to say that doesn’t matter, but it does. I go a little numb when I read lines like “This fat pastiche of Belgian grapes exceeds / The total gala of auburn aureoles.” Such moments bring to mind the claims most consistently made by Stevens’ detractors: that he was cold, that he cared about ideas more than people, that he had no social conscience. There are far too many poems freighted with emotional turbulence to bear out these claims, and while the many meditations on poetry and the imagination may be less urgent, poems such as “The Snow Man” and “Metaphors of a Magnifico” carry a sense of mysterious wonderment along with the philosophical baggage – which isn’t, after all, just baggage. “The Snow Man,” for instance, is loaded with covert autobiography – Stevens’ worrying sense of his personal coldness and of the paradoxical strength to be gained therefrom. It’s also philosophical enough to make my head spin; I’ll never get to the bottom of it. I do know, however, that it brings together affirmation and negation, presence and absence, everything and nothing into a Zen-like whole impossible to comprehend rationally but finally encompassing the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Furthermore, it’s a structural tour-de-force, consisting of one elaborate sentence weaving its way through five tercets of increasing complication. Does it matter to me that Stevens found the inspiration for the poem in one of his winter walks in the Hemlock Forest in the Bronx, where I spent some happy hours when I was young and absurdly in love? Take a guess.

So I think that Stevens’ poetry abundantly overcomes the standard objections to it, including the one about his supposed indifference to politics. He might have worried about the literary treatment of war and poverty more than he did about war and poverty, but World War II and the Depression are felt realities in such poems as “The Men That Are Falling” or “Examination of the Hero in a Time of War” or “The Man on the Dump.” Still, the usual proviso applies: don’t read the Complete Works. I tried and got bogged down somewhere around “The Pure Good of Theory.” Stevens wrote great poems from the beginning to the end of his long career. Although there aren’t many bad ones, after a while some of the poems about poetry and metaphor begin to seem like shoptalk rather than the expansive projections of inner experience that, taken individually, they usually are. I am far from believing that Stevens disdained the common life. But if the poet is, as he wrote in an essay on his friend William Carlos Williams, “the hermit who dwells alone with the sun and moon, but insists on taking a rotten newspaper,” I sometimes wish there were a little less sun and moon and a little more rotten newspaper. For that reason I will always prefer the essay “Surety and Fidelity Claims” to his lectures on aesthetics in The Necessary Angel. The lectures, as magisterial as you would expect, are all sun and moon. In “Surety and Fidelity Claims” we get the rotten newspaper. In spite of the “immense amount of money,” Stevens writes:

        you never see a dollar. You sign a lot of drafts. You see surprisingly few
people. You do the greater part of your work either in your own office
or in lawyers’ offices. You don’t even see the country; you see law offices
and hotel rooms. You try to do your traveling at night and often do it
night after night. You wind up by knowing every county court house
in the United States.

Maybe it’s to be regretted that Stevens never wrote a poem about surety claims. Although he downplayed the gulf between his business life and his creative life, it’s still hard to fathom that the author of “Peter Quince at the Clavier” and “The Auroras of Autumn” was the well-paid, highly respected vice president of a major insurance company, many of whose employees were unaware until quite late that the head of the Fidelity and Surety Claims Department was a prize-winning poet. In the late “First Warmth” he wondered poignantly, “Have I lived a skeleton’s life, / As a questioner about reality, // A countryman of all the bones in the world?” No he hadn’t. For all its disappointments and frustrations, his was a life with rich compensatory satisfactions. It must have felt pretty nice to write “The Idea of Order at Key West.” If he remained a lonely and somewhat insecure man, he put that loneliness and insecurity to use in many of his best poems. No more than any of us, he never quite figured out “How To Live. What To Do,” but as that characteristic title shows, he believed that poetry could get us a little closer to the goal. A reader new to Stevens might understandably wonder how such a title could possibly relate to lines like the following:

        Last evening the moon rose above this rock
Impure upon a world unpurged.
The man and his companion stopped
To rest before the heroic height. . . .

There was neither voice nor crested image,
No chorister, nor priest. There was
Only the great height of the rock
And the two of them standing still to rest.

There was the cold wind and the sound
It made, away from the muck of the land
That they had left, heroic sound
Joyous and jubilant and sure.

But actually the poem does suggest ways in which we might live – firstly, without chorister or priest, that is, without religious sanction; secondly, not alone (“The man and his companion”); and thirdly, with a heroic steadfastness in the face of primal earthly realities. More than anything latent in the content, however, the poem teaches us how to live and what to do merely by being there. To read it, to hear its music, to ponder its mystery is already to live and to do fairly intensely. There are equally intense ways of living and doing – maybe investigating surety claims is one of them, or cultivating orchids, or teaching kindergartners. But reading poetry is one of the things I do that helps me to live my life.

In “Esthétique du Mal” Stevens wrote:

        Life is a bitter aspic. We are not
At the centre of a diamond. At dawn,
The paratroopers fall and as they fall
They mow the lawn.

There are many possible interpretations of these lines, but here’s one that I like: we need all the help we can get. That lovely bedtime ritual that I mentioned earlier lasted a long time. And then it stopped. One night Pe Fung turned away from me, and she never turned back. No more Stevens, no more poetry, and eventually, no more love. It’s pretty hard to find solace in even the greatest poetry for a loss like that. Poetry by no means corresponds with life point by point. Imagination, vision, influence, and technique matter every bit as much as joy or sorrow. Still, none of the words would mean much if we hadn’t lived them first. The words may be “of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman / Combing,” as Stevens wrote in “Of Modern Poetry.” Or they may be of loneliness, loss, and desolation. Poetry delivers the bad news and the good with equal aplomb. Generally speaking, poets have experienced everything you have. Sometimes they write about it.

Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.