Author Bio

Wallace Stevens, Poet of the Month

posted: 10.5.09 by archived

Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879—130 years ago—and led what seemed, on the surface, a rather ordinary life.

Educated at Harvard, he became a lawyer and spent his life practicing law, eventually becoming vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co.  While leading the daily life of a lawyer, Stevens produced some of the most important American poetry written in the twentieth century—composing lines in his head while walking to work in the morning and writing them down at night. Like composer Charles Ives, Wallace Stevens happily joined work and art, turning down a professorship at Harvard to remain at his firm. Widespread recognition came late, just a year before Stevens’s death in 1955, when his Collected Poems was published.

The Poetry Foundation’s biography summarizes Stevens’s talents: “an extraordinary vocabulary, a flair for memorable phrasing, an accomplished sense of imagery, and the ability to both lampoon and philosophize.” Stevens is frequently regarded as a difficult poet—his poems are opaque and philosophical, his images whimsical, his language complex—but the visceral power of his words is on display in his recordings of his poems, like this one of “To the One of Fictive Music” (with some creative animation):

(See also recordings of Stevens’s poems here and here, as well as these two clips from a documentary.)

Though appreciation of Stevens’s poetry was a long time coming, it is now near universal. Stevens’s Selected Poems, recently published by Knopf, has garnered a lot of attention and occasioned reassertions of Stevens’s place in the pantheon of modern poetry.  “[W]hen we hear the sound of Stevens in poems by subsequent poets,” James Longenbach writes in The Nation, “it is most often the music of austerity, at once worldly and otherworldly, that we hear.”

Reviewing the book in the Times, Helen Vendler makes the case for Stevens as the poet of our age:

Stevens’s conscience made him confront the chief issues of his era: the waning of religion, the indifferent nature of the  physical universe, the theories of Marxism and socialist realism, the effects of the Depression, the uncertainties of    philosophical knowledge, and the possibility of a profound American culture, present and future. Others treated those issues, but very few of them possessed Stevens’s intuitive sense of both the intimate and the sublime, articulated in verse of unprecedented invention, phrased in a marked style we now call “Stevensian” (as we would say “Keatsian” or “Yeatsian”). In the end, he arrived at a firm sense of a universe dignified by human endeavor but surrounded always—as in the magnificent sequence “The Auroras of Autumn”—by the “innocent” creations and destructions within the universe of which he is part.

Happy 130th, Wallace Stevens!

Activity

1. As noted above, Stevens was unique in his ability write great poems while achieving success in the legal world. Why is this so rare? Are poets opposed to work? Consider some poems that deal with the mundane world of work—perhaps “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Gray or “The Unknown Citizen” by Auden—and discuss how the poets conceive of this work as related to their craft.

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Creative Writing, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature
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2 Responses to “Wallace Stevens, Poet of the Month”

  1. nick courage, AMR Says:

    good to remember one of the greats – happy 131st, Wallace!

  2. Carolyn S. Poole, Motlow State Says:

    When I first met the poetry of Wallace Stevens it both intrigued and puzzled me. Although at that time, I was not a big fan of any poetry his poetry I could not put down. I kept reading it and writing about it. I read his “Letters” (compiled and edited by his daughter, Holly Stevens) and anything he wrote about poetry or interpretation. (My favorite is “The Necessary Angel.”) Eventually I wrote my master’s thesis about the sound, color, and motion imagery I find in Wallace Stevens’s poetry. In the past when I have spoken of Wallace Stevens, I have been met with the inquiry, “Who is Wallace Stevens?” It is sad that his recognition and fame came posthumosly. It is wonderful that so many people now have discovered the answer to their inquiry. I cannot wait to tell my English Composition students that MY poet is poet of the month! He does, indeed, deserve a place among the great poets–not only modern poets but all poets. Happy Birthday, my beloved poet!