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Notes toward an understanding of Wallace Stevens

Discussed in this essay:

The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, by Paul Mariani. Simon & Schuster. 496 pages. $30.

The poetry of Wallace Stevens provides one of the richest accounts in literature of what it feels like, over time, to be left alone with one’s mind. Stevens is a poet of intellectualized feeling and compassionate intellection; his poems are driven by what he feels about what he thinks, a state of consuming alertness to the contents of his mind that feeds our own alertness as we read him. He is the foremost American poet of silent reading, describing its pleasures and challenges in poems intended to be read silently, their severe difficulties worked out in private dialogue with the page.

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

But Stevens is also a poet of participatory privacy — the “Continual Conversation with a Silent Man” he describes in his poem of that name. He remarked that the poet wrote poetry in order “to help people to live their lives”; he did this by “filling the imagination’s need,” and by making the imagination required to understand his poems the subject of his poems. In “Imago,” from his late collection The Auroras of Autumn (1950), Stevens attributes to “medium man” — not a hero, not a poet — the ability to hear “the imagination’s hymns” and see “its images, its motions / And multitude of motions.” He is in some sense always writing for this “medium man,” for whom the imagination, perpetually in danger of total depletion, must be stocked and inventoried daily. Almost alone among American poets, he directly ties our happiness, even our survival, to the stormy imperatives of imaginative life.

A full case cannot be made for Stevens only on the basis of the few poems that remain well known and anthologized, most of which are from his first book, Harmonium (1923). He had considered calling the volume THE GRAND POEM: Preliminary Minutiae, but reversed himself and instructed Alfred Knopf, via telegram, to “USE HARMONIUM.” When he published his Collected Poems several decades later, he again toyed with a title that suggested, clumsily, the idea that all his poems were a single composition: The Whole Harmonium. (Mercifully, Knopf said no.) The poems are intervals of thought within an ongoing, lifelong consideration, like seconds that add up to the minutes, hours, and days they divide. The early works are shadowed by later poems, as yet unwritten. “One poem proves another and the whole,” Stevens says. It was true even at the start, when the “whole” was ghostly and notional.

A harmonium is a pump organ, small and portable, invented in Europe but perfected and played mainly in America, often to accompany hymns sung at home. As a title, the word comically gestures toward the limits of those early poems, limits that only their author, intuiting later performances, could detect. It also calls to mind Stevens’s mother, Margaretha Catharine Zeller Stevens, who played piano and sang religious songs in his childhood home in Reading, Pennsylvania. It is possible to see the entirety of Harmonium as an elegy for Margaretha, the figure in “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” whose “horny feet” protrude from beneath the “sheet / On which she embroidered fantails once.” When I was taught “Emperor” in high school, it was presented as an example of sublime lunacy, a poem that meant nothing but sounded great: a feast for the ear, a famine for the mind. This is true, up to a point, but it misses the pathos of the poem, which recalls Stevens’s journal entry about the last time he saw his mother alive, in 1912, when he was thirty-two: “I saw her sleeping under a red blanket in the old blue-room. She looked unconscious. — I remember very well that she used to dress in that room, when she was younger, sitting on the floor to button her shoes, with everything she wore . . . so fresh and clean, and she herself so vigorous and alive.”

The hymns, the piety, the handmade domesticity of his childhood: Harmonium transforms them so as to protect their virtues, rather than reject them out of hand. The poems in the book are, therefore, secularized but never secular; Americanized, but with the fringes of Europe visible; individuated, private, and elegiac. Many of them associate themselves with an American uncouthness that Stevens, who aimed for refinement in his manners and his mind, recognized in himself. As great as the poems are, they seem to be leading to what Helen Vendler, in “The False and True Sublime,” called a “perpetual self-diminishment in a long self-deprecating career.” To wryly cast himself as a “comedian,” as he does in “The Comedian as the Letter C,” or a bantam rooster, as he does in “Bantams in Pine-Woods,” or even the sensualist woman in “Sunday Morning,” is in part a way of preempting the reader’s suspicion that these performances are final and definitive. They all point to later, less guarded formulations.

Most music played on the harmonium was composed for the pipe organ: it is an accommodation, a close-enough version of a much grander instrument. Such parlor entertainments were already on the wane by the time Stevens published his first book, replaced by phonographs, and later by radios and TVs. Harmonium is parlor entertainment internalized, a hurly-burly staged for the mind, full of words most Americans wouldn’t want to be forced to try and pronounce, much less define. R. P. Blackmur made a list in his early, influential review of the book: “fubbed, girandoles, curlicues, catarrhs, gobbet, diaphanes, clopping, minuscule, pipping, panicles, carked, ructive, rapey, cantilene, buffo, fiscs, phylactery, princox, and . . . funest.” These words were “definitely meant,” Blackmur wrote; none of them were “used preciously.” I’ve never been able to keep the meanings of some of these words straight; I am not likely to use princox (“a confident young man”) or funest (“fatal”) in my everyday conversation. These are all words encountered in books, some of them in quite obscure books; if I had to guess, I would say that Stevens himself had never spoken many of them aloud before they ended up festooning his poems. They provide visual variety and surprise on the page, where most of them will forever remain, too brittle for spoken discourse. The pun was beneath him, but it must at least have occurred to Stevens that he came from a place called Reading.

Paul Mariani’s new biography, The Whole Harmonium, reminds us of Stevens’s habitual solitude, which the poet sometimes fearsomely patrolled and enforced. He was the child of a man who, Stevens once said, “wanted quiet, and in that quiet to create a life of his own.” The silence was costly: Garrett Stevens, a successful lawyer, died at sixty-three, after a nervous breakdown nine years earlier badly weakened him; Stevens’s brother John once hurled an axe at the future poet. Stevens’s own solitude was partly an act of charity toward those he feared he would injure or sadden. As Vendler points out, the poet spent most of his twenties alone in New York, where, he said, he knew “a half-dozen men & no women.” He seemed most to enjoy endless walks in the country, recording in his journals treks as long as forty-two miles. He often visited the Palisades on the banks of the Hudson, where he found brooks and thrushes and patches of goldenrod. Around this time, he worked as a journalist for the New York Herald and wrote little poetry; he was forty-three when Harmonium was published. By then, his career as an insurance man was already well under way, while his marriage to Elsie Kachel, an uneducated girl from Reading, had grown chilly and silent. Their daughter, Holly, was born in 1924, and Stevens again stopped writing. He was past fifty before he took up poetry again in a regular way, and published the bulk of his large canon in the last twenty-five years of his life.

Stevens never stopped taking walks, setting out early and returning late, as a way of synchronizing his rhythms to the motions of the day. There is a clue in this to the essential pleasures of his work. Stevens wrote so much so late in his life, and in such a compressed span of time, that his poems give the feeling of a day-by-day history of the mind. His work shares this effect with that of his spirit twin, Emily Dickinson. We think of both as poets of windows and bedrooms, gardens and grounds, angles of light, fluctuations of weather. Both inhabited fine houses where silences were often unsettling. There are of course important differences between them, but both Dickinson and Stevens used the minute changes of familiar landscapes and preferred times of day to make extraordinary claims for the mind’s powers of transfiguration. Take the late poem “Song of Fixed Accord,” in which Stevens transforms the pique of an elderly man awakened every morning by the cooing of a dove (“she”) into his own song:

Softly she piped among the suns
And their ordinary glare,

The sun of five, the sun of six,
Their ordinariness,
And the ordinariness of seven,
Which she accepted,
Like a fixed heaven,

Not subject to change . . .
Day’s invisible beginner,
The lord of love and of sooth sorrow,
Lay on the roof
And made much within her.

“The real is only the base,” Stevens wrote in “Adagia,” a collection of enigmatic axioms that was published in Opus Posthumous (1957). “But it is the base.” The real is where a poet begins — it is the base on which the poem is built. But it is also where he ends: the poem he has composed is added to what Blackmur called “the available stock of reality.” More often in Stevens, in fact, “reality” marks the end product of conscious effort and design, a firm “base” where none existed before. He had good reason to think of reality as an artifact rather than a given. His marriage was a failure: Elsie, who was chosen for her guilelessness and beauty, had what her daughter described as a “persecution complex.” She rejected Stevens’s poetry almost from the start; she saw his work — which so many have viewed as abstract and impersonal — as a betrayal of their privacy. To her its meanings were perhaps all too clear. Holly disappointed Stevens, a lifelong Republican and habitué of the patrician Hartford Canoe Club, by running off with a Communist. Stevens’s career at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he was feared and admired in equal measure, became more and more of a drain on his creative life. Nevertheless, he recognized the necessity of routine and turned down an appointment to deliver the Norton Lectures at Harvard for fear he wouldn’t return to his day job.

According to Stevens, the conditions of reality establish the conditions for the imagination, which ostensibly transcends the real before it settles into poems, whose words and forms predate the audacious imaginative flights they embody. This cycle is as fixed and deterministic as a Ferris wheel, but there is amnesia built into the process, so it always feels final. Otherwise the elation going up might not be so profound, the disappointment going down so devastating. Stevens’s characteristic form, in his mature work, is the three-line stanza, inherited from Dante, Tennyson, and others; as his intelligence moves through these little spheres, it experiences countless beginnings and endings, until the two are synonymous and inseparable. This is a disaster for beginnings, which are seen as veiled endings, but an extraordinary boon for endings, which are reconceived as fresh starts. Stevens’s many poems of what he once called “the earliest ending of winter” give the essence of these important recastings. “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself” is the last poem printed in his Collected Poems. It begins with an ending:

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

The “scrawny cry” appears again at the end of the poem:

That scrawny cry—it was
a chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Like the other poems that Stevens wrote during his last years, “Not Ideas About the Thing” bequeaths to the reader the sensation of starting over, even in a moment of finality. They invest in their readers the imperative to renewal now denied their author, who wrote them with an understanding that they would soon speak for him from beyond the grave.

What I find unique in Stevens is the intensity of emotion that builds in his poems, crests in an image or phrase, and then reverberates, as though the poems delivered him, in the moment, into fresh desires and despairs. This self-generating, self-canceling imagination, aware of the powers it possesses, often describes its own transformations. The second section of “Prologues to What Is Possible,” another late poem, describes “the smallest lamp which added its puissant flick” to the world, and which Stevens, in turn, elevates into a natural force of renovation:

A flick which added to what was real and its vocabulary,
The way some first thing coming into Northern trees
Adds to them the whole vocabulary of the South,
The way the earliest single light in the evening sky, in spring,
Creates a fresh universe out of nothingness by adding itself,
The way a look or a touch reveals its unexpected magnitudes

“Desires” and “despairs”: those terms are Vendler’s, and they capture, even in their sonic resemblance, the inevitability of one becoming the other. The poems don’t report back from this predicament — they are the cause of it. They were the primary grounds in Stevens’s life for both joy and pain, for expectation and regret, for insight and torpor. The poems are the experience they describe, which is why “poem” is synonymous with “life,” as Stevens demonstrates, and why it is mistaken to denigrate these poems, the way people sometimes do, as being only about themselves.

A biography of Stevens has to defy this life–art dichotomy — and the idea that the former somehow explains the latter — not only because his poems are synonymous with life but because his work delivers, in the obdurate terms of form and symbol, an account of his life that no biographical exposé could ever approximate. It’s all there, including the effects on those closest to him of his self-expression, which often seemed like a form of exclusion or self-protection. Everything we need to know about his parents can be found in the title poem from The Auroras of Autumn, whose tableaux of domesticity suggest both the child’s vulnerability to adult power and the old poet’s despair that time has consumed not only his mother and father but much of his memory of them. Margaretha becomes “the mother” (intervening time has turned her into an archetype or symbol), Garrett becomes “the father,” the very image of patriarchal despotism. The poem explores poetry’s capacity to reinvest memories with vividness:

Farewell to an idea . . . The mother’s face,
The purpose of the poem, fills the room.
They are together, here, and it is warm,

With none of the prescience of oncoming dreams,
It is evening. The house is evening, half dissolved.
Only the half they can never possess remains,

Still-starred. It is the mother they possess,
Who gives transparence to their present peace.
She makes that gentler that can gentle be.

And yet she too is dissolved, she is destroyed.
She gives transparence. But she has grown old.
The necklace is a carving not a kiss.

The soft hands are a motion not a touch.
The house will crumble and the books will burn.
They are at ease in a shelter of the mind

And the house is of the mind and they and time,
Together, all together. Boreal night
Will look like frost as it approaches them

And to the mother as she falls asleep
And as they say good-night, good-night. Upstairs
The windows will be lighted, not the rooms.

These are, for me, the greatest lines ever written by an American poet, the definitive description of the definitive moment in a person’s life, the death of his mother. The deathbed, recalled (or perhaps imagined, since the scene is a composite of views) nearly forty years later, is itself the site of painful recollection: the mother’s “soft hands” can only be seen, not felt; the house, half-dark as it often is when a child goes up to bed, is here also “half-dissolved,” the constituent elements of the family having wandered off or died. The talismanic “necklace” that dangled as his mother kissed him when she tucked him in is now a “carving,” a lifeless artifact.

Mariani has written biographies of some of the towering figures in poetry — Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Berryman, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell. The fact that all of them are men and many of them Catholics, or at least tempted by Catholicism (as Stevens seems to have been, late in life), suggests the fullness of the identification that Mariani, himself a poet and a Catholic, often expresses in these books. I’ve consulted all of them over the years, occasionally wincing at their tendency to break into hype. But this book is his best, and it performs a valuable service — it is the first substantial biography of Stevens since Joan Richardson’s two-volume work, published in the late Eighties, which was marred by her far-fetched Freudian readings of the poetry. Here, in Mariani’s book, are the facts, laid out economically and clearly. But here, too, is evidence that Stevens has moved him, that he is not taken in by the severe narrowing of Stevens’s genius that began when Robert Frost accused him, in 1940, of being a poet of mere “bric-a-brac.” Understanding Stevens seems to have been a lifelong work for Mariani, who was wise to wait until late in life to write this book.

But the book sometimes slights the everyday Stevens, whose experience rarely rises to the level of what we consider experience: walks in Hartford’s Elizabeth Park, a bedroom (he and Elsie slept in separate rooms most of their lives) with its mementos of a lifetime of imagining Europe, his office life among the insurance men. These were so much more important to his achievement than his manly correspondences with old friends, his occasional letters on aesthetics and poetry, his rare public acclaim. Stevens wrote most of his poems in a house on Westerly Terrace in Hartford, which recently sold for slightly more than $400,000 to a private buyer, after a failed attempt to turn it into a museum. You can see the rooms, largely the way I imagine they were when Stevens died, on various online real-estate sites. Picturing this man moving from room to room, his bedroom facing west, his garden planted with rhododendrons and azaleas, augments our understanding of the work. Biographers ought to spend less time on Stevens’s ideas and more on his haberdashery or his love of oranges from Seville. Mariani has written, in part, an intellectual biography of a man whose ideas were inherent in the objects surrounding him, the relations of those objects to one another and to him.

I remember a retired professor once telling me that, though I preferred Stevens to Robert Frost — as I do, barely — I would never be able to sustain that preference into old age. I was surprised by this, partly because Stevens’s old-age poetry is vastly superior to Frost’s. I am about the age Stevens was when he published Harmonium: the work he left is a guide to middle age and old age, when time and the seasons, largely an abstraction to the young, become, as Stevens put it, “blooded.” You have to want ordinary life to mean something to understand this work, and it means something only when you see it start to end. Only then do passages such as the following, from “Esthétique du Mal,” published in Transport to Summer (1947), mean what they were meant to mean, however ravishing they may be to readers in their early twenties. Stevens has been contemplating the problem of evil and its absence from thought, “the death of Satan,” and the resulting heedless, unpunished, large-scale evil we see but can do nothing to abate:

One might have thought of sight, but who could think
Of what it sees, for all the ill it sees?
Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound,
But the dark italics it could not propound.
And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.

Stevens is rare among poets for having concluded his career, completing the “Grand Poem” he envisioned. “Who could have thought to make / So many selves, so many sensuous worlds”? He had to know that one good answer to his question was, simply, that he had.

’s most recent book is Bicentennial: Poems (Knopf). His essay “Heads Will Roll” appeared in the December 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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