Reviews — From the June 2016 issue

The Grand Poem

Notes toward an understanding of Wallace Stevens

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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.

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’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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