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Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens was one of the greatest American poets and remains one of the world's foremost writers and modernists. The following introduction has been generously provided by Tom Merrill.

I guess one impression I have of Wallace Stevens, whose uniqueness as a poet is undeniable, is an eternal brand-newness. No matter how much I re-read him, quite a bit remains external, and there's much in him I suspect I'll never be able to go back to in the way one returns to fond and familiar things. But if a fair fraction of his writing has an eye-blurring elusiveness that can easily be used to suppress consciousness—I in fact owe him quite a debt for all the times he has helped me get to sleep—that is by no means the whole—nor is it the main—story, nor is it at all intended as a slight to this remarkable poet. The fact remains that I do go back to him, time and again enticed by a strangeness that is still compelling, and driven by a desire to get to know him better.

Certainly on ultimate themes, such as death and the human predicament, he writes with considerable power and feeling—and starkly and without illusion—and these are some of his poetry's recurrent preoccupations. His morbid side was strong, he had an acute tragic sensibility, and in quite a few of his poems the wail breaches and is exquisitely expressed, and there is an immense sense of desolation. With regard to some pieces of his in which the themes are not as palpable, I flatter myself that I've now and then been able to read his mind, as it were, or get a lucky glimpse of a sort of inside joke that was lurking behind the smokescreen or symbolic curtain. A sort of jolly irreverence comes through in much of his writing—a sort of nose-thumbing indifference to the expected, and to all arguments against his seeing and describing things in his own proudly peculiar way. But if he leaned toward a style that sometimes seems to revel in its independence, and in its obliqueness; and if he left us his share of indomitable text; it is still possible to love those we don't always understand—and there is more than enough sense and realism in Stevens to nourish a mind hungry for a vision without blinders. So despite any obstacles, I've collected a number of fond reminiscences of this complex and extraordinary writer, several of which are shared below, and many of which appeal to me very much.

But I think it would be fair to say that popularity wasn't Stevens' objective. I personally see him as part of that ongoing tradition of groundbreaking literary endeavor that has been carried on over the past century and more by several of his alma mater's bright lights. Among other Harvard-trained writers of his own era who took off into unexplored poetic territory were Eliot, cummings, Gertrude Stein certainly—and I guess Harvard's most recent contender for the Pioneer Award in poetry must be John Ashbery. Still, as I remember another famous Harvardian putting it, "The trouble with most new things is that they are incapable of becoming old"; and that observation—which I've hopefully remembered somewhat accurately—of George Santayana, whom Stevens had in mind when he wrote his valediction and poetic tribute "To An Old Philosopher in Rome," I think hits the nail right on the head, and seems to express my own reaction, at this stage in my studies anyway, to a fair portion of the Stevens corpus. But I feel amply compensated for my efforts by the rest of that corpus.

If Stevens can be a very difficult poet, and if a chunk of his writing is destined to remain brand new, by which I guess I mean no more familiar on the tenth reading than it was on the first (and I mean "no more familiar" in the most literal of ways: "Have I ever seen these words before?"—but who knows, this may mean nothing more than that the reader's memory is becoming a sieve), one thing that can never be taken away from Stevens is his high command of language. I hear clear echoes in some of his poems of Shakespeare, Eliot, Pound, even Shelley, all of whose writings he obviously knew quite well, and some of whose more famous themes are revisited, and handsomely recast in his own poetry's more searching and solemn passages. And unlike the work of some moderns who claim descent from his poetic lineage, Stevens' poems bear all the evidence of his own testimony in one of them: "tuned and tuned and tuned," as they would have to have been to have their syntactic complexity and such an impressively smooth-working integration of all their unusual parts. And it is his masterly manipulation and control of language that for me at least, probably accounts as much as anything for his continuing allure, and even the promise of future rewards.

As a final note, I should add that a number of his poems are truly amusing. Caprice was often his modus operandi, and he had quite a flair for it, and a fine wit and wonderful sense of humor. The final line of "The Old Lutheran Bells At Home" all by itself is worth the price of admission to his comedy theatre. But there are many priceless lines. And his titles as well are quite often a hoot. That he won some of the more coveted prizes—the Bollingen, the Pulitzer—despite notoriously ignoring the literary world of his day, is no surprise considering his one-of-a-kindness and linguistic virtuosity, and I have no doubt at all they were well deserved. Like cummings, Eliot, Hopkins and other novelistic and remarkably original poets, he has no poetic offspring that really resemble him much. If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, one may have to flatter such writers in less sincere ways—but less likely by choice than by necessity.

The Reader

All night I sat reading a book,
Sat reading as if in a book
Of sombre pages.

It was autumn and falling stars
Covered the shrivelled forms
Crouched in the moonlight.

No lamp was burning as I read,
A voice was mumbling, "Everything
Falls back to coldness,

Even the musky muscadines,
The melons, the vermilion pears
Of the leafless garden."

The sombre pages bore no print
Except the trace of burning stars
In the frosty heaven.

Madame La Fleurie

Weight him down, O side-stars, with the great weightings of the end.
Seal him there. He looked in a glass of the earth and thought he lived in it.
Now, he brings all that he saw into the earth, to the waiting parent.
His crisp knowledge is devoured by her, beneath a dew.

Weight him, weight, weight him with the sleepiness of the moon.
It was only a glass because he looked in it. It was nothing he could be told.
It was a language he spoke, because he must, yet did not know.
It was a page he had found in the handbook of heartbreak.

The black fugatos are strumming the blacknesses of black . . .
The thick strings stutter the finial gutturals.
He does not lie there remembering the blue-jay, say the jay.
His grief is that his mother should feed on him, himself and what he saw,
In that distant chamber, a bearded queen, wicked in her dead light.

The World Is Larger in Summer

          —from "Two Illustrations that the World Is What You Make Of It"

He left half a shoulder and half a head
To recognize him in after time.

These marbles lay weathering in the grass
When the summer was over, when the change

Of summer and of the sun, the life
Of summer and the sun, were gone.

He had said that everything possessed
The power to transform itself, or else,

And what meant more, to be transformed.
He discovered the colors of the moon

In a single spruce, when, suddenly,
The tree stood dazzling in the air

And blue broke on him from the sun,
A bullioned blue, a blue abulge,

Like daylight, with time's bellishings.
And sensuous summer stood full-height.

The master of the spruce, himself,
Became transformed. But his mastery

Left only the fragments found in the grass,
From his project, as finally magnified.

Valley Candle

My candle burned alone in the immense valley.
Beams of the huge night converged upon it,
Until the wind blew.
Then beams of the huge night
Converged upon its image,
Until the wind blew.

Idiom Of The Hero

I heard two workers say, "This chaos
Will soon be ended."

This chaos will not be ended,
The red and the blue house blended,

Not ended, never and never ended,
The weak man mended,

The man that is poor at night

Like the man that is rich and right.
The great men will not be blended . . .

I am the poorest of all,
I know that I cannot be mended,

Out of the clouds, pomp of the air,
By which at least I am befriended.


          from "Esthetique du Mal"

How red the rose that is the soldier's wound,
The wounds of many soldiers, the wounds of all,
The soldiers that have fallen, red in blood,
The soldier of time grown deathless in great size.

A mountain in which no ease is ever found,
Unless indifference to deeper death
Is ease, stands in the dark, a shadow's hill,
And there the soldier of time has deathless rest.

Concentric circles of shadows, motionless
Of their own part, yet moving on the wind,
Form mystical convolutions in the sleep
Of time's red soldier deathless on his bed.

The shadows of his fellows ring him round
In the high night, the summer breathes for them
Its fragrance, a heavy somnolence, and for him,
For the soldier of time, it breathes a summer sleep,

In which his wound was good because life was.
No part of him was ever part of death.
A woman smoothes her forehead with her hand
And the soldier of time lies calm beneath that stroke.

The Creations of Sound

If the poetry of X was music,
So that it came to him of its own,
Without understanding, out of the wall

Or in the ceiling, in sounds not chosen,
Or chosen quickly, in a freedom
That was their element, we should not know

That X is an obstruction, a man
Too exactly himself, and that there are words
Better without an author, without a poet,

Or having a separate author, a different poet,
An accretion from ourselves, intelligent
Beyond intelligence, an artificial man

A distance, a secondary expositor,
A being of sound, whom one does not approach
Through any exaggeration. From him, we collect.

Tell X that speech is not dirty silence
Clarified. It is silence made dirtier.
It is more than an imitation for the ear.

He lacks this venerable complication.
His poems are not of the second part of life.
They do not make the visible a little hard

To see nor, reverberating, eke out the mind
On peculiar horns, themselves eked out
By the spontaneous particulars of sound.

We do not say ourselves like that in poems.
We say ourselves in syllables that rise
From the floor, rising in speech we do not speak.

The Old Lutheran Bells at Home

These are the voices of the pastors calling
In the names of St. Paul and of the halo-John
And of other holy and learned men, among them

Great choristers, propounders of hymns, trumpeters,
Jerome and the scrupulous Francis and Sunday women,
The nurses of the spirit's innocence.

These are the voices of the pastors calling
Much rough-end being to smooth Paradise,
Spreading out fortress walls like fortress wings.

Deep in their sound the stentor Martin sings.
Dark Juan looks outward through his mystic brow . . .
Each sexton has his sect. The bells have none.

These are the voices of the pastors calling
And calling like the long echoes in long sleep,
Generations of shepherds to generations of sheep.

Each truth is a sect though no bells ring for it.
And the bells belong to the sextons, after all,
As they jangle and dangle and kick their feet.

Gray Stones And Gray Pigeons

The archbishop is away. The church is gray.
He has left his robes folded in camphor
And, dressed in black, he walks
Among fireflies.

The bony buttresses, the bony spires
Arranged under the stony clouds
Stand in a fixed light.
The bishop rests.

He is away. The church is gray.
This is his holiday.
The sexton moves with a sexton's stare
In the air.

A dithery gold falls everywhere.
It wets the pigeons,
It goes and the birds go,
Turn dry,

Birds that never fly
Except when the bishop passes by,
Globed in today and tomorrow,
Dressed in his colored robes.

The Death Of A Soldier

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn,
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.


          from "The Man With The Blue Guitar"

He held the world upon his nose
And this-a-way he gave a fling.

His robes and symbols, ai-yi-yi—
And that-a-way he twirled the thing.

Sombre as fir trees, liquid cats,
Moved in the grass without a sound.

They did not know the grass went round.
The cats had cats and the grass turned gray

And the world had worlds, ai, this-a-way:
The grass turned green and the grass turned gray.

And the nose is eternal, that-a-way.
Things as they were, things as they are.

Things as they will be by and by . . .
A fat thumb beats out ai-yi-yi.

The Hand As A Being

In the first canto of the final canticle,
Too conscious of too many things at once,
Our man beheld the naked, nameless dame,

Seized her and wondered: why beneath the tree
She held her hand before him in the air,
For him to see, wove round her glittering hair.

Too conscious of too many things at once,
In the first canto of the final canticle,
Her hand composed him and composed the tree.

The wind had seized the tree and ha, and ha,
It held the shivering, the shaken limbs,
Then bathed its body in the leaping lake.

Her hand composed him like a hand appeared,
Of an impersonal gesture, a stranger's hand.
He was too conscious of too many things

In the first canto of the final canticle.
Her hand took his and drew it near to her.
Her hand fell on him and the mi-bird flew

To the ruddier bushes at the garden's end.
Of her, of her alone, at last he knew
And lay beside her underneath the tree.

Some Friends From Pascagoula

Tell me more of the eagle, Cotton,
And you, black Sly,
Tell me how he descended
Out of the morning sky,

Describe with deepened voice
And noble imagery
His slowly-falling round
Down to the fishy sea.

Here was a sovereign sight,
Fit for a kinky clan.
Tell me again of the point
At which the flight began,

Say how his heavy wings,
Spread on the sun-bronzed air,
Turned tip and tip away,
Down to the sand, the glare

Of the pine trees edging the sand,
Dropping in sovereign rings
Out of his fiery lair.
Speak of the dazzling wings.

Bantams in Pine-Woods

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,

Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.

Song of Fixed Accord

Rou-cou spoke the dove,
Like the sooth lord of sorrow,
Of sooth love and sorrow,
And a hail-bow, hail-bow,
To this morrow.

She lay upon the roof,
A little wet of wing and woe,
And she rou-ed there,
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 sooth sorrow,
Lay on the roof,
And made much within her.


          —from "Sunday Morning"

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay."
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old despondency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

1.  The Pigeons

          —from "Street Songs," published in the Centennial Anthology of The Harvard Advocate,
             and written by Stevens while still an undergraduate.

Over the houses and into the sky
  And into the dazzling light,
Long hosts of fluttering pigeons fly
  Out of the blackened night,
Over the houses and into the sky
  On glistening wings of white.

Over the city and into the blue
  From ledge and tower and dome,
They rise and turn and turn anew,
  And like fresh clouds they roam,
Over the city and into the blue
  And into their airy home.

The Dwarf

Now it is September and the web is woven.
The web is woven and you have to wear it.

The winter is made and you have to bear it,
The winter web, the winter woven, wind and wind.

For all the thoughts of summer that go with it
In the mind, pupa of straw, moppet of rags.

It is the mind that is woven, the mind that was jerked
And tufted in straggling thunder and shattered sun.

It is all that you are, the final dwarf of you,
That is woven and woven and waiting to be worn,

Neither as mask nor as garment but as a being,
Torn from insipid summer, for the mirror of cold,

Sitting beside your lamp, there citron to nibble
And coffee dribble . . . Frost is in the stubble.

Gallant Chateau

Is it bad to have come here
And to have found the bed empty?

One might have found tragic hair,
Bitter eyes, hands hostile and cold.

There might have been a light on a book
Lighting a pitiless verse or two.

There might have been the immense solitude
Of the wind upon the curtains.

Pitiless verse? A few words tuned
And tuned and tuned and tuned.

It is good, the bed is empty,
The curtains are stiff and prim and still.

Dance Of The Macabre Mice

In the land of turkeys in turkey weather
At the base of the statue, we go round and round.
What a beautiful history, beautiful surprise!
Monsieur is on horseback. The horse is covered with mice.

This dance has no name. It is a hungry dance.
We dance it out to the tip of Monsieur's sword,
Reading the lordly language of the inscription,
Which is like zithers and tambourines combined:

The Founder of the State. Whoever founded
A state that was free, in the dead of winter, from mice?
What a beautiful tableau tinted and towering,
The arm of bronze outstretched against all evil! 

Snow And Stars

The grackles sing avant the spring,
Most spiss—oh! Yes, most spissantly.
They sing right puissantly.

The robe of snow and winter stars,
The devil take it, wear it, too.
It might become his hole of blue.

Let him remove it to his regions,
White and star-furred for his legions,
And make much bing, high bing.

It would be ransom for the willow
And fill the hill and fill it full
Of ding, ding, dong.

The American Sublime

How does one stand
To behold the sublime,
To confront the mockers,
The mickey mockers
And plated pairs.

When General Jackson
Posed for his statue
He knew how one feels.
Shall a man go barefoot
Blinking and blank?

But how does one feel?
One grows used to the weather,
The landscape and that;
And the sublime comes down
To the spirit itself,

The spirit and space,
The empty spirit
In vacant space.
What wine does one drink?
What bread does one eat?


          —from "Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction"

Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
on one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined

On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come.

Music falls on the silence like a sense,
A passion that we feel, not understand.
Morning and afternoon are clasped together

And North and South are an intrinsic couple
And sun and rain a plural, like two lovers
That walk away as one in the greenest body.

In solitude the trumpets of solitude
Are not of another solitude resounding;
A little string speaks for a crowd of voices.

The partaker partakes of that which changes him.
The child that touches takes character from the thing,
The body, it touches. The captain and his men

Are one and the sailor and the sea are one.
Follow after, O my companion, my fellow, my self,
Sister and solace, brother and delight.

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