from New England Review, Volume 37, Number 1 (2016)
There's a moment in the Wallace Stevens segment of the old Voices & Visions PBS series when one of Stevens's former co-workers at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company is asked his impression of his colleague. The anonymous questioner is off camera, so the question appears to be coming from the air. You have to imagine the simplicity of the scene. This co-worker is a genuine Connecticut Yankee—craggy, weather-worn, retired. He's wearing a ball cap, as I recall, and is sitting in front of a sort of work shed, its paint chipped and white, in what appears to be his backyard. There's a thoughtful pause before the interviewer rephrases his question. Then, after further thought, the old man says, "Waalll," in his sharp Connecticut Yankee drawl, now trying to bring back his memory of Stevens: "Waalll, if you don't count his personal life I guess you could say he was a happy man."
You also have to remember Stevens's long winter train rides south, far away from hearth and home—his only happy travel in a holiday world—all the way to Key West, where on one notably emotional and likely inebriated February 1936 evening he gets into a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway. Stevens, in fact, breaks his hand on Hemingway's jaw. Stevens is a fair-sized man, but an insurance executive. Hemingway, fair-sized himself, still fancies himself a boxer.
I'm thinking, too, of Stevens's wife, Elsie, a truly beautiful woman whose sculpted head (by Adolph A. Weinman) became the profile for the Mercury Head dime and the Liberty Walking half-dollar. In other words, the intimate, familiar face of his wife was turned from life into art into a work of public and commercial artifice, a kind of a cold pastoral indeed, rendered into the terms of Caesar. Somehow, to me, the story of this artifact suggests the evolving possibility of an unhappy, cold marriage, which, by all accounts, was indeed the case. It also suggests the cold coin of intellection, abstraction, and isolation that is too often mistakenly associated with the tone and texture of Stevens's poems.
But in spite of these aesthetic conjectures about Stevens's life and art, he is, I believe, a deeply emotional poet. He probably best fits that category of poet T. S. Eliot is thinking of when he asserts that poetry is an escape from emotion and personality, not their pursuit; but, of course, Eliot adds that one must possess—or repress—emotion and personality in the first place in order to try to escape it. Stevens thrives in that tension.
In a Sunday New York Times piece a few years back, about Stevens at home in Hartford, Jeff Gordinier makes the point of describing how moved he is by the simple act of retracing Stevens's famous walk from his grand house on Westerly Terrace to his insurance office downtown, a walk of some modest distance, about 2.4 miles, and a walk Stevens took every workday. Like Wordsworth—but covering far less territory—Stevens apparently composed in his head while walking, perhaps at a pentameter clip. The walk is now marked by thirteen slabs of granite—the stone of graves—each of which is engraved with a numbered section of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."
Is it the presence of the engravings that so moves Gordinier, or is it the poem itself, so palpably available, evenly paced along the way? Gordinier doesn't say. But I would submit that what is moving to Gordinier, and to any sensitive reader of this modern classic, is the way the poem engages the imagination; the way it works the dynamic relationship between the reader and the blackbird itself, both singular and plural; the way each way of looking at the blackbird resonates as an entity, an evocation, and as a thing in and of itself, without the least hint of explication or apology; and the way each moment in the poem is an enactment of an act of mind making an association, a connection, a discovery, in which the object—the blackbird—is transformed by each of the thirteen different contexts. The order of the thirteen parts adds up, too: adds up as a complete visual associative narrative; an emotional, impressionistic, and tonal progression. Change the order of the parts and you change the imagination of the story—and not for the better.
Which do we prefer: the beauty of inflections or the beauty of innuendoes; the blackbird whistling or just after; the evening snowing or the evening about to snow? And among the twenty snowy mountains, how is it that we can actually see that the only moving thing is the eye of the blackbird? But we do see it. For Stevens, the imagination is the reality of the thing itself, and the reality is the idea—that is, if you can imagine images as ideas with bodies. What the intellect must suffer the imagination must reconcile: this possibility, it seems to me, is Stevens's heartfelt mission, poem after poem—to reconcile an intellect in conflict with feeling. The river is moving, the blackbird must be flying. These realities, to the Romantic, are piercing.
Stevens, by his own admission, is a Romantic poet with a capital R. Keats is one of his touchstone sources, most especially in the odes and in those moments in "The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream" when the role of the poet and the uses of imagination are questioned and perhaps, by implication, answered. Should poetry—really and truly—help people to live their lives? Or is it the function of the poem to heal? In the first instance, helping people live their lives, it is Stevens speaking; in the second, poetry as a healing force, it is Keats. Both of the poets and both of these questions are about reconciliation: the art of the poem, the artist, and the reader all coming to terms with what will suffice, so long as what suffices vexes us into insight and empathy.
The Keats connection is crucial since it involves Stevens at the heart of his concerns. I find in Stevens's best poetry not only the act of the most brilliant of minds, but, more to the point, the complex acting out of feelings, which become the soliloquies of his own interior paramour. Stevens's essential emotional posture is his spiritual isolation at the moment of contemplation; hence, his essential emotional connection—even at his most ironic—is with melancholy, with "Beauty that must die; / And Joy whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu." The world according to Stevens may at times seem to be nothing more or less than a planet on a table, worthy, to a disinterested eye, of meditative scrutiny, but it is also a living planet, a warm planet, most certainly a blue or even colorful planet. Stevens's secret subject—as opposed to his apparent subject—is often ekphrastic, the world as a work of art, not unlike the artwork that became his wife.
This is true throughout his career, from "Harmonium" to "The Rock" to "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour"; and certainly it is no less true of the greater longer pieces, such as "The Man with the Blue Guitar," "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," and "The Auroras of Autumn." For Stevens there is no subject without there first being the object, the body of the world the spirit comes from, and he treats this body—in its particulars and textures—as the manifestation of every richness it contains, including its contradictions, ambiguities, and choices, and especially including its weathers, its fruit and flowers, its eternal sun, its houses filled with moonlight, and its city dump also filled with moonlight.
Stevens once said that life is an affair of people and lamented that there were no people in his poems. Well, perhaps not exactly; people, their allusive and ghostly attendance, haunt his poems, as much by their excused absences as by their implied presences, whether it be Peter Quince at the clavier, an old philosopher in Rome, a Mrs. Alfred Uruguay, or Stevens's own dead mother. There is a kind of social circle, like a ring of Saturn, circulating around the best of his poetry. The euphonic names don't really matter, except, perhaps, for Elsie, who is ultimately, and anonymously, judged as a negative muse, an inspiring but polarizing presence. Thus Stevens's planet may be inhabited by all manner of exotic and extraordinary nature and by bric-a-brac and objets d'art, but the human tragedy is what animates the imagination that brings it all into vivid and vital life.
If lyric poetry is, deeply, about loss, it is also, simultaneously, about its counter-feeling, longing. Stevens's allusive human and natural figures are inextricably linked to the symbolic world of art, to the human interiors and natural correlatives art speaks to and from. Stevens's blackbird may be his Keatsian nightingale, but his "Sunday Morning"—as just one salient example—is his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," in which representative figures of life as art and art as life are treated to paradise in a vexed secular vision. The funereal urn is circular: you turn it in its full three dimensions in your mind, and its frozen "happy" pastoral scenes—painted on or in relief—are revealed to be both beautiful and terrifying, since its trees can never change to autumn "nor ever bid the Spring adieu" and its lovers never can quite kiss, "Though winning near the goal." Heaven, in both Keats and Stevens, becomes a hell of permanence, where ripe fruit never falls. Yet we seem to long for such states of permanent being—or do we? T. S. Eliot says that the tragedy of human life is that we can imagine a fulfillment we can never have. It is the tease of transcendence that is part of the price of imagination. In Stevens, no less than in Keats, this condition is the tension in their intensity.
"Is there no change of death in paradise?" The wonderful thing about "Sunday Morning" is how filled it is with life as opposed to an afterlife. The afterlife in this poem acts as a looming presence defined by its absence, such as "Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven." But it's the earth, the mundane, the diurnal, the sweet dailiness of a Sunday morning that blesses us here. The complacencies of the peignoir, the late coffee and oranges, the green freedom of the cockatoo, the calm that darkens among water-lights: these are the earthly details that inform this reality against the old encroachments of "The holy hush of ancient sacrifice." This wholly aesthetic-minded poem builds from this opening stanza to a perception of "Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights" through to the image of "silken weavings of our afternoons" and finally to the lofty fantasy of pagan gods dancing naked in "Their boisterous devotion to the sun." "Their chant shall be a chant of paradise, / Out of their blood." Stevens makes no buried bones about where his passions lie—right at the level of the dew that greets the mortal morning.
In "Sunday Morning," even Jesus lies in his grave—or, he did; in any case, "The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering": it is a house in ruins, because "We live in an old chaos of the sun / Or old dependency of day and night, / Or island solitude." This last reference, especially, represents the place that Stevens's voice is calling from: his island solitude. I cannot think of a lonelier poet among this generation than Wallace Stevens. The elaborations and attenuations of beauty and truth in his poetry not only enlarge the dimensions of his greatness, they underwrite, or rather, underscore the burden of tragedy he brings to his work, though "tragedy" may be a borrowed word here: Stevens, like his Beckett-like man on the dump, is "full of images" in search of correspondences—even, perhaps, a correspondent in search of a dialectic, or perhaps a dialogue—that will create a synthesis, a resolution beyond reconciliation. The condition of needing a resolution beyond reconciliation is the longing in his poems. His imagination is filled with possibilities: "Did the nightingale torture the ear, / Pack the heart and scratch the mind?" Yes, it did. I think for this poet Keats's nightingale also packed the heart, as do all those frozen figures on the urn and all those personal ghosts on the peripheries of his vision. "Where was it," Stevens asks, at last, that "one first heard of the truth?" His mortal answer is in the ellipsis following "The the," the real and very definite article.
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About the Author
Stanley Plumly's most recent book is The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb (W. W. Norton, 2014). He is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland.
New England Review
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