|Born||October 2, 1879
Reading, Pennsylvania, United States
|Died||August 2, 1955 (aged 75)
Hartford, Connecticut, United States
|Occupation||Poet, Insurance Executive|
The Idea of Order at Key West
The Man With the Blue Guitar
The Auroras of Autumn
|Spouse(s)||Elsie Viola Kachel (m. 1909-1955)|
|Children||Holly Stevens (born 1924)|
Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955) was an American Modernist poet. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, educated at Harvard and then New York Law School, and spent most of his life working as a lawyer for an insurance company in Connecticut.
His best-known poems include "Anecdote of the Jar," "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock", "The Emperor of Ice Cream," "The Idea of Order at Key West," "Sunday Morning," "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."
The son of a prosperous lawyer, Stevens attended Harvard as a non-degree special student, after which he moved to New York City and briefly worked as a journalist. He then attended New York Law School, graduating in 1903. On a trip back to Reading in 1904 Stevens met Elsie Viola Kachel (1886-1963, aka Elsie Moll), a young woman who had worked as a saleswoman, milliner, and stenographer. After a long courtship, he married her in 1909 over the objections of his parents, who considered her lower-class. As The New York Times reported in an article in 2009, "Nobody from his family attended the wedding, and Stevens never again visited or spoke to his parents during his father’s lifetime". A daughter, Holly, was born in 1924. She later edited her father's letters and a collection of his poems.
In 1913, the Stevenses rented a New York City apartment from sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, who made a bust of Elsie. Her striking profile was later used on Weinman's 1916-1945 Mercury dime design and possibly for the head of the Walking Liberty Half Dollar. In later years Elsie Stevens began to exhibit symptoms of mental illness and the marriage suffered as a result, but the Stevenses never divorced.
After working for several New York law firms from 1904 to 1907, he was hired on January 13, 1908, as a lawyer for the American Bonding Company. By 1914 he had become the vice-president of the New York office of the Equitable Surety Company of St. Louis, Missouri. When this job was abolished as a result of mergers in 1916, he joined the home office of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and left New York City to live in Hartford, where he would remain the rest of his life. By 1934, he had been named vice-president of the company. After he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, he was offered a faculty position at Harvard but declined since it would have required him to give up his vice-presidency of The Hartford.
From 1922 to 1940, Stevens made numerous visits to Key West, Florida, where he generally lodged at the Casa Marina, a hotel on the Atlantic Ocean. He first visited in January 1922, while on a business trip. "The place is a paradise," he wrote to Elsie, "midsummer weather, the sky brilliantly clear and intensely blue, the sea blue and green beyond what you have ever seen." The influence of Key West upon Stevens's poetry is evident in many of the poems published in his first two collections, Harmonium and Ideas of Order. In February 1935, Stevens encountered the poet Robert Frost at the Casa Marina. The two men argued, and Frost reported that Stevens had been drunk and acted inappropriately. The following year, Stevens allegedly assaulted Ernest Hemingway at a party at the Waddell Street home of a mutual acquaintance. Stevens broke his hand, apparently from hitting Hemingway's jaw, and was repeatedly knocked to the street by Hemingway. Stevens later apologized. In 1940, Stevens made his final trip to Key West. Frost was at the Casa Marina again, and again the two men argued.
In the 1930s and 1940s, he was welcomed as a member of the exclusive set centered on the artistic and literary devotees Barbara and Henry Church.
Stevens may have been baptized a Catholic in April 1955 by Fr. Arthur Hanley, chaplain of St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, where Stevens spent his last days suffering from stomach cancer. This purported deathbed conversion is disputed, particularly by Stevens's daughter, Holly. There is also no record of Stevens' "baptism," although all Roman Catholic priests are required to record the baptisms that they perform. After a brief release from the hospital, Stevens was readmitted and died on August 2, 1955, at the age of 75. He is buried in Hartford's Cedar Hill Cemetery.
Stevens is a rare example of a poet whose main output came at a fairly advanced age. His first major publication (four poems from a sequence entitled "Phases" in the November 1914 edition of Poetry Magazine) was written at the age of thirty-five, although as an undergraduate at Harvard, Stevens had written poetry and exchanged sonnets with George Santayana, with whom he was close through much of his life. Many of his canonical works were written well after he turned fifty. According to the literary critic Harold Bloom, who called Stevens the "best and most representative" American poet of the time, no Western writer since Sophocles has had such a late flowering of artistic genius.
Stevens's first book of poetry, a volume of rococo inventiveness titled Harmonium, was published in 1923. He produced two more major books of poetry during the 1920s and 1930s and three more in the 1940s. He received the National Book Award in 1951 and 1955.
Stevens, whose work was meditative and philosophical, is very much a poet of ideas. “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully,” he wrote. Concerning the relation between consciousness and the world, in Stevens's work "imagination" is not equivalent to consciousness nor is "reality" equivalent to the world as it exists outside our minds. Reality is the product of the imagination as it shapes the world. Because it is constantly changing as we attempt to find imaginatively satisfying ways to perceive the world, reality is an activity, not a static object. We approach reality with a piecemeal understanding, putting together parts of the world in an attempt to make it seem coherent. To make sense of the world is to construct a worldview through an active exercise of the imagination. This is no dry, philosophical activity, but a passionate engagement in finding order and meaning. Thus Stevens would write in The Idea of Order at Key West,
In his book Opus Posthumous, Stevens writes, “After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption."  But as the poet attempts to find a fiction to replace the lost gods, he immediately encounters a problem: a direct knowledge of reality is not possible.
Stevens suggests that we live in the tension between the shapes we take as the world acts upon us and the ideas of order that our imagination imposes upon the world. The world influences us in our most normal activities: "The dress of a woman of Lhassa, / In its place, / Is an invisible element of that place / Made visible." Likewise, were we to place a jar on a hill in Tennessee, we would impose an order onto the landscape.
As Stevens says in his essay "Imagination as Value", “The truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them." The imagination is the mechanism by which we unconsciously conceptualize the normal patterns of life, while reason is the way we consciously conceptualize these patterns.
The jar is a striking example of an order that does not feel a part of the land, and so seems to violate the existing order: “It did not give of bird or bush, / Like nothing else in Tennessee”. Contrast this to the feeling one gets while looking over the water where boats are anchored in darkness, with lanterns hanging on poles, “Arranging, deepening, enchanting night”. When the imagination is available to reality and does not try to force itself, reality becomes like a bar of sand onto which the imagination naturally washes and recedes.
The imagination can only conceive of a world for a moment—a particular time, place and culture—and so must continually revise its conception to align with the changing world. And as these worldviews come and go, each person is pulled in his or her normal life between the influence the world has on imagination and the influence imagination has on the way we view the world.
For this reason, the best we can hope for is a well-conceived fiction, satisfying for the moment, but sure to lapse into obsolescence as new imaginings wash over the world.
The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.
Throughout his poetic career, Stevens was concerned with the question of what to think about the world now that our old notions of religion no longer suffice. His solution might be summarized by the notion of a “Supreme Fiction.” In this example from the satirical "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman," Stevens plays with the notions of immediately accessible, but ultimately unsatisfying, notions of reality:
The saxophones squiggle because, as J. Hillis Miller says of Stevens in his book, Poets of Reality, the theme of universal fluctuation is a constant theme throughout Stevens poetry: "A great many of Stevens’ poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling movement.” In the end, reality remains.
The supreme fiction is that conceptualization of reality that seems to resonate in its rightness, so much so that it seems to have captured, if only for a moment, something actual and real.
In one of his last poems, "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour", Stevens describes the experience of an idea which satisfies the imagination, “This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous. / It is in that thought that we collect ourselves, / Out of all the indifferences, into one thing.” This one thing is “a light, a power, the miraculous influence” wherein we can forget ourselves, sensing a comforting order, “A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous, / within its vital boundary, in the mind.”
This knowledge necessarily exists within the mind, since it is an aspect of the imagination which can never attain a direct experience of reality.
Stevens concludes that God is a human creation, but that feeling of rightness which for so long a time existed with the idea of God may be accessed again. This supreme fiction will be something equally central to our being, but contemporary to our lives, in a way that God can never again be. But with the right idea, we may again find the same sort of solace that we once found in divinity. "[Stevens] finds, too, a definite value in the complete contact with reality. Only, in fact, by this stark knowledge can he attain his own spiritual self that can resist the disintegrating forces of life . . . . Powerful force though the mind is . . . it cannot find the absolutes. Heaven lies about the seeing man in his sensuous apprehension of the world . . .; everything about him is part of the truth." 
In this way, Stevens’s poems adopt attitudes that are corollaries to those earlier spiritual longings that persist in the unconscious currents of the imagination. “The poem refreshes life so that we share, / For a moment, the first idea . . . It satisfies / Belief in an immaculate beginning / And sends us, winged by an unconscious will, / To an immaculate end." The "first idea" is that essential reality that stands before all others, that essential truth; but since all knowledge is contingent on its time and place, that supreme fiction will surely be transitory. This is the necessary angel of subjective reality—a reality that must always be qualified—and as such, always misses the mark to some degree—always contains elements of unreality.
Miller summarizes Stevens's position: "Though this dissolving of the self is in one way the end of everything, in another way it is the happy liberation. There are only two entities left now that the gods are dead: man and nature, subject and object. Nature is the physical world, visible, audible, tangible, present to all the senses, and man is consciousness, the nothing which receives nature and transforms it into something unreal . . . ."
Stevens often writes directly about poetry and its human function. The poet “tries by a peculiar speech to speak / The peculiar potency of the general, / To compound the imagination’s Latin with / The lingua franca et jocundissima.” Moreover, “The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate.” In a manner reminiscent of Wordsworth, Stevens saw the poet as one with heightened powers, but one who like all ordinary people continually creates and discards cognitive depictions of the world, not in solitude but in solidarity with other men and women.
These cognitive depictions find their outlet and their best and final form as words; and thus Stevens can say, "It is a world of words to the end of it, / In which nothing solid is its solid self." In a poem called "Men Made out of Words," he says: "Life / Consists of propositions about life.” Poetry is not about life, it is intimately a part of life. As Stevens wrote elsewhere, “The poem is the cry of its occasion, / Part of the res itself and not about it. / The poet speaks the poem as it is, // Not as it was.” Modern poetry is “the poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.”
His poem An Ordinary Evening in New Haven is a self-conscious digression about the creation of poetry.
To create a stage is, for Stevens, a metaphor for the need of modern poetry to make its own new arena or realm in which it should be presented and in which it can be understood. Modern poetry is like "an insatiable actor" because it continually must be in "the act of finding what will suffice." Stevens puns on the meaning of "act." In one sense, poetry is an act, learning the speech, meeting the women, facing the men, etc. In another sense, it is a dramatic performance meant to be heard by an audience, as it speaks words that echo in the mind of the listener. The audience is "invisible" in the sense that a poet rarely meets his or her readers. The typical reader picks up a book of poems and reads a poem or two, and the author never sees this happening. The reading of poetry is often a conversation between strangers. In this poem the two people are the actor that is the poem and the audience that is the listener, and their emotions should become "one." The poet should find the words that will speak to the delicatest ear of its modern listeners, echoing what it wants to hear but cannot articulate for itself. The poet, in the act of the poem, finds the sufficing words and for the audience and they allow the listeners to hear what is in their ear, their mind. As a result, the emotions of speaking and listening, of poet as actor and listeners as audience, should become one.
From the first, critics and fellow poets praised Stevens. Hart Crane wrote to a friend in 1919, after reading some of the poems that would make up Harmonium, "There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail." In the 1930s, the critic Yvor Winters criticized Stevens as a decadent hedonist but acknowledged his great talent. Beginning in the 1940s, critics such as Randall Jarrell spoke of Stevens as one of the major living American poets, even if they did so (as Jarrell did) with certain reservations about Stevens’s work. Stevens’s work became even better known after his death. Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, and Frank Kermode are among the critics who have cemented Stevens’s position in the canon as a great poet. Many poets—James Merrill and Donald Justice most explicitly—have acknowledged Stevens as a major influence on their work, and his impact may also be seen in John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, John Hollander, and others.
In 1977 David Hockney authored a book of etchings called "The Blue Guitar: Etchings By David Hockney Who Was Inspired By Wallace Stevens Who Was Inspired By Pablo Picasso". The book included the poetry of Wallace Stevens. The etchings were inspired by and were meant to represent the themes of Stevens's poem, "The Man With The Blue Guitar", which was inspired by a 1903 painting by Pablo Picasso titled "The Old Guitarist". It was published as a portfolio and as a book in spring 1997 by Petersburg Press.
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.
That savage of fire,
Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.
Green and gloomy eyes
In dark forms of the grass
The good stars,
Pale helms and spiky spurs,
Fears of my bed,
Fears of life and fears of death,
That brave man comes up
From below and walks without meditation,
That brave man.
You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it.
Never suppose an inventing mind as source
Of this idea nor for that mind compose
A voluminous master folded in his fire.
There is a project for the sun. The sun
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.
Are the ravishments of truth, so fatal to
The truth itself, the first idea becomes
The hermit in a poet’s metaphors,
Who comes and goes and comes and goes all day.
And not to have is the beginning of desire.
To have what is not is its ancient cycle.
And sends us, winged by an unconscious will,
To an immaculate end.
Of her sons and of her daughters.
There was a muddy centre before we breathed.
There was a myth before the myth began,
Venerable and articulate and complete.
From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spire of blazoned days.
The weather and the giant of the weather,
Say the weather, the mere weather, the mere air:
An abstraction blooded, as a man by thought.
A composing as the body tires, a stop
To see hepatica, a stop to watch
A definition growing certain and
A wait within that certainty, a rest
In the swags of pine-trees bordering the lake.
Perhaps there are times of inherent excellence
We more than awaken, sit on the edge of sleep,
As on an elevation, and behold
The academies like structures in a mist.
Or power of the wave, or deepened speech,
Or a leaner being, moving in on him,
Of greater aptitude and apprehension,
As if the waves at last were never broken,
As if the language suddenly, with ease,
Said things it had laboriously spoken.
Compact in invincible foils, from reason,
Lighted at midnight by the studious eye,
Swaddled in revery, the object of
The hum of thoughts evaded in the mind...
Yet look not at his colored eyes. Give him
No names. Dismiss him from your images.
The hot of him is purest in the heart.
More fecund as principle than particle
Though an heroic part, of the commonal.
The major abstraction is the commonal,
The inanimate, difficult visage.
Does not see these separate figures one by one,
And yet see only one, in his old coat,
His slouching pantaloons, beyond the town,
Looking for what was, where it used to be?
Violets, doves, girls, bees and hyacinths
Are inconstant objects of inconstant cause
In a universe of inconstancy. This means
Night-blue is an inconstant thing. The seraph
Is satyr in Saturn, according to his thoughts.
This warmth is for lovers at last accomplishing
Their love, this beginning, not resuming, this
Booming and booming of the new-come bee.
On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come.
Are one and the sailor and the sea are one.
One voice repeating, one tireless chorister,
The phrases of a single phrase, ke-ke,
A single text, granite monotony
These are of minstrels lacking minstrelsy,
Of an earth in which the first leaf is the tale
Of leaves, in which the sparrow is a bird
Of stone, that never changes. Bethou him, you
And you, bethou him and bethou. It is
A sound like any other. It will end.
An odor evoking nothing, absolute.
We encounter in the dead middle of the night
The purple odor, the abundant bloom.
I am the spouse, divested of bright gold,
The spouse beyond emerald or amethyst,
Beyond the burning body that I bear.
I am the woman stripped more nakedly
Than nakedness, standing before an inflexible
Order, saying I am the contemplated spouse.
And one that chaffers the time away?
Is the poem both peculiar and general?
There’s a meditation there, in which there seems
To be an evasion, a thing not apprehended or
Not apprehended well. Does the poet
Evade us, as in a senseless element?
The peculiar potency of the general
The west wind was the music, the motion, the force
To which the swans curveted, a will to change,
A will to make iris frettings on the blank.
The freshness of a world. It is our own,
It is ourselves, the freshness of ourselves,
And that necessity and that presentation
Are rubbings of a glass in which we peer.
This is a facile exercise
Of heaven-haven. These are not things transformed.
Yet we are shaken by them as if they were.
We reason about them with a later reason.
Should foam, be foamy waves, should move like them
The eye could not escape, a red renown
Blowing itself upon the tedious ear.
And bad the sheep carouse. Or so they said.
Children in love with them brought early flowers
And scattered them about, no two alike.
Foreswore the sipping of the marriage wine.
Beyond which fact could not progress as
Thereon the learning of the man conceived
Once more night’s pale illuminations, gold
Beneath, far underneath, the surface of
His eye and audible in the mountain of
His ear, the very material of his mind.
Beyond which thought could not progress as
He had to choose. But it was not a choice
Between excluding things. It was not a choice
Between, but of. He chose to include the things
That in each other are included, the whole,
The complicate, the amassing harmony.
To discover winter and know it well, to find
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,
It is possible, possible, possible. It
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come,
Seeming at first, a beast disgorged, unlike,
Warmed by a desperate milk. To find the real,
To be stripped of every fiction except one,
The fiction of an absolute — Angel,
Be silent in your luminous cloud and hear
The luminous melody of proper sound.
Leaps downward through evening’s revelations, and
On his spredden wings, needs nothing but deep space,
Forgets the gold centre, the golden destiny,
Grows warm in the motionless motion of his flight,
Am I that imagine this angel less-satisfied?
Are the wings his, the lapis-haunted air?
And round and round, the merely going round,
Until merely going round is a final good,
The way wine comes at a table in a wood.
You are familiar yet an aberration.
Distortion, however fragrant, however dear.
That’s it: the more than rational distortion,
The fiction that results from feeling. Yes, that.
Until flicked by feeling, in a gildered street,
I call you by name, my green, my fluent mundo.
Patches the moon together in his room
To his Virgilian cadences, up down,
Up down. It is a war that never ends.
His petty syllabi, the sounds that stick,
Inevitably modulating, in the blood.
And war for war, each has its gallant kind.
How simply the fictive hero becomes the real;
How gladly with proper words the solider dies,
If he must, or lives on the bread of faithful speech.
It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast,
To feel it breathing there.
Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.
He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast.
Its muscles are his own...
The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.
You touch the hotel the way you touch moonlight
Or sunlight and you hum and the orchestra
Hums and you say "The world in a verse,
A generation sealed, men remoter than mountains,
Women invisible in music and motion and color,"
After that alien, point-blank, green and actual Guatemala.
By the terrible incantations of defeats
And by the fear that the defeats and the dreams are one.
The whole race is a poet that writes down
The eccentric propositions of its fate.
Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato's ghost
Or Aristotle's skeleton. Let him hang
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.
He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;
As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.
It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.
It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.
If there must be a god in the house, let him be
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness
A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.