Friday, October 2, 2015

Birthday: Wallace Stevens said, "A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman."


Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
Poet, Lawyer
Recipient, The Bollingen Prize, 1949
Recipient, The National Book Award, 1950, 1954
Recipient, the Gold Medal of the Poetry Society of America, 1951
Recipient, The Pulitzer Prize, 1955
Honorary doctorates: Harvard (1951); Columbia (1952); Yale (1955)

Wallace Stevens was the son of a lawyer who was only willing to see his son become one, too. He paid for three years’ tuition at Harvard- the length of time it would have taken his son to get a law degree. Stevens squeezed in as much arts and literature as he could, then graduated from New York Law School just after the turn of the 20th century. He held a succession of posts with New York surety insurers, published some poetry, and married Elsie, whose striking beauty (she was the model for the 1916-1945 US Mercury dime) was offset, in Stevens’ parents’ eyes, by her lack of status and fortune. Stevens married her anyway. His family skipped the ceremony, and Stevens skipped them for the rest of their lives. He stuck with Elsie, even as she developed a mental illness that made his home life a misery for years.


In 1916 the Stevenses moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Stevens took a job in The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company’s surety department. Over the next four decades he rose to a corporate vice presidency and a secure place as one of the top surety bond lawyers in America. In 1955 Harvard offered him a professorship; Stevens declined because he would have had to give up his day job.

The regularity of his work- mostly directing litigation by lawyers he hired to represent The Hartford in courts around the country- allowed Stevens to free a portion of his mind for the muses. He walked to and from work each day, and on those two-mile trips he composed poetry in his head. In Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill recalled seeing Stevens- a tall, portly man in a three-piece suit (a “Taft Republican” was one description of his apparently stereotypical conventionality)- walking along the sidewalk, deep in thought, sometimes stopping, backing up a step or two, pausing, then resuming his gait. Gill likened it to dropping a stitch while knitting. When he had a fully formed idea, Stevens would jot it on scraps of paper from his pocket; arriving at work, he emptied his pockets for his secretary, who typed them up.


Stevens led an unusually compartmentalized world; most of his friends and colleagues had, at best, a vague idea that he wrote poems. Peter Brazeau’s wonderful 1983 book, Part of A World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, is an oral history by Stevens friends in all the parts of his life, and an insight into how they all fit together. In his 1955 obituary, The New York Times explained,

However, in his personal and business life there was a very clear discipline. "It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job," Mr. Stevens told a newspaper reporter five years ago in an interview.

He said that he composed his poems just about anywhere. Usually, he said on another occasion, he got most of his ideas when on a walk.

Defined Poet's Role

Mr. Stevens said that poetry was his way of making the world palatable. "It's the way of making one's experience, almost wholly inexplicable, acceptable," he said.

In recent years he felt a sense of imminent tragedy in the world, and to this situation a poet addresses himself, he said. "What he gets is not necessarily a solution but some defense against it," Mr. Stevens remarked.

In "The Necessary Angel," a book of his essays published in 1951, the poet said:

"My final point, then, is that imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos."

Stevens discovered Key West, Florida on a business trip and adored it at once. He spent winter holidays there from 1922 to 1940, perhaps, as much as anything, as a respite from Mrs. Stevens. He could relax there, far from home, and there was challenging- sometimes literally- literary company to hand. He broke his laying a punch to Ernest Hemingway’s jaw in 1936; the year before, he got into a row with Robert Frost, and again, in 1940.

stevens and frost.jpg

Stevens was a modernist; his poems exist in dreamy states of ecstasy, languid apathy, and- sometimes- an odd state betwixt. They are not always easy going for the reader, but they reward the persistent. What made Stevens remarkable was how late in life his best work came. Poetry is a young person’s game; though Stevens took up writing verse in 1904, his first book, Harmonium, was not published until he was 44. Much of his iconic work came after the age of fifty; widespread recognition in his sixties; the glittering prizes after seventy. Hart Crane, who crossed his path early, wrote of Stevens, “There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail.”

After a brief illness, Stevens died in 1955. The American Academy of Poets inaugurated the annual Wallace Stevens Award in 1994.


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