October 2, 1879|
Reading, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||August 2, 1955
Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.
|Occupation||Poet, Insurance Executive|
The Idea of Order at Key West
The Man With the Blue Guitar
The Auroras of Autumn
Of Modern Poetry
|Notable awards||Robert Frost Medal (1951)|
|Spouse||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 he spent most of his life working as an executive for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems in 1955.
Some of 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," "The Snow Man," and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."
Life and career
Education and marriage
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 remained married.
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 Avenue home of a mutual acquaintance in Key West. 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.
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 no official record of Stevens's "baptism." 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. Helen Vendler notes that there are three distinguishable moods present in Stevens' long poems: ecstasy, apathy, and reluctance between ecstasy and apathy. She also notes that his poetry was highly influenced by the paintings of Paul Klee and Paul Cézanne:
Stevens saw in the paintings of both Paul Klee--who was his favorite painter--and Cézanne the kind of work he wanted to do himself as a Modernist poet. Klee had imagined symbols. Klee is not a directly realistic painter and is full of whimsical and fanciful and imaginative and humorous projections of reality in his paintings. The paintings are often enigmatic or full of riddles, and Stevens liked that as well. What Stevens liked in Cézanne was the reduction, you might say, of the world to a few monumental objects.
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 annual National Book Award for Poetry twice, in 1951 for The Auroras of Autumn and in 1955 for Collected Poems.
Imagination and reality
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,"
- Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
- The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
- Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
- And of ourselves and of our origins,
- In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
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 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,” an idea that would serve as a fictive replacement for the idea of God, known to be fictive but willfully believed. 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:
- Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.
- Take the moral law and make a nave of it
- And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
- The conscience is converted into palms
- Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.
- We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
- The opposing law and make a peristyle,
- And from the peristyle project a masque
- Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
- Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
- Is equally converted into palms,
- Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
- Madame, we are where we began.
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's 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.
- I am the angel of reality,
- seen for a moment standing in the door.
- I am the necessary angel of earth,
- Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,
- Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,
- And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone
- Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings,
- Like watery words awash;
- an apparition appareled in
- Apparels of such lightest look that a turn
- Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?
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.
- We say God and the imagination are one . . .
- How high that highest candle lights the dark.
- Out of this same light, out of the central mind
- We make a dwelling in the evening air,
- In which being there together is enough.
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." 
- . . . Poetry
- Exceeding music must take the place
- Of empty heaven and its hymns,
- Ourselves in poetry must take their place
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 . . . ."
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." The Poetry Foundation states that "by the early 1950s Stevens was regarded as one of America's greatest contemporary poets, an artist whose precise abstractions exerted substantial influence on other writers." Some critics, like Randall Jarrell and Yvor Winters, praised Stevens' early work but were critical of his more abstract and philosophical later poems.
Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, and Frank Kermode are among the critics who have cemented Stevens’s position in the canon as one of the key figures of 20th-century American Modernist poetry. Bloom has called Stevens "a vital part of the American mythology" and unlike Winters and Jarrell, Bloom has cited Stevens's laters poems, like "Poems of our Climate," as being among Stevens's best poems.
In 1976, at Atelier Crommelynck, David Hockney created a portfolio of twenty etchings called The Blue Guitar: Etchings By David Hockney Who Was Inspired By Wallace Stevens Who Was Inspired By Pablo Picasso. The etchings refer to themes of a poem by Stevens, "The Man With The Blue Guitar". The portfolio was published by Petersburg Press in October 1977. That year, Petersburg also published a book, in which the poem's text was accompanied by the images .
Nick Cave cited the lines "And the waves, the waves were soldiers moving" in his song "We Call Upon the Author". They come from Stevens's poem "Dry Loaf".
Julie Beman, a Hartford, Connecticut-based songwriter, wrote a song called "Hey There, Wallace Stevens." The song references Steven's poems "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "The Man with the Blue Guitar."
Israeli songwriter Shlomo Artzi references "The man with the blue guitar" in his song "Romantic Story" ("The man with the blue guitar lifted his shirt to the stars").
Australian Musician Scott Kilminster named one of his albums "The Emperor of Ice-Cream".
- The Contemplated Spouse: The Letters of Wallace Stevens to Elsie Kachel", edited by J. Donald Blount (The University of South Carolina Press, 2006)
- Vendler, Helen (August 23, 2009). "The Plain Sense of Things". The New York Times.
- Richardson, Joan. Wallace Stevens: The Later Years, 1923-1955, New York: Beech Tree Books, 1988, p. 22.
- Richardson, Joan. Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879-1923, New York: Beech Tree Books, 1986, p. 276.
- Richardson, The Early Years, supra, p. 424.
- Richardson, The Early Years, supra, p. 445
- Richardson, The Later Years, supra, p. 87.
- Richardson, The Later Years, supra, p. 423.
- Letters of Wallace Stevens, selected and edited by Holly Stevens
- The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens: "O Florida, Venereal Soil," "The Idea of Order at Key West," "Farewell to Florida"
- The Trouble with Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, an April 14, 2009 article from the website of the Key West Literary Seminar
- Hemingway Knocked Wallace Stevens into a Puddle and Bragged About It, a March 20, 2008 article from the website of the Key West Literary Seminar
- Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961, ed. Carlos Baker
- Robert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini
- Letter from Father Arthur Hanley to Professor Janet McCann, July 24, 1977
- Maria J. Cirurgião, “Last Farewell and First Fruits: The Story of a Modern Poet.” Lay Witness (June 2000).
- Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, New York, Random House, 1983, p. 295
- Letter from James Wm. Chichetto to Helen Vendler, September 2, 2009, cited in a footnote to "Deathbed conversion".
- Gioia, Dana; Kennedy, X.J. (2005). "Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama: Wallace Stevens: Biography". Longman.
- Leonard, John (1970-07-27). "Books of The Times". The New York Times.,
- Moore, Harry T. (1963). Preface to Wallace Stevens: Images and Judgments. Southern Illinois University Press. p. xi.
- Wallace Stevens (search results), Poetry Magazine.
- "Old New Haven", Juliet Lapidos, The Advocate, March 17, 2005
- Vendler, Helen. On Extended Wings, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969 , p. 13.
- "Wallace Stevens." Voice and Visions Video Series. New York Center for Visual History, 1988.
- Richardson, The Later Years, supra, p. 378.
- "National Book Awards – 1951". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-02.
(With acceptance speech by Stevens and essay by Katie Peterson from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- "National Book Awards – 1955". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-02.
(With acceptance speech by Stevens and linked essay by Neil Baldwin from the Awards 50-year celebration series.)
- Richardson, The Later Years, supra, p. 420.
- Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose, New York: Library of America, 1997 (Kermode, F., & Richardson, J., eds.), p. 306.
- Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, supra, p. 106.
- Stevens, Wallace. Opus Posthumous, London: Faber and Faber, 1990 (Milton J. Bates, ed.), p. 185.
- Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, supra, p. 41.
- Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, Random House USA Paperbacks (Feb 1965) ISBN 978-0-394-70278-0
- Stevens, The Necessary Angel, supra., p. 6.
- Brazeal, Gregory (Fall 2007). "The Supreme Fiction: Fiction or Fact?". Journal of Modern Literature 31 (1): 80. doi:10.2979/jml.2007.31.1.80. Retrieved January 17, 2011.
- Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, supra, p. 47.
- Miller, J. Hillis. "Wallace Stevens." Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers, p. 226. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966.
- Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, supra, p. 423.
- Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, supra, p. 444.
- Southworth, James G. Some Modern American Poets, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1950, p. 92.
- Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, supra, p. 136-37.
- Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, supra, p. 330-31.
- Miller, supra., p. 221
- "Wallace Stevens: Biography and Recollections by Acquaintances," Modern American Poetry.
- "Wallace Stevens." Poetry Foundation Article
- Jarrell, Randall. "Reflections on Wallace Stevens." Poetry and the Age. 1953.
- Winters, Yvor. "Wallace Stevens or the Hedonist's Progress." In Defense of Reason, 1943.
- Hockney, Davis (1976–1977). "The Old Guitarist' From The Blue Guitar". British Council; Visual Arts. Petersburg Press. Retrieved 2012-06-20.
- Hockney, David; Stevens, Wallace (January 1, 1977). The Blue Guitar: Etchings By David Hockney Who Was Inspired By Wallace Stevens Who Was Inspired By Pablo Picasso. Petersburg Ltd. ISBN 978-0902825031. Retrieved 2012-06-20.
- Excerpt: 'Selected Poems', a December 3, 2009 NPR article on Stevens
- Baird, James. The Dome and the Rock: Structure in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (1968)
- Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self (1985)
- Beckett, Lucy. Wallace Stevens (1974)
- Beehler, Michael. T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and the Discourses of Difference (1987)
- Benamou, Michel. Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination (1972)
- Berger, Charles. Forms of Farewell: The Late Poetry of Wallace Stevens (1985)
- Bevis, William W. Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature (1988)
- Blessing, Richard Allen. Wallace Stevens' "Whole Harmonium" (1970)
- Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (1980)
- Bloom, Harold. Figures of Capable Imagination (1976)
- Borroff, Marie, ed. Wallace Stevens: A Collection of Critical Essays (1963)
- Brazeau, Peter. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (1983)
- Brogan, Jacqueline V. The Violence Within/The Violence Without: Wallace Stevens and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Poetics (2003)
- Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (2005)
- Carroll, Joseph. Wallace Stevens' Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism (1987)
- Doggett, Frank. Stevens' Poetry of Thought (1966)
- Doggett, Frank. Wallace Stevens: The Making of the Poem (1980)
- Doggett, Frank (Ed.), Buttel, Robert (Ed.). Wallace Stevens: A Celebration (1980)
- Kermode, Frank. Wallace Stevens (1960)
- Grey, Thomas. The Wallace Stevens Case: Law and the Practice of Poetry Harvard University Press (1991)
- Ehrenpreis, Irvin (Ed.). Wallace Stevens: A Critical Anthology (1973)
- Enck, John J. Wallace Stevens: Images and Judgments (1964)
- Filreis, Alan. Modernism from Right to Left: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties & Literary Radicalism (1994)
- Hines, Thomas J.. The Later Poetry of Wallace Stevens: Phenomenological Parallels With Husserl and Heidegger (1976)
- Hockney, David. The Blue Guitar (1977)
- Leggett, B.J. Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext (1992)
- Leonard, J.S. & Wharton, C.E. The Fluent Mundo: Wallace Stevens and the Structure of Reality (1988)
- Litz, A. Walton. "Introspective Voyager: The Poetic Development of Wallace Stevens" (1972)
- Longenbach, James. Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (1991)
- MacLeod, Glen. "Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract Expressionism" (1993)
- McCann, Janet. Wallace Stevens Revisited: The Celestial Possible (1996)
- Tanaka, Hiroshi. "A New Attempt of an American Poet: Wallace Stevens." In Papers on British and American Literature and Culture: From Perspectives of Transpacific American Studies. Ed. Tatsushi Narita. Nagoya: Kougaku Shuppan, 2007. 59-68.
- Vendler, Helen. On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems Harvard University Press (1969)
- Vendler, Helen. Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen out of Desire Harvard University Press (1986)
- Woodman, Leonora. Stanza My Stone: Wallace Stevens and the Hermetic Tradition (1983)
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Wallace Stevens|
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
- Works by Wallace Stevens at Open Library
- Poems and profile at PoetryFoundation.org
- Profile and poems at Academy Of American Poets
- The Wallace Stevens Society
- Yale College Lecture on Wallace Stevens audio, video and full transcripts from Open Yale Courses
- Profile at the Academy of American Poets
- Works of Stevens at Librivox
- Works by or about Wallace Stevens in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- The PennSound/Woodberry Poetry Room Wallace Stevens Audio Project from the University of Pennsylvania