In 1922, Wallace Stevens sent a group of six poems to the editor of The Dial, an influential outlet for American modernist literature. Stevens told the editor he did not want to be ‘persnickety about the arrangement’, but felt it should start with ‘Bantams in Pine Woods’ and end with ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’, two of his favourite pieces. When the editor asked for a biographical note, Stevens refused. ‘I am a lawyer,’ he wrote, ‘and live in Hartford. But such facts are neither gay nor instructive.’
Perhaps we should take his word for it. The facts of Stevens’s life are bare, and could be written, like his poems, on office notes: educated at Hartford; trained as a lawyer; worked as an insurance executive; wrote poems in his spare time; married young and mainly unhappily; had a daughter; lived in Connecticut; didn’t have many friends; liked a drink; awarded a few honorary degrees as his poetry became more famous; died (late enough) of cancer. Stevens’s life could be another proof of Emerson’s maxim: ‘Great geniuses have the shortest biographies.’ Elsie, his wife, said a critical biography was not needed to understand her husband’s work.
Biographers have always had a hard time with Stevens. We have had two serious attempts and they have both failed to impress his most faithful readers. Joan Richardson’s two-volume 1986 biography does not add much more to the picture of Stevens than her initial 15-page outline ‘Wallace Stevens: a likeness’, which has all we should need. Helen Vendler, one of Stevens’s longest-serving critics, dismissed Richardson’s attempt as ‘tone-deaf’ and ‘turgid’, offering only psychological platitudes and a list of Stevens’s readings. Her scathing review ‘The Hunting of Wallace Stevens’ explained something of Stevens’s awkward resistance to biography: his ‘preference for the poem as a projection of experience onto another plane, rather than as a narrative of experience’. We rarely get an ‘I’ in Stevens; he is always writing about other things. He didn’t like being looked at. In Vendler’s words, ‘something in Stevens seems remote, enigmatic, indecipherable, even inhuman to many readers’.
Paul Mariani’s 2017 attempt doesn’t do much to dispel this impression. In fact, I feel further away from Stevens having read it. He too struggles to show how Stevens’s life could produce his art. Too often Mariani writes of poems as things that simply ‘appear’, without pointing to their origins. You won’t find any manuscript revisions in this book. You’ll find descriptions of the suits Stevens wore to work, but you won’t find any description of what his job entailed, of how it might have influenced his poetry. We are told he earned $20,000 a year even during the Great Depression ($350,000 today), but I still couldn’t tell you how he might have begun to spend it. You would think Stevens had died a virgin were it not for the birth of Holly, his daughter. Mariani makes it hard for us to imagine Stevens as a father or a husband – or even a real person, with real desires. Neither of these biographers’ attempts have left Stevens’s poems teeming with new meanings. Rather, they’ve only led me to agree with the poet Michael Hoffmann, who once said, ‘to think about Stevens’s life, or Stevens from the perspective of his life, is to be told that your bird of paradise, your parrot or your quetzal, is actually a pigeon or a Farmer Matthew’s turkey’.
So why do we bother, and why will there undoubtedly be another attempt soon, as Stevens’s name is increasingly heard in the same sentence as Eliot’s and Pound’s? I think the reason I want to know about Stevens’s life is because he thought poetry could fundamentally improve it. All of Stevens’s poetry is a variation on the same theme: how the imagination creates new realities from the reality it encounters. Art and the imagination can transform life, or, as he says in a poem, ‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.’ And things are changed for the better. Stevens wrote in his Adagia: ‘The purpose of poetry is to contribute to man’s happiness’. In the English faculties of this country, where American modernism courses are so dominated by Eliot, I had never heard a poet talk like this. It was so simple and so uplifting: poetry should make us happy. And why shouldn’t it? Or, at least, why shouldn’t some of it? I remember groaning when, already feeling clueless and defeated by the end of The Waste Land, I was confronted by notes that, as Mark Halliday says, ‘do not alleviate but rather intensify the new reader’s sense of being egregiously, even hopelessly, ignorant of both Western and Eastern civilisation’. Stevens complained that The Waste Land had turned ‘modern life into a bitter melancholy’. But, with Stevens, the only notes you need are more of his poems; we learn his laws as we play his game, and we enjoy playing it. To Eliot, his great poem was ‘a grouse against life’; to Stevens, ‘a poem is a café’. He shows us how to have fun in our own heads, which feels as rare in poetry today as it did at the start of the last century. We want to know about Stevens’s life because we want to know if it worked for him – if, for Stevens and his imagination, ‘the earth / Seem[ed] all of paradise that we shall know’. Mariani offers us this: ‘Stevens hated depression – hated it’, a statement so obvious it is almost a tautology.
Reading Stevens’s first collection, Harmonium (1923), is like being welcomed into a new world. It has its own rules, with its unusual grammar and eclectic vocabulary. Rather than April being the cruellest month or things falling apart, we get lines like ‘Chieftan Iffucan of Azcan in caftan / Of tan with henna heckles, halt!’ With each poem we are dazzled by new thoughts (‘The imagination, the one reality / In this imagined world’) or new words or sounds (‘Ho! Ho! / But ki-ki-ri-ki / Brings no rou-cou’; ‘The grackles crack their throats of bone’; ‘Ohoyaho, / Ohoo’). Vendler’s claim that ‘what an image was to Pound, a syllable was to Stevens’ becomes clear in these lines; Stevens doesn’t cling to well-trodden fragments, but offers a new aural world. We find an intense sensuality that his biographies too often lack: Stevens even imagines God feeling ‘a subtle quiver, / That was not heavenly love, / Or pity’ when Ursula offers Him a bed of radishes. The whole collection feels fecund and effervescent and alive.
His biographers’ criticism, though lengthy, also falls short. Whereas Frank Kermode calls one of Stevens’s earliest and greatest pieces ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘the hedonist’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”’, and Harold Bloom writes ‘it starts where Keats started: God and the gods are dead, quite dead, but the Sublime survives anyway’. Mariani somehow reads the poem as ‘summ[ing] up what Sunday mornings had come to mean for him now that he found himself midway through life’s journey’. The poet’s age really is a trivial matter here. The question is not ‘what do we do on Sunday mornings now we are middle aged?’; rather, it is ‘what do we do on Sunday mornings now we no longer go to church?’ – or, better still, ‘what do we do now God is dead?’. Stevens answers without a sense of tragedy or trauma: he imagines a woman, enjoying the ‘Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair’ that her newfound leisure on Sundays affords, and asks ‘Why should she give her bounty to the dead?’ when ‘Divinity must live within herself’. Stevens calmly strips away centuries of theological thought in a few lines:
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 dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Now we are ‘unsponsored’ by a God, and now we know that our world is just ‘an old chaos of the sun’, we are responsible for creating our own meaning, for writing our own poetry. He seems to understand that, though liberating, his readers may find this terrifying; the calmness of his tone suggests he has gone through this anxiety, but has come through it, and is happier than he was before. In ‘Notes toward a Supreme Fiction’, his theory of poetry, Stevens gives three criteria: it must be abstract; it must change; it must give pleasure. For Stevens, as for other 20th Century writers, Christianity had ceased to offer these things, and was no longer the supreme fiction. But this was not a cause for despair. Though God had died, the power that made God had survived. As Stevens put it, ‘After one has abandoned belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.’
He did, of course, worry that this substitution would not be as successful as he hoped. The substitute for religion could well be, he feared, ‘a baseball game with all the beer signs and coca cola signs’. We can see now that he was right to be worried. But at the heart of Stevens’s desire to create new fictions is his desire to show us that there are always better ways of looking at the world. He wants to teach us, but not in an overbearing way; he is interested in how we see, not what we see. Stevens will never ask us to do anything, he simply shows us that there are different ways of looking at the world. He calls a poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ as if to make this point. It is regarded as a high point of modernist imagism and is as inscrutable as anything in the genre:
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
This is straight from the textbook of our ‘riddling and mercurial mentor’, and one of the linguistic and logical games that Stevens enjoys making us play. If ‘A man and a woman / Are one’, how can ‘A man and a woman and a blackbird’ also be ‘one’? What does it even mean for ‘A man and a woman’ to be ‘one’? One what? One flesh. What the church has been saying for centuries: a man and a woman are one flesh, a husband and wife are the same body. In Stevens’s poem, at first it seems absurd: a man and a woman cannot be one. Except they have been since the origin of Christian marriage. So if a man and a woman can be one, why can’t a man and a woman and a blackbird also be one? Why is this more absurd than the first statement? As Stevens wrote in a letter, ‘The world has been painted; most modern activity is getting rid of the paint to get at the world itself.’ Here, in his quietly iconoclastic way, Stevens is getting rid of the paint, and making us colour the world for ourselves.
It is games like these that represent Stevens at his best. I worry that likening some of his poetry to cryptic crosswords would be to trivialise their wider project, but the metaphor gets at their leisure and the reader’s eventual ability to ‘crack’ what is meant. The later Stevens becomes more plodding and ponderous (he even calls one of his last poems ‘Long and Sluggish Lines’) and what it gains in its philosophical complexity it loses in its fizz and vigour. Early titles like ‘The Snow Man’ and ‘Tea at the Palaz of Hoon’ become knottier. Poems of the same themes in later Stevens are titled ‘Thinking of a Relation between the Images of Metaphors’ and ‘The Pediment of Appearance’. To make poetry the Supreme Fiction, he had to become more theoretical. But there does seem to be a narrative to his collections: if we start off playing our Harmonium (1923), largely for pleasure, and later become more serious and develop our own Ideas of Order (1936), we can put together the Parts of a World (1942) and, no matter how grim our reality, fashion our own Transport to Summer (1947) and rest on The Rock (1954) of this world our minds have built, like his girl on the beach in Key West who was ‘the single artificer of the world / In which she sang’. Vendler ended her review of Richardson by anticipating the next attempt: ‘some day there will be an intellectual biography of Stevens’. But this narrative is largely lost in Mariani’s biography, who covers most of Stevens’s later years by paraphrasing the various lectures he gave, collected in The Necessary Angel (1965). Not that Stevens was ever an extrovert, but the latter half of the book makes him seem mustier than ever; he declined an invitation to join a panel discussion with W.H. Auden, Allen Tate and Lionel Trilling at Smith College because it would involve his staying overnight. The anecdotes Mariani scatters through his narrative are often funny or tragic or just bizarre (he once punched Ernest Hemingway in the face, breaking his hand), but he rarely unravels them to help us to make sense of how they affected Stevens. Elsie ‘suffered a stroke which left her incapacitated’, but Stevens didn’t take time off work to care for her. Did he care? Is this malice? We aren’t told, and by the next sentence she is well into her recovery.
A biography of a poet should give us some idea where the poetry came from. And it’s a shame that in the case of Stevens we still aren’t really sure. We don’t hear Stevens talking to his wife, or hear his thoughts in the office in which he spent forty years, or even hear him disagreeing with himself over lines of his poems. To turn from ‘Sunday Morning’ to Stevens being baptised on his deathbed is a shock, made no less violent by Mariani’s casual assurance that ‘he’d been leaning toward a resolution of the aesthetic and the religious for a decade now’. But he explains, with something resembling flippancy, that ‘being a surety lawyer – he opted to sign on the dotted line on the end’. Too often pictures of Stevens’s life as so incongruent with his art that I shiver slightly when I turn back to his poems. One of the concluding anecdotes is a quote from a colleague of Stevens’: ‘Unless they told me he had a heart attack, I never would have known he had a heart.’
As Stevens’s reputation continues to grow, and the ‘Large Red Man Reading’ grows larger, I think we need a biographer who can make sense of both Stevens the man and Stevens the poet. We still feel as though the world is moving too quickly for us to control, and we still feel that things are falling apart. It takes a voice as unperturbed and solid as Stevens’s to tell us we can ‘Piece the world together, boys, but not with your hands.’ He is at his best when he is ‘recreat[ing] afresh his world out of the unfailing utilisation of his inner resources’, and this is how we want to see him. People are home from their offices and the lights are going out in Hartford. Elsie is asleep while Stevens scratches away in the guestroom. He is checking in with his readers again, and he wants to calmly suggest that they look at the world differently. Even when experiencing the ‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’, in a sleepy town with sleepy people, he is alert, alive:
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
Reality might be bland and bleak, void of eccentricities like ‘baboons and periwinkles’, but art and the imagination provide an escape. Stevens, here as elsewhere, shows us there are always better ways of looking at the world, but biographers show us we need better ways of looking at Stevens.