Thursday, June 02, 2016

What We're Reading: A Poet's Biography

The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevensby Paul Mariani

The reputation of Wallace Stevens as a major 20th-century poet has continued to grow over the years, especially among younger poets over whom his work has had a major influence. But most readers find Stevens’s poetry arcane and difficult, and have not had the patience to work at developing a deeper understanding of his work. Mariani realizes that his task here is to make us believe that devoting more time to understanding Stevens's poetry will be worth the effort. In this biography of Stevens's literary life, he not only explicates many of Stevens’s poems with insight and grace, but gives us an extended exposition of the poet's compelling ars poetica through reference to his letters, prose writings, and lectures. Mariani, a poet himself, has made a career of profiling the lives of 20th-century poets. He has written literary biographies of Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. I’ve read a couple of these (the biographies of Hopkins and of Hart Crane). Those were both fine books, but in The Whole Harmonium Mariani has brought together, perhaps more successfully than anywhere else, all he has learned from living with 20th-century poetry and poets, and all he has learned about writing biography in this special genre.

Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens visiting together in Key West, 1940.

The Whole Harmonium is a moving book. That seems a surprising accomplishment, because Stevens has often been thought of as cold and aloof, as someone who dwelt very much in his own mind--and preferred it that way. Mariani shows us, however, that what Stevens sought to realize in poetry was born out of his deep intellectual and emotional apprehension of the modern world--the death of faith, a profound sense of lifelessness and disillusionment, and a growing sense of distance from what was real. Stevens believed that the imagination was what allowed us to discover the real; in fact, that the imagination itself was the essential reality. His was a fundamental existential project. He felt poetry (not philosophy) was the practice that could address that problem in a satisfying way. Delineating such a lofty ambition for poetry is exciting. An argument for the necessity of poetry engages our interest, and the poetry that comes from such an idea can be remarkable and meaningful verse when it is embodied in poems written by a poet with Stevens’s extraordinary poetic skills. Such poems cause us to identify with the poet, and his elusive and perhaps unattainable goals, as a kind of modern hero. You feel that way about Wallace Stevens after reading The Whole Harmonium.

Poet Marianne Moore in her trademark
tri-cornered hat and cape. Among poets,
Marianne Moore was Stevens's
closest friend.
I remember as an undergraduate many years ago taking a course on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. We used Holly Stevens’s selected edition of his poems, “The Palm at the End of the Mind.” (Holly is his daughter.)  Looking back, I find that the poems we were assigned to read--and perhaps this makes sense--were mostly the poems of Stevens's first volume, Harmonium, where the language was glittering and innovative, and the poems displayed an imaginative verve. We also were directed to Sunday Morning and The Idea of Order at Key West, poems where I suppose the language was less “difficult” than Stevens’s other work and in which his characteristic themes were most plainly rehearsed. This constituted a gentle introduction. I remember venturing into a few other poems elsewhere in the volume that were quite incomprehensible to me. And I did not read Stevens's longer and later poems, poems that would have taken more effort, but would have allowed me to understand Stevens’s development as a poet. Mariani’s book has set in me the desire to return to those, to consider and appreciate the whole of Stevens's poetic achievement. This seems exactly what he set out to do with this wonderful look at Stevens's life and art. Perhaps if you read it, it will inspire you to do the same.

It is difficult to choose a few samples here of Stevens’s work. The first poem  is the one Holly Stevens chose to introduce her collection of her father's poems. The second selection is a personal favorite.

Blanche McCarthy

Look in the terrible mirror of the sky
And not in this dead glass, which can reflect
Only the surfaces--the bending arm,
The leaning shoulder and the searching eye.

Look in the terrible mirror of the sky.
Oh, bend against the invisible; and lean
To symbols of descending night; and search
The glare of revelations going by!

Look in the terrible mirror of the sky.
See how the absent moon waits in a glade
Of your dark self, and how the wings of stars,
Upward, from unimagined coverts, fly.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

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.

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