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Letters of Wallace Stevens

Collected and edited by Holly Stevens
University of California Press, $24.95

by Kay Ryan

I got my opinion of poet Wallace Stevens nailed down at just about the same time that the original of this new reprint of his Letters came out--30 years ago. As an undergraduate, and having analyzed the obligatory clutch of Stevens's poems to a contextual nub, I was convinced that there was a single master combination that I had figured out which would throw all of the poet's empty but imposing safes open to me.

Well, age and 900 pages of letters have softened my stand. While it remains true that Stevens is endlessly fingering the tumbrels of the big imagination-vs-reality lock, and that some things do get to looking hobbyhorsical, I no longer believe that I'm so smart and he's so not. My adolescent impatience with all things antinomic has converted to sturdy admiration and--perhaps more--affection, both for the man and for his immense and stubborn endeavor. Even saying "stubborn" makes me feel I have wronged a friend. For I now freely acknowledge that Stevens never had a choice. He was never released from the center of the struggle between the claims of the mind and the claims of the world.

Wallace Stevens is in the same fix his whole life. His earliest dandified letters to his mother are true to a natural born thinker who cannot bear much more than the flowers and zithers of the physical world. He is collecting and practicing language--as he must--for the private speech his nature requires. But as we see from his early journal entries, he understands also that he is a conventional sort of person who must fit in socially, a person who will require the pleasant things that take money. Although his pleasures come only from what is "unsullied," he must compromise, he tells himself, perhaps becoming a "bustling merchant" or a "money-making lawyer." "We must, come down, we must use tooth and nail," he chants to himself. Young Stevens is a wonderful paradox. He accuses himself of cold "artificiality" and aesthetic distaste for the world, and yet he is also physically vigorous, "a hearty Puritan" who grows to 6'2" and can hike a whopping 42 miles in a day. But of course when he gets to his destination he may not like it; by the age of 23 he is already saying, "The sea is loveliest far in the abstract when the imagination can feed upon the idea of it. The thing itself is dirty, wobbly and wet."

After his student days at Harvard and brief sallies into journalism and independent law practice, Stevens settles in lifelong as an executive with the Hartford Insurance Company. He marries Elsie--a lovely and unlettered creature who had quit high school to play piano in the sheet music section of a department store, with whom he has carried on a five-year epistolary courtship--and sets them up in a fine house within walking distance of the office. Eventually there is a daughter, Holly, who will become the editor of the Letters. It is exactly the mild and regulated life he requires.

It seems altogether fitting that Stevens's life should divide early into two hermetic parts, one half the business man and one half the poet. Stevens was a genius of accommodation: rather than being torn to shreds by his antithetical parts, he just doubled himself. He figured out a way to achieve a very enduring, serviceable equilibrium, living his requirement for office routine, domestic quiet, and financial security and jobbing out the impulses that wouldn't fit.

As a creature of endless desire, he puts himself on a slow desire-drip. He is always trying to control his appetite for a life of motion and travel, persuading himself that "perhaps, it is best . . . that one should have only glimpses of reality," and as much as he can discouraging himself from wanting: "For all I know, thinking of a roasted duck, or a Chinese jar or a Flemish painting may be quite equal to having one." Throughout his life he exchanges letters with travel surrogates in Cuba, France, Ireland, and elsewhere, desiring the world of them, as in this letter to a favorite young Cuban: "What I really like to have from you in not your tears on the death of Bernanos, say, but news about chickens raised on red peppers. . . ." He has endless packages--carved figurines in a "box from Peking" or tea from "Wang-Pang-Woo-Poo-Woof-Woof"--shipped to him by a network of friends of friends living abroad. The letters acknowledging these casks and cartons are among his most delighted. In his own domestic travels for Hartford Insurance, Stevens's favorite destination is the Florida Keys, where he for once finds an exoticism equal to his imagination. On one illustrative occasion he enjoys a light repast of "doves on toast," which would have made a good title for one of his poems. One feels the insatiability of his appetites for unfamiliar things. In the quiet rooms of his pleasant Hartford home he breathes up their foreign air, so essential to his established domestic bliss.

Stevens must order out for fresh air from the world of reality, but in the world of poetry he generates his own. And for a long time he doesn't seem to need to write any letters about it. It is startling then to encounter his first letter to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, who is the first to accept his work. It is 1914 and he is 35. He tells her, "My autobiography is, necessarily, very brief; for I have published nothing." How has he become a poet without us knowing? We have had little hint beyond a half-embarrassed admission to his wife in 1913 that he has been "trying to get together a little collection of verses." Yet somehow he has secretly evolved into the Wallace Stevens we know from the writer of negligible packets of love poems for his wife-to-be.

Stevens explains his "obscurity" as an interim condition: "I wish rather desperately to keep on dabbling and to be as obscure as possible until I have perfected an authentic and fluent speech for myself." His letters repeat again and again this ferocious desire not to be untrue to himself. He does not mean to be cautious as he is in real life. Referring to the poem of which he pronounced himself fondest, "The Emperor of Ice Cream," he says, "I dislike niggling, and like letting myself go. This [poem] represented what was in my mind at the moment, with the least possible manipulation." By his own report, he writes easily. He is so focused and imaginatively hair-triggered that he hardly remembers what he's written later and dislikes looking back. He does feel, however, that his inclination to abstraction is a danger for him and likens his case to "the boy whose mother told him to stop sneezing; he replied: `I'm not sneezing; it's sneezing me.'"

Stevens's predispositions make a weird combination, fostering a poetry that is at the same time abstract and sensorially immediate, with none of the great, warm middle range of the personal. Still, even if one prefers the personal (as I do not) it is hard to stay impatient. In the Letters one feels the immensity of his ambition for poetry--to provide a spiritual compass in a drifting world: "Certainly, if civilization is to consist only of man himself, and it is, the arts must take the place of divinity." Stevens argues that "a competent poem introduces order," and that order brings "peace." Although this peace is an illusion, it brings a necessary "freshening of life." He is impatient with poets who "have no conception of the importance of the thing. . . . The world never moves at a very high level, but a few men should always move at a very high level."

Stevens's poems have a hilarity that isn't funny, a joie without the vivre. In the Letters it is great fun to hear him trying to explain his exuberant private yelps. Illuminating "The Man with the Blue Guitar" for an Italian professor, he patiently reveals that "This-a-way and that-a-way and ai-yi-yi are colloquialisms. . . . A man who is master of the world balances it on his nose this way and that way and the spectators cry ai-yi-yi." Such yelps were native to Stevens's speech since he wrote letters as a boy to his mother (he transcribes the "tink-a-tink-a-tink-tink-a-a-a" of his brother's mandolin playing) and as a young suitor, serenading Elsie with the inflaming rhythms of "Rig-a-jig-jig / And a jig-jig-jig." They have always been rather lonely sounds. But loneliness is not the grief for poets that it is for others. Says Stevens, "Poets are never lonely even when they pretend to be."

In reading the Letters we warm to Stevens in a way his poems alone are less likely to warm us, not so much because we are able to see him sitting in Elsie's flower garden, or bringing a cake to his grandson, or remorseful at having said something perhaps too personal to Marianne Moore after one too many cocktails, but because we truly see that the difficult Wallace Stevens we sense from the poems was not a pose or a reduction but a very brave and unrelenting articulation of his own impossibility. Late in the letters he describes to a friend the robins and doves that sit on his chimney before sunrise; he says they are "connoisseurs of daylight before the actual presence of the sun coarsens it." I for one have no trouble making out a bulky old insurance man perched right up there with them in the pearly dawn.

Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review

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