Comments on an oral biography of Wallace Stevens, followed by a list of favorite poems from his Collected Poems
Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered
by Peter Brazeau
With its appropriately modest title derived from one of the poet’s books, Parts of a World is an absorbing and sensible way to enter the life of the great American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Brazeau started research in 1975 and published the book in 1985, when it was still possible to gather interviews from people who knew Stevens. The advantage of the “parts” that Brazeau has collected is that they are multi-voiced and multi-angled, leaving the reader to decide where the real Stevens lies. There’s plenty of ammunition for both admirers and critics: Stevens’s cold treatment of his wife (or is it his unstable wife’s treatment of him? or is it his solid commitment to her for better or worse?), his brusqueness and aestheticism (or is it his generosity and plainspokenness?), his old New England Republican politics (or is it an apolitical love of good things? a class-consciousness that hardened with age but didn’t prevent him from rebelling against his father by marrying the lower-class Elsie?), his Key West umbrella-drink hedonism (or is it his snowy Yankee frugality?), his tight-lipped eccentricity and anti-social tendencies (or is it the cognitive otherness and meditative introversion of a committed artist?). The list of poets who are routinely drawn and quartered for their private lives and opinions now includes many of the best, from Shelley and Rilke to Frost and Larkin, and by those standards, Stevens’s offenses are relatively mild. His defense, however, is unusually strong, albeit the same one every good poet uses: he arranged his life—Harvard, law school, marriage, the secure 9-to-5 of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity—in order to make art in his own way, to find, nurture, and preserve the psychical wherewithal necessary for the creation of his poetry. In the now-clichéd but utterly real Yeatsian dichotomy, he chose perfection of the work over the life; in his own words, he was the “hermit of poetry.” The casual anti-Semitism and anti-black racism evident on a few of these pages—his nasty words about the lovely Gwendolyn Brooks are especially chilling—does make sympathy more difficult, and judging that these views are less egregious than those of some of his contemporaries, like Pound and Eliot, does nothing to alter them in our memory. The eternal quandary of Biography remains: we read out of curiosity about the life of the one who made the art we love, we hope we will learn how a great work came to be, but we end up dusting off the same old scale with which we perform our defensive weighings of every flawed carat of the artist’s bad behavior.
Anachronistic moralization is something we should fear, but it is not an either/or proposition; there’s always a line beyond which the bad behavior rightfully infringes on our perception of the art. To practice humility in the face of any life’s unknown complexities and offer some grateful compassion to those who graced us with extraordinary gifts shouldn’t make us feel morally compromised, but it does. Certainly Stevens himself would have brushed such scruples aside. He was by nature an uncompromising fellow, muscling his way into a living without compromising his art. At least, being an insurance man didn’t compromise Stevens’s art; it absolutely would mine. When he tells Richard Wilbur not to try to make money from his poetry—“Money doesn’t matter. If you’re a poet, you must be prepared to be poor, if that’s necessary. You must be like a monk. You must sacrifice yourself to your work”—we are left to wonder how becoming an expert on surety bonds and dealing with its arcana day in and day out never affected his poetry. If I end up forgiving Stevens his failings, it is because I love his work, not his person. I love what makes his poetry unfashionable now, his understanding of pleasure as something that deepens with re-reading, his unashamed sublimity and high beauty, his avoidance of banality and personal detail, which arises out of a desire to make poetry an alternative realm of the imagination. This realm wasn’t a poshlust refuge from ugliness, but a way of rebuking what everyone is immersed in—and demoralized by—at all times, the corruptions and pettinesses of everyday life. Stevens is central to the part of me that is permanently estranged from man, God, and society; at times, he is that world I choose to inhabit because of my estrangements. When I am most alone with his work, I imagine that those who exist in equilibrium with their social milieu are more likely to begrudge what Stevens provides. And though I find books like Brazeau’s fascinating, I still think that knowing (and judging) the minutiae of his interactions with people has little to do with his art. For those who’ve read enough biographies of other poets to compare lives, this book provides good evidence for something else, a more generalized understanding of where he fit on a spectrum in terms of certain qualities, like affability (less than Bishop, more than Frost), misanthropy (more than Crane, less than Larkin), material comfort (more than Eliot, less than Merrill), conformity (less than Plath, more than Moore), gender identity (he broke his fist on Hemingway’s jaw, for God’s sake). Of course, these comparisons, while natural in any reader, may be a way of fooling ourselves into believing that we’ve grasped something more nearly and dearly about the art. As always, little in this book really explains how Wallace Stevens came to write lines as strange and unsettling as these:
Two forms move among the dead, high sleep
Who by his highness quiets them, high peace
Upon whose shoulders even the heavens rest,
Two brothers. And a third form, she that says
Good-by in the darkness, speaking quietly there,
To those that cannot say good-by themselves.
The following is a list of recommended poems from The Collected Poems, by Wallace Stevens, grouped under the titles of his collections.
Harmonium: “The Snow Man,” “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” “The Place of the Solitaires,” “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” “Sunday Morning,” “Anecdote of the Jar,” “Palace of the Babies,” “Tattoo,” “To the One of Fictive Music,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.” (“The Comedian as the Letter C” and, in a later book, “The Man with the Blue Guitar” have many advocates, so my lukewarm reaction to them may be my own idiosyncrasy and not a reason to find out if they work for you.)
Ideas of Order: “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The Sun This March,” “Evening without Angels,” “Anglais Mort à Florence.”
The Man with the Blue Guitar: none.
Parts of a World: “The Poems of Our Climate,” “Study of Two Pears,” “The Man on the Dump,” “The Dwarf,” “The Blue Buildings in the Summer Air,” “The Common Life,” “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man,” “Cuisine Bourgeoise,” “Bouquet of Belle Scavoir,” “Yellow Afternoon,” “Of Modern Poetry,” “Arrival at the Waldorf,” “Landscape with Boat,” “Contrary Theses (II).”
Transport to Summer: “The Motive for Metaphor,” “The Lack of Repose,” “Esthétique du Mal,” “Man Carrying Thing,” “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” “Burghers of Petty Death,” “Mountains Covered with Cats,” “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.”
The Auroras of Autumn: “The Auroras of Autumn,” “Large Red Man Reading,” “This Solitude of Cataracts,” “The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract,” “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” “Saint John and the Back-Ache,” “A Primitive Like an Orb,” “Reply to Papini,” “The Bouquet,” “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.”
The Rock: “Lebensweisheitspielerei,” “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” “The World as Meditation,” “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” “The Planet on the Table,” “The River of Rivers in Connecticut.”