Friday, 24 October 2008


Wallace Stevens was a multiple of inventions: husband, father, lawyer, business man, and Pulitzer Prize winning poet. During his adult years until his death in 1955 at the age of 75, he wrote some of the greatest poetry of the English Language. My initial fascination with him began in an American Literature course, where Stevens was headlined and described as the “direct inheritor of the Romantic tradition in poetry”, the likes of Blake, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge….After the Victorian Period of Tennyson and the rest, Yeats reclaimed romanticism as the prevailing poetic genre…but then came T. S. Eliot with his copious footnotes, esoteric allusions, making poetry an intellectual game rather than a human experience. Fortunately, Stevens’ writing began to redress the balance for a time, speaking like Yeats, with clarity, vision, intelligence, and emotion.

One of the most compelling features, for me, of Stevens’ work is the way his biography and his poetry contradict many of the myths associated with being a successful writer.

Myth #1: We must begin early and write often.

Stevens did not publish his first small volume of poetry until 1923, at the age of 44, and nothing substantial again until 1936 at age 57. With a full time job and family responsibilities, he could only write sporadically.

Myth #2: We must lead or have lead a life of extreme angst or high adventure and be able to write out of what we have directly or indirectly experienced.

Stevens’ personal life, by his own account was boring and uneventful. One wife, one daughter, one job, all of his career, as lawyer for an insurance company…But through his poetry he created what he once called a “mythology of self” where he attempted to transcend his own biography and create fables of identity.
Myth #3: To be successful, we should travel widely, spending a lot of time networking and marketing our own work.

Stevens lived a quiet family life in Hartford, Connecticut; with an occasional holiday to Florida in his later years…He never traveled outside of the United States…

Myth #4: We must have many subjects, themes, ideas in order to be considered a significant writer.

Stevens basically had a single theme (with several sub themes) .His text, The Necessary Angel, is a series of essays on the interconnection between reality and the imagination. The corollary to this connection is the idea of poet as myth maker that, in the process of writing, we recreate, refine, revitalize, renew ourselves. As Yeats said,”It is myself that I remake”…
Which leads to:

Myth #5: We write because we have a story to tell, we have an urge to express ourselves, or we love to play with language.

Yes, all of those reasons are valid…but at root, our writing is a rewriting of ourselves. Who am I? Why am I? Where am I going with my life… and with all the selves I aspire to be? Who of us would not consider living multiple lives? Who of us has not thought about how we might rearrange events if we could relive this or that time in our lives? Stevens would suggest that, consciously or unconsciously, we seek out writing as a way to rearrange, reorder, relive, and recreate the various parts of our worlds, and, in the process, to create the most important supreme fiction, ourselves.

Here are some poetry and prose segments of Stevens which I particularly like and which may illustrate some of his theories of poetry and of life:

The joy of meaning in design
Wrenched out of chaos…
(The Sail of Ulysses)

If it should be that reality exists
In the mind…
…it follows that
Real and unreal are two in one.

…the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life.
As it is, in the intricate evasions of as,
In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness,
The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the long-for lands.
(An Ordinary Evening in New Haven)

The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair…

And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.
(Esthetique du Mal)

The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.
(The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination)

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