Wallace Stevens lived a richly imaginative life that found expression in his poetry. Read more...
Wallace Stevens lived a richly imaginative life that found expression in his poetry. His philosophical questioning, spiritual depth, and brilliantly inventive use of language would be profound influences on poets as diverse as William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery. The Whole Harmonium presents Stevens within the living context of his times, as well as the creator of a poetry which has had a profound and lasting impact on the modern imagination itself.
Stevens established his career as an executive even as he wrote his poetry, becoming a vice president with an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. His first and most influential book, Harmonium, was not published until he was forty-four years old. In these poems, Stevens drew on his interest in and understanding of modernism. Over time he became acquainted with the most accomplished of his contemporaries, Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams among them, but his personal style remained unique. He endured an increasingly unhappy marriage, losing himself by writing poetry in his study. Yet he had a witty, comic, and Dionysian side to his personality, including long fishing (and drinking) trips to Florida with his pals and a fascination with the sun-drenched tropics.
People generally know two things about Wallace Stevens: that he is a difficult poet and that he was an insurance executive for most of his life. Stevens may be challenging to understand, but he is also greatly rewarding to read. Now, sixty years after Stevens s death, biographer and poet Paul Mariani shows how over the course of his life, Stevens sought out the ineffable and spiritual in human existence in his search for the sublime."
Well Read: Stevens' ideas of order
The gentleman gazing intently at us from the jacket photo of The Whole Harmonium, Paul Mariani’s illuminating biography of Wallace Stevens, could be any successful businessman in midcentury America—a confident, well-fed mandarin. Stevens is, of course, one of our great modernist poets, but the alternative guise is no less accurate, for he spent most of his professional life as an insurance executive. That duality runs throughout the narrative of his life and helps define Stevens, who, we come to see, was as straight and narrow in his quotidian affairs as he was brilliantly fancy-free in his writing.
Mariani, perhaps best known as a National Book Award finalist for William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (Williams was another modernist genius with a day job—as a doctor—and was an important contemporary, friend and influence on Stevens)—ably balances a straightforward chronicle of events from his subject’s life with an analysis of the poet’s often difficult, inventive work. While the two can seem quite separate at times, Mariani manages to make connections that give a deeper understanding of the man and the poet.
Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879, and in many ways his life seems to have been a concerted effort to steer clear of his father’s wish that he return there and live a provincial life centered on family. There is an underlying irony, because while Stevens outwardly strained against that notion, and never returned permanently to Reading after graduating from Harvard, he did concede to his father’s vision by opting for a conventional career in insurance. And he did marry a girl from his hometown, the shy Elsie Kachel, but their early romance quickly waned, and the marriage became a hollow thing, with Stevens often traveling for work and Elsie retreating into her own insular world. The best word to describe Stevens’ relationships both with Elsie and the rest of his largely estranged family might be “arid.”
Stevens’ poetry, on the other hand, is anything but arid, with its dazzling wordplay and imagery. His complexity of thought has given generations of readers much to decipher and contemplate, and Mariani traces the origins of such iconic works as “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Stevens came of age as a poet somewhat late—his first book was not published until he was 44—in the exciting period around World War I when modernism was born. The most compelling sections of The Whole Harmonium detail Stevens’ interactions with other poets and artists of this time, as well as such influential mentors as the critic Carl Van Vechten, the patron Walter Arensberg and Poetry magazine founder Harriet Monroe.
While there has been much critical work done on Stevens over the years, there has not been a lot of biographical inquiry, perhaps because, as the Academy of American Poets website puts it, “Composing poems on his way to and from the office and in the evenings, Stevens continued to spend his days behind a desk at the office, and led a quiet, uneventful life.” Though it is hard to convey a life of the mind, Mariani’s biography does justice to this cerebral, metaphysical poet and his enduring body of work.