Asked in 1933 what his favourite among his own poems was, Wallace Stevens said he liked best ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, from Harmonium (1923). The work ‘wears a deliberately commonplace costume’, Stevens said, ‘and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry’. He didn’t remember much about writing the poem except ‘the state of mind from which it came’: ‘I dislike niggling, and like letting myself go.’ I don’t think this means he never niggled, always let himself go – rather the opposite. The poem conjures up a happy liberation from correction, in poetry and elsewhere, and gaudiness and freedom are seen to go together.
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
‘Commonplace costume’ means not dressed specially for poetry, or mildly undressed to make a point about what modern poetry needs, and the important effect is that of the possibility of gaiety in the ordinary. ‘Gaiety’ is another of Stevens’s words. ‘Gaiety in poetry,’ he wrote in a notebook, ‘is a precious characteristic but it should be a characteristic of the diction.’ The mysterious line about being and seeming can be read as introducing a bit of order into this frivolity – a dose of serious being will put an end to casual seeming – but probably, taken in conjunction with the triumphant and nonsensical last line, means just the reverse: a delight in boisterous seeming will, with any luck, change the nature of being.
Stevens was a little older than Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and died before they did; but his poems consistently read as if they were written a generation later. There must be many rather complicated reasons for this, including many reasons I don’t know. But two reasons are clear and very interesting. They emerge unmistakably from a reading of this handsome and practical collection of Stevens’s work: all the poems; much of the prose, including The Necessary Angel, his elegant and austere contribution to ‘the theory of poetry’; three short plays; various essays and responses to surveys; and some selections from notebooks, journals and letters. The whole thing is discreetly and helpfully annotated, and there is a detailed chronology of Stevens’s life. The most surprising item in this last section is the reference to Stevens’s breaking his hand in a drunken fistfight with Hemingway in Key West; the most appropriate Stevens’s refusing to speak at a memorial for Dylan Thomas, whom he thought of as ‘an utterly improvident person’.
Stevens, trained as a lawyer, worked for most of his life for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He was born in 1879, of Dutch-German descent, in Reading, Pennsylvania; attended Harvard, and was a journalist for a year or two before he went to law school. Once he settled in Hartford in 1916, he stayed there, apart from occasional trips within America, and a visit to Cuba. He died in 1955, loaded with honours, having received within that year the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and an honorary degree from Yale. His volumes of poetry after Harmonium were Ideas of Order (1936), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), Parts of a World (1942), Transport to Summer (1947), The Auroras of Autumn (1950), The Rock (1954), and the extraordinary late poems gathered in Opus Posthumous (1957).
The first reason I see for Stevens’s difference from his contemporaries is his indefatigable devotion to nonsense, illustrated not only in the poem quoted above but in countless invented words and excursions into word play.
The lacquered loges huddled there
Mumbled zay-zay and a-zay, a-zay
Fubbed the girandoles ...
The grackles sing avant the spring
Most spiss – oh! Yet, most spissantly ...
The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind,
If one may say so ...
One’s tootings at the weddings of the soul
Occur as they occur.
An evening is said to ‘skreak and skritter’; ‘chu-chot-chu’ is the sound of the laughter of evil. ‘Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk’ is how Stevens in ‘A High-Toned Old Christian Woman’ invites us to hear flagellants slapping themselves as they parade. Much of this is funny, but some of it is just giggling: not gaudy, only whimsical. The point, though, is not merely the escape from solemn sense but the chance of discoveries in the realm of nonsense. R.P. Blackmur, writing of Stevens in 1931, said that ‘half our sleeping knowledge is in nonsense; and when put in a poem it wakes.’ Pound and Eliot and Frost made jokes, but they didn’t have this trust in the other side of reason. It’s as if Lewis Carroll rather than, say, Dante were the measure of the world we have lost – the mood seems later because it is less nostalgic. The modern interest in the imagination, Stevens said, ‘is to be regarded not as a phase of humanism but as a vital self-assertion in a world in which nothing but the self remains, if that remains’.
Stevens himself later wrote that ‘Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation,’ and we need slightly longer examples, perhaps, to get the full eerie effect of this claim in action, light and ironic and haunting:
And là-bas, là-bas, the cool bananas grew,
Hung heavily on the great banana tree,
Which pierces clouds and bends on half the world.
He thought often of the land from which he came,
How that whole country was a melon, pink
If seen rightly and yet a possible red.
An unaffected man in a negative light
Could not have borne his labour nor have died
Sighing that he should leave the banjo’s twang.
The ambiguity of ‘unaffected’ is important: it’s good to be affected by tropical memories, but it might be good to have affectations too.
For another, more mischievous, more political version of the same effect we could look at ‘The Dance of the Macabre Mice’, a poem Stevens listed, in 1942, as among his best.
In the land of the turkeys in turkey weather
At the base of the statue, we go round and round.
What a beautiful history, beautiful surprise!
Monsieur is on horseback. The horse is covered with mice.
This dance has no name. It is a hungry dance.
We dance it out to the tip of Monsieur’s sword,
Reading the lordly language of the inscription,
Which is like zithers and tambourines combined:
The Founder of the State. Whoever founded
A state that was free, in the dead of winter, from mice?
What a beautiful tableau tinted and towering,
The arm of bronze outstretched against all evil!
Here the beauty, and the irony, are in the pause, the syntactic delay: ‘Whoever founded/A state that was free ...?’ Free from mice, that is.
The other reason Stevens seems a later writer than his contemporaries is very different, and as heavy as the first reason is light. He seems to have been dedicated, from the start, to outliving them rather than foundering with them, and if he failed in this literally, he certainly succeeded otherwise. ‘One cannot spend one’s time in being modern when there are so many more important things to do.’ This is a joke, and Stevens subscribed pretty fully to most of Modernism’s orthodoxies. We live in an age of ‘diffidence’, we ‘cannot yield ourselves’ to old ideas of nobility and the soul, which we now construe as nonsense in a negative sense, nonsense we cannot love. ‘All the great things have been denied, and we live in an intricacy of new and local mythologies, political, economic, poetic, which are asserted with an ever-enlarging incoherence.’ ‘Little of what we have believed has been true. Only the prophecies are true.’ What makes Stevens different is his determination to survive these dissipations and disasters. The ideal, he says, ‘cannot be dismissed merely because we think that we have long since outlived the ideal. The truth is that we are constantly outliving it and yet the ideal itself remains alive with an enormous life.’ Eliot and Pound, we might say, made their great poems out of their great disappointments; Stevens taught himself to expect disappointment and keep going. Where Pound speaks of ‘errors and wrecks’ at the end of the Cantos, Stevens offers us a ‘supreme fiction’, a world clarified and purified by the endless exercise of the imagination. This makes Stevens’s poetic project the happier one, but also potentially the thinner one, and he worries about the possibility himself. ‘I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life,’ he asks in a late poem, ‘As a questioner about reality,/A countryman of all the bones in the world?’ And again:
I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life,
As a disbeliever in reality,
A countryman of all the bones in the world?
One answer is that a life of patience is not a skeleton’s life. Stevens’s defence of the ivory tower is not a defence of isolation or egotism. ‘The ivory tower was offensive if the man who lived in it wrote, there, of himself for himself. It was not offensive if he used it because he could do nothing without concentration, as no one can.’ ‘Literature is the better part of life,’ Stevens remarks in a very Jamesian turn. ‘To this it seems inevitably necessary to add provided life is the better part of literature.’ ‘Eventually,’ he wrote in the same vein, ‘an imaginary world is entirely without interest.’ The ivory tower in any case is no longer optional; the trick is not how to retreat to it but how to get out, to release poetry from its captivity in irrelevance without making it simply sing the tunes of the age. ‘There was a time when the ivory tower was merely a place of seclusion, like a cottage on a hill-top or a cabin by the sea. Today, it is a kind of lock-up of which our intellectual constables are the appointed wardens.’
The way out of the lock-up for Stevens is a series of impossible fresh starts.
Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.
‘The death of Satan was a tragedy/For the imagination,’ Stevens writes, as if the death of God were the least of it.
How cold the vacancy
When the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist
First sees reality ...
The shaken realist is the person who needs a ‘supreme fiction’ – because reality is never enough, and because the unstable imagination always betrays it. Stevens’s talk about fiction can seem a little glib, as if it was easy to ‘believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else’. In this formulation belief and fiction surely cancel each other out, or only one of them carries any real meaning, and just swallows the other. But Stevens didn’t think the practical combination of faith and scepticism was easy, and his work shows how hard it is. In a poem about Penelope, Stevens writes of ‘the barbarous strength’ of her waiting for the man she knows may not come.
But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun
On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.
The two kept beating together. It was only day.
It was Ulysses and it was not. Yet they had met,
Friend and dear friend and a planer’s encouragement.
The barbarous strength within her would never fail.
She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,
Repeating his name with its patient syllables,
Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.
Is this a poem about Penelope? Yes, but not only about Penelope. It is called ‘The World as Meditation’ and has an epigraph in French from George Enesco, saying that his meditation, ‘the essential exercise of the composer’, was uninterrupted, ‘a permanent dream’. Penelope is the thought that precedes and underlies composition; meditation is Penelope waiting for a man who does and does not arrive. The supreme fiction, perhaps, requires us to forget its fictionality after all, to abandon as useless or unbearable our certainty that it is a fiction.
And nothing could be more moving, less like proof of the skeleton’s life, than the gesture, in one of Stevens’s very last poems, of the austerity-seeking poet who embraces the sheer glitter and music of the world, like Aschenbach giving himself up to thoughts of Tadzio. This is the poet who has called for ‘a mind of winter’, has said that ‘the mind is the great poem of winter’, demanding the destruction of ‘romantic tenements/Of rose and ice’. But it is also the poet who seems, as one turns the pages of this volume, to have been preparing all his life for the phrase ‘fire-tangled’ which appears at the end of the poem I am about to quote. ‘These comic colors dangled down,’ we read. A tongue is a ‘finding fang’. There are ‘fitful-fangled darknesses’, and ‘clumped stars dangling all the way’. And then:
The palm at the end of the mind
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor.
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
Listen to Seamus Perry and Mark Ford discuss Wallace Stevens on the LRB Podcast.
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