Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wallace Stevens, Philosopher

Ever wonder, Yaakov, about the nature of reality and the reality of nature? You may not frame your thoughts in those terms. You may frame your thoughts like Jacob Needleman did in an article titled "An Awkward Question," which was published in the June 1981 issue of Science 81:

"Perhaps the wholeness of nature can never be seen by human beings who are not themselves whole. In physics, for example, every advance in observational technology yields a new crop of 'ultimate' particles and conflicting theories, leading to ever more sophisticated mathematical techniques. It is no longer clear whether theoretical physics is providing knowledge of the real world out there or only reports about the endless ramifications of conceptual logic in our own minds."

Or you may frame your thoughts like Wallace Stevens did, in his poetry, which to Stevens was a medium for understanding reality in its many guises.

For Stevens, the composition of poetry is the best means we have of initiating an inquiry into reality. "Poetry is the supreme fiction," he wrote in "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman." If reality is our conceptual fiction, as Needleman conjectured, then poetry is the best way to understand it. Why? Because we can only understand what we can put into words. "Description is revelation," Stevens wrote in "Description Without Place," and poetry is the highest form of description. Description . . .

. . . is the theory of the word for those
For whom the word is the making of the world,
The buzzing world and lisping firmament.

America's most philosophical poet was born on October 2, 1879 in Reading, PA. His father was a country lawyer and his mother, of Pennsylvania Dutch extraction, was a schoolteacher. He was educated at private schools and Lutheran church schools before going on to Reading Boys High School, a public school. He enrolled at Harvard in 1897 and, while there, published poetry and articles in the Harvard Advocate, a campus magazine.
Stevens left Harvard without a degree in 1900 and went to New York, where he worked as a reporter for the New York Tribune. He went to New York Law School, graduated in 1903 and was admitted to the bar the next year. He worked as an attorney for several New York firms and in 1916 he joined the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Hartford, CT. Eventually he rose to the position of vice president in 1934 and worked for the company for the rest of his life.

Having become established in a career, he married Elsie Kachel Moll, a shop clerk from Reading. They had a daughter, Holly, in 1924. The marriage was said to be unhappy but stable, meaning that Stevens didn't play around. Elsie was fanatical in her housekeeping and Stevens both idealized her and rejected her narrow outlook on life.

Stevens was a very private man. He didn't receive literary acquaintances at his home in Hartford. He did, however, sometimes mix with writers and artists in the Greenwich Village circle of his Harvard classmate, the art collector Walter Arensberg. Picture it. Here was this reserved insurance executive in his gray flannel suit hanging out with Bohemians with a Bolshevik bent, to whom people like Stevens embodied the very bourgeois capitalism they railed against. As it happens, Stevens was a closet socialist during the 1930s even as New Masses, a Marxist journal, was criticizing his poetry for being indifferent to political and social issues.

In his day job Stevens examined and signed off on insurance claims. He once told an interviewer, "Poetry and surety claims aren't as unlikely a combination as they may seem. There's nothing perfunctory about them for each case is different."

But it was an unlikely combination to literary critics, who ignored Stevens for most of his career in poetry, perhaps because they couldn't imagine how such a conservative man could produce such innovative verse. At Harvard he was encouraged to write poetry by the philosopher George Santayana and for years he published poems in Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine, which also gave space to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot during their formative years. He even had a verse drama produced at New York's Provincetown Playhouse in 1917, which was home to Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Djuna Barnes. Harmonium, his first collection of poetry, was well received by fellow poets like Marianne Moore, but it sold all of 100 copies for lack of critical acceptance. As late as 1931, Percy Hutchison, critic for The New York Times, was dismissing this volume:

"From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead."

Hutchison and other critics made the mistake of judging a book by its cover. Just because Stevens didn't look or act the part of a poet didn't mean he wasn't a poet. Harmonium, of course, now stands as one of the great works of American poetry. He was 44-years-old when it was published in 1923 and, contrary to conventional wisdom about people being most creative in their younger years, his best work was ahead of him. Yeats and Joyce also did their best work in their later years.

As a young poet Stevens, like Pound and Eliot, was influenced by the French symbolists Baudelaire and Mallarme, and by the way the French impressionist painters viewed reality as a matter of perception. Many of his early poems have titles that read like the titles of paintings. But Stevens was essentially an American poet, both in spirit and in disposition—he never traveled outside the country. When asked whether it was possible to distinguish an American poem from a British poem, he said that "the Americans are not British in sensibility . . . we live in two different physical worlds, and it is not nonsense to think that that matters."

It's not surprising that Stevens was inspired by Baudelaire and Mallarme, because they were inspired by that most American poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe, whose "Philosophy of Composition" became the foundation of the modernist aesthetic. Picasso would have been a nobody without Poe. Picasso, too, was indebted to the impressionist painters, whose preoccupation with perception as it organizes reality dates to Bishop Berkeley and, yes, to the ancient Greeks. Everything dates to ancient Greek philosophy. As German philosophers say, all else is commentary.

Commenting on Stevens the poet, I would say that he's in the first tier of American poets, along with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams. I would say that his best poems are "The Comedian as the Letter C," "Depression Before Spring," "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" (his personal favorite), "Sunday Morning," which made his reputation as a poet, "To the One of Fictive Music," "Peter Quince at the Clavier," "The Idea of Order at Key West," "The Man with the Blue Guitar," "What We See Is What We Think," "The Plain Sense of Things" and "Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself," a formula he borrowed from William Carlos Williams and a final recognition that reality exists outside of perception. My own favorite is "Description Without Place." Like Poe's "The Bells," it must be read aloud to hear its chimes.

Read these poems and you will see the progress of an honest person struggling with timeless philosophical issues. And you will come to understand, I think, that a person who goes through life without struggling with these issues is a person who hasn't really lived.

Stevens finally achieved critical acclaim in the last decade of his life. In 1949 he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in Poetry. He won a National Book Award for Auroras of Autumn in 1951. In 1955, the year he died, he won another National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems.

As he was dying in August 1955, Wallace Stevens converted to Catholicism. For me this deathbed conversion represents his understanding that in the end, all philosophical issues are at heart religious issues.

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