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A Music of Austerity: The Poetry of Wallace Stevens | The Nation

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A Music of Austerity: The Poetry of Wallace Stevens

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SYLVIA SALMIWallace Stevens

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James Longenbach
James Longenbach’s most recent books are the poetry collection The Iron Key (Norton) and, in prose, The Virtues...

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In the fall of 1936, after a decade of not doing so, this magazine sponsored a poetry prize. Of the 1,800 poems submitted, said the editors of The Nation, "the overwhelming majority were concerned with contemporary social conflicts either at home or abroad." The winning poem, Wallace Stevens's "The Men That Are Falling," was an elegy for soldiers recently killed in the Spanish Civil War, which reads, in part:

Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips,
O pensioners, O demagogues and pay-men!

This death was his belief though death is a stone,
This man loved earth, not heaven, enough to die.

These stand among the most uncharacteristic lines that Stevens ever published. Coming upon them in the elegantly compressed compass of the new Selected Poems, it's difficult to imagine that the author of a quietly unnerving pentameter like "The river that flows nowhere, like a sea" could have written the line "Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips."

Yet to read "The Men That Are Falling" beside some of the greatest poems of the twentieth century--"The Snow Man," "A Postcard From the Volcano," "The River of Rivers in Connecticut"--is to be forced to rearticulate the extremely complex terms of Stevens's achievement. Stevens stands simultaneously among the most worldly and the most otherworldly of American poets, and it is paradoxically through his otherworldliness--through poems whose plain-spoken diction feels spooky--that his respect for the actual world is registered. What is uncharacteristic about "The Men That Are Falling" is not the desire to write about a controversial war; Stevens often did that. What distinguishes the poem is the unconvincingly urgent rhetoric in which that desire is registered.

Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879. After attending Harvard College and New York Law School, he began working in the insurance industry in 1908. He quickly became one of the country's foremost experts in surety law, and in 1934 he was named vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. "The truth is that we may well be entering an insurance era," he wrote in "Insurance and Social Change," published in 1937, the year in which the first Social Security benefits were paid. Surveying the nationalized insurance schemes of Italy, Germany and Britain, Stevens tried to convince his colleagues that the Social Security Administration posed no threat to their business or their personal lives.

Other great modern American poets had full-time jobs. Marianne Moore was an editor, William Carlos Williams a doctor, T.S. Eliot a banker (and later an editor). What distinguishes Stevens is that he never gave the impression of feeling any tension between the different aspects of his life. Once he quipped that "money is a kind of poetry," but more often he emphasized that his legal work was in no way poetic, just as his poems were not meaningfully involved with the logics of law or economics. In an essay called "Surety and Fidelity Claims," he even admitted that his work would seem tedious to almost anyone: "You sign a lot of drafts. You see surprisingly few people. You do the greater part of your work either in your own office or in lawyers' offices. You don't even see the country; you see law offices and hotel rooms." Unlike Ezra Pound, who was an amateur economist, Stevens had a professional's sense of the limitations of expertise. He resembles in this regard George Oppen, who stopped writing poetry for over twenty years in order to devote himself to personal and social problems that poetry did not have the power to ameliorate, however implicated in such problems poetry might have been.

Stevens also experienced extended periods of silence. At Harvard he was the president of The Advocate, a prestigious literary magazine; he exchanged sonnets with the philosopher George Santayana, for whom he would later write "To an Old Philosopher in Rome." But after leaving Cambridge in 1900, he wrote no poems for almost a decade. And when the magisterial "Sunday Morning" appeared in 1915, in Poetry magazine, it seemed to have come from nowhere; almost no apprentice work preceded it.

Stevens's first book, Harmonium, appeared eight years later, when the poet was 44, and it is still the most astonishing debut in the history of American poetry. In contrast, the poems in Pound's A Lume Spento or Williams's Poems barely let us glimpse the great work to come. But after publishing Harmonium, Stevens gave up poetry for another decade. His daughter, Holly, was born. "My job is not now with poets from Paris," he told Williams, who was a close friend. "It is to keep the fire-place burning and the music-box churning and the wheels of the baby's chariot turning."

Anyone who cared about American poetry presumed that Stevens's career as a poet was finished, but then "The Idea of Order at Key West" suddenly appeared in 1934. Beginning at age 55, Stevens finally assumed the profile of a poet, and the great books of his maturity (Ideas of Order, The Man With the Blue Guitar, Parts of a World, Transport to Summer and The Auroras of Autumn) were published at regular intervals. He continued working at the Hartford until well after the age of mandatory retirement; he declined an invitation to be the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. Shortly before his death in 1955, his Collected Poems received both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

One of his last poems was "The River of Rivers in Connecticut":

There is a great river this side of Stygia,
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun. On its banks,

No shadow walks. The river is fateful,
Like the last one. But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it. The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction...
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

The river of rivers feels mythic, as momentous as the river that separates us from the afterlife. But this decidedly earthly river is not crossed only once; we need no ferryman, no Charon, to carry us over. The river is fateful because every moment of human life is fateful. It flows through the familiar towns of Haddam and Farmington, its water flashes in the sun. It is an emblem of our mortality, an endless flowing, but more important it embodies a sweet acceptance of oblivion: the river carries us nowhere, not like the sea but like a sea--like any sea at all.

Stevens once remarked that while we possess the great poems of heaven and hell, the great poems of the earth remain to be written. Both "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" and "The Men That Are Falling" are products of Stevens's lifelong ambition to write such poems--poems that honor mortality without needing to look beyond it. But even as "The Men That Are Falling" disdains the extremities of heaven and hell, it embraces earth in a language of fitful extremity: "This death was his belief though death is a stone,/This man loved earth, not heaven, enough to die." In contrast, the consolation of "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" feels enticingly complex because the poem's diction is so eerily generalized, its syntax so quietly declarative. The poem's celebration of human limitation would not feel convincing if its tone did not make small means feel magical.

This tone is Stevens's great achievement, his most enduring response to the world. Some poems seem relevant because of what they say, because of their subject matter. But all poems are truly relevant, whatever they say, because their manner of saying seduces us to inhabit the poem's language as if it were our own--despite the fact that any great poet's language is witheringly idiosyncratic. We feel, reading a great poem, that a small corner of the soul has for a moment become public property. Stevens describes this feeling with uncanny abruptness in "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm," a poem that makes the act of reading and the act of writing feel indistinguishable: "The reader became the book."

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