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.