Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
What does Wallace Stevens mean by a “supreme fiction”? Do the formal divisions of the poem Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction offer any evidence?
How does the inclusion of lush sensory imagery in “Sunday Morning” assist Stevens in the development of his theme?
Several of Stevens’s poems entail the “idea of order.” Is “Anecdote of the Jar” such a poem? What does it say or imply about order?
Is “The Emporer of Ice Cream” a defense of hedonism?
Could the poem “Of Modern Poetry” have been as well titled “Of Poetry”?
Does Stevens’s poetry fall into any particular school or tradition of poetry?
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Wallace Stevens’s significant achievement is in his poetry, but he did write several experimental one-act verse plays, a number of essays on poetry, and numerous letters and journal notes that contain perceptive comments on his work. In 1916, he published in the magazine Poetry his first one-act verse play, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, for which he received a special prize from Poetry; in 1920, the play was performed at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York. A second verse play, Carlos Among the Candles, was staged in New York in 1917 and later published, again in Poetry. A third play, Bowl, Cat, and Broomstick, was produced at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York in the same year but was never published during the poet’s life. Between 1942 and 1951, he gave a series of lectures on poetry at Princeton and other universities, and these were collected in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (1951). Later essays, as well as a number of uncollected poems and plays, appeared in Opus Posthumous (1957). The poet wrote excellent letters, and his daughter, Holly Stevens, collected and edited the best of them in Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966). In Souvenirs and Prophecies: The Young Wallace Stevens (1977), she presented important entries from the poet’s journal (1898-1914). Focusing on the relationship between the imagination and reality, Stevens’s canon is highly unified; the prose and the plays help illuminate the difficult poetry.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Although Wallace Stevens never has had as large an audience as that enjoyed by Robert Frost and did not receive substantial recognition until several years before his death, he is usually considered to be one of the best five or six English-language poets of the twentieth century. Harmonium reveals a remarkable style—or, to be more precise, a number of remarkable styles. While critics praised, or more often condemned, the early poetry for its gaudiness, colorful imagery, flamboyant rhetoric, whimsicality, and odd points of view, one also finds in this volume spare Imagist poems as well as abstract philosophical poems that anticipate his later work. The purpose of his rhetorical virtuosity in Harmonium and in subsequent volumes was not merely to dazzle the reader but to convey the depth of emotion, the subtle complexity of thought, and the associative processes of the mind.
Strongly influenced by early nineteenth century English poets, Stevens became a modern Romantic who transformed and extended the English Romantic tradition as he accommodated it to the twentieth century world. Harmonium and subsequent volumes reveal his assimilation of the innovations of avant-garde painting, music, poetry, and philosophy. One finds in his canon, for example, intimations of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Henri Bergson, and of cubism, Impressionism, Imagism, and Symbolism. Such influences were always subordinated to the poet’s romantic sensibility, however, which struggled with the central Romantic problem—the need to overcome the gulf between the inner, human reality and outer, objective reality. A secular humanist who rejected traditional Christianity, arcane mysticism, and the pessimism of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925-1972), he succeeded as a Romantic poet in the modern world. His contribution to poetry was recognized with the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1920, the award of the Bollingen Prize in 1950, the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America in 1951, and a National Book Award in 1951 for The Auroras of Autumn. In 1955, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens won both a second National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His reputation has continued to grow since his death in 1955.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. A readable, biographical approach to studying the poems. Discusses the familial, philosophical, and aesthetic background of the poet. Family papers and letters are used extensively. The parallels between Stevens’s life and poetry are excellent in the account of the poet’s growth and development.
Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. A full commentary on almost all Stevens’s poetry. A chapter on American poetics from Emerson to Stevens explores the prevalent themes of fate, freedom, and power. Includes an index of Stevens’s work.
Brazeau, Peter. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered. New York: Random House, 1983.
Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A study responding to critical misapprehension about Owl’s Clover, argues that the poem’s rhetorical poetics are crucial to understanding Stevens’s complete poetry as an ethical challenge to the destructive and rigidly repetitive routes of history.
Cook, Eleanor. A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. This work elucidates...
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