Whether Wallace Stevens should be considered America’s foremost twentieth century poet remains open to critical conjecture, the kind of deliberation that affects the average person not one whit. Undeniably, his work looms large, precursor with whom any serious later poet must contend if, as Harold Bloom would assert, that later poet is to claim supremacy in our poetic affections. Certainly his work presents the complexity, subtlety, and originality one expects from a great poet whose vision encompasses the philosophical concerns of the age. Undoubtedly, Stevens’ versatility and craftsmanship with language remain unparalleled among modern poets. Together, these qualities gain Stevens high esteem among students of poetry, although they impress most people not at all.
As a matter of fact, what most impresses people even aware of the name Wallace Stevens is that he was a somewhat unpoetic figure for a poet, being a businessman-lawyer for an insurance company. Such incongruity disturbs expectations, calls to question the system of values usually associated with poets, and makes one wonder about the sincerity of the poetry. The poetry, furthermore, seems too complicated, beyond average comprehension, and generally inaccessible given the degree of effort the average person will expend to read a poem, much less understand it. In sum, then, Wallace Stevens raises a great many questions about the notion of what a poet is.
He does this even for students who admire his work and try to come to terms with it. They ask how the creator of works such as Harmonium could possibly spend his days in the mundane chores of the insurance business, how he could hold in mind simultaneously legal matters, financial matters, and the sublime matters of art and imagination. Drawn into the beauties of wordplay and intricate rhythms, they question from whence came the inspiration—not the insurance business, they assume. Their questioning has not been eased to any great degree by Stevens, who seemed to make a real effort to separate his public poetic life from his private personal and business lives. At only a few points in the great body of Stevens’ work does any sense of the poet as personage come through in any but shadowy images. In fact, more often than not, the reader will find himself mislead by suggestions of who the poet is. Stevens wanted this; perhaps it would be more accurate to say he needed to create the false images to preseve himself. Students, of course, are left shaking their heads in wonder at the seeming conflict.
Wallace Stevens: A Celebration should disabuse and educate those literary purists who persist in the romantic notions of what constitutes a poet, for here, the reader has a collection that does more than enough to explain why Wallace Stevens was who he was. Combining biography and literary criticism, the volume reveals the poet’s many sides. Wilson Taylor states the matter aptly when he says, “Stevens was truly a diamond of many facets.” Continually the book shows the quotidian concerns that fill a life, even the life of a supremely talented poet whose primary passion was poetry and other literary achievements. Selected letters to Wilson Taylor, for instance, show Stevens dealing with the world in ways everyone must, as he orders boxes of prunes and apricots for the winter, sends payment for a book Taylor purchased for him, and laments problems with having a geneology drawn up by a woman who never did finish.
A biographical piece by Taylor describes Stevens’ duties for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company as a surety lawyer. Taylor speaks of the relationships Stevens had with coworkers and subordinates, the witty and humane way that he handled daily life at the office. One gets the impression from these passages that the whole man was always present in every instance, pursuing a consistent course of action and essentially untroubled by what seems from the outside to be a bifurcation. As Taylor points out, Stevens’ life as a corporate executive was only a means to an end, the end being a comfortable life for his family and the opportunity to write poetry without financial hardship’s constant distraction. Taylor recalls that Stevens only rarely mentioned his poetry but that he found ample release for his wit within the demands of meetings, correspondence, and personal conversation. Socially, he loved business lunches and dined with a wide range of acquaintances, especially while in New York, where company...
(The entire section is 1835 words.)