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Definition: Stevens, Wallace from Philip's Encyclopedia

US poet. A lawyer and insurance company executive, his first collection of poems, Harmonium, appeared in 1923. His work is rich in metaphors, and he contemplates nature and society. Stevens' early poems are often set in the tropics and reflect the lushness of their location. Collected Poems (1954) won a Pulitzer Prize.

Summary Article: Stevens, Wallace (1879-1955)
from Encyclopedia of the Environment in American Literature

Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1879. After studying at Harvard from 1987 to 1900, and briefly pursuing journalism in Manhattan, he chose an unorthodox career for a poet: insurance law. By 1934 he would be a vice-president at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Corporation, and the income from this job allowed him to settle in the wealthy suburb of West Hartford, Connecticut, where he lived until his death in 1955. Stevens’ writing garnered attention slowly, beginning in 1914 when the journal Poetry published a few pieces; his first book, Harmonium, appeared in 1923, received mixed reviews, and sold poorly, although Marianne Moore was an early supporter. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Stevens published increasing quantities of work in both short and long form (especially his acclaimed 1942 Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction), and his reputation blossomed. Auroras of Autumn won the National Book Award in 1951, as did his Collected Poems in 1954 (the latter also received a Pulitzer). In addition to his poetry, Stevens published a collection of critical essays, The Necessary Angel (1951), and in 1966 a large posthumous selection of his fascinating Letters appeared.

For several decades after his death, most critics and readers assumed Stevens’ writing was primarily devoted to abstract philosophical speculation, rather than contemporary history or day-to-day experience. More recently, however, scholars such as James Longenbach and Gyorgyi Voros have demonstrated that, for all its density and difficulty, his poetry is informed by the events of his lifetime, including World War II and the spread of technology-intensive industrial capitalism. In her pioneering work, Voros argues that ecology provides a framework for understanding his poetics, both as a literal point of reference (given his passionate interest in natural phenomena such as weather, plants, and animals) and as an analogue to his fundamental belief that texts, selves, and the encompassing physical world are dynamic, interconnected webs of phenomena: he “offered an affirmative, frequently joyful vision as an alternative to the twentieth century's increasing objectification of Nature and alienation from it” (Voros 3). Or as Stevens himself puts it, he aimed to create his version of “the great poem of the earth [that] remains to be written” (“Imagination as Value,” NA 142).

Like the work of “inhumanist,” Robinson Jeffers, Stevens’ poetry rejects the idea that humans, and the human, are the most important elements in the universe, a misconception that Stevens traces to both Judeo-Christian religion and Enlightenment humanism. While he associates the latter with “the gaunt world of the reason” (“The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet,” NA 58), the former receives still more of his disdain. In the early poem “Sunday Morning,” for example, a woman plays hooky from church and decides that “Divinity must live within herself” rather than in some transcendent realm; she chooses instead to savor immediate events and sensual objects such as fruit, weather cycles, birds, and sunlight. At the same time, however, Stevens highlights the natural environment's amorality and fundamental indifference to humanity: as the speaker of “The Snow Man” observes, “One must have a mind of winter” in order to see “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (CP 9-10). In a world of great beauty but no gods, poetry serves as a “supreme fiction,” a comforting spiritual resource for human beings faced with existential loneliness. Constructing this fiction entails sensitivity toward one's physical environment. Perhaps Stevens’ finest formulation of this idea comes in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction: “From this the poem springs: that we live in a place / That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves / And hard it is in spite of blazoned days” (CP 383). Anticipating what Lawrence Buell argues is a fundamental trait of environmentally oriented literature (Buell 7-8), Stevens treats the nonhuman world as valuable in its own right, not simply a resource for humans to consume. That said, however, human happiness requires us to make imaginative use of nature as we encounter it. Only by forming what “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” calls “imaginative transcripts” (CP 479) of the world can we dwell contentedly in it. These guiding texts mark “The difference that we make in what we see / And our memorials of that difference” (“Description Without Place,” CP 344).

Critics such as Angus Fletcher and Dorothy Nielsen contend that a truly “ecologized” poetics would frame both human selves and literary texts as entities open to the dynamics of nature, rather than closed systems detachedly observing the world. Stevens endorses this kind of interconnectivity. In “The Planet on the Table,” a poem is an environmental conduit: the poet's “self and the sun were one / And his poems, although makings of his self, / Were no less makings of the sun” (CP 532). Likewise, the speaker of “Yellow Afternoon” declares, “It was in the earth only / That he was at the bottom of things / And of himself,” and realizes that “one loves that / Of which one is a part as in a unity” (CP 236)

Further, in his essays Stevens theorizes poesis itself as an interchange between the “imagination” and “reality.” As he uses these terms, the former denotes the inherent human impulse, exemplified by poetry, to rearrange the world we experience according to our visions of what is necessary for a good life, while the latter is that world itself, indifferent but still captivating. There is a “universal interdependence” between the two, not a stark divide, he writes in the essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” (NA 24). Stevens contends that as a poet, “nature [is that] which I desire to reduce: master, subjugate, acquire complete control over and use freely for my own purpose, as poet” (L 790), but nonetheless imagination literally cannot function without the surrounding world — it “loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real” and “has the strength of reality or none at all” (“Noble Rider,” NA 6-7). This is the crux of the meditation in “Study of Two Pears”: “The pears are not seen / As the observer wills” (CP 197). By striking a balance between the two forces, a writer creates what “The Bouquet” (CP 448) calls “medium nature,” a text composed of equal parts human meditation and environmental input.

“Medium nature” is also a good way to describe the domesticated, cultivated environments Stevens frequently depicts. Unlike many canonical environmental poets, such as Gary Snyder and Robinson Jeffers, he almost never writes about wilderness, and when he does, as in “Anecdote of the Jar” (CP 76), it is something that is fading: the jar “made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill. / / The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild.” He instead portrays the kinds of spaces and phenomena a prosperous suburbanite who liked horticulture, collected art, and took vacations in Key West would be familiar with: parks, still-life botanical paintings, gardens, the local climate and weather of Connecticut, fruit, tropical beaches, and common animals like those that inhabit his famous “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (CP 92-95). Nor is he a didactic writer; Stevens’ sensitivity toward nature did not engender what we would now call “environmentalist” claims, because he was writing before modern American eco-activism became a political force in the 1960s. Nevertheless, he offers a way of looking at the world — with wonder and humility — that accords with the spiritual attachments and policy priorities of environmentalists, even though it does not anticipate their public rhetoric.

As Stevens sees it, life without divine certainties is often lonely, but it is not necessarily unpleasant, thanks in large part to the relationships with our surroundings that poetry helps us form. The poet's “role, in short, is to help people live their lives” by capturing their attention until “his imagination become[s] the light in the minds of others,” Stevens argues in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” (NA 29). He has faith in what the philosopher Edmund Husserl calls the lebenswelt (‘life-world’), which is the shared physical space of all subjective experience — in other words, this felt earth. “On the Road Home” (CP 203) stages this idea, asserting that although people construct their own forms of meaning (“There are many truths / But they are not parts of a truth”), all construction takes place on public ground: “It was at that time, that the silence was largest / And longest, the night was roundest, / The fragrance of the autumn warmest, / Closest and strongest.” While we must survive without the supernatural, and accept that full knowledge of other human minds will always elude us, there still remains “the honey of the common summer” (“Esthétique du Mal,” CP 316).

  • Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Belknap Cambridge MA, 1995.
  • Fletcher, Angus. A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Harvard University Press Cambridge MA, 2004.
  • Longenbach, James. Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. Oxford University Press Oxford and New York, 1991.
  • Nielsen, Dorothy M.Ecology, Feminism, and Postmodern Lyric Subjects.” New Definitions of Lyric: Theory, Technology, and Culture. Ed. Jeffreys, Mark . Garland New York and London, 1998. 127-149.
  • Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens [CP]. Alfred A. Knopf New York, 1954.
  • Stevens, Wallace. “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet.” Necessary Angel. 39-67.
  • Stevens, Wallace. “Imagination as Value.” Necessary Angel. 130-156.
  • Stevens, Wallace. Letters of Wallace Stevens [L]. Ed. Stevens, Holly . University of California Press Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1966.
  • Stevens, Wallace. “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination [NA]. Vintage New York, 1951. 3-36.
  • Voros, Gyorgyi. Notations of the Wild: Ecology in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. University of Iowa Press Iowa City, 1997.
  • Ryan Boyd
    © 2013 Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones

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