In today’s New York Times Book Review, Helen Vendler reviews the first edition of Wallace Stevens’ poetry to be published in 20 years. This new volume is the work of John Serio, editor of the Wallace Stevens Journal and by Vendler’s assessment, a person of “unerring taste.” I have an admittedly endless appetite for anything Stevens, so of course this is good news.
And Vendler’s review is worthy of a full read. The Stevens who was famously proper and private (many a graduate student tried, and failed, to pry some of the personal out of him) gives way to a man who, like the rest of us, struggled with life and experienced profound sadness. He was estranged from his parents and unhappy in his marriage. As Vendler notes, “because of his fierce reticence (rather like that of Emily Dickinson, whom he admired), Stevens wrote symbolic rather than transcriptive poetry. How differently might a reader take in ‘Burghers of Petty Death’ if it had been called ‘A Son’s Lament for His Dead Parents,’ or ‘The Snow Man’ if it had been called ‘Stoicism in a Failed Marriage’?”
As many times as I have read and recited “The Snow Man”* (it was one of several Stevens poems I memorized it when I was still a teenager), I did not think of those words as a reference to Stevens’ loveless marriage. Read with that as the context, the poem takes on a sense of the profoundly grief-filled exposure that exists in both the internal and external landscapes.
I also admire the way Vendler identifies the polarities that exist in Stevens’ work, a tension in his poetry that I find so compelling: “Stevens’s poetry oscillates, throughout his life, between verbal ebullience and New England spareness, between the high rhetoric of England (and of religion) and the “plain sense of things” that he sometimes felt to be more American (and more faithful to reality). He would swear off one, then swear off the other, but each was a part of his sensibility.”
Vendler also steps out to view his work from the larger arc of 20th century life:
Stevens’s conscience made him confront the chief issues of his era: the waning of religion, the indifferent nature of the physical universe, the theories of Marxism and socialist realism, the effects of the Depression, the uncertainties of philosophical knowledge, and the possibility of a profound American culture, present and future. Others treated those issues, but very few of them possessed Stevens’s intuitive sense of both the intimate and the sublime, articulated in verse of unprecedented invention, phrased in a marked style we now call “Stevensian” (as we would say “Keatsian” or “Yeatsian”). In the end, he arrived at a firm sense of a universe dignified by human endeavor but surrounded always — as in the magnificent sequence “The Auroras of Autumn” — by the “innocent” creations and destructions within the universe of which he is part.
A poetic sensibility of the both/and, and one that continues to feed, inspire, provoke.
* Here is the full text of the poem which many consider to be the finest short poem ever written in English. (There’s lots of commentary on this famous work, but you can read a short one by Jay Keyser on NPR.)
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.