by Alex Ross
Slate, Jan. 8, 1998
Wallace Stevens needs to be read in isolation. His poetry makes little sense in conjunction with anyone else's. Like many people, I was baffled when I first read his poems in high-school anthologies: "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" sounded like antique mumbo jumbo in comparison with the up-to-the-minute adolescent angst of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Only when I began to read the 1954 Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens did I come to terms with him. Stevens eludes the anthologists because no one poem is the great one. It's the total book that counts. You can pick up the new Library of America edition of Stevens' Collected Poetry and Prose, turn to any page, and sink yourself into the unconditional, unfootnotable splendor of the voice. I am not sure if this edition is the ideal packaging of Stevens, even though it includes more of his work than any previous collection did. It may include too much — the words look smaller, the margins thinner. For a writer as worshipful of words as Stevens, these slight differences matter.
Stevens' rough chronological equivalence with Joyce and Eliot has created a mistaken notion that his poems are rich in complexity. Blessedly, they are not. Stevens offers a double liberation: first from meaning, then from modernist meaninglessness. His world is separate, immaculate. You do not need a Dublin map or a German phrase book to travel in it. Academic interpreters have failed to meet the challenge posed by Helen Vendler in her landmark study On Extended Wings — to give up the search for intellectual subject matter and to treat Stevens as "pure sound." Vendler herself sometimes fails to meet that standard. She offers ingenious paraphrases and elaborations, but she imposes a false order on a genially chaotic world. She looks for process and argument in a poet who excels at sudden revelations in miniature. She and others have also promoted the idea that the greatest Stevens is to be found in his ambitious long poems. But it is in those poems — "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" and "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" — that his language is driest, his images dullest. Stevens came closer to the Supreme Fiction in short forms, in fragments.
Rather than try to launch a new exegesis, I want to name a few simple technical devices with which Stevens makes his verbal music. More often than not, he writes in iambic pentameter, the antiquated base rhythm of English poetry. Take the famous opening line of "The Idea of Order at Key West": "She sang beyond the genius of the sea." He chooses the sounds with great care. In this line, the vowels almost rhyme: "ee ah, ee aw, eh ee, yuh oh, eh ee." Only two words have more than one syllable: Stevens follows to extremes the old schoolhouse rule that short words work better than long ones. Like Shakespeare, he loved the heave and ho of a line in which each beat has its own word. (Much classic oratory relies on monosyllables: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"; "Ask not what your country can do for you.") In Stevens, monosyllables run riot, sometimes saturating several consecutive lines, as in the vertiginously beautiful climax of "Esthétique du Mal":
One might have thought of sight, but who could think
Of what it sees, for all the ill it sees?
Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound,
But the dark italics it could not propound.
And out of what sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.
Twenty-seven monosyllables in a row, then twenty-one. Twelve polysyllables among eighty-six words. This has to be some sort of record in the English language.
Back to "The Idea of Order," which culminates in another highly monosyllabic line: "And when she sang, the sea,/ Whatever self it had, became the self/ that was her song, for she was the maker." But as the language grows ever more chiseled and incisive, the picture grows more vague. That woman singing on the beach is dissolving into abstraction. It seems as though some principle is being preached. At this point, if you read the poem in high school or college, you may remember deadly questions intruding from the poetry anthologies: "Does the sea represent language? Is the woman the poet?" Any question about meaning in Stevens, whether well or badly formed, ruins the trance. His words are a dream melody of language, bells from nowhere. You can hear as much in tapes of Stevens reading aloud; he is so intent on keeping an even, magisterial tone that he occasionally loses himself in the convoluted syntax on which Vendler expends such analytic energy. Stevens fashioned a new oratory free of meaning; he wrote a surreal, agnostic King James Bible culled from dilettante philosophy, dated chinoiserie, and picture-postcard Americana.
Stevens' grandeur is an inch away from absurdity, if not in the thick of it. This is by intention. He liked to deflate solemnity with silliness. His humor is his least noticed attribute, probably because it is so widespread. Even his titles — "The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade," "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" — undercut their own pomposity. Sometimes I think Stevens was a collegiate prankster who never gave away the joke he played on literature. He comes close in some of the offbeat writings that appear toward the end of the Library of America edition--especially in such nonsense aphorisms as "A poem is a cafe," "A poem is a pheasant," and "All men are murderers." More than a few of the poems, I think, are self-parodies, although it's hard to say which. (A good candidate is "Of Hartford in a Purple Light": "A long time you have been making the trip/ From Havre to Hartford, Master Soleil,/ Bringing the lights of Norway and all that.") Stevens, securely employed for much of his adult life by the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., could afford to laugh aloud at the pretensions of the poetry business.
The closeness of the sublime and the ridiculous, of the daft and the grand, is central to Stevens. The poem that sets it out most clearly is "The Man on the Dump," in which he writes: "One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail./ One beats and beats for that which one believes." The monosyllables are the meaning of the poem--the acting-out of a literary philosophy, which is to hammer new beauty from well-worn words and modern bric-a-brac. The poem goes on to ask these questions about the poet's task:
Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve;
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Yes it is; this is what poetry is. But Stevens frames his manifesto in questions, as if uncertain. I think he's pointing up a contradiction. The poetry that he imagines being murmured on the dump — "aptest eve," "invisible priest," "stanza my stone" — is not in itself distinguished; by intention, it's a bit ridiculous. The sublimity comes in the way those fragments of a Romantic vision glide together with artifacts of ordinariness--bottles, pots, shoes, grass. The poem performs its theme; it is self-sufficient, it runs on its own power.
It is the purity of Stevens' language that makes the Library of America edition — edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardso — seem a bit "off." Not only do the poems look better in the Collected Poems (which, to be sure, omits great ones early and late); they are also unencumbered by comparison with the "uncollected poems," which include a lot of mystifying mediocrity. It's good to have all the poems in one place, and also the published prose and a smattering of letters. But it's also distracting and, occasionally, misleading. You can't find the real Stevens voice in the early poems, but you can find it in early letters not printed here. In one, the teen-age Stevens writes a dead-on Stevensian description of a motley village band — "the piping of flamboyant flutes, the wriggling of shrieking fifes with rasping dagger-voices, the sighing of bass-viols, drums that beat and rattle, the crescendo of cracked trombones." Eight years later, the young man writes flamboyantly to his fiancee, "I believe that with a bucket of sand and a wishing lamp I could create a world in half a second that would make this one look like a hunk of mud." For all its omissions, Collected Poems is the better picture of that awesome world.
Original publication: Alex Ross, "The Emperor of Ice Cream," Slate, Jan. 8, 1998.