Wallace Stevens, Armchair Visionary

Stevens4Ryan Ruby in More Intelligent Life:

You can find them anywhere you go. Unshaven young men who slam down cheap liquor in remodelled dives. From their stools they hold forth on the doctrines of this obscure mystic or that obscurantist philosopher, and then they brawl for brawling’s sake. They swap stories about the tiny towns they reached by thumbing a ride or hopping the rails, tales that invariably end with a night in jail or the gutter and a rescue from some local angel. This is what’s known as Experience, to be distilled into stanzas that can fit within the circumference of the bottle stains on their cocktail napkins.

These are lifestyle poets, the Beats of yesteryear. Should you find yourself in the presence of one, ask him (always him) whether he likes the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Not one will say yes.

To a lifestyle poet, Stevens’s biography presents a problem. Born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Stevens never quite became a member of the Lost Generation. He considered moving to Paris to become a writer, but caved to pressure from his lawyer father and stayed in the States, where he studied at Harvard and earned a degree from New York Law School. In 1916 he and his wife abandoned the bohemia of New York's Greenwich Village for sleepy Hartford, Connecticut, where Stevens began work for a local insurance company. By 1934 he had become vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, a post he would keep until his death from stomach cancer in 1955, aged 75.

Stevens published “Harmonium”, his first book and one of the most important collections of 20th-century verse, when he was 44. He went on to win two National Book Awards, a Bollingen and the Pulitzer, yet when he died, his office colleagues were surprised to learn that he had been anything but an insurance executive. “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job,” he once said in a newspaper interview.

“I have no life except in poetry,” Stevens once wrote to himself in the late 1930s. To put it another way, he was a square.