Michael Hofmann in the LRB:
The Soft Machine drummer, Robert Wyatt, his Cockney tenor cracking with fervour, once sang:
I’m nearly five foot seven tall
I like to smoke and drink and ball
I’ve got a yellow suit that’s made by Pam
and every day I like an egg and some tea
but most of all I like to talk about me.
The American poet Wallace Stevens liked his tea – he took to it in connoisseurship and prudence, ‘imported tea’ every afternoon, ‘with some little tea wafers’, partly in order to ease himself off martinis (Elsie, his ‘Pam’, disapproved of his drinking) – but otherwise everything is different. He was six feet two, 18 stone, got his identical elephant grey suits from a fellow in New Jersey and then from his son, hated talking about himself, didn’t smoke much after the cigars of middle age, and I don’t know about the balling, or the eggs, which Auden says are the test of bad biography.
But there are bad biographies that tell you nothing about their subject’s breakfast preferences, and The Whole Harmonium is one such. Stevens is one of those apparently fortunate, self-standing poets who are not greatly involved with the styles or personalities of their time, whose work sets no puzzles and makes a sufficiently vivid impression all by itself. It’s hard to disagree with Elsie, who after her husband’s death sold his books and artefacts, destroyed letters and wrote to an earlier would-be biographer: ‘I must say that a critical biography is not needed for the understanding of Mr Stevens’ poetry. Mr Stevens’ poetry was a distraction that he found delight in, and which he kept entirely separate from his home life, and his business life – neither of them suitable or relevant to an understanding of his poetry.’ In particular, Harmonium(1923), Stevens’s scintillating first volume, seems to leap fully formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus. What is there at the back of it, apart from the French dix-neuvièmeand Shakespeare (and all of Stevens is like a greatly expanded version of the drama and relations of The Tempest: the magic, the tropics, the search for a different earthly orientation or accommodation)? Maybe Browning or Henry James – the Master and onlie begetter, I am increasingly coming to think, of all the great modernist poets, of Pound and Eliot and Moore and Stevens?