Wallace Stevens, the Detached Poet

Mark Dunbar in The American Conservative:

ScreenHunter_2528 Jan. 22 20.12The European poet Paul Celan once said that a poem “intends another, needs this other, needs an opposite.” For Wallace Stevens, this otherness was the world at large—the reason, perhaps, why his poetry contained so little but expressed so much.

Stevens was born October 2, 1879, and died August 2, 1955. Between these two dates quite a lot happened in the world. Fanatical ideologies were born, took control of states, and were defeated. Two global wars were fought: the first began with skirmishes on horseback and the second ended with the splitting of the atom. Human aviation was established, then militarized, and, finally, commercialized. Economic depressions wiped out the general optimism of the 19th century, and welfare systems were put in place as acts of material expiation. Frantic voices—either approvingly or with alarm—cried out that politics had replaced religion as society’s moral centrifuge. Telephones, cars, and antibiotics became commonplace, and the modern computer was already beginning its ascendancy toward societal ubiquitousness.

Stevens, however, was always somewhere else when the action happened and never spoke intelligently afterward about what took place. In Paul Mariani’s biography of him, The Whole Harmonium, one of the things that stands out is how little effect any of these tragedies or trends had on Stevens’s life or his poetry. Modern technology rarely appears in his poems. Planes don’t naggingly fly overhead and the telephone doesn’t interrupt the neurotic aesthetician. Scant political images can be found in a handful of his poems but never any political ideals.

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