After T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land appeared in 1922, it was hailed as the pre-eminent text of poetic modernism. A pastiche drawn largely from the past, the poem was understood to be making a trenchant comment on the disillusioned present. Since most educated readers couldn’t overlook the complex, allusive work, and younger ones wouldn’t, they had to try to see through it. A new army of literary specialists rose to the task.
Wallace Stevens’s debut collection, Harmonium, published a year later, had a very different reception. Already in his mid-forties, Stevens was known to a circle of readers through poems in “little magazines.” His first book was not without champions, the most important being Harriet Monroe. Three quarters of the poems in Harmonium had appeared in her magazine, Poetry, founded in 1912. But much of the predominantly negative reaction concerned the relevance of Stevens’s poetry—whether or not his strange poems were merely the product of an elegant escapist, an acolyte of French “pure poetry” with nothing to say to his own time.
When Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948, he was cited “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry.” Stevens’s major recognition came late, with two National Book Awards in his seventies, and the Pulitzer in 1955, the year of his death at seventy-five. Even—or especially—in our time, the challenge of Stevens endures. The businessman-poet from Hartford has not lost his power to disrupt our assumptions of what poetry can and should be.
Over the years, Stevens has attracted a Who’s Who of major critics and scholars, including Randall Jarrell, R. P. Blackmur, Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, and pretty much everyone else, not to mention a host of PhD dissertations (though it’s doubtful many undergraduates would cite him as a personal favorite). Few other American poets have attracted as much attention from the philosophically minded, probably because Stevens was one of them. Charles Altieri devoted an entire recent volume, Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity (Cornell University Press, 2013), to how seriously Stevens’s thought engages important philosophical questions. Altieri’s acute study is one sign that we may be in yet another period of reassessment of Stevens’s work, as is the publication of Joan Richardson’s How to Live, What to Do: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens (University of Iowa Press, 2018).
Re-evaluating the poems means re-evaluating the man. Richardson’s two-volume critical biography, published in the mid-1980s, led to an acrimonious exchange with Vendler in the New York Review of Books. Richardson, in her own words, attempted to treat the poet “without idealizing reverence.” Vendler’s Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (1984) had brought new attention to the human drama of the late poems, making Stevens something of the artist as tragic hero, “a great poet of the inexhaustible and exhausting cycle of desire and despair.” The importance of the late poems in altering our understanding of Stevens can’t be overestimated. Paul Mariani’s The Whole Harmonium (Simon and Schuster, 2016), the first new biography of the poet in many years, concludes with this:
if many of the poems remain out of the comfort zone of most readers, especially those poems Stevens composed in the last, bountiful twenty years of his life, they will yield their richness to those willing to enter his brilliant, funny, haunting, musical, dark, and often consoling world. In the end, he is capable not only of revealing your very self to you, but of delighting and consoling you, and even of breaking your heart.
This is a far cry from the Stevens John Berryman dismissed fifty years ago in Dream Song 219 as “That funny money-man” with something “missing . . . at the man’s heart.”
George S. Lensing’s Making the Poem: Stevens’ Approaches opens with what is, in effect, a quiet manifesto:
In an age in which poetry, when it is read at all, is often defined by preferred ideologies, historical and cultural contingencies, and a certain impatience with the mere text of the poem itself, it is worth noting that Wallace Stevens himself was remarkably tolerant and eclectic in response to readings of his own work.
Lensing’s work over three decades is notable for what it does not attempt to do as well as for what it does. This critic has scrupulously mined the extensive archives of Stevens’s letters, journals, notes, and other writings in an attempt to construct a web of contexts that might help us understand Stevens’s poetry as the poet himself did, and to do so without either relying on the reductiveness of past theory or imposing a grand theory of his own.
Lensing’s taste for complexity is evident in the first of his three books on Stevens, all of which have been published by LSU Press. The preface to Wallace Stevens: A Poet’s Growth (1986) warns that it “is not an introductory study . . . but one that assumes a familiarity with the oeuvre and an interest in the poet that is more than cursory.” With Harmonium as the center point, Lensing maps the roots of Stevens’s development as a poet, his start at Harvard and subsequent apprenticeship in New York, his break with traditional theology, and the split between his love of poetry and his father’s insistence on the practicality of law. (“There is something absurd about all this writing of verses; but the truth is, it elates me to do it,” Stevens writes his wife, Elsie, in a letter of 7 August 1913.) In the latter part of the book, Stevens’s mature craft and vision emerge.
The basic biography is well known; Lensing’s contribution is to tie it closely to what became Stevens’s lifelong habits and concerns as a poet, his defining desire to shape an imaginative order, his ongoing attempt to understand the relationship of metaphor to reality, and the recurring figure of a hero-creator who appears six years after the revised edition of Harmonium in “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (1937).
Lensing’s approach is painstakingly evidentiary, as two remarkable chapters of textual scholarship bring us inside Stevens’s mental workshop: “Schemata” presents, in a numbered column, forty-one separate items from the poet’s handwritten three-page notebook of that title, and, in a parallel column, cites the specific title, version, and location of twenty of these that appear in Stevens’s poems. The following chapter, “From Pieces of Paper” (the poet’s title), catalogs 361 separate entries from the original fourteen pages in the poet’s hand. We are free to make of this dry material what we will, but Lensing has organized it in such a way that it cannot be ignored.
In Wallace Stevens and the Seasons (2001), Lensing orchestrates a richly nuanced reading of one of Stevens’s key organizing tropes and the poet’s desire for a “Supreme Fiction” to make a human habitation of the natural cycle. Lensing’s categories of organization are not Northrop Frye–like impersonal archetypes; rather, “The Way of Ignorance” (Autumn), through “The Way of Nothingness” (Winter) and “The Way of the Never-Resting Mind” (Spring), through “The Way of the Mystic” (Summer) touch on some of the most poignant aspects of Stevens’s life, including his self-isolation, his estrangement from his family and his wife, and his loneliness and need for affection in his later years. Lensing’s careful reading of poems correlating to the seasons correlates as well to the seasons of the man.
Making the Poem: Stevens’ Approaches is at once the most confident of Lensing’s three studies and the most relaxed in structure. After such exhaustive immersion in detail, Lensing steps back far enough to focus a wider perspective. Lacking the temporal thrust provided by the idea of “growth” and the organizing principle of the seasons, he relies on the concept of “approaches” to yoke together what can easily be read as five independent essays.
Where Lensing described his first book on Stevens as not for beginners, the introduction to this one invites “newer” as well as “more seasoned” readers. Given the intellectual challenge of Lensing’s work, the former may be a bit optimistic, but each chapter has value to those interested. The first, “A Poem’s Origins,” deals with the reality behind the poem “Sea Surface Full of Clouds”: a sea voyage the poet took with his wife. This impressionistic sequence added to the later version of Harmonium has been highly praised and has even inspired musical compositions. On the other hand, in Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things James Longenbach calls it the product of “a mind too immature” to see a world beyond the page. Nearly seventy years after Harmonium, the critique of Stevens remained an ad hominem as much as an aesthetic one.
Lensing reproduces Elsie Stevens’s brief daily journal of the trip—he edited it for previous publication in 1986—with the purpose of providing biographical background for images in the poem. It’s thin stuff, but Lensing, judicious as always, manages to avoid an unwarranted implication that Mrs. Stevens’s rather banal account actually influenced her husband’s poem. Nor does he claim that all of Stevens’s imagery can be traced back to such specific experiences. (Since Stevens was not the solipsist he was once thought to be, a surprising number of his poems can.)
The achievement of Making the Poem is the middle three of its five chapters. These are ambitious, weighty, and, each in its own way, exemplary. “The Poem Itself” takes up the most famous of the “autobiographical” poems, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” intending to offer “the fullest treatment of that poem yet to have appeared,” and a more exhaustive one hardly seems possible. Despite the New Critical ring of its title, Lensing’s treatment is the polar opposite of any notion of a self-sufficient modernist artifact. He contextualizes and recontextualizes the poem in a dazzling variety of ways, taking us from physical experience to the ineffable, first in terms of Stevens’s documented relationship to the sea (an early journal entry notes, “I am not at home by the sea”) and his visits to Florida, then as a poem about “how sound shapes itself into cries, into speech, into word, into song, into poem.” Lensing organizes his analysis incrementally, in five categories of understanding: mimesis, or how a poem gets a “voice” and gives voice to the physical world; ratio, or how the poem moves beyond imitation, to a creative ordering of the world, including consideration of philosophers such as Kant and Berkeley, and goes as well to the nature of the social world; incantare, the poem as incantation, including analysis of stanza pattern, rhetoric, and rhythms; spectaculum, the presence of the speaker addressing an interlocutor—the poem’s famous “Ramon Fernandez,” whom Lensing makes a case for as a very real influence despite Stevens’s assertions that the character was fictional; and finally spiritus, a reading of the poem as an interrogation of the very concept “Idea,” describing Stevens’s longing to transcend our post-Romantic solitude, his nostalgia for a unity of human being and universe that poetry might possibly restore.
This summary only hints at the range of what is covered in forty-five pages. Stanza by stanza, Lensing fashions a sort of “hypertext” version, a layering of multiple contexts that, taken together, expand the poem’s horizon of meaning to what seems the fullest extent possible. Lensing’s reading grants the poem a richness of scope it deserves as one of our great secular meditations.
The chapter titled “The Social Context” takes up what has proven the most conflictual aspect of Stevens’s work. In his time there were, as there are in ours, many who would judge a poem’s worth primarily by its social vision. Stevens lived through several eras of war and social turmoil, which he could not and did not ignore. War, in fact, was a recurring topic for his imagination, beginning with poems he submitted to Poetry as early as 1914, and on throughout his career. Yet Stevens has been repeatedly attacked for his supposed aloofness from social realities, and in a way he was an easy target. The harshest criticism came during the 1930s, an era when art was expected by many intellectuals to serve ideology, personified by Stanley Burnshaw’s notorious attack in the Marxist New Masses in response to Stevens’s Ideas of Order (1935). This and other such assaults on the poet have been much debated. Stevens was motivated to respond to Burnshaw with several poems and the collection Owl’s Clover (1936).
Lensing’s purpose in this chapter, however, isn’t to engage in polemics but to elucidate. Lensing is as always open to the inconsistencies, ambivalences, and less-than-admirable aspects of his subject, such as an initially equivocal response to Mussolini followed by a disavowal that was hastened by the poet’s distaste for political leaders in general, whom he viewed as the opposite of his redemptive “Major Man.” Lensing demonstrates that, far from escaping the issues of his time, Stevens had them continually in mind. The author’s reasoned analysis (it is not really a “defense”) complicates what is a still-hot issue for some. Lensing compares Stevens’s stance to Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s notion of poetry offering both reader and poet a saving counterweight or “equivalency” to the “labyrinth” of violent political conflict.
The third of the key middle chapters, “The Music of the Poem,” returns to where Stevens’s poems start, in the primal experience of sound. This is the most essential chapter for anyone interested in Stevens’s craft: poetry for him was a way of thinking, but the basis of such intricate pleasure as his poems give is not the mind alone, and in truth the “irrational element” was primary. (“People ought to like poetry the way a child likes snow,” he wrote in one letter.)
The splendidly compact essay that constitutes this chapter identifies “certain traits of speech, sound, and rhythm that, by the frequency of their occurrence, become ‘Stevensian.’ ” With what deserves to be called “Lensingian” thoroughness, he not only specifies thirteen traits, but tabulates specific poems and lines in which they appear. Twenty-six pages track Stevens’s development from conventional metrical verse to the richly flexible pentameter that marks his maturity, quoting along the way Stevens’s praise of Eliot’s “irregular” music and rhythms in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” as marking a sea change in the nature of poetic music.
Lensing also reintroduces here a concept from Wallace Stevens: A Poet’s Growth, that of two distinct voices, “ironic” and “prophetic,” the latter predominating after “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” The first voice is characterized by “a highly self-conscious tone of playfulness,” as in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and the second one “remains formal and sonorous, but resists preciosity and mannerism,” as in “Sunday Morning.” The two styles—which Lensing refers to as “lyric” and “ludic”—later combine with an elegance that never wholly abandons wordplay and wit. The chapter takes a detailed look at the evolution of Stevens’s rhythm, measure, and cadence and demonstrates the close attention he paid to these central elements of his art. “The Music of the Poem” is an instance of Lensing’s capacious style of analysis, incorporating the work of others who have attended to the development of Stevens’s prosody. For example, Donald Justice’s conclusion that “the later Stevens seems to have descended from no one so much as the younger Stevens himself” speaks volumes about the poet’s unique manipulation of sound.
Together, Lensing’s triumvirate of books on Wallace Stevens bring us as close to the mind and working methods of the poet as anyone ever has. Gathering multiple fragments from an astonishing number of sources and perspectives, Lensing nevertheless seems to aim for something like a holistic understanding not dependent on a totalizing reading—as when he more than once cites a favored passage from one of Stevens’s letters, in which the poet comments on the difficulty of explaining his own poems:
I thought of it this way this morning: a poem is like a man walking on the bank of a river, whose shadow is reflected in the water. If you explain a poem, you’re quite likely to do it in terms of the man or in terms of the shadow, but you have to explain it in terms of the whole.
The image fits Lensing’s own dedicated work, which generously illuminates but leaves the relevance of Stevens’s unique, profound, and pleasure-giving poems to us.
*An essay-review of Making the Poem: Stevens’ Approaches. By George S. Lensing. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018. 264 pp. $47.00.