I accidentally had a poetic revelation of sorts quite recently. I was browsing through the DJ Ernst somewhat haphazard collection of used books on Market Street when I picked up an unassuming book with an intriguing title. The book was The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens. Somewhere deep in my consciousness something must have registered the familiar name, even though I had never read anything by Stevens. Thinking that if the name was familiar, it was probably a poet I should read anyway (and the book was only a dollar), I purchased it without thinking very much about it. A few days later I picked it up in my apartment to peruse its contents briefly, only to find myself completely hooked. I am now halfway through The Palm at the End of the Mind and I feel confident saying that until now I have never read a collection of poetry which I literally could not put down.
I became obsessed. I googled poem titles on a daily basis to get another perspective on their meanings. I raved to anyone who would listen about Stevens’s poetic genius. I ravaged the amazon.com collection for anything I could get my hands on. It turns out that I am very, very late to this literary cult (Did you know they make “I <3 Wallace Stevens” t-shirts??). So who is this poet I have come to revere and adore so much, and why haven’t I heard about him until now?
According to http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/wsteven.htm, Wallace Stevens is a member of the American modernist movement, typically categorized as part of the New York school which included William Carlos Williams, EE Cummings, and Marianne Moore, some of whom he became good friends with. Some of his poetry bears the imagery of the Florida keys and Cuba, where he spent a substantial amount of time. He was a late bloomer, first published at age 36 while working as an insurance company executive, and did not receive wide critical acclaim until 1954, the year before he died. He published twelve books of poetry before his death and two posthumously (one of which includes The Palm at the End of the Mind). His poems have been called “extended meditative sequences, quasi-philosophical in their ruminative wanderings but marked always by a vivid sense of the absurd and a darting, whirling inventiveness that took delight in peculiar anecdotal examples…metapoetry that took lavish delight in commenting on its own making” (from http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/bio.htm)
Stevens is a decidedly self-conscious poet indeed, and one of his most well-known poems makes this explicit. “The Man with the Blue Guitar” has thirty-three sections, connected by theme and the image of the blue guitar, is a prolonged meditation on the role of the poet in society.
Poetry is the subject of the poem,
From this the poem issues and
To this returns. Between the two,
Between issue and return, there is
An absence in reality,
Things as they are. Or so we say.
In his book of essays on poetry, The Necessary Angel, Stevens does a great deal of articulating his ideas about what poetry is and should do and how the poet should go about doing it (this was the book I could not resist impulse-buying at 2 in the morning on Amazon the day after I started reading Stevens). Stevens’s focus on the imagination and reality is often discussed concerning his poetry, and in these essays he lays everything out for dissection:
In its ultimate extension, the truth about which we have been insane will lead us to look beyond the truth to something in which the imagination will be the dominant complement. It is not only that the imagination adheres to reality, but, also, that reality adheres to the imagination and that the interdependence is essential. (Stevens, p 33)
You have to understand, I feel like I have stumbled upon a hidden treasure, a literary god. It is exciting but also troublesome. According to the fount of knowledge that is Wikipedia, “Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, and Frank Kermodee are among the critics who have ensured Stevens’s position in the canon as a great poet. Many poets—James Merrill and Donald Justice most explicitly—have acknowledged Stevens as a major influence on their work, and his impact may also be seen in John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, John Hollander, and others.” So where have I been? A decent argument could be made that I’ve simply been living under a literary rock (one I probably wouldn’t dispute very vehemently), but I think it is suspect that, as a lover of books and poetry, I had never read anything by Stevens until now, and everyone I talk to (also lovers of books and poetry) has never heard of him. For me this raises very interesting speculations and ideas about today’s literary canon and how it is being executed…but that will have to be the topic for another blog, as my ranting about Wallace Stevens seems to have taken up quite a bit of space.