Not What I Call a Hail-Fellow-Well-Met-Person: James Reiss on Wallace Stevens’s Selected Poems

Selected Poems, Wallace Stevens, Edited by John N. Serio, Alfred A. Knopf

Of the three canonical American poets born in the 1870s and 80s, let us for the sake of argument call T. S. Eliot Top Dog. Let us go on to say that Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens come in second, uneasily heaped together as in the famous photo of them in their sixties, sitting on a bench at Key West: Frost squat and pleasant-faced, Stevens bulky and buttoned-up in a three-piece jacket and tie.

Despite Eliot’s preeminence, during the early 1990s there was a notable paucity of his poems in anthologies. This may have been the result of hefty permissions fees his estate charged to reprint his work, as well as his youthful overt anti-Semitism, outré in a PC decade. When The Academy of American Poets distributed free copies of “The Waste Land” at post offices during April 1996 to disprove the dictum that April was the cruelest month and to inaugurate National Poetry Month, the T. S. Eliot industry resumed chugging along.

As to Frost: his status as the most popular bard of the triumvirate—nearly a hundred years ago “North of Boston” became a bestseller—has earned him the kind of opprobrium I’ve heard more recently expressed by poets jealous of Billy Collins. I recall chairing a graduate student’s oral exam during which two of my distinguished poet-colleagues on the student’s committee lit into Frost’s “Home Burial” for being “not a poem” but the corny script for a melodrama.

In the halls of academe the poet whose initials are the same as Shakespeare’s has not suffered this indignity, at least as far as I’ve heard. Stevens’s continuing high standing among academics and with-it laypersons, much less poets, may have to do with his “philosophical” bent, his glacial stance when it comes to the confessional mode, “sentimentality” and other hot-button issues on the early twenty-first century’s list of poetry no-noes. Stevens can scarcely be called a “poet of the people,” even insofar as Eliot could claim that sobriquet. Comparing Prufrock to the woman in “Sunday Morning” is like setting a living, breathing young man alongside the prototype of an agnostic who resembles, say, Virginia Woolf.

With this first new edition of Stevens’s selected poems in 19 years, it’s time once again to reassess the “poets’ poet” who created “Domination of Black” (6) and “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” (248). At the outset of his Introduction, editor John N. Serio says how fond he is of the way Stevens “personifies an abstraction” (xi), in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (195), which, according to Serio, “many consider [Stevens’s] best poem.” Like many Stevens devotees, Serio cares about “The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice” (135). He acknowledges Helen Vendler’s attempt to place Stevens’s abstract poems alongside their autobiographical contexts the way critics have long since viewed “The Waste Land” in part as an extension of Eliot’s marital problems with Vivienne. It’s unfortunate, however, that Serio appears not to be terribly interested in considering “The Snow Man” with the alternate hypothetical title, “Stoicism in a Failed Marriage,” which Vendler believes is crucial as the poem’s subtext.

Back in May 1968 in a “Modern Philology” review of two university-press monographs, I lamented Frank Doggett’s and Joseph Riddell’s tendency to immerse themselves in Stevens’s ideas. I hoped that, with Holly Stevens’s then-recent (1966) publication of her father’s letters and, with the then-imminent (1970) publication of Samuel French Morse’s official biography, that “an exciting new era of Stevens criticism [would] begin.” Likewise, in 1983 when Peter Brazeau published “Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered—an Oral Biography,” I hoped that off-the-cuff remarks about Stevens by people who personally knew him would answer questions about this extremely private insurance executive, and shed new light on his work.

It turned out that Brazeau’s account of Stevens’s deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism was apocryphal. And, except for Vendler’s insistence on coming to terms with such autobiographical material as his wife Elsie’s mental illness, the emphasis on explicating Stevens’s text and discussing his ideas has continued to be a major concern for Stevens critics. Granted, his poems are sometimes knotty and ambiguous, demanding close reading. For example, in one of the very last poems he wrote, “Of Mere Being” (318)—one of his best, I think—he describes a “gold-feathered bird” singing in a palm tree “at the end of the mind.” The bird sings “[w]ithout human feeling, a foreign song.” Lines seven and eight are:

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.

These lines may be parsed in either of two ways, depending upon the antecedent of the word “it,” which could refer to the bird. Or else “it” could refer to “the reason,” the “purity” of which Kant critiqued; recourse to rational things does not make us happy or unhappy. In his brief comment about “Of Mere Being,” Serio doesn’t untangle this knot. But my guess is that he—and most readers—would favor the former interpretation, i.e., “You know then that it [the bird] is not / What makes us happy or unhappy.” Either way you explain these lines, what they are saying is essentially congruent.

Nitpick, nitpick. Ever since 1990 when Holly Stevens published her own edition of her father’s selected poems, “The Palm at the End of the Mind,” she replaced the last word in the third line in “Of Mere Being” with “decor.” I balked. I grew up with that word being printed as “distance”:

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

Holly may have been privy to her dad’s revisions, but in this case, as in many cases where poets “over-revise,” the simpler, earlier version seems to me a lot better than the fussy “decorator’s” version. For me, the word “distance” conveys a sense of the huge outdoors Stevens evokes in the first section of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (58):

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I’m also disappointed when I pore over Serio’s statement that Stevens’s “major achievement is the expression of the self in all its amplitude”; this remark is so vapidly general that it could apply to the “major achievement” of countless poets. I’m more comfortable when Serio says, “[Stevens’s] poetry is full of surprises, nonsense sounds, and a precise diction that frequently clashes and clangs.” In fact, I keep returning to Stevens’s poems—and they are mostly the short poems—in part because of their pyrotechnics, their dazzling precocity, painterly effulgence and stately cries of longing and nostalgia. If John Ashbery’s poems recall pop and abstract art, reading much of Stevens resembles taking a walk through the French Impressionist wing of, say, the Chicago Art Institute. Whatever trouble I have with the penultimate stanza in “Of Mere Being,” I bow to its last stanza—and especially the final (12th) Henri-Rousseau line:

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

This septuagenarian’s Platonic master-poem notwithstanding, I’m more of an aficionado of his debut volume, “Harmonium,” than of his later books; in my preference I side with Randall Jarrell and Yvor Winters in the 1940s and 50s. As Stevens grew older, not unlike Wordsworth and Frost, his poems became less surprising, more abstract—and humdrum in their use of blank verse, in their deployment of his signature tercets and in their theme-and-variations technique that electrified early poems like “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” (8) and “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” (63). As he moved through middle age, Eliot smartly turned to drama; only the Irishman who summered in Sligo continued to write poems that improved with every decade. Serio, like Vendler 40 years ago in her breakout book, “On Extended Wings,” appears to prefer the longer poems of Stevens’s “later phase.” I agree when it comes to “The Rock,” particularly the first poem in its trio, “Seventy Years Later” (296), along with such chestnuts in “Opus Posthumous” as the aforementioned “Of Mere Being” and “Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination” (313).

Speaking of “Reality Is an Activity…,” I should mention that Stevens is Top Dog when it comes to being the most playful, inventive titler of poems in the English language. Do I need to tote out such superb titles as “Of Hartford in a Violet Light,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” “Frogs Eat Butterflies, Snakes Eat Frogs, Hogs Eat Snakes, Men Eat Hogs,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “How to Live. What to Do,” ”Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain” and dozens of others, including “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” all of them tantalizing, some of them “dandified”—to bandy that creaky boulevardier term which several critics initially used to describe Stevens’s wit.

I should also add that, because of Serio’s culling, in this “Selected Poems” I missed seeing such pièces de résistance as “Metaphors of a Magnifico,” “Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks,” “The Load of Sugar-Cane,” “The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws” “The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade” and “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm.”

Serio’s “Short Chronology” (319) of Stevens’s life presents four pages of exceedingly useful information. The fact that Stevens, as the second oldest child in his family, outlived his four siblings by as much as 36 years may not seem noteworthy. Yet when you realize that John Keats responded to the death of his brother Tom with “Ode to a Nightingale,” while Stevens appears to have written nothing about the deaths in his family, this says a lot about the man who, in the words of a co-worker, “never cracked a smile, never.” Another acquaintance said that Stevens “had difficulty relating to people” and “was not what I call a hail-fellow-well-met-person.” The photograph of Stevens on the cover of Serio’s book, as well as on the 1954 edition of Stevens’s “Collected Poems” and “Opus Posthumous” (1957), shows a good-looking middle-aged fellow in a suit and tie. When I handed Serio’s book to someone who’d never seen a visual image of Stevens, she glanced at the cover photo and said, “He sure looks like a businessman!”

Despite his exalted stature as a poet, Stevens is still largely unknown by young readers who are familiar with at least a little of Eliot and Frost. I don’t think Serio’s new selection will make much of a difference with the Facebook crowd, mainly devoted to less ghostly demarcations than Stevens provides. Still, let me for the sake of argument imagine a young person texting a friend about Barack Obama. Let me go on to say that the person, 21 years old, on first looking into an extraordinary section from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (204), laughs out loud and keys the following message into a cell phone: OMG WTF! Here are the 21 lines that provoke the outburst:

The President ordains the bee to be
Immortal. The President ordains. But does
The body lift its heavy wing, take up,

Again, an inexhaustible being, rise
Over the loftiest antagonist
To drone the green phrases of its juvenal?

Why should the bee recapture a lost blague,
Find a deep echo in a horn and buzz
The bottomless trophy, new hornsman after old?

The President has apples on the table
And barefoot servants round him, who adjust
The curtains to a metaphysical t

And the banners of the nation flutter, burst
On the flag-poles in a red-blue dazzle, whack
At the halyards. Why, then, when in golden fury

Spring vanishes the scraps of winter, why
Should there be a question of returning or
Of death in memory’s dream? Is spring a sleep?

This warmth is for lovers at last accomplishing
Their love, this beginning, not resuming, this
Booming and booming of the new-come bee.


James Reiss won the University of Chicago’s Academy of American Poets Prize in 1962 for his poem, “Homage to Stevens.”