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This article is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.

How to Live. What to Do (Wallace Stevens) Justin Quinn


When preparing various editions of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman was often concerned that the book be of such dimensions that it could be toted with ease in a jacket- or shirt-pocket. He saw his ideal reader heading off into the great outdoors with the volume, and once there surrounded by the panoramas of American nature sitting down to read the poems, able at any point to test his lines against the contours of the land.

Such a plein air validation of poetry doesn't come to mind when thinking of Wallace Stevens. For many readers, his poems with their metaphysical concerns and propositions are more redolent of the scholar's library than the open road. Distant from the demotic, shuttling between suburban home and insurance building, he could, it seems, have spent his days anywhere... Hartford, Brno, Bray. What mattered was the life of the mind and not the particular weather, not the buildings and vegetation of his immediate environment. But this characterisation of Stevens is inaccurate. His poetry is very much a part of the land- and sky-scapes of Pennsylvania and Connecticut (where he lived), and Florida (where he spent many vacations). In 'The Planet on the Table', written near the end of his life, he states this desire for participation with arresting simplicity:

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.


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