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This item is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

Inside Cover Portrait: Wallace Stevens (David C. Ward)
Portrait of Wallace Stevens by David C. Ward

WALLACE STEVENS by Rollie McKenna (1918–2003)
Gelatin silver print, 1952
Image/Sheet: 28.5cm ×18.2cm (11¼" ×7 3/16")
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
© Rollie McKenna

Wallace Stevens 1879–1955
Born Reading, Pennsylvania
There is a heft or weight, almost an implacability, to Wallace Stevens’ poetry that sets him off from all of his contemporaries, especially his main modernist rivals, Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams. Unlike them, and almost singularly among American poets, he avoided the inheritance of Walt Whitman, both thematically and stylistically. His consideration was never American democracy and he was never interested in the jauntiness of a more vernacular or popular verse. (He certainly had no interest in Frost’s public pose as a cracker barrel philosopher and New England sage.) He was never not serious and the idea of a ‘barbaric yawp’ made him recoil. Indeed, he recoiled all the way back to Emerson, especially the Emerson who broke with the Brattle Street Church, posing the great question ‘if not God, then what’ to which he answered, Nature, nature as encountered, in Stevens’ case, by the poet. Taking up Emerson one hundred years later, Stevens made himself into the one American metaphysical poet and the one American modernist who – like Yeats and Eliot – transcended his nation. While Williams famously proclaimed ‘no ideas but in things’, Stevens rejoined, ‘It is easier to believe in a thing created by the imagination.’ Unlike Emerson, Stevens believed that you could replace God with poetry and its ‘supreme fiction’, hence the necessary gravity of his cathedral tunes; even his humour (‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’) is weighty.

It’s interesting that both Stevens and Williams had other, successful careers as, respectively, an insurance company executive and a doctor. The messiness of daily life that Williams observed on his rounds in working-class Patterson had to have influenced a poetic project that found meaning in those very details of daily life. As a successful executive, Stevens kept his life well compartmentalised but it can be suggested that his business career – and the reticence that is well-caught by Rollie McKenna in her grey on grey portrait – influenced how he created poems that are complicated mechanisms with which to examine the relationship between thought and the imagination. While Emerson wrote when American culture was still in the process of being created, Stevens articulates a sense of the massive edifice that America had become by the mid-twentieth century. Within the skyscraper-like complexity of his verse, he launches virtuoso flights of verbal fancy that are both ornate and playful. Is there a more sensual – more erotically charged – opening to a poem than that of ‘Sunday Morning’?

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug…

This to begin a profound meditation on faith and its ‘ambiguous undulations’.


This item is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

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