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Wallace Stevens

1879–1955

Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879. He attended Harvard University as an undergraduate from 1897 to 1900. He planned to travel to Paris as a writer, but after a working briefly as a reporter for the New York Herald Times, he decided to study law. He graduated with a degree from New York Law School in 1903 and was admitted to the U.S. Bar in 1904. He practiced law in New York City until 1916.

Though he had serious determination to become a successful lawyer, Stevens had several friends among the New York writers and painters in Greenwich Village, including the poets William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and E. E. Cummings.

In 1914, under the pseudonym "Peter Parasol," he sent a group of poems under the title "Phases" to Harriet Monroe for a war poem competition for Poetry magazine. Stevens did not win the prize, but his work was published by Monroe in November of that year.

Stevens moved to Connecticut in 1916, having found employment at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., where he became vice president in 1934. He had begun to establish an identity for himself outside the world of law and business, however, and his first book of poems, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf), published in 1923, exhibited the influence of both the English Romantics and the French symbolists, an inclination to aesthetic philosophy, and a wholly original style and sensibility: exotic, whimsical, infused with the light and color of an Impressionist painting.

For the next several years, Stevens focused on his business life. He began to publish new poems in 1930, however, and in the following year, Knopf published a second edition of Harmonium, which included fourteen new poems and left out three of the decidedly weaker ones.

More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the transformative power of the imagination. Composing poems on his way to and from the office and in the evenings, Stevens continued to spend his days behind a desk at the office, and led a quiet, uneventful life.

Though now considered one of the major American poets of the century, he did not receive widespread recognition until the publication of his Collected Poems, just a year before his death. His other major works include Ideas of Order (The Alcestis Press, 1935), The Man With the Blue Guitar (Alfred A. Knopf, 1937), Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (The Cummington Press, 1942), and a collection of essays on poetry, The Necessary Angel (Alfred A. Knopf, 1951).

Stevens died in Hartford, Connecticut, on August 2, 1955.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf, 1923)
Ideas of Order (The Alcestis Press, 1935)
Owl’s Clover (The Alcestis Press, 1936)
The Man With the Blue Guitar (Alfred A. Knopf, 1937)
Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (The Cummington Press, 1942)
Parts of a World (Alfred A. Knopf, 1942)
Esthétique du Mal (The Cummington Press, 1945)
Three Academic Pieces (The Cummington Press, 1947)
Transport to Summer (Alfred A. Knopf, 1947)
Primitive Like an Orb (Gotham Book Market, 1948)
Auroras of Autumn (Alfred A. Knopf, 1950)
Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1954)
Opus Posthumous (Alfred A. Knopf, 1957)
The Palm at the End of the Mind (Vintage Books, 1967)

Prose
The Necessary Angel (Alfred A. Knopf, 1951)

 

Wallace Stevens

By This Poet

29

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

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