Wallace Stevens, Intergalactic Planetary

WSLHere are some bits on writing, nature, and anonymous everyday life from Wallace Stevens, that quiet murmur of American poetry who may well outlast nearly everybody. The following are from his letters and journals, from 1898 to 1955, only a few months before his death at seventy-five. That a poet so technically isolated (and gladly so) from all the clichés of literary life should nevertheless have left us a record of that peculiar, somehow interstellar existence, is a great gift. Find them all in The Letters of Wallace Stevens:

I found a large snail, some yellow dandelions and a weed of some sort—heavy—grey on the face but deep purple on the under side. At the top of the hill I sat down on a pile of rocks with my back to the city and my face towards a deep, rough valley in the East. The city was smoky and noisy but the country depths were prodigiously still except for a shout now and then from some children in the woods on the slope of the hill and once the trembling rumble of an unnatural train down on the horizon. I forget what I was thinking of—except that I wondered why people took books into the woods to read in summertime when there was so much else to be read there that one could not find in books. I was also struck by the curious effect of the sunlight on the tops of the trees while so much darkness lay under the limbs. Coming home I saw the sun go down behind a veil of grime. It was rather terrifying I confess from an allegorical point of view. But that is usually the case with allegory. (22)

After a great poet has just died there are naturally no great successors because we have been listening rather than singing ourselves. (26)

An old argument with me is that the true religious force in the world is not the church but the world itself: the mysterious callings of Nature and our responses. What incessant murmurs fill that ever-laboring, tireless church! But to-day in my walk I thought that after all there is no conflict of forces but rather a contrast. In the cathedral I felt one presence; on the highway I felt another. Two different deities presented themselves; and, though I have only cloudy visions of either, yet I now feel the distinction between them. The priest in me worshipped God at one shrine; the poet another God at another shrine. The priest worshipped Mercy and Love; the poet, Beauty and Might. In the shadows of the church I could hear the prayers of men and women; in the shadows of the trees nothing human mingled with Divinity. As I sat dreaming with the Congregation I felt how the glittering altar worked on my senses stimulating and consoling them; and as I went tramping through the fields and woods I beheld every leaf and blade of grass revealing or rather betokening the Invisible. (58-9)

I thought, on the train, how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts. There are but few who consider its physical hugeness, its rough enormity. It is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes + barrens + wilds. It still dwarfs + terrifies + crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. (73)

Love is consolation, Nature is consolation. (82)

A week ago I left New York for the West. Found Chicago—cheap; Kansas City—a mere imitation of civilization; Kansas—glorious; and when I got to Colorado I could have kissed the very ground. Went down to Raton, New Mexico and did a bit of business. Then went to Clayton, New Mexico, and did more. When the work was over, I went out onto the prairie + lay full in the sun looking at the sky stretching above Texas, which was at my foot. An interesting world in some ways—a good place for airy solitude. Returned to Colorado + went via Pueblo to Colorado Springs, which is as nice as any Eastern suburban town except that the streets being so wide are without proper shade. Thence I went through Nebraska + Iowa (which is a superb state) + on to Niagra Falls + to New York + home. The best thing I saw was a lightning storm on the prairie. I leaned out of the smoking-room window and watched the incessant forks darting down to the horizon. Now + then great clouds would flare + the ground would flash with yellow shadows. (82-3)

I can’t make head or tail of Life. Love is a fine thing, Art is a fine thing, Nature is a fine thing; but the average human mind and spirit are confusing beyond measure. Sometimes I think that all our learning is the little learning of the maxim. To laugh at a Roman awe-stricken in a sacred grove is to laugh at something to-day. I wish that groves still were sacred—or, at least, that something was: that there was still something free from doubt, that day unto day still uttered speech, and night unto night still showed wisdom. I grow tired of the want of faith—the instinct of faith. Self-consciousness convinces me of something, but whether it be something Past, Present, or Future I do now know. (86)

I certainly do not exist from nine to six, when I am at the office. To-day was the anniversary. The year has been marked by important advances;—but to-night I could not write a single verse. There is no every-day Wallace, apart from the one at work—and that one is tedious. —At night I strut my individual state once more—soon in a night-cap. (121)

In your letter of April 23d you ask for information concerning my life and interests, and a statement of my theories of literature. At the same time you ask me whether there is any oil painting of myself in existence. This is enough to make one take off one’s coat and really start to dictate.

However, the chances are that one life is not very much different from another, even though the descriptions are different. As for my theories of literature, people so often suppose that one has a set of theories, even with a thumb index. One has a theory for each poem; I dare say that, in the long run, they all fit together. This does not imply drifting.

I can, however, be perfectly definite about the oil painting: there is none. (319-20)

Thinking about poetry is, with me, an affair of weekends and holidays, a matter of walking to and from the office. (333)

I should love to see you again, particularly if we could spend an evening together. Your pamphlet on Beethoven’s Symponies is on my table at home and occasionally I take it up just to hear you talk; it is naturally full of your intonations. (342)

In music we hear ourselves most definitely, but most crudely. It is easy enough to look forward to a time when crudely will be less crudely, and then subtler: in the long run, why not subtler than we ourselves? What is true of music is obviously, not to say violently true of poetry. These arts which are so often regarded as exhausted are only in their inception. What keeps one alive is the fury of the desire to get somewhere with all this, in the midst of all the other things that one has to do. (350)

As a matter of fact, the conception of poetry itself has changed and is changing every day. Poetry is a thing that engages, or should engage, not the human curiosities to whom you have referred, but men of serious intelligence. I think that every poet of any interest considers himself as a person with something essential and vital. That such a person is to be visualized as “an idler, a man without clothes, a drunk” or in any way as an eccentric or a person somehow manqué is nonsense. The contemporary poet is simply a contemporary who writes poetry. He looks like anyone else, acts like anyone else, wears the same kind of clothes, and certainly is not an incompetent. (414)

…I read little or no fiction, and really read very much less of everything than most people. It is more interesting to sit round and look out of the window. (490)

However, while taking a poem to pieces seems to be a legitimate enough exercise, it is definitely not an exercise for poets themselves. You examine what you do as you go along, and you examine it afterwards, yet there is a point at which you are bound to stop. (500)

True, the desire to read is an insatiable desire and you must read. Nevertheless, you must also think. Intellectual isolation loses value in an existence of books. (513)

This is a time for the highest poetry. We never understood the world less than we do now nor, as we understand it, liked it less. We never wanted to understand it more or needed to like it more. These are the intense compulsions that challenge the poet as the appreciatory creator of values and beliefs. That, finally, states the problem. (526)

One’s interest, however, an interest in life and in reality. From this point of view it is easy to say that the basic meaning of literary effort, and, therefore, of poetry, is with reference to life and reality and not reference to politics. The basic meaning of the effort of any man to record his experiences as poet is to produce poetry, not politics. The poet must stand or fall by poetry. In the conflict between the poet and the politician the chief honor the poet can hope for is that of remaining himself. Life and reality, on the one hand, and politics, on the other, notwithstanding the activity of politics, are not interchangeable terms. They are not the same thing, whatever the Russians may pretend. (591)

Your question about the audience for whom I write is very much like the question that was asked of a man as to whether he had stopped beating his wife. But, as it happens, I know exactly why I write poetry and it is not for an audience. I write it because for me it is one of the sanctions of life. This is a very serious thing to say at this time of the morning, so that I shall let it go at that for the present. (600)

One wonders sometimes whether this is not exactly what the whole effort of modern art has been about: the attachment to real things. When people were painting cubist pictures, were they not attempting to get at not the invisible but the visible? They assumed that back of the peculiar reality that we see, there lay a more prismatic one of many facets. Apparently deviating from reality, they were trying to fix it; and so on, through their successors. (601)

The house in which I was born and lived as a boy faced the west and wherever I have lived if the house faced any other way I have always been pulling it round on an axis to get it straight. But that is the least of this sort of thing. After all, instead of facing the Atlantic, you might have faced London and Paris. The poem which I sent you some time ago is one of two. The other is on this very subject: the westwardness of things. The poem does little more than make the point but the point is there to be made. (618)

I am writing, as you detect, in the mood of autumn, the mood in which one sums up and meditates on the actualities of the actual year. What has this last year meant to me as a reasonably intelligent and reasonably imaginative person? What music have I heard that has not been the music of an orchestra of parrots and what books have I read that were not written for money and how many men or ardent spirit and star-scimitar in general not really moving forward. There is no music because the only music tolerated is modern music. There is no painting because the only painting permitted is painting derived from Picasso or Matisse. And of course there are very few living individuals because we are all compelled to live in clusters: unions, classes, the West, etc. Only in such pious breasts as yours and mine does freedom still dwell. When I go into a fruit store nowadays and find there nothing but the fruits du jour: apples, pears, oranges, I feel like throwing them at the Greek. I expect, and you expect, sapodillas and South Shore bananas and pineapples a foot high with spines fit to stick in the helmet of a wild chieftain.

You probably asked me a lot of questions in your last letter. I ignore them. Why should I answer questions from young philosophers when I receive perfumed notes from Paris? What I really like to have from you is not your tears on the death of Bernanos, say, but news about chickens raised on red peppers and homesick rhapsodies of the Sienese look of far away Havana and news about people I don’t know, who are more fascinating to me than all the characters in all the novels of Spain, which I am unable to read. (621-2)

Who cares? Who the heck cares? One of the greatest spectacles in the world today is the flood of books coming from nothing and going back to nothing. This is due in part to the subjection of literature to money, in part to the existence of a lettered class to which literature is a form of self-indulgence. The savage assailant of life who uses literature as a weapon just does not exist, any more than the savage lover of life exists. Literature nowadays is largely about nothing by nobodies. Is it not so? (624)

If Beethoven could look back on what he had accomplished and say that it was a collection of crumbs compared to what he had hopes to accomplish, where should I ever find a figure of speech adequate to size up the little that I have done compared to that which I had once hoped to do. Of course, I have had a happy and well-kept life. But I have not even begun to touch the spheres within spheres that might have been possible if, instead of devoting the principal amount of my time to making a living, I had devoted it to thought and poetry. Certainly it is true as it ever was that whatever means most to one should receive all of one’s time and that has not been true in my case. But, then, if I had been more determined about it, I might now be looking back not with a mere sense of regret but at some actual devastation. (669)

An ordinary day like that does more for me than an extraordinary day: the bread of life is better than any souffle. (741)

The web of friendship between poets is the most delicate thing in the world—and the most precious. your note does me immense good. (771)

Say what you will. But we are dealing with poetry, not with philosophy. The last thing in the world that I should want to do would be to formulate a system. (864)

A poet undertaking a poem having to do with the changing image of this country, or of any country, over a long period of time is confronted by endless material. The success of the poem, then, depends on the ability of the poet to animate and control this material, dramatically and otherwise, and certainly this is not a task for a man of mediocre talent or mediocre intelligence. Is the work projected in the present case something likely to be realized successfully by the present poet and if it is realized, is it something worth while? Personally, I think it would be immensely worth while if realized successfully; and I think that the present poet has the degree of literary experience and the power to justify the Foundation in helping him to attempt a project so ambitious and rewarding to the great audience that awaits what such a poem could give it, in the event of success. The nature of the project seems to me to be as important a consideration as the nature of the poet. (869)