Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania. He studied writing at Harvard University for a time as a young man, but was forced to withdraw for financial reasons without receiving a degree. He then decided to pursue a career in journalism as a reporter for the New York Evening Post, before enrolling in the New York School of Law. In 1908, he accepted a position with an insurance firm, the American Bonding Company. He soon resumed writing poetry, striking an unconventional—but effective—balance between his career and his creative pursuits. In 1909, he married Elsie Kachel, who gave birth to their only daughter, Holly, in 1924. Relative to some writers, Stevens launched his writing career rather late; nearly all of his published work was written in his 40s and beyond. Stevens died of cancer at age 75 on August 2, 1955.
Perhaps a product of his late-blooming career, Stevens was rather self-assured in his writing. He expects his readers to be familiar with his body of work and leaves it to us to make connections between the thoughts and beliefs expressed in his various poems. Schwarz writes: “More than any other major figure, Stevens restructured our concept of what it means to read. He requires from his readers acrobatics of attention and insists that we read him not only linearly but back and forth” (14-5). Similarly, Frankenberg explains that “he does not present fully rounded descriptions, but salient details by which we may summon up the whole. We take part in the poems by a selective rehearsal of our own experience” (199). We are able, and expected, to read the poem through the lens of our personal experience, and to participate actively in the shaping of the poem.
Stevens also has no qualms with articulating conflicting ideas and, in fact, some of his poems would seem to be in direct disagreement with each other. Stevens didn’t view this as an inconsistency, however, but rather as a way of getting at the “truth” of the world. This stems from a commitment to his philosophical ideas and his desire to express these ideas through the medium of poetry. Stevens did not view poetry and philosophy as diametrically opposed forces—the former emotional and the latter intellectual (Frankenberg 218). Arguably more than another poet of his time, he saw poetry and philosophy each as a means of digging deeper into the other.
In other words, Stevens didn’t use poetry simply to preach his philosophical beliefs, but as a medium for exploring these beliefs, as well. Frankenberg writes that “[Stevens’ poems] are his examinations of himself and the world through the medium of poetry, through the very machinery of his own poems” (226). Stevens often uses his poems as a means of detailing, with as much precision as possible, an object, thought, feeling or idea as a means of drawing closer to that object, thought, feeling or idea. His poems were, therefore, meditative in the sense that they were poems “of the mind, in the very act of finding” (Borroff 143).
This commitment to pure accuracy, in a way, brings out the significance of the objects and thoughts he describes. As Frankenberg states, “Stevens’ genius in dealing with ideas is his ability to reproduce their sensations. This is an extension by reversal of his ability, through uncanny mimicry, to make ideas of sensations” (233). In depicting these perceptions of the world through words, Stevens is merely attempting to recreate them as accurately as possible, without layering them with any particular symbolism or interpretation. He does not force “meaning” into these depictions, but rather presents them to the reader as conceptions worth examining, in and of themselves.
This relates to some of the most important philosophical ideas with which Stevens was grappling: the relationship between imagination and reality, the concept of pure truth vs. the idea that everything is experienced through filters of perception, and the role of the imagination in creating the world around us. These are issues that Stevens struggled with in many of his poems, including the four I chose to focus on in this paper.
Thus, according to Frankenberg, “Stevens’ poetry is principally concerned with a two-way relationship between the beholder and the thing beheld. This relationship is both active and passive at once; an alternating current” (204). This is, on its own, fascinating. But the way in which he renders this relationship is the focus on my study.
All poets must pay some mind to sound in their poetry, as sound is what separates poetry from prose (just as language is what separates poetry from music). But I would argue that Stevens uses sound more deliberately than most, and in deeper connection to his subject matter. Indeed, Schwarz writes that “Stevens has a wonderful ear for the sounds of life for music and for individual speech; when reading his poems we need to hear internal rhymes, iterations, stresses, and phonic relationships. The phonics may either reinforce or be in disjunction with the actual words” (24). This is why studying sound in Stevens’ poetry is so important.