Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955) was a major American Modernist poet. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and spent most of his adult life working for an insurance company in Connecticut. His best-known poems include "Anecdote of the Jar," "The Emperor of Ice Cream," "The Idea of Order at Key West," "Sunday Morning ," and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."
Stevens attended Harvard as a non-degree special student, after which he moved to New York City and briefly worked as a journalist. He then attended New York Law School, graduating in 1903. On a trip back to Reading in 1904 Stevens met Elsie Viola Kachel; after a long courtship, he married her in 1909. In 1913, the young couple rented a New York City apartment from sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, who made a bust of Elsie. (Her striking profile was later used on Weinman's 1916-1945 Mercury dime design and possibly for the head of the Walking Liberty Half Dollar.) A daughter, Holly, was born in 1924. She later edited her father's letters and a collection of his poems. The marriage reputedly became increasingly distant, but the Stevenses never divorced.
After working for several New York law firms from 1904 to 1907, he was hired on January 13, 1908 as a lawyer for the American Bonding Company. By 1914 he had become the vice-president of the New York Office of the Equitable Surety Company of St. Louis, Missouri. When this job was abolished as a result of mergers in 1916, he joined the home office of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and left New York City to live in Hartford, where he would remain the rest of his life. By 1934, he had been named vice president of the company. After he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, he was offered a faculty position at Harvard, but declined since it would have required him to give up his vice presidency of The Hartford.
In the 1930s and 1940s, he was welcomed as a member of the exclusive set centered on the artistic and literary devotees Barbara and Henry Church.
Stevens was baptized a Catholic in April 1955 by Fr. Arthur Hanley, chaplain of St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, where Stevens spent his last days suffering from stomach cancer. This purported deathbed conversion is disputed, particularly by Steven's daughter, Holly. After a brief release from the hospital, Stevens was readmitted and died on August 2, 1955 at the age of 75. He is buried in Hartford's Cedar Hill Cemetery.
Stevens is a rare example of a poet whose main output came at a fairly advanced age. His first major publication (four poems from a sequence entitled "Phases" in the November 1914 edition of Poetry Magazine) was written at the age of thirty-five, although as an undergraduate at Harvard, Stevens had written poetry and exchanged sonnets with George Santayana, with whom he was close through much of his life. Many of his canonical works were written well after he turned fifty. According to the literary critic Harold Bloom, who called Stevens the "best and most representative" American poet of the time, no Western writer since Sophocles has had such a late flowering of artistic genius.
In his book Opus Posthumous, Stevens writes “After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption." But as the poet attempts to find a fiction to replace the lost gods, he immediately encounters a problem: a direct knowledge of reality is not possible.
Stevens suggests that we live in the tension between the shapes we take as the world acts upon us, and the ideas of order that our imagination imposes upon the world. The world influences us in our most normal activities, "The dress of a woman of Lhassa, / In its place, / Is an invisible element of that place / Made visible. Likewise, were we to place a jar on a hill in Tennessee, we would impose an order onto the landscape.
As Stevens says in his essay "Imagination as Value", “the truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them. The imagination is the mechanism by which we unconsciously conceptualize the normal patterns of life, while reason is the way we consciously conceptualize these patterns.
The jar is a striking example of an order that does not feel a part of the land, and so seems to violate the existing order, “It did not give of bird or bush, / Like nothing else in Tennessee”. Contrast this to the feeling one gets while looking over the water where boats are anchored in darkness, with lanterns hanging on poles, “Arranging, deepening, enchanting night”. When the imagination is available to reality and does not try to force itself, reality becomes like a bar of sand onto which the imagination naturally washes and recedes.
The imagination can only conceive of a world for a moment - a particular time, place and culture - and so must continually revise its conception to align with the changing world. And as these worldviews come and go, each person is pulled in their normal lives between the influence the world has on our imagination and the influence that our imagination has on the way we view the world.
For this reason, the best we can hope for is a well conceived fiction, satisfying for the moment, but sure to lapse into obsolescence as new imaginings wash over the world.
The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.
Throughout his poetic career, Stevens was concerned with the question of what to think about the world now that our old notions of religion no longer suffice. His solution might be summarized by the notion of a “Supreme Fiction.” In this example from the satirical "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman," Stevens plays with the notions of immediately accessible, but ultimately unsatisfying notions of reality:
The saxophones squiggle because, as J. Hillis Miller says of Stevens in his book, Poets of Reality, the theme of universal fluctuation is a constant theme throughout Stevens poetry: "A great many of Stevens’ poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling movement.” In the end, reality remains.
The supreme fiction is that conceptualization of reality that seems to resonate in its rightness, so much so that it seems to have captured, if only for a moment, something actual and real.
In one of his last poems, "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour", Stevens describes the experience of an idea which satisfies the imagination, “This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous. / It is in that thought that we collect ourselves, / Out of all the indifferences, into one thing.” This one thing is “a light, a power, the miraculous influence” wherein we can forget ourselves, sensing a comforting order, “A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous, / within its vital boundary, in the mind.”
This knowledge necessarily exists within the mind, since it is an aspect of the imagination which can never attain a direct experience of reality.
Stevens concludes that god is a human creation, but that feeling of rightness which for so long a time existed with the idea of god may be accessed again. This supreme fiction will be something equally central to our being, but contemporary to our lives, in a way that god can never again be. But with the right idea, we may again find the same sort of solace that we once found in divinity. "[Stevens] finds, too, a definite value in the complete contact with reality. Only, in fact, by this stark knowledge can he attain his own spiritual self that can resist the disintegrating forces of life . . . . Powerful force though the mind is . . . it cannot find the absolutes. Heaven lies about the seeing man in his sensuous apprehension of the world . . .; everything about him is part of the truth."
In this way, Stevens’s poems adopt attitudes that are corollaries to those earlier spiritual longings that persist in the unconscious currents of the imagination. “The poem refreshes life so that we share, / For a moment, the first idea . . . It satisfies / Belief in an immaculate beginning / And sends us, winged by an unconscious will, / To an immaculate end. The "first idea" is that essential reality that stands before all others, that essential truth; but since all knowledge is contingent on its time and place, that supreme fiction will surely be transitory. This is the necessary angel of subjective reality - a reality that must always be qualified - and as such, always misses the mark to some degree - always contains elements of unreality.
Miller summarizes Stevens's position: "Though this dissolving of the self is in one way the end of everything, in another way it is the happy liberation. There are only two entities left now that the gods are dead: man and nature, subject and object. Nature is the physical world, visible, audible, tangible, present to all the senses, and man is consciousness, the nothing which receives nature and transforms it into something unreal...
These cognitive depictions find their outlet and their best and final form as words; and thus Stevens can say, "It is a world of words to the end of it, / In which nothing solid is its solid self. In a poem called "Men Made out of Words," he says: "Life / Consists of propositions about life.” Poetry is not about life, it is intimately a part of life. As Stevens wrote elsewhere, “The poem is the cry of its occasion, / Part of the res itself and not about it. / The poet speaks the poem as it is, // Not as it was.” Modern poetry is “the poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.”
His poem An Ordinary Evening in New Haven is an obsessive, self-conscious digression about the creation of poetry.
To create a stage is, for Stevens, a metaphor for the need of modern poetry to make its own new arena or realm in which it should be presented and in which it can be understood. Modern poetry is like "an insatiable actor because it continually must be in "the act of finding what will suffice." Stevens puns on the meaning of "act." In one sense, poetry is an act, learning the speech, meeting the women, facing the men, etc. In another sense, it is a dramatic performance meant to be heard by an audience, as it speaks words that echo in the mind of the listener. The audience is "invisible" in the sense that a poet rarely meets his or her readers. The typical reader picks up a book of poems and reads a poem or two, and the author never sees this happening. The reading of poetry is often a conversation between strangers. In this poem the two people are the actor that is the poem and the audience that is the listener, and their emotions should become "one." The poet should find the words that will speak to the delicatest ear of its modern listeners, echoing what it wants to hear but cannot articulate for itself. The poet, in the act of the poem, finds the sufficing words and for the audience and they allow the listeners to hear what is in their ear, their mind. As a result, the emotions of speaking and listening, of poet as actor and listeners as audience, should become one.