Two American Poets

Wallace Stevens & William Carlos Williams

From the

Collection of Alan M. Klein


The Abiding Literary Friendship Between William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens

Williams and Stevens met for the first time at Walter and Louise Arensberg’s studio on Manhattan’s West 67th Street sometime in mid-1915, two years after the Armory Show which had featured the work of Marcel Duchamp, whose “Nude Descending a Staircase” helped revolutionize the way artists and poets now saw the world around them. By then, the thirty-year-old Williams had already published The Tempers, while Stevens, though four years older than Williams, was still eight years away from publishing his first book of poems. By then, however, both poets had seen their work appear in the pages of Poetry (Chicago), as well as another avant garde magazine, this one published right there in Manhattan, aptly called Others, because it meant to provide a forum for those others, like New York’s Jewish intellectuals, including its editor, the indefatigable Alfred Kreymborg, along with a much more radical feminist element which included Mina Loy, Helen Hoyt, and Marianne Moore. What began then in an apartment on West 67th Street was an interchange of ideas which would carry on for the next forty years . . . and which continues, really, into our own time.

Wallace Stevens hailed from Reading, Pennsylvania, where he’d grown up, the second of five siblings, whose parents were of Pennsylvania Dutch stock. He’d gone to high school there and, being six two – had played on the football team. From there he’d gone on to Harvard, graduating in three years in the summer of 1900. Then it was down to the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan, where he tried his hand at cub reporting for a year, before going on to law school. After that, he tried his hand in a private law firm and, when that didn’t work out, began legal work for several insurance companies in the Wall Street area. In the summer of 1904, while back in Reading for a visit, he met a stunning-looking young woman who had grown up just a few blocks away – Elsie Moll Kachel – and fell in love at once. The courtship went on for five years until the summer of 1909, when Stevens felt he finally had enough money to marry his sweetheart, and both settled into an apartment on West 21st Street, where they would live until the spring of 1916, when Stevens secured a job at the Hartford Indemnity Insurance Company and the couple moved to Connecticut’s capital, where they would live for the rest of their lives.

William Carlos Williams, the son of an English father and a Puerto Rican mother in a household where French and Spanish were spoken as much as English, was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, in the Meadowlands, just a few miles across the Hudson from Manhattan, in September of 1883, and would live out his entire eighty years in that same town. He went to Horace Mann in Manhattan with his brother, Edgar, and then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied dentistry for a year, before settling on medicine. He interned at two hospitals in the city: the French Hospital at 330 West 30th Street, and then Child’s Hospital further uptown. Soon, however, he left the city behind and opened a practice back in Rutherford, first in his parents’ home and then after his marriage in December 1912, at 9 Ridge

Road, where he and his wife, Florence – Flossie – would live for the next half century and more.

But, in spite of their professional lives, in which they both excelled in their own ways, poetry was always both men’s passion. Williams published his first thin book with the help of a local printer in 1909. It was called – simply – Poems. And while his poems had begun very much in the same vein of formal verse as Stevens’s, Williams, searching for the new, had already undergone a transformation, and with the help of his friend Ezra Pound and others, was already heralding the new forms of free verse that were gaining traction, especially in New York and London. And though he and Stevens were already heading on different verse trajectories, they took to each other from the start, watching each other’s progress like hawks in the decades to come.

What brought them together was the salon held at the Arensbergs, which featured the work of Marcel Duchamp, who had set up a studio there. “You always saw Marcel Duchamp there,” Williams would recall thirty-five years later, featuring Duchamp’s “Large Glass, or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” as well as several of his earlier works, along with paintings by Cézanne and Gleizes. When Williams made the mistake of telling Duchamp that he admired one of his paintings, which, he admitted, both “disturbed and fascinated” him, Duchamp merely shrugged Williams off. The truth was, he had to confess, that in 1915 he – like the other Americans invited to the salon, including Stevens – were mere beginners, bunglers, in fact, “unable to compete in knowledge with the sophisticates of Montmartre.” And because French was the preferred language at the Arensbergs’, there was the language barrier as well, though Williams, who had spent a year in Switzerland as a boy, could speak French, although not the witty Harvardian kind which Stevens and Arensberg preferred. Still, forty years on, Stevens would confess that he’d always felt Duchamp was in fact “an intense neurotic” whose “life was not explicable in any other terms.” Still, both Williams and Stevens understood that Duchamp and the other French artists were on to something radically new, something that the New York literati were trying to articulate in their own work.

There was also of course, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry (Chicago). And then there was Others: A Magazine of the New Verse, founded by Alfred Kreymborg in July 1915, thanks to Arensberg’s deep pockets. The magazine, whose motto was “The old expressions are with us always, and there are always others,” sold for twenty cents a copy and would run erratically for the next four years. And, while it never had more than 300 subscribers, Others helped launch the careers of both Williams and Stevens, as well those of Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Amy Lowell, H.D., Djuna Barnes, and Lola Ridge, among others.

Among the innovations that Williams, a primary force behind Others, introduced in his poems was the elimination of capital let

ters at the beginning of lines, something which Harriet Monroe at Poetry felt had gone perhaps too far in terms of experimentation, an innovation which Stevens assiduously avoided. Williams’s was a demotic idiom: the language of New Jersey and New York City, open to the politics and mores of the Greenwich Village crowd. And while Stevens’s was a far more elevated diction, more “cultured,” more ironic and distant, in the Anglo-French manner, he remained one with Williams in sharing a deep emotional core in his poems.

The second issue of Others, published in August 1915, saw the publication of Stevens’s “Peter Quince at the Clavier” and “The Silver Ploughboy,” along with four poems by Williams, including “Pastoral” and “The Ogre,” about a doctor’s sexual fascination with a little girl in the course of a routine physical examination. The March 1916 number included seven of Stevens’s poems on as many pages, including “Six Significant Landscapes,” and “Domination of Black,” which evokes darkness encroaching on a solitary speaker who sits before the flickering peacock flames of a fireplace, aware that there is no stay against what will eventually swallow the light and, with it, the poet himself, along with everyone.

Within a year of its founding, however, Others – like so many other experimental magazines of the time – was ready to fold, until Williams, along with F.S. Flint and Maxwell Bodenheim, stepped in to keep it going for the next three years, before the poets it had featured moved on to other magazines, like Scofield Thayer’s The Dial. The little magazines didn’t die, both Williams and Stevens knew. Instead, they morphed into new little magazines. So, in the summer of 1916, Williams was editing Others from his home in Rutherford when he wrote to Stevens, who had just left Manhattan for Hartford, about a batch of poems Stevens had sent him. Among them was a draft of Stevens’s unfinished “For an Old Woman in a Wig,” written in rhymed terza rima. It was a nod to his friend, Arensberg, who was translating The Divine Comedy. Stevens’s fragment was mostly scrawled in pencil with many erasures, and he would soon abandon the form, though he would work and rework Dante’s themes for decades to come. Williams liked the final lines of the fragment especially, he told Stevens, because there Stevens had allowed himself to “become fervent for a moment,” something Williams would tweak Stevens about all their lives, for it was there especially that the two poets differed. Forget the epic poetry of sky and sea, Stevens had confessed in his unfinished poem. Better to push into the “unknown new” around one to discover what was there: poems which actually addressed the world as it was at that particular and unique moment.

A week later Williams wrote Stevens again, congratulating him “on winning ‘arriet’s prize!” [Harriet Monroe] for his play, Three Travelers. He was keeping a copy of Stevens’s “The Worms at Heaven’s Gate” for the July issue of Others because it was “a splendid poe

m,” though “a change or two” would no doubt “strengthen the poem materially.” The first edit Williams suggested was changing the second line from “Within our bellies, as a chariot” to “Within our bellies, we her chariot,” because, Williams explained in bold letters, “the worms are her chariot and not only seem her chariot,” He also urged Stevens to remove two lines from another poem he thought too sentimental. “For Christ’s sake,” he wrote, “yield to me and become great and famous,” which was precisely what Stevens did.

In his “Prologue” to Kora in Hell (1920), Williams quotes at length from a letter Stevens wrote him, dated April 9, 1918. Stevens had written to thank him for a copy of his just-published Al Que Quiere!, explaining that he had decided to send his letter, even though it was “quarrelsomely full of my own ideas of discipline.” Williams included the letter in his “Prologue” because it spoke – in Stevens’s own words – to how the two differed in their approaches to the poem. What troubled Stevens about Williams’s poems was “their casual character,” so that the two volumes of poetry Williams had by that point published struck Stevens as reading like a miscellany, rather than as a unified book of poems.

It was an approach Stevens deeply disliked, and the main reason he’d yet to publish a book of his own, and would not for several more years. “Given a fixed point of view,” Stevens insisted, everything eventually “adjusted itself to that point of view.” But to keep playing with points of view, as Williams did, trying this and that, led “always to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility.” What Williams lacked, he explained, was “a single manner or mood thoroughly matured and exploited.” The new, the fresh: that was what poetry should always be in search of. The real Williams, the essential Williams, Stevens pointed out, was to be found in those lines about “children / Leaping around a dead dog.” A book of that, Stevens urged Williams on, would “feed the hungry.” In any event, a book of poems was “a damned serious affair,” and a book by Williams should contain only what was distinctive in Williams and nothing else. And while that essential quality Stevens found everywhere in Al Que Quiere!, it was “dissipated and obscured” by poems which did not add to that essential sense of Williams. The truth was that there were “very few men who have anything native in them or for whose work I’d give a Bolshevik ruble,” Stevens closed. Follow that search for the American idiom and those New Jersey landscapes, and leave off fiddling with anything else.

Williams fired back. He’d done that, he insisted; had mastered that approach, like Ulysses mastering that witch, Circe. Now it was time to move on to new beginnings, new worlds still unexplored.

That Christmas Eve, Williams wrote Stevens again. His father was dying there in his bed, and had already slipped int

o a coma. “Three Amens!,” Williams managed. “It might be three blackbirds or three blue jays in the snow – but it is three Amens!” At the moment, Flossie downstairs trimming the Christmas tree and their two small sons, Bill and Paul, were asleep in the room next to him. But “what in God’s name” could “a man say to Christ these days?” he wondered, close to despair. Christmas morning he added a postscript to thank Stevens for his poetic criticism of his poem in the latest Little Review. He was referring to “Nuances of a Theme by Williams,” Stevens’s take on Williams’s four-line poem “El Hombre.” “It’s a strange courage / you give me ancient star,” Williams had written, one more poet among many remaking Modern poetry. No matter, finally, Williams had said, if his own poems did not survive. What did matter was that – like the morning star – he continue to “shine alone in the sunrise” toward which he lent no part. Stevens had seen the chance to point out some of the differences between what Williams was up to and what he himself would have added to Williams’ spareness. “Shine alone, shine nakedly,” Stevens wrote:

Be not chimera of morning,
Half-man, half-star.
Be not an intelligence,
Like a widow’s bird
Or an old horse.

It was the last time the two men actually edited one another’s poems, though they would keep watching each other across their horizons to see what the other was up to.

In November 1920, on the road for the umpteenth time for the Hartford and away from New York now for the past four years, Stevens wrote his friend, Ferdinand Reyher, about what he saw as the current state of American poetry. What indeed were the most significant magazines being published in the United States at the moment? It was impossible to answer that question, Stevens explained. Williams, for instance, had recently teamed up with a young man named Robert McAlmon to bring out something called Contact. But McAlmon was in Europe now, married to a millionaire heiress and “bicycling with Wyndham Lewis in southern France,” typing out the manuscript of Ulysses for James Joyce, and busy starting up his own Contact Press in Paris, which would publish Ernest Hemingway’s first book as well as Williams’s In the American Grain, among others. With McAlmon away, Contact had ceased publication, which was too bad, Stevens thought, since the idea behind Williams’s Contact made very good sense. True, there was a great deal of free verse still being written in the States these days, though none of it, Stevens thought, had any “aesthetic theory back of it.” Besides, most of the poetry wasn’t very good because those who wrote it didn’t “understand the emotional purpose of rhythm any more than they understood the emotional purpose of measure.” To make his point, he mentioned that he’d just read Williams’s third book of poems, Sour Grapes, just published, and had found it “very slight – very. Charming but such a tame savage, such a personal impersonal.”

In August 1922, Williams, now thirty-eight, drove up to his in-laws’ farm in southern Vermont with his son Paul and their dog, Bobby. Driving up through Hartford, he stopped to pay a visit with the Stevenses at their apartment at 210 Farmington Avenue. It had been a pleasure to see Williams, Stevens wrote Harriet Monroe afterwards, “although we were both nervous as two belles in new dresses.” But the fact was that the forty- two-year-old Stevens was more uncomfortable than ever with guests, especially with his reclusive wife around, and in very short order he managed to find a hotel room for Williams and told him he hoped to see him “on his way back to New Jersey.” What the two spoke about is unrecorded, though Stevens probably mentioned to Williams that his first book of poems, Harmonium, was going to be published by Knopf in a year’s time. As for Williams, the only thing he recalled Stevens telling him was just how much he enjoyed getting a box of candied violets from a friend each Christmas.

Three years later, in October 1925, Williams, who had just published yet another book – this one his collection of essays, In the American Grain, which spanned the history of American literature from the Vikings through Poe and Lincoln, wrote Stevens again, this time asking if he had any new poems available for an issue of Contact. But by then Stevens had a baby in the house, and had to confess that for the last year or so he’d “read very little and written not at all.” The truth was that his Little Holly kept him and Elsie “both incredibly busy.” Moreover, he’d “been moved to the attic” so as to keep out of the way. One consolation for his dismissal, at least, was that at least there he could “smoke and loaf and read and write,” though all he did these days was turn in early. He confessed that he’d always found in Williams that “live contact,” that vitality with the actual world which still seemed to elude him. Later, when Marianne Moore, now editor of The Dial, invited Stevens to review In the American Grain, Stevens told her that what Columbus had discovered was nothing to what Williams was looking for, and however much he might like to “evolve a mainland from [Williams’s] leaves, scents and floating bottles and boxes,” there was a baby at home, which meant all lights were out at nine.”

It was the same a year later when, in 1926, Moore invited Stevens to present that year’s Dial Award to Williams for In the American Grain. “Carlos the Fortunate,” Stevens called him. And yet he had to decline even this opportunity, explaining that he was still so “incessantly and atrociously busy.” Belatedly he would write Williams to say how much he regretted not having been at the award ceremony in New York. “Your townsmen must whisper about you,” he winked, “and, as you pass the girls, they surely nudge each other and say ‘The golden boy!’ ”

In mid-1927, Williams wrote Stevens again, this time with a request that had come directly from “the Pound” himself, who was now

living in Rapallo, asking for something for an issue of Exile, a new magazine Pound was editing. It took Stevens three weeks to get back to Williams, and when he did, his answer was – once again – no. “Believe me, signor,” he wrote, I’m as busy as the proud Mussolini himself. I rise at day-break, shave etc.; at six I start to exercise; at seven I massage and bathe; at eight I dabble with a therapeutic breakfast; from eight-thirty to nine-thirty I walk down-town [to the Hartford]; work all day [and] go to bed at nine. How should I write poetry, think it, feel it? Mon Dieu, I am happy if I can find time to read a few lines, yours, Pound’s anybody’s. I am humble before Pound’s request. But the above is the above. “Undecipherable letter from Wallace Stevens,” Williams told Pound. “He says he isn’t writing any more. He has a daughter!”

Half a dozen years later, when the young New York poet, Louis Zukofsky, decided to publish a volume of Williams’s Collected Poems 1921 to 1931 for his Objectivist Press (five hundred copies at two dollars each), he asked Williams whom he should ask to write the preface. Stevens, Williams told him, for personal as well as for professional reasons, for they’d known each other’s work now for the past twenty years. This time Stevens agreed, and that November he wrote something he must have thought would surely please his friend. Williams, who had just turned fifty, was still an incurable romantic, though calling his friend that would no doubt horrify him. By romantic, he explained, he meant someone who had “spent his life in rejecting the accepted idea of things as they were,” which for Stevens was very high praise indeed.

True, Williams had his sentimental side, but it was his reaction to sentimentality which so vitalized his work. The truth was, Stevens explained, that Williams had a passion for the antipoetic that kept him grounded in reality, and real poetry – poetry of the actual – was the result of a constant tension between the sentimental and the real. This was 1933, and the harsh fact was that Americans were now in the midst of the Great Depression. The romantic now, therefore, had to be someone who dwelt in an ivory tower but who insisted “that life there would be intolerable except for the fact that one has, from the top, such an exceptional view of the public dump and the advertising signs of Snider’s Catsup, Ivory Soap and Chevrolet Cars.” In other words, the true poet was a “hermit who dwells alone with the sun and moon, but insists on taking a rotten newspaper.” Williams, in fact, was our Laocoön: “the realist struggling to escape from the serpents of the unreal.” But Williams was also our Diogenes, a poet who was continually seeking to find the truth inherent in poetry. Stevens was speaking, of course, of the tension one is constantly finding between the real and the imagined in Stevens’s own poems as much as in Williams.

At first Williams was delighted by Stevens’s preface, but in time he became increasingly discontent with Stevens’s depiction of him as the antipoet, so that fiftee

n years later he would confess that he was “sick of the constant aping of the Stevens’s dictum that I resort to the antipoetic as a heightening device,” even though it was Williams who had described himself in just those terms as far back as Spring and All. The fact, he’d insisted there, was that the common vulgate should come from as much below Fourteenth Street as it did from Dante and those footnotes T. S. Eliot had appended to The Waste Land.

Then, in 1933, Stevens, who had been a sleeping giant for ten years while he bought a spacious house – the only one he would ever own (at 118 Westerly Terrace in Hartford) – and gardened and continued to raise his little daughter, began publishing again, and with a vengeance. In 1935 he published Ideas of Order, followed by Owl’s Clover in 1936, both in handsome limited editions under the imprint of the Alcestis Press, by a publisher who went by several names, two of them Latimer and Leippert. Alcestis would also publish two volumes by Williams: An Early Martyr in 1935 and Adam and Eve and the City the following year.

In a letter to Stevens in May 1936, Williams wondered who this elusive Latimer really was. Since neither poet had ever actually met Latimer, Williams wondered if the man could be trusted. “Dear Sherlock Holmes,” Stevens wrote back. No doubt there was something odd about this all-too-elusive Latimer, but, really, that was no concern of his. “What Latimer is is nothing to me so long as he does not involve me,” he told Williams, as long as the books he published showed the discipline they did. In any event, Stevens’s most extensive correspondence with anyone during the mid-1930s would be with this phantom editor who intrigued him, but whom he did trust, inasmuch as Stevens trusted anyone. Moreover, by then, Stevens seems to have shifted his interest away from Williams to Marianne Moore. When the editor of Life and Letters Today wrote Stevens in March 1935, asking if he might review Moore’s Selected Poems, Stevens replied enthusiastically. Moore, he believed, was a real poet, “not only a complete disintegrator” like too many contemporary poets, but “an equally complete reintegrator,” someone whose poems were “a good deal more important than what Williams does.” Williams, he believed more strongly than ever, represented an “exhausted phase of the romantic,” whose major attraction was its form. Moore, on the other hand, represented a new phase of the romantic, whose particular break with traditional forms was what he himself was after: an attempt to free oneself to discover “what a fresh romanticism might look and sound like.”

And there it was: Stevens with his idea of the Modern Romantic Poet, and Williams with his own idea countering that. “The story is that Stevens has turned of late definitely to the left,” Williams noted in his review of The Man with the Blue Guitar in The New Republic in mid- November 17, 1937, six weeks after the book appeared. But that would be a misreading. Stevens, now approaching sixty, was “merely older and as an artist infinitely more accomplished.” And here was th

e blessed catch: Stevens had turned out to be a poet “in defense of the underdog.” The title poem was one of Stevens’s best, which revealed “a troubled man who sings well, somewhat covertly, somewhat overfussily at times, a little stiffly but well,” but at his best “thrumming in four-beat time.” Unfortunately, that had not been enough for Stevens, who had felt the need “to make a defense of the poet . . . facing his world.” And so, as far as “Owl’s Clover” went, though it had “its old woman very effectively balanced against the heroic plunging of sculptured horses,” the poem had failed to get under way.

The trouble there lay in Stevens’s use of the blank-verse line, which had a “strange effect on a modern poet” because it made a poet think he had to think, with the result that Stevens had created a “turgidity, dullness and a language” no one “alive today could ever recognize – lit by flashes, of course,” because Stevens was “always a distinguished artist.” This time, however, he’d let his blank verse meter run the language. Actually, Williams pointed out, diagnostician that he was, the best poem in the collection turned out to be the collection’s final poem, “The Men That Are Falling,” because it was “the most passionate.” It was, in fact, “one of the best poems of the day,” because Stevens had finally allowed himself to show through the poem, and there was a lesson there “for us all.”

In July 1942 the critic Harvey Breit wrote Stevens asking to interview him for Harper’s Bazaar in his dual roles as poet and insurance executive. Breit added the carrot that Williams had already signed on to be interviewed in his roles as poet and physician. Williams also wrote Stevens, pleading with him to come aboard, but Stevens, being Stevens, and already having been stung in giving an earlier interview, simply refused. “Wallace Stevens is beyond fathoming,” Marianne Moore confided to Williams in November 1944. She’d been reading and reviewing his poetry for twenty years now, in spite of which she still found him strange, “as if he had a morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose and just as he tells it out in his sleep” – by which she meant his poems – ”he changes into an uncontradictable judiciary with a gown and a gavel and you are embarrassed to have heard anything.”

When, in late 1945, Williams read Stevens’s long poem, “Description without Place” in the pages of the Sewanee Review, he saw it as an attack on his own poetry, which often began with something he’d seen or heard on the streets of New York City – the same streets where he and Stevens used to meet thirty years earlier. Who had Stevens been pointing to when he spoke of the way in which men made themselves by their speech? Was he the “hard hidalgo” Stevens had spoken of, the poet who had shaped, as much as Stevens had, the “invention of a nation in a phrase”?

Resistance to the direction St

evens’s poetry had assumed had been on Williams’s mind for decades now. How he missed that “lamb-like urban talent” in Harmonium, a tone long since gone now: that “metropolitan softness of tone, a social poetry that Chaucer had long ago [brought] to such perfection,” as he confided to Marianne Moore. Even as early as 1943 Williams had written his editor, James Laughlin, at New Directions about the long poem he was cobbling together. If Stevens could speak of “Parts of a World,” he had said then, his long poem “Paterson” would consist of “‘Parts of a Greater World’ – a looser, wider world where ‘order’ is a servant not a master.”

By 1950 both poets, now in their late sixties, were going strong. That year, Williams was awarded the first National Book Award for Poetry in recognition of the publication of his Selected Poems and Paterson III. The following year Stevens was presented with that same award for his Auroras of Autumn. Williams and Stevens were going to meet up again that April at Bard, where Williams was scheduled to give a talk on poetry. Instead, he lay in the intensive care unit at Passaic General Hospital, capable of no more than a weak stutter, having just suffered a severe stroke. Still, he’d insisted on talking on the telephone to Ted Weiss, the organizer of the event, trying to explain why it would not be possible for him to be there to greet Stevens. When Weiss broke the news to him, Stevens quipped that, though he was four years older than Williams, he’d managed to outlast his friend.

But Stevens, feeling guilty for his remark, wrote Williams three weeks later. While the Bard affair had been extremely pleasant, the news of Williams’s illness had “saddened and disturbed everyone.” Bill had worked too hard getting to the top to be deprived now of a leisurely old age. Then he caught himself. “As the older of the two of us; I resent those words more than you do. If a man is as young as he feels, you are, no doubt, actually twenty-five and I am say twenty-eight. . . . I still come to the office regularly because I like to do so and have use for the money, and I never had any other reasons for doing so.” He wished he could see Williams when he was in New York, but his days always seemed to be taken up with errands to run – buying shoes, socks, and so on – so that there was “rarely time to meet people.” Stevens’s poetry, of course, had already told Williams as much.

As soon as he felt strong enough, Williams wrote back. It was the first letter he’d been able to peck out on his typewriter since his stroke, and he told Stevens he was thrilled to be writing at all, especially to a friend he’d known for close to forty years. The stroke, he admitted, had caught him by surprise, “for though I know I am far from invulnerable I didn’t expect that! . . . It seems to have resulted from trying to write a book in three months while carrying on a practice of medicine. Just couldn’t bring it off,” though he’d almost “had the book finished at that.” He was referring to his Autobiograp

hy, which he was now back to working on. And, yes, though either of them might “croak at any moment,” they weren’t really old, were they? He was even looking forward to a whole “new way of life,” hoping to “hobnob” with his few real friends, among whom he counted Stevens. What he could not know was that the two would not meet again on this side of the Great Divide.

Williams was in worse shape than Stevens had thought, having suffered not one but three strokes, which had left his right side paralyzed. Worse, though Williams had been “invited to act as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress” rumors had begun circulating that he was a Communist because he’d contributed to several leftist magazines during the 1930s, so that – in this frigid cold war era – Washington had decided to play it safe and strip him of the honor they had bestowed on him.

Stevens of course had no idea whether or not Williams was a Communist. Since Williams had always been on the cutting edge of things, chances were that he probably had associated with Communists in the past, though, as Stevens wrote his young Cuban friend, José Rodriguez Feo, Williams was “the least subversive man in the world.” And what was he to make of Williams’s new poems, with their triadic structures and Calderesque mobile-like lines? Were those the things readers preferred these days? And if so, what would the next generation favor? The bare page? “For that alone would be new,” the equivalent to the bare canvases the New York School of painters seemed to prefer these days. He could only hope that someday there might really be a new world for the poem, and not mere variations of the old.

On the evening of January 25, 1955, Stevens, now seventy-five, was in New York to receive his second National Book Award in four years, this time for his Collected Poems. Williams had also been a finalist that year, but it was Stevens who won, as he would also win the Pulitzer later that same year, sharing the evening with William Faulkner, who received the award for his novel A Fable. Then, less than three months later, Stevens was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and died on August 2nd.

It was left to Williams to write Stevens’s eulogy for Poetry, where both had started out forty years before. “To me there was something in the dogged toughness of his thought that gave it a Germanic quality,” Williams wrote that October. “He always reminded me of Goethe, in his youth,” when “lemon trees filled his dreams, before the devastations of the moral sense had overcome him.” In the beginning there had been that New York dandy, the Stevens he had known most intimately, before he assumed the New England conscience of a Hawthorne.

There had always been a cryptic quality to Stevens’s verses, a ritualistic quality, really, as if he were following a secret litany he revealed to no man. “Over and over again, as he reached his later years and . . . began to be recognized for what he was, . . . even in such a late book as The Auroras of

Autumn, he could be detected, to the surprise of the world, in this secret devotion.” The truth was that, “in the midst of a life crowded with business affairs,” Stevens had become “a veritable monk.”

By then he had “seen and possessed what he wanted in this world,” Williams concluded. “Henceforth contemplation, vividly casting its lights across his imagination, sufficed for him.” In his last years, Stevens had “earned an undeserved reputation for coldness if not sterility,” a judgment which only time would rescue him from. Though Williams had “no confidence” that anyone would read Stevens (or himself) in the years to come, what Stevens offered, if one took the time to read him carefully, was “something to cure our neuroses and make us whole again in the face of much that is sordid and cheap in the world.” In any event, one went back to Stevens for the sheer pleasure of his lines. Somehow, the man had managed to write an English as no Englishman had ever written it. For centuries poetry had forgotten how to dance. And then along had come Stevens to change all that, for good.

In spite of his debilitating strokes, Williams would manage to soldier on. Stevens had always been in awe by how a man who had delivered over 2,000 babies could write so much. There would be Journey to Love published the same year Stevens died, followed by his Selected Letters in 1957. In 1958 Paterson V would follow, and then, in 1959, the book he’d worked on years before with his mother, Yes, Mrs. Williams. In 1961 his collected stories, The Farmers’ Daughters, appeared, followed in 1962 by his collected plays and Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems. And then all of Paterson (I – V) in 1963. In May of the year he died, 1963, he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer for Pictures from Brueghel, followed by the Gold Medal for Poetry from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Among the voluminous items in Alan Klein’s magnificent collection you will find Wallace Stevens’s own copy of the second issue of Others, as well as a copy of The Man with the Blue Guitar inscribed to his daughter, Holly, with the touching inscription, “From one poet to another, Love, Daddy.” There’s also a copy of the Knopf edition of Ideas of Order which Stevens inscribed to Latimer, as well as a copy of the Transport to Summer, which Stevens inscribed to his close friend, Henry Church, just a week before Church died of a heart attack in New York on Good Friday, April 4, 1947. And then there’s Stevens’s Collected Poems, which Stevens inscribed to Church’s wife, Barbara, the same evening – November 6, 1954 – he gave his reading at the 92nd Street Y, which bears the inscription “Tom Tom C’est Moi”, a line from Stevens’s “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”

In addition, there are two letters from Stevens to Vivienne Koch, who knew both poets and who wrote the first biography of Williams. Like so many of Stevens’ letters, both were written at his office at the Hartford. In the first, written on January 29, 194

7, he promises to send her some poems for the next issue of the Briarcliff Quarterly, and then praises the Williams number, published by the Quarterly the previous October, calling it “one of the best of these Festschriften.” And while there are a number of poems and prose pieces by Williams himself, it is a photograph of Williams’s mother which has especially touched him, revealing in the mother’s face something which “seems to account for a very great deal” of who the poet himself is. And speaking of mothers, it is something which is as true for Stevens himself, as The Auroras of Autumn will show.

In the second letter, written to Koch at the Kingsley Hotel in London in mid-February 1950, he tells her how happy he is for Williams now that his friend, having won the National Book Award for Paterson III and his Selected Poems, has been elected to the National Institute for Arts and Letters, even though, in that distinctive manner of Stevens, while he believes Williams may have no real sense of just how important the award is, it is “a big step toward the acceptance of his work and acceptance is a big step toward understanding and liking.”

And then there are priceless items by Williams. Among them are his first book of poems, The Tempers (1913), inscribed for his mother-in-law. There’s also a copy of Al Que Quiere! (1917) inscribed to Flossie, as well as a letter Williams wrote to Latimer to say just how thrilled he was to be published by him. In addition, there are first edition copies of all five books of Paterson, which he inscribed to his son Paul as each of those volumes were published. There’s also a first edition of Kora in Hell (1920) inscribed to Martha Graham when he was working on a project with her. And then there are Ezra Pound’s copies of so many of Williams’s books, each of them inscribed by Williams. This, friends, is indeed a collection to feast upon.

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