Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) and William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) are widely recognized as two of the towering giants of mid-twentieth century American poetry. They are rarely thought of together, however, despite their mutual admiration and personal relationship spanning over forty years.
This is not just a catalogue, or an exhibit, about two well-known poets but rather something that is intended to go deeper than that. My hope is that readers and viewers will be drawn in to see two poets, coming of age in the late nineteenth century, meeting and maturing as part of a unique circle of writers and artists at the time of World War I amid the explosive effect of the war on the culture, immersed in startling innovations in modern art and grappling with radical changes in science and technology such as Einstein’s theory of relativity. Each grew up in a period when electricity was just becoming commonplace in the home and automobiles and airplanes were new innovations. By the time of their passing the world had entered the atomic age and, in the case of Williams, the space age. Through this catalogue and the accompanying exhibit, the influence of these stunning changes to their world will be seen on their work and their overlapping output over the course of their careers they struggled for and achieved recognition as two of the most influential writers in American literature by mid-century.
Almost exact contemporaries, Stevens and Williams met in New York City in 1914 at a formative point in their development as poets. They wrote in very different idioms, although each strove to be uniquely American. Stevens worked in a very cerebral and often abstract language and Williams wrote in a very direct and down to earth style, trying consciously to emulate the rhythms of American speech. Often, 12 Stevens’s work is described as “difficult” and Williams’s as almost too accessible. And yet, they were supporters and readers of each other from their first meeting until Stevens’s death in 1955.
Quite unusually, in addition to their literary careers, they both pursued successful professional careers. An important part of Stevens’s mythology is his work as a lawyer and insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. Williams was a respected physician and the people and circumstances he encountered in his medical practice in New Jersey greatly influenced his literary work.
Both Stevens and Williams were also active participants in the world of poetry of their time. They each published in many of the same literary journals and carried on an active correspondence with a wide range of their contemporaries. Each mentored younger poets, both directly and indirectly. Stevens’s work first became a touchstone for American poets to study and be inspired by during the period prior to World War II, and remains so today. During his lifetime he was recognized and revered. Williams’s experiments with form and his choice of subject matters similarly inspired the American surrealists of the 1930s and the Beats of the 1950s. His personal relationships with the Beats, particularly Allen Ginsburg, were noteworthy.
Their writings on poetry in general and regarding one another reflect that in many ways they viewed each other as embarking on a similar project in their poetry. Each was consciously trying to create poetry that would be recognizably “American,” that didn’t simply emulate the themes and subjects of the English and European poets they had studied as youths but which grappled with the world that had been created on this continent. At the same time, each felt that part of what their poetry needed, and what was lacking in their poetic inheritance, was to bridge the gap between “reality” and the words they used to describe that reality. Advancements in science, much of which drew on Einstein’s work, had demonstrated that reality was a slippery concept. New techniques in literature and art that arose during the World War I period were part of the response to the radical developments in the understanding of the physical world then taking place and to the inferno of the war itself.
Stevens’s version of the project was to create a poetry that itself in many ways seems as fractured and often as impenetrable as the abstract art being created at the same time. Of course, his work evolved considerably both in technique and subject matter, from the urbane poses of the poems collected in his first book to the many lengthy meditations and ruminations on the nature of poetry and art in his later poetry. Williams’s work evolved as well, beginning with the imagist pieces of the nineteen teens and twenties and developing into his experiments with what he called the “variable foot” and with the pattern of the words on the page while also creating the amalgams of prose, poetry and found text best exemplified by his magnum opus “Paterson.” The divergence of their efforts was certainly well understood by each of them, but Stevens and Williams also understood the foundation of each other’s work. They kept tabs on each other’s progress more assiduously than on the work of any other peer save, perhaps, Marianne Moore.
This catalogue is first an effort to reflect the course of the individual lives and careers of Stevens and Williams. I began collecting Stevens and Williams first editions twenty years ago simply because I liked their poetry. I was neither a seasoned collector nor a student of their work and lives. I had a general understanding that Stevens had been a lawyer and insurance company executive and Williams a local doctor, in addition to crafting literary work of astonishing resonance. I am certainly not an academician, critic or poet. Over the last two decades, these collections took greater form and achieved greater depth as my interest and knowledge deepened and collecting opportunities grew.
By its very nature, though, a private collection of two such writers is in many ways a reflection of market availability. In the case of these poets, much of their personal libraries, letters and manuscripts are in institutions, along with those of many of their correspondents and publishers. I am particularly lucky that in recent years some m
My Stevens items begin with letters and works from his undergraduate years at Harvard, and continue from his earliest contributions to literary journals and throughout his career, to his published books, both through commercial houses such as Knopf and small literary presses – notably the Alcestis Press and the Cummington Press – many with inscriptions to individuals such as his daughter, his work colleagues, his friends the Churches and other individuals with whom he formed relationships from which he drew inspiration for his work. Some of this material is from his own library, including two family history projects which Stevens had privately printed in excruciatingly small runs: Only a half dozen or fewer of each are known. There are letters from Stevens to a wide variety of contemporary poets, such as Conrad Aiken, Allen Tate and Delmore Schwartz as well as letters to his publisher Alfred Knopf, to his editor and to his publicist at Knopf. Also present are his marriage certificate and several personal photographs.
My Williams collection begins with books given to him as a child by his mother and inherited from his father, some of his school books from a prep school in Geneva, Switzerland and some high school textbooks from the Horace Mann School in New York City. His earliest publications in literary journals are present continuing throughout his career in a range of genres; along with his first commercially published book inscribed to his mother-in-law, his second commercially published book inscribed to his wife, a complete set of his magnum opus Paterson inscribed to his son, and many other books inscribed to Ezra Pound, some of which have Pound’s annotations, as well as books inscribed to friends and colleagues such as Man Ray, Malcom Cowley and Martha Graham. The many letters of Williams included here range from his thoughts on Albert Einstein to correspondence with publishers, editors, friends and fellow poets. Ephemera includes a train schedule belonging to Williams from Rutherford, New Jersey, his home, to New York City, illustrating the worlds that he bridged.
As I continued collecting and researching, there emerged a strong sense of the intersection and overlap of the poetic lives of Stevens and Williams, and through a subset of the collection an over-arching theme became apparent. There is Stevens’s own copy of the second issue of the 1915 journal Others, published by Alfred Kreymborg, which Williams helped edit, with the first appearance of Stevens’s iconic “Peter Quince at the Clavier” as well as four poems by Williams; a copy of Poetry magazine from 1917 with Stevens’s play “Carlos among the Candles,” whose title character is almost certainly named after Williams; the first edition of Stevens’s first book, Harmonium, from
Manuscript material for both poets is scarce in private hands, but through a trove of material acquired from the family of Alcestis Press founder Ronald Latimer I acquired manuscript copies of poems copied out by both Stevens and Williams for that publisher, as well as lengthy inscriptions to him in their books that he published - and even Stevens and Williams editions from Latimer’s collection brought out by other publishers. This material is a unique addition to the biographies of both poets (not to mention of Latimer).
Stevens was the stolid son of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, as he viewed it, who went off to Harvard and developed an exquisitely sensitive ear and eye. He never visited Europe and indeed he left the United States only twice, once to go to Havana and once on a Caribbean cruise. Yet his work reflects a cosmopolitan encounter with the most difficult themes of his time. Williams, by contrast – the son of an English father raised in the Caribbean and a mother of Spanish descent raised in Puerto Rico – grew up speaking Spanish at home in New Jersey, studied at a Swiss boarding school, had medical training in Leipzig and spent time in Paris in the ’20s. Yet his work employs the American vernacular to convey the sights and sounds of the immediate world in which he lived. They published in the same journals and with the same publishers, read and wrote about each other. Although they lived just a state or two away, after Stevens moved to Hartford in 1916 there are only perhaps fewer than a handful of documented meetings between them in person. The intellectual engagement between them never ended, however. Both poets, dead for over sixty years and fifty years respectively, still speak to readers today, each in a unique, and uniquely American, idiom.
My hope is that this still-growing collection and this catalogue, with contributions from Paul Mariani – the biographer of both Williams and Stevens – and poets Daniel Halpern and Nicole Sealey will help elucidate the lives and works of both Stevens and Williams in a way that adds to the understanding and appreciation of both of them.