Who ends a poem,
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.
Wallace Stevens was not the first poet I read. My mother made me read an old anthology of British and American poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer. She pointed me to Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky,” which I memorized for a class assignment in grade school. I liked the texture of the poem and the insanity of the language: frumious bandersnatch, ’twas brillig, and the slithy toves, all mimsy were the borogoves – even a jubjub bird and a tumtum tree. Then I found a book of love poems by Walter Benton, This Is My Beloved. A book devoid of memorable language and any indication of crazy – just pure sentiment, which I understood at ten as romantic love. Then it was on to Rod McKuen, a hipper version of Benton. And so, many years passed. I wrote some poems of my own, and eventually found the poets who would speak to me for the rest of my life. Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and W. B. Yeats. Their collected works, in hardcover, are never not near my reading chair at home. But only Stevens travels with me, in paperback and eBook.
The first poem of his I read was not “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” or “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” It was “The Man on the Dump,” a poem that speaks to the infinities of language and the structures of poetry. Out of the mundane detritus of the everyday – of the quotidian, of the passed off, the unwanted, the rejected – a boundless treasury of images, a pile of the discarded for the poet’s imagination to sort through, assess and reassemble. The opening stanza:
Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho . . . The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.
I’ve read Stevens for over 50 years. I’ve taught him, I’ve read him to potential love interests and even had him read to me – by Donald Trump, but that is another story.
Why Wallace Stevens.
In his own words, his poems are shiny surfaces full of clouds – that continue to shape and reshape themselves over a multitude of readings. The limberness of his associations and transitions, the pastels of his language, his linguistic unpredictableness, his effortless blank verse in a poem like “Sunday Morning,” whose first stanza reads,
complacencies of the peignoir, and late
and the green freedom of a cockatoo
upon a rug mingle to dissipate
the holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
encroachment of that old catastrophe,
as a calm darkens among water-lights.
the pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
the day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
The way his poems avail themselves simultaneously of the dometic and exotic, attentive to the requests of the body metabolism, even when the poem feels bodiless, existing within a darkly intellectual and cerebral framework. Often it seems, reading him, that he’s somewhere down the hall, but never in my room. Not sure why that is.
His poems have the depth and longevity they do because they re -quire your imagination to engage with his. So it’s always, and only, an individual understanding of a particular poem, as it should be reading poetry. And as one’s imagination evolves, via the experience of age and the foibles of the humdrum, so do the poems of Wallace Stevens. The poems, moving targets in reverse, come back, full volume, at you. And if you’re a young poet, a line of his can become a fuse.
Why Wallace Stevens
Because his poetry, in every season, is like the smell, feel and taste of summer fruit.
So here is this exhibit from Alan Klein’s collection, a collection of paper. Some of it bound, some unbound or enclosed in envelopes of paper. Paper forever altered by one of our great poets, who has altered the world we, for the time being, inherit.
How remarkable to have such a personal collection of material –paper! As Stevens wrote,
...the dump is full of images.Days pass like papers from a press.the bouquets come here in the papers...