The Single Artificer
When Robert Frost shuffled off this mortal coil in 1963, the New York Times notice began at the top of page 1 and jumped to page 5, where it was accompanied by a critical appreciation (“Frost’s place in the history of American letters is assured”) and an article headlined “President Leads in Tributes to ‘Great Poet of Our Time.’” A couple of months later, the Times obituary for William Carlos Williams also started on page 1; ditto T. S. Eliot’s 1965 obit, the bulk of which took up most of page 30, along with a selection of passages from his work and a sampling of tributes from colleagues. (Robert Penn Warren: “He is the key figure of our century. . . . This is his age.”) Two years on, Carl Sandburg’s passing occasioned not only a sizable page 1 headline but also a page 1 “appraisal,” as well as an editorial, “Carl Sandburg, American,” and, a few days later, a tribute, “Carl Sandburg, Newspaperman.” Sandburg, the Times pronounced, “caught in his pages a certain moment and a certain place in our history. Anyone who would know them must consider him part of the permanent record.”
For contrast, see the Times article, published on August 3, 1955, that announced the death, the day before, of Wallace Stevens. Back then, let it be remembered, a Times page contained eight anorexically narrow columns; Stevens’ obituary took up slightly less than a full column on page 23, which made it just a tad longer than the report, two columns away, of the demise of one Crown Prince Ruprecht, a pretender to the throne of Bavaria. Although the headline, for the edification of readers who didn’t know who Stevens was, identified him as a “Noted Poet” (the headline writers for the Frost, Eliot, and Sandburg necrologies hadn’t felt obliged to include job descriptions), the text gave priority not to Stevens’ career as poet but to his position as vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company; only after identifying Stevens by this title did the obituarist mention that he had also been a writer of verse. All in all, a feeble tribute from the newspaper of record, but almost certainly a better one than he’d have received had he not won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award only three months earlier.
Since then, the tables have turned dramatically. Yes, Frost’s reputation has more or less held steady, and Williams’ understated, colloquial poems went on to become templates for creative-writing students everywhere; but Eliot has definitely slipped, and Sandburg crashed and burned a long time ago. Meanwhile, Stevens has soared on extended wings. It is probably fair to say that, in the estimation of most critics, he has eclipsed all of his American contemporaries; of all twentieth-century poets in English, indeed, only Yeats is consistently ranked higher. The Library of America published a volume of Stevens’ poetry and prose in 1997; the innumerable critical studies of his work include one book by the dean of American literary critics, Harold Bloom, and two by the doyenne of poetry mavens, Helen Vendler. Then there are the biographies—for it is a truth universally acknowledged that a poet in possession of a lofty reputation must be in need of a biography. Stevens, however, poses something of a problem to anyone seeking to take on the task of chronicling his life: as Times critic John Leonard put it in 1970,
Wallace Stevens . . . almost didn’t allow life to happen to him—at least the kind of life we romantically associate with fine poets. No illegitimacy, drugs, drunkenness, wenching, war, inversion, disease, tragedy or even travel. He was born in Reading, Pa., in 1879; went to Harvard in the fall of 1897; left for New York in 1900; failed at journalism and at law; joined an insurance company; moved with it to Hartford; eventually became its vice president, and was eulogized by its house organ on his death 15 years ago as “an outstanding attorney in the bond claim field.” His wife didn’t like his poetry.
To be sure, it’s not strictly the case that Stevens never traveled; on the contrary, he spent much of his time, during the heyday of his insurance career, on business trips to places like Omaha and Milwaukee, where he was almost always bored out of his mind. What is true is that, despite his fascination with all things European (and especially French), and although he certainly could have afforded it (at the height of the Depression, he earned the equivalent of $350,000 a year in today’s money), Stevens never once went abroad. What’s more, just to make things more challenging for a potential biographer, he didn’t publish his first poems until he was thirty-five (by the time his debut volume, Harmonium, came out, he was well into his forties), rarely hung out with other artistic and intellectual types, and even when in their company played his cards close to the vest.
In other words, it’s not a life story that cries out to be told. Nonetheless, biographers gonna biograph. So in 1983, the writer Peter Brazeau took a stab at it, compiling an “oral portrait” entitled Parts of a World, based on interviews with a number of Stevens’ surviving friends, relatives, and colleagues. Unfortunately, as I lamented at the time, the result was, to a staggering extent, a collection of testimonies to the effect that Stevens was, sure enough, “aloof,” “a loner,” “hard to get acquainted with,” “not . . . a hail-fellow-well-met person,” “always something of a stranger,” and so on. Absolutely none of the people Brazeau talked to seemed ever to have glimpsed the inner man. The same problem—among others—afflicted Joan Richardson’s more traditional-style biography, which came out in two volumes in 1986 and 1988: while dutifully furnishing a narrative of the poet’s life (padded out with plenty of speculation, period details, and poetry analysis), she proffered a protagonist who remained, in large part, every bit as much of a puzzle as many of his more esoteric poems—a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Now Paul Mariani, who’s written lives of Williams, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Hart Crane, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, has tried his hand at a one-volume biography of the man from Reading. Voilà!—same problem. Mariani has had access to Stevens’ extant diaries and letters, from which he quotes and paraphrases endlessly; rarely, however, does he step back to comment on the points his material is making or to address the questions it’s raising. For instance, it becomes eminently clear that, during the bachelor years he spent in New York after graduating from Harvard in 1900, Stevens wallowed in self-pity. But Mariani never really steps back to ask why. On the contrary, he gives every indication of believing that Stevens had good reasons to feel unfortunate—even though the particulars of the future poet’s life at the time, as dispensed by Mariani himself, suggest that he was a pretty lucky young chap: he lived in a flat on Washington Square, had jobs that paid enough to allow him to patronize good restaurants and bars, and enjoyed plenty of free time.
It’s curious: on the one hand, Stevens was constantly noticing people around him (such as a “doddering girl” with “idiot eyes” whom he espied in church) who were much worse off than he was—and whom he regarded with meticulously recorded contempt; on the other hand, he felt extremely sorry for himself, as if absolutely everyone else’s existence were richer than his, as if he weren’t getting anywhere near the life he deserved. So taken in are we by his conviction that the fates had dealt him a lousy hand that we’re thrown for a loop when, at age twenty-eight, Stevens—who at the time was working as a legal advisor for the Equitable Life Assurance Company—runs down to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss getting “the country back on its feet in the wake of the financial downturn.”
Pretty impressive. Why, then, wasn’t this level of achievement enough for him? How did he come by his sky-high expectations? To whose life was he comparing his own?
Often, on weekends during those bachelor years, Stevens wandered lonely as a cloud along the Palisades, where he sat alone for hours at a time brooding about the meaning of life, death, and the universe. Mariani exhaustively paraphrases these musings and seems to take them very seriously; yet one can’t help being reminded of Byron’s facetious account of the young Don Juan, whose unconsummated longing for Donna Julia causes him to “wander . . . by the glassy brooks,” pursuing “self-communion with his own high soul,” until he “turn[s], without perceiving his condition, / Like Coleridge, into a metaphysician.” Briefly put, Stevens, like Don Juan, was horny. If Mariani grasps this simple point, he’s mum about it. Yes, he acknowledges that Stevens was lonely. Stevens, he informs us, “had no . . . friends” during his bachelor days in New York (even though, just a few lines earlier on the same page, he’s referred to Stevens dining “with a friend”). The question is: why did Stevens spend so much time alone? Why, more specifically, didn’t he make any effort to seek out female companionship? At one point, Mariani blames “misanthropy”; at another point, alternatively, he attributes it to Stevens’ “shy, introspective nature.” But the impression given by (again) Mariani’s own evidence—although Mariani doesn’t explicitly draw this conclusion—is that Stevens’s deeply religious upbringing had made him exceedingly uptight about sex.
If Stevens the solitary bachelor was a question mark, marriage only intensified the mystery. The story goes that Stevens, upon first beholding Elsie Kachel, a Reading girl, in 1904, fell madly in love with her, and that he remained smitten with (and fiercely and chastely true to) her throughout their ensuing five-year courtship. Yet as soon as they were married, everything went straight to hell, with Elsie thereafter spending long periods in Reading with her parents and childhood friends while Stevens stayed in Manhattan. The marriage remained a failure (at best a nullity, at worst a nightmare of bitterness and acrimony), but it lasted forty-six years, until the death of the poet—who, by all indications, never seriously entertained the possibility of divorce, never took a mistress, and never (despite the ample opportunities afforded to him by countless business trips) had a one-night stand. Why was the marriage a nonstarter? Why did Stevens accept his lot so stoically? Were his physical needs so easy to control—or was something else going on? Mariani doesn’t ponder any of these questions. Eventually we gather that Elsie was an odd duck, a loner, a social misfit, who was almost certainly afflicted with some undiagnosed personality disorder; but Mariani only notes her puzzling malady in passing, as events compel him to, and never stops to look at her squarely and wonder what was wrong.
Briefly put, throughout this book, we keep wanting to know more. Granted, any veteran reader of the genre understands that some questions about some people’s lives will never be satisfactorily answered. But when that happens, one at least wants to know that the biographer recognizes that something is, indeed, missing and that he shares one’s frustration. That doesn’t happen here. When we’re told that the twenty-four-year-old Stevens—whom we’ve pegged as a reflective, well-behaved young man of his era, country, and class—“stormed out” of his parents’ home because his father was rude to Elsie and promised never “to set foot there again as long as the old man was alive” (a promise he kept), it comes as a surprise; but Mariani doesn’t pause to acknowledge and address that surprise. Later, Stevens breaks with his brother, too, for reasons that are thoroughly unclear—and Mariani just records the fact and moves on. Stevens’ changing relationship, during his young manhood, to the muscular Christian belief on which he’d been raised gets the same frustrating treatment: we gather that he underwent a complete, “Dover Beach”-scale loss of faith, but the news comes to us obliquely, in scattered paraphrases like this, which proffer a glimpse of the budding versifier in 1906:
He was tired of his lack of faith, tired of having always to question everything. . . . Did one have to accept the baffling incertitude of the human condition and the despair that ensued, or should one struggle against that and lift one’s spirit in any way one could? What was he, after all, if not some New Jersey Epicurean who took long walks and smoked and read the maxims, axioms, and adagia of Leopardi and Schopenhauer and Pascal and Rochefoucauld and call that knowledge of the world?
This excerpt—which gives us Stevens’ thoughts, but in Mariani’s words—illustrates another difficulty with this book: namely, that one is repeatedly uncertain as to where Stevens leaves off and Mariani begins. What, one wonders, has Mariani left out in this paraphrase? What has he distorted? Sometimes the problem goes deeper. About Elsie, early on: “He was bewitched by her, he admitted. Or at least by the idea of her.” Is that second sentence Mariani, or is it Stevens? In 1912, when Stevens went to Reading for his mother’s funeral, Elsie happened to be in town, but she didn’t attend the service, and he didn’t look in on her. “It was probably just as well,” writes Mariani, “for he was nearly inconsolable and would have made poor company.” Is this Mariani comment- ing, or Mariani paraphrasing? It’s impossible to tell. A year or so later, Elsie expressed a desire to have a baby, but Stevens demurred. “A baby grand was one thing,” writes Mariani. “A grand baby was another.” Is this Stevens’ joke or Mariani’s? (Later, Stevens and Elsie did have a daughter, Holly.)
Then there’s the issue of bigotry. The title of one of Stevens’s most famous poems, published in 1935, was “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” and even at the time this caused shock and disgust among many of his fellow poets. In 1986, I wrote that Stevens was “as full of the prejudices of his time as anyone else.” But the evidence adduced by Mariani reveals a harsher, stranger, and more profoundly rooted intolerance than this formulation suggests. During World War I, for example, Stevens spotted a few dozen black soldiers on a train, heading off to fight for their country, and his first reaction was to view them as “absurd animals.” In 1935, when Mussolini conquered Ethiopia, Stevens opined that the Italians had “as much right to take Ethiopia from the coons as the coons had to take it from the boa-constrictors.” One comes away from this book convinced that his racism, far from being unreflecting, was something to which he’d given a lot of thought—that it was a defining aspect of him.
In a curious way, as it happens, this racial bias ties in with the whole question of his aloofness. For while Stevens the young New York bachelor may have had few if any close pals, and Stevens the Hartford insurance man of later years kept a firm distance from his fellow poets and Hartford colleagues, the middle-aged Stevens did find one social circle in which he could let down his guard. It was a veritable club, consisting entirely of privileged white Southern men whose company Stevens enjoyed immensely. At every opportunity, over a period of many years, he traveled south (usually to Key West or Miami) to spend days at a time with these self-styled “Good Ol’ Boys,” hunting and fishing, eating steaks, throwing back whiskeys, and swapping ribald stories and jokes. This, plainly, was Stevens’ idea of a great time.
At the center of this group of backslapping buddies was an Atlanta judge by the name of Arthur G. Powell. It was he who had first spoken the words “like decorations in a nigger ceremony,” thus supplying Stevens with a title. I’ve always known that Stevens was chummy with this obscure Dixie jurist, but Stevens’ truly weird reactions to those black soldiers on that train and to Italy’s move on Ethiopia made me want to know more about Powell. As it happens, Powell wrote a book of memoirs, I Can Go Home Again, that was published in 1943 by the University of North Carolina Press. I found a secondhand copy for sale online and ordered it. It is a revealing document, by turns charming and (unintentionally) appalling. It shows Powell to have been a man of formidable education and abundant humor. He is gifted at spinning amusing yarns and has a good ear for dialect. He despises fascism, Communism, legalistic religion, and FDR’s New Deal and deems himself a champion of freedom, justice, and the U.S. Constitution. He also reveres the South, its culture, and its traditions, including segregation and the unequal treatment of blacks and whites—the latter of which he sees as a perhaps temporary dispensation, but the former of which he regards as a fundamental, eternal cornerstone of Southern civilization. “The day may come,” he writes, “when the Negro will attain many equalities, and these will be accorded to him as he merits them; but social segregation is a very different thing.”
Why? Because in segregation “lies the preservation of both races.” Southern culture, Powell explains, “involves an inborn sprit of noblesse oblige on the part of the whites and the frank acceptance of the status on the part of the blacks. In many respects the mind and conduct of the ordinary Negro are the mind and conduct of a child. He needs and expects from the white man understanding and protection, especially against himself.” Repeatedly, Powell professes affection and even respect for individual black people whom he has known, but he also recounts incidents that reflect his view of blacks as essentially childlike, prone to foolish and irresponsible behavior, and dependent for their well-being on the indulgence of their Caucasian betters. At one point he tells a story (which is meant to be funny) about how blacks were routinely driven out of his small Georgia hometown on Election Day to keep them from voting. Never once does he express regret for slavery; on the contrary, he serves up at least one anecdote to support his assertion that many slaves, recognizing how good they had it as chattel and how much they owed to their masters, actually scorned emancipation and remained loyal to their Old Massa even after they’d been freed by the misguided Yankees. Throughout his book, Powell not only uses words like darkey and nigger without restaint, but also pays a remarkable degree of attention to the shades of black people’s skin—this one was “chocolate-colored,” that one was “coal black,” a third was “of a dark gingercake color.”
This, then, was (almost certainly) the closest chum Stevens ever had in his whole life.
Of course, Stevens wasn’t the only great modernist poet whose cosmpolitanism, artistic sophistication, exquisite taste, appreciation for the foreign and exotic, and ability to create works of staggering and enduring beauty coexisted with mind-bogglingly crude and ugly prejudices. On the upside, at least he didn’t broadcast propaganda for Mussolini, as Ezra Pound did (although Stevens was, in fact, a big fan of Il Duce). Then again, one can’t quite imagine Pound or Eliot hanging around for long with the likes of Judge Powell. Nor, for that matter, can one imagine either of them boorishly picking a fight with Ernest Hemingway, as Stevens did during one Key West visit. (Hemingway ended up beating the stuffing out of him—which he fully deserved—and one can’t help suspecting that, for some twisted reason, that was exactly what Stevens wanted.) It’s hard not to feel that if only Stevens had been lucky in love, he wouldn’t have been so quick to hate. But that only brings us back to the unanswered question of why he was incapable of (or uninterested in?) finding love in the first place.
An unusually large percentage of Mariani’s book consists of detailed readings of individual poems. The poems being Stevens’, the readings tend to be highly redundant, because a great deal of those poems’ comprehensible and paraphrasable content comes down to the same handful of related points—about the harsh reality of human isolation, mortality, and the world’s chaos; about the human longing for order or, at least, for an illusion of order, in the face of this grim reality; about the remarkable ability of the human imagination to provide just such an illusion, or “supreme fiction,” in the form of (for example) literature, art, music, or philosophy, the finest examples of which can seem, however fleetingly, to overcome reality or, at their pinnacle, can even appear to create the only true reality. (“[F]inal belief,” Stevens wrote in “Asides on the Oboe,” “Must be in a fiction.”) But while the critical analysis of Stevens’ poems can get very tedious very fast, the poems themselves never feel repetitious, because they are, quite simply, magical. He repeatedly takes on the same topics, but each time he approaches them from a somewhat different direction, his language always masterfully fresh, his ideas consistently articulated in magnificently new and vivid ways, his argument about the supremacy of imagination invariably expressed by means of striking images drawn from the real, concrete world. Stevens put it this way in “The Idea of Order at Key West”:
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
I’ve quoted Byron’s witty lines about the libidinous Don Juan “turn[ing] . . . Like Coleridge, into a metaphysician.” Stevens himself was, needless to say, solidly in the tradition of the Kubla Khan author; “like Coleridge,” as I wrote thirty years ago, “he was both brilliant and unsystematic, at times inconsistent in his terminology, never proceeding from theory but always from feeling.” Other obvious influences include the Aesthetes and the Symbolists. Mariani adds one more model: Donald Evans (1884–1921), a now-forgotten Greenwich Village bohemian and acquaintance of Stevens’ whose poems—which, in Mariani’s words, tendered “a Wildean breath of fresh air mixed with prickly sachet scents”—patently helped shape Stevens’s mature voice. Here are some characteristic lines from Evans’s “Dinner at the Hotel de la Tigresse Verte”:
As they sat sipping their glasses in the courtyard
of the Hotel de la Tigresse Verte,
With their silk-swathed ankles softly kissing,
They were certain that they had forever
Imprisoned fickleness in the vodka . . .
The woman pressed her chicken-skin fan against her breast
And through her ran trepidant mutinies of desire
With treacheries of emotion . . . .
From this, it’s not terribly far to the arcane diction, luscious cadences, sophisticated Continental atmosphere, and fondness for French titles found in the mature Stevens.
We began with Frost and Williams. Of Stevens’ contemporaries, it was these two, above all, with whom he felt competitive, setting his preoccupation with the abstract up against their firm embrace of reality, of what Williams called “no ideas but in things.” But it was Marianne Moore to whom Stevens felt a real “kinship,” as he put it—which is scarcely a surprise, given that Moore, like him, had worked up her own rich, fastidious private language in poems that often resisted interpretation. (This, Stevens argued, was what good poetry should do.) As Mariani reminds us, it was, of all people, Williams—whose aggressive lifelong struggle to cultivate a plain, unreflective, “anti-poetic,” contemporary-sounding, patently New World voice continues to influence American poetry far more than Stevens ever did—who pointed out that, in the last analysis, readers are drawn to Stevens’ work not by his ideas but by the beauty of the language in which he expresses them; by, that is, the sheer music of his lines. It is, alas, a species of music that Williams himself fought against successfully—and that is, largely as a result of that effort, notable in most of the American poetry of our own day only by its near-total absence. Paradoxical though it may seem, in short, Stevens, while widely recognized as the greatest of them all, has not had anywhere near the impact on his successors that his inferiors did—which goes a long way toward explaining why American poetry today is so much less than it was, and than it might be.