The Amassing Harmony: Wallace Stevens and the Life of the Imagination
by Peter Marshall
The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens,
by Paul Mariani,
Simon & Schuster, 512 pp.
While writing poems that would earn him a place beside such 20th-century giants as Yeats, Rilke and Neruda, Wallace Stevens lived, for the most part, the life of the neighbor you would probably avoid and never know beyond uncomfortable hellos and talks about the weather. He was reticent, worked at an insurance company, vacationed in Florida, and was one half of a wholly unhappy marriage. But beneath this mundane life was another life, one of a formidable imagination that took its form in some of the most sublime poetry any American has produced. In his new biography of Wallace Stevens, The Whole Harmonium, Paul Mariani – who has written biographies on the broken poetic vessels of Hart Crane, John Berryman and Robert Lowell, as well as the rather ordinary life of William Carlos Williams – attempts to give us a picture of both Stevens’ poetry and the man behind the poetry. This cannot be an easy task. Though we have Stevens’ poems and letters, along with shelves of scholarship and criticism, there is little material to flesh out the life that brought forth such extraordinary works of imagination, something that is all too evident in this biography.
The second of five children, Stevens was born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania. He studied at Harvard, where his father’s admonitions to make connections and prepare to climb the ladder of the legal or business world collided with Stevens’ desire to write poetry and explore the humanistic traditions. After graduation, Stevens moved to New York City, eager to try his hand as a journalist. The ambitions Stevens pursued quickly withered. Lonely, despondent and generally unhappy, he, as so many intelligent and creative young people still do, set aside his dreams and enrolled in Law School.
By the time he passed the New York Bar, Stevens was courting his future wife, Elsie Kachel, also from his hometown of Reading. His father disapproved of his plans to marry this shy, awkward girl from the wrong side of the tracks. In response, Stevens severed his ties with his parents. Neither attended the wedding. Stevens would never again see his father, and would only see his mother again when she was on her deathbed.
Except that it was not a happy one, the particular circumstances of Stevens’ marriage are vague. Elsie was not his intellectual equal and she disapproved of his drinking. Both seem to have been quickly disenchanted with one another, and like many courtships that begin with a bang, their relationship resolved into a whimper that lasted decades.
Apart from a handful of poems that appeared in student magazines at Harvard, Stevens didn’t publish anything until he was 34. His first book, Harmonium, didn’t appear until he was 43. After the publication of Harmonium he went silent. For years, despite requests from editors and other poets to show them new poetry, Stevens didn’t write anything. He settled in Hartford, Connecticut, raising a daughter and working for an insurance firm where he embodying the severe work ethic his father instilled in him, it would seem that the practical concerns that had dogged Stevens since he was young, finally became his reality.
Eventually, he returned to poetry. The more he published, the more his reputation grew. He won awards, major universities invited him to speak but he never became an academic or professional poet. Instead he led a life of apparent contrasts: a poet in the off-hours and the vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company during the day.
Though he didn’t see anything terribly contradictory about being a businessman and a poet, Stevens’ life, on the surface at least, appeared to play out a theme he often dwelled on: the divide between reality and imagination. His poetry frequently pairs such opposites as the sun and the moon, red and blue, the fecund soil of Florida and the barren cold of New England, and so forth.
Despite their presence in his poems, Stevens was uneasy with these terms that so neatly divided the world. Dichotomies appear in his poetry as partial remnants of the Romantic tradition he inherited. He plays with these simple binaries, showing how they are old words and old definitions that cannot capture the dynamic experience of being in the world. What he seeks throughout his work is a new fiction, a new mode of poetic expression that climbs over these categories and compartments in order to reveal a fresh sense of life. He gives voice to this quest in the resolution of his mid-career poem, “The Man with a Blue Guitar:”
Throw away the lights, the definitions
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use rotted names.
How should you walk in the space and know
Nothing of the madness of space,
Nothing of its jocular procreations?
Throw the lights away.
The imagination is both creative and destructive. It throws out the debris of the old, that it might fashion a new form from the madness of experience. In these lines the poet must set out to not merely discover a novel expression, but create a poetry that goes beyond the passive words and tired clichés we use to understand our world, that is, create a poem that encompasses a new way of being in the world. This is wildly ambitious project, even for a vocation that attracts ambition, and Stevens knows it. He never believes himself to be capable of completing such a task. Instead, he assumes the role of a student, a novitiate who must begin to learn how to speak and make a way in the world without relying on the words and myths of the past. He seems to be always preparing for a quest, setting out to embrace contradictions –possibility and despair, growth and decline, the insurance business and poetry, imagination and reality – in order to create and harmonize a fresh vision of the world.
Mariani’s biography folds Stevens’ poetry in with his daily life. He amply quotes and summarizes the major poems as though they were the casual events that made up Stevens’ world, not unlike going to dinner or talking with a friend. The poems unfold as a platform for both thinking and feeling, a means to navigate the political and artistic debates of the age. But if we see how Stevens lived through his poems, we do not get a picture of the plain life that was lived apart from the poems.
The great shortcoming of this biography is that Mariani is too responsible of a biographer. He rarely builds beyond the written record and does little to plump out the research material he uses. The result is a very thin recounting of Stevens’ life. The book is essentially a chronological summary Stevens’ letters, poems and essays and reads very much like a draft of a manuscript, the written scaffolding around the poet’s life.
Every biographer must make an Icarian flight between facts and commentary, between objective distance and personal involvement with their subject. The art of turning the events, testimonies and records of a life into a narrative arch is not without a touch of fiction: Some imagination is needed to bring a sense of life to the person found on paper. Lacking this touch, Mariani’s biography leaves Stevens hidden in its pages.
Appropriate enough. Throughout his poetry, Stevens maintains a veiled presence, thickly disguised, elusive to us as he was to himself. The substance of who he was, like the nature of the reality in which he lived, is shaken by the uncanny transformations that run through so many of his poems. Stevens left faint fingerprints on his work, and occasionally, in the mere outlines of a memory, he is seen returning to youthful moments of self-creation, immersed in a freedom that has faded into a myth of the self:
It is an illusion that we were ever alive
Lived in the houses of mothers, arranged ourselves
By our own motions in a freedom of air.
Stevens keenly sought the origins of his own personal myth. His “belief in an immaculate beginning” as he puts it in his long poem, “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” reaches back to a time before we breathed, to “a myth before the myth began.” In the early 1940s, Stevens, who had severed ties with his parents and avoided his siblings, became increasingly concerned with his ancestry. He returned to his hometown to pour over genealogical records to trace the movements of his Dutch forefathers and applied for membership in the Holland Society of New York, to which he was denied. It’s not clear why he invested so much time and interest in his origins. The dead, Mariani suggests, “seemed far more capable of being shaped according to one’s imagination,” and so “he searched for the inhabitants of his imaginary Eden.”
But for Stevens, his belief in an innocent earth, the Eden in his mind, was never completely imaginary. The holiness of life, and all the imaginative possibilities that arise from mere being, has its source in experience, in what he calls, “times of inherent excellence.” Cousins to Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” these are moments when we awaken to a sense harmony between the world and ourselves, when all things seem right, perfect as they are. Poetry arises because these heightened moments of perception, our brief experience of Eden, must be lost.
From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days
This is a common story: Sunsets fade, love diminishes and time makes the most intoxicating treasures stale. Time brings to an end all illusions, and even the most powerful imagination is unable to transcend its natural passage. Disappointing, yes, but this ought not to be a point of despair. In Stevens’ vision, the poet, or anyone who exerts their imagination, must be a realist who is grounded in the grit of the earth and the movement of time. Over and over the poet must begin the process of renewing their sense of the world, of seeing it as holy, with wonder and awe. This is never matter of fleeing what is, rather it is tuning oneself to the tragic notes of life:
Again, in the imagination’s new beginning,
In the yes of the realist spoken because he must
Say yes, spoken because under every no
Lay a passion for yes that had never been broken.
It’s unavoidable that we suffer. Pain poisons our perception, it creates a narrow belief that there is something inherently bad about life, but much of what we call ugly and evil – or for that matter, beautiful and good – are but parts of a story, a fiction, we live by. And we can only live by these fictions. A healthy imagination demands openness, the capacity to be surprised and jolted by a world that is too often muffled by habit and by stale ways of thinking. Saying yes, refusing to allow one’s despair to be confused as a truth of reality, is a creative freedom that begins not only with acceptance but an affirmation of the conditions we so often seek to escape. It is a matter of shuffling off the security of comfortable thoughts and stepping into a raw moment only an individual can experience. Here is the space to begin again, to encounter the world as though for the first time. From this uncertain wonder of experience, the imagination creates a new myth, a new fiction by which to live our lives.
When Stevens wrote of the individual’s capacity to create this sense of holiness where the imagination refreshes not only one’s perceptions, but transforms their very sense of being, he wrote poems that are unmatched in their ability to comfort and sanctify. Like many authors who write edifying works, I cannot help but wonder if the immense comfort so many find in his poems brought both solace and vigor to his ordinary life, or if his singular imagination only produced a desperate cry, a yearning he never realized?
We do know, that to his own disappointment, Stevens never composed a supreme fiction, a new myth that could compete with God or could provide a sense of holiness in a secular world. Near the end of his life, while he was undergoing treatment for cancer, he made the decision to be baptized and brought into the Catholic Church. In a rare instance that he allows himself to flesh out his subject’s life, Mariani speculates that in doing this, Stevens sought:
The beauty of the idea of an idealized Catholic Church, and – being a surety lawyer – he opted to sign on the dotted line at the end, perhaps to assure himself (insofar as he could assure himself of anything) that Love, Beauty, and Mercy were parts of a Supreme Fiction he could sign off on. Perhaps there was something more, since he’d been leaning towards a resolution of the aesthetic and the religious for decades now.
Stevens died several weeks later, at the age of 75, having made a new beginning with larger, established faith, though how sincere this was, we’ll never know.
What we do have are a handful of poems, written in his final decade, that seek the hidden notes to that veiled harmony between life and death. These represent his supreme efforts to embrace life’s contradictions. One of the most powerful, and most haunting, expressions of this comes in the elegy for his close friend Henry Church, “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” which ends with a vision of the dying imagination singing a final chant of holiness for all it has created and experienced:
It is a child that sings itself to sleep,
The mind, among the creatures that it makes,
The people, those by which it lives and dies.
About the Author:
Peter Marshall is a writer who currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.