Wallace Stevens: Contribution to American Literature

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      Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), was educated at Harvard College. He was unhappy with journalism though in 1901 he entered New York Law School. He was admitted to the Bar in New York in 1904. He practiced Law in New York City from 1904 to 1916, a time of great artistic and poetic activity. He got a job on the editorial staff of The New York Tribune and then, on the periodical The World’s Work. On moving to Hartford, Connecticut, to become an insurance executive in 1916, he continued writing poetry. His life is remarkable for its compartmentalization. Associates in the Insurance Company did not know that / as a major poet. In private, he continued to develop enemy complex ideas of aesthetic order throughout his life in aptly named books such as Harmonium ‘first published in 1923, (enlarged edition 1931), and Ideas of Order (1935).

      Stevens’ later collection included poems written in response to charges that he was a unconcerned with social issues. Another of his most famous poems provided the title piece of his fourth collection. The Man with the Blue Guitar and Other Poems (1937). Two further collections, Parrs of a World and Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, appeared in 1942. Esthetique du Mai in 1945 and Transport to Summer in 1942. The Auroras of Autumn was published in 1950, the year after he was awarded with Bollingen Prize. Collected Poems (1954) won Stevens a belated Pulitzer Prize. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and Imagination (1951) is a collection of essays and addresses on poetry, art, received the National Book Award. Opus Posthumous (1957) contains poems, essays and plays, many hitherto unpublished. The letters of Wallace Stevens appeared in 1966.

      Some of his best known poems are “Sunday Morning,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Stevens’s poetry dwells upon themes of the imagination, the necessity for aesthetic form and the belief that the order of art corresponds with an order in nature. His poetic vocabulary is rich and various. He paints lush tropical scenes but also manages dry, humorous, and ironic vignettes. Other poems draw upon popular culture while others poke fun at sophisticated society or soar into and intellectual heaven. He is known for his exuberant word play: “Soon, with a noise like tambourines / Came her attendant Byzantines.” Stevens’s work is full of surprising insights.

      Sometimes, he plays tricks on the reader, as in Disillusionment of Ten o’Clock (1931):

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings
Or green with bellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded centuries.
Catches tigers
In red weather.

      This poem seems to complain about unimaginative lives (plain white nightgowns) but actually conjures up vivid images in the reader’s mind. At the end, an drunken sailor, oblivious to the proprieties, does “catch tigers” - at least in his dream. The poem shows that the human imagination - of a reader or a sailor always finds a creative outlet.

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