When I was an undergraduate student writing the initial poems I would eventually see in publications, Robert Bly visited my university for a reading. After his presentation a few classmates and I had an opportunity for a conversation with Bly, and I asked about how to proceed and to progress as a poet. One of the first well-known authors I had met, Bly responded with friendliness and frankness, encouraging me and the other new young poets in my class but recommending more careful readings of some figures from the past. Indeed, Bly offered one main piece of advice: he urged all to read Wallace Stevens’s premiere poetry collection, Harmonium, and then return to read it again and again . . each time more closely than before.
Even though I already admired Wallace Stevens and felt familiar with Harmonium, I followed Bly’s suggestion and revisited Stevens’s book. Eager to learn as much as possible, I discovered a renewed and greater appreciation for Stevens and his poetry, as well as an increased understanding of the innovative ways one might play with language and the line in poetry.
The Academy of American Poets includes the following comments among those on its web page devoted to the collection, “Groundbreaking Book: Harmonium by Wallace Stevens (1923).”
Now considered one of the great contributions to Modernism, Harmonium was not fully recognized until the last years of Stevens’s life when a volume of his collected poems was published. Harmonium is also unusual in being entirely lyric rather than narrative, a mix of pure, rational, philosophical thought, and imaginary nonsense-verse.
Harmonium’s great strength is in its diversity. Some of its famous short lyric poems, full of imaginative detail and attention to sound, include “Bantams in Pine-Woods,” “Anecdote of the Jar,” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” which are notable for their imagistic intensity and unusual turns of phrase and logic. “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” and “Sunday Morning” are longer, more philosophical, and perhaps autobiographical poems that carry the weight and importance of epic poetry without leaving lyric territory. Perhaps the most famous poem in the collection is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which takes cues from the haiku tradition.
Critics Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, among others, have chronicled the important influence of Wallace Stevens on many modern and contemporary poets. Indeed, the roster of poets who admit owing much to Stevens for the direction taken in their own poetry would include names too numerous to list. Although the content or tone of my own poetry usually does not markedly resemble the characteristics normally associated with Wallace Stevens, ever since that conversation with Robert Bly so many years ago, I too have felt a subtle influence of Stevens has assisted me in shaping the lines in my poems and emphasizing the lyricism in their language. One recent example of my poetry, “Invoking a Line by Wallace Stevens,” included an obvious nod of recognition and a signal of respect aimed at Stevens. Consequently, The Wallace Stevens Journal was the first journal in which I sought to place the poem for publication. Fortunately, I was honored by an acceptance, and I was pleased to see the poem appear in a location devoted to honoring the great poet.
Wallace Stevens was born on this date (October 2) in 1879. Therefore, noting my own gratitude to Stevens for the guidance his poetry displayed and for the continuing connection to his work I have felt from the time I began writing poetry, I thought today would be an appropriate moment to revisit this poem and again acknowledge indebtedness.
INVOKING A LINE BY WALLACE STEVENS
. . . the seeming of a summer day . . . .
—WALLACE STEVENS, “Description Without Place”
Just before dusk, the parched men and women
begin drinking gin-and-tonics as they sit on porches
with white wicker chairs and ornamental planters
still filled with wiry stalks of withered annuals.
Every evening, under the constant hum of insects
and buzz or crackle of a bug lamp, their conversations
chronicle another summer drought. They speak
about scenes that seem evidence of timelessness,
indifference, or rather more distressing, loss:
how for weeks even a screen of storm clouds
could not cool the hot contours of those two lanes
curving through this blistered countryside; how
for many mornings smoke drifting from brush
fires blotted the distant sky; how otherwise each noon
horizon disappeared in glare like a bleached absence
dotting the view on an overexposed photograph;
how by late afternoon a mirage of heat ripples
would waver over bare asphalt at the drive-in diner;
or simply how the air was often empty of chirping
birds that now stayed quiet all day as they perched
in patches of cross-hatch darkness under shade trees.
Additionally, on this day I urge readers to listen to Wallace Stevens reading his work by visiting the Academy of American Poets web page containing audio of the poet reading “The Idea of Order at Key West”:
THE IDEA OF ORDER AT KEY WEST
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard.
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
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.
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
[“Invoking a Line by Wallace Stevens” first appeared in The Wallace Stevens Journal and will be included among the poems in Seeded Light, my forthcoming collection from Turning Point Books.]