In 1954, at the behest of Alfred A. Knopf, Wallace Stevens gathered his seven books of poetry into a single volume. The Collected Poems was full of typos, chance misprints, and inconsistencies of spelling and punctuation, and has remained that way in half a century’s worth of subsequent printings. Vintage Books has now published a corrected edition, albeit only in paperback. The editors, John N. Seriro and Chris Beyers, have done exemplary work, drawing upon manuscripts, Stevens’s amended galleys, correspondence, and common sense. Missing section numbers are supplied, misspellings ("scrurry") are emended; occasionally words are replaced or inserted.
Till now I hadn’t realized what a lot of nonsense Stevens wrote. The established image of him as a rather grand Connecticut WASP—among other things he once turned down a full professorship at Harvard because the salary offered to him was chicken feed in comparison with what he was making as vice president of The Hartford—walking in a discreetly expensive suit to the office, his ears ringing with visions of "pale Ramon" and "the genius of the sea," wistful, agnostic, anti-Communist, summering at Key West where his skin and his soul could breathe a bit, full of gravely judicious opinions about the Nature of Art, precludes our refusing to take him seriously all the time. It shouldn’t.
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Typical of Stevens at his worst, by which I mean his most frivolous, is "In the Carolinas":
The lilacs wither in the Carolinas.
Already the butterflies flutter above the cabins.
Already the new-born children interpret love
In the voices of mothers.
How is it that your aspic nipples
For once vent honey?
The pine-tree sweetens my body
The white iris beautifies me.
There is something almost mean spirited in Stevens’s insistence on moving from sense to nonsense to, arguably, obscenity in so few lines. Who, exactly, is comparing these moms’ breasts to Jell-O salad and asking them why the taste of their milk has improved lately—the babies or the speaker? Why do non-deciduous trees give our boy such a lift? Why do the flowers make him feel so pretty? If you caught a husky man in a coat and tie reciting the above to himself in an elevator, how long would it take before you reached for the open-door button?
Consider something widely anthologized like "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." "A man and a woman / Are one," we are told, which is fair enough, I suppose, at least in a certain context, before being assured that "A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one." They aren’t, in fact. We hear much the same thing later in "Sketch of the Ultimate Politician":
He is the final builder of the total building,
The final dreamer of the total dream,
Or will be. Building and dream are one.
Stevens’s work is full of these nauseating little kōans and esoteric tidbits and occasional forays into outright gibberish:
The milkman came in the moonlight and the moonlight
Was less than moonlight…
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice.
The rocks of the cliffs are the heads of dogs
That turn into fishes and leap
Into the sea.
The wound kills that does not bleed.
Unsnack your snood, madanna, for the stars
Are shining on all brows of Neversink.
The romance of the precise is not the elision
Of the tired romance of imprecision.
There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
It is like the season when, after summer,
It is summer and it is not, it is autumn
And it is not, it is day, and it is not…
"What is it like, Wallace?" you want to say, shaking him.
While Stevens had a magnificent ear, perhaps the best of any American poet of the last century, he was frequently and at times even intentionally myopic. "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," another favorite of anthologists, lends itself so well to memorization, but try reading it slowly and carefully: "wenches … in such dress as / As they are used to wear," "last month’s newspapers"; "the dresser of deal, / Lacking the three glass knobs"—Stevens isn’t seeing anything here, much less sharing it with us. He’s just laughing at poor people, or rather, at his idea of what poor people might be like, if he knew any: cheap tobacco and homemade custard, thrift (even recycling!), broken-down furniture, handricrafts, etc. Not very amusing. And so on we go through the oeuvre full of Ivy League parlor French, baroque vocabulary ("catarrhs," "girandoles," "Paphian," "bedizened," "radiantiana"), cringe-inducing alliteration ("chilly chariots," "gaunt guitarists," "like a rose rabbi"), whimsical titles with the flavor of a private joke ("Le Monocle de Mon Oncle"), wincing and grimacing and, far too often, laughing aloud when the author almost certainly wants us to be wearing straight faces.
Auden writes somewhere that Tennyson had "the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest." Stevens was, if anything, too smart for his own good. Readers of his essays and correspondence know that he thought at length about the essence and purpose of poetry. Stevens was an Emersonian mystic for whom poetry was a substitute, and a fit one, for belief in God, which, for reasons he was usually vague about, was impossible for those of us living in the 20th century. The highest life to which man could aspire was one of exhaustive, all-consuming self invention. Like Eliot, he wrote the poems that fit his own extensive critical criteria to a T. I underlined the word "self" 46 times in my copy of the new Collected Poems.
Don’t misunderstand. There are many fine, even immortal things in this collection. "Sunday Morning" is, along with "Dover Beach" and In Memoriam, one of the best poems ever written about the difficulties of religious belief. Whatever anagogic narcissism lies at its center, "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" is intoxicating every time I recite it, as I did to the mutual embarrassment of myself and a junior colleague the other day in the lobby of my office. Stevens does not quite win the battle for clarity in "The Idea of Order at Key West." I have no idea who the sea girl is—or have I?
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.
The Collected Poems would be more impressive if it were a quarter the size, something which is true of similar volumes representing very nearly every poet in our language. Textual critics, whose work has nothing to do with aesthetics, and biographers need access to a poet’s entire corpus; but a well-portioned, thoughtful selection is nearly always the best public face.
One might have expected an editorial apparatus outlining all the changes made in this new edition. It is strange, too, that there is no first-line index. And it almost certainly ought to have appeared in hardcover with a stern photograph of Stevens on the front of the dustjacket. Still, it is impossible not to recommend this collection to any lover of poetry.