on The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani (Simon & Schuster)
On August 8, 1940, Wallace Stevens wrote a letter in response to questions from Hi Simons, a publisher then compiling a Stevens bibliography: “[T]here is a kind of secrecy between the poet and his poem which, once violated, affects the integrity of the poet.”
Is it the biographer’s role to imagine and state the things that the poet should or could not say? If so, what kind(s) of language may suffice as replacement for the unsaid?
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Paul Mariani’s The Whole Harmonium narrates the whole life of Stevens as far as the facts will take him. Fittingly, the whole man eludes the biographer. This biography is about half as long as Mariani's life of William Carlos Williams, even though both lives were equally uneventful. But it is substantial and attentive enough to create an occasion for speculation about and enjoyment of Stevens’ work.
Near the end of his life, Stevens wrote a poem called “An Old Man Asleep,” the opening piece of “The Rock,” the final section of his Collected Poems. The first of three couplets begins, “The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.” Everything is divided in Stevens’ world, divisible. In his essay “Three Academic Pieces,” he writes, “Poetry is a satisfying of the desire for resemblance” between separated things. “Its singularity is that in the act of satisfying the desire for resemblance it touches the sense of reality, it enhances the sense of reality, heightens it, intensifies it.”
But he’s not finished. “Here what matters is that the intensification of the sense of reality creates a resemblance: that reality of its own is a reality.” On the rock of poetry, the world is smashed (“Poetry Is A Destructive Force,” a poem in Parts of a World, ends, “It can kill a man”). But through the poem’s “intensification,” one envisions an affinity between the fragments that adds up to a sublime thing gone. Stevens is never satisfied with expounding a mere idea or singular emotion that explains a poet’s reality. He wants us to imagine the reality of reality.
In “An Old Man Asleep,” a “dumb sense possesses” the two worlds as well as “Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot.”
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Mariani leads us toward Stevens’ whole peculiar plot – but it is wholly up to us to continue imagining the turbulent source of the sounds of these poems. One of the pleasures of The Whole Harmonium is enjoyed in hearing Stevens cajoling himself (mainly in his letters) to attend more assiduously to current events and to create space for the details of an actual world in his poems. It was a trick he played on himself to divert his stare from the one major, overweening impulse, to step aside in order to return.
The 1923 publication of Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium, occurs near the biography’s mid-point. Stevens was then 44 years old. Capably chronicling the details and movements of the life, Mariani offers nothing new to illuminate how these exceptional poems arose. Every so often, one catches a whiff of the biographer’s disdain, though his governed tonelessness keeps a lid on it. Having tracked Steven’s dismissal of his family (he kept in marginal touch with his sisters) and disapproval of their unseemly behavior, his arid marriage to Elsie, his mounting wealth and Republican affiliation (he resented the income tax), and his increasingly remote relations with writers and academia, Mariani apparently felt justified to slouch just a bit: “[F]or him, family news was such a bore. If his family had turned out to be successful millionaires, that might have made a difference. But since none of them were …” The smug ellipsis is Mariani’s.
Marianne Moore’s take on Harmonium indicted the work for “deliberate bearishness – a shadow of acrimonious, unprovoked contumely … a mind disturbed by the intangible” (in “Sunday Morning”). Yes, Stevens must have seemed ursine to the diminutive Moore (Williams said she “bemoaned that God had given her no body at all to work with”). Stevens was six-foot-two at age 18 and 225 pounds plus at mid-life. His acquaintance Carl Van Vechten had once described him as “a rogue elephant in porcelain.” In The Whole Harmonium, the critics’ remarks stand out perhaps because Mariani as gatekeeper can’t call up quite enough enthusiasm for the man or his poems. His readings of the poems throughout are prosaic, narrow, unresonant and usually too long.
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Issues of integrity aside, Stevens may have simply found it too tedious to answer Mr. Simons’ inquiry about his poems. He certainly wasn’t reticent at other times. In some letters and his few lectures and essays, he had much to say about the purpose and writing of poetry. A connoisseur of the aphorism, he could pack an entire ars poetica into a sentence (“A poet’s words are of things that do not exist without the words”) or unload a terse opinion (“Nothing in the world is deader than yesterday’s political [or realistic] poetry”).
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Stevens and Randall Jarrell met once in 1954 as judges for the Yale Bollingen Prize. Mary Jarrell, who described the encounter for Peter Brazeau’s essential oral biography of Stevens, Parts of a World, said that the two got along very well mainly “because Stevens didn’t hold Randall’s 1951 critical review of The Auroras of Autumn against him.”
This is the basis of Jarrell’s complaint:
“Stevens has the weakness – a terrible one for a poet, a steadily increasing one in Stevens – of thinking of particulars as primarily illustrations of general truths, or else as aesthetic, abstracted objects, simply there to be contemplated; he often treats things or lives so that they seem no more than generalizations of an unprecedentedly low order. But surely a poet has to treat the concrete as primary … Stevens has every gift but the dramatic. It is the lack of immediate contact with lives that hurts his poetry more than anything else.”
As a poet of situations, Jarrell exerted his gift for the dramatic scene, such as in his best known poem, “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
What could be more “concrete” or obvious proof of a poet’s empathic and “immediate contact” with others than Jarrell’s mode of expression? The final crushing line hangs under the poem like the flak-riddled glassed-in turret beneath its fuselage.
But Stevens also produced a short poem about a dying airman called “Flyer’s Fall,” included in Transport to Summer (1947):
This man escaped the dirty fates,
Knowing that he died nobly, as he died.
Darkness, nothingness of human after-death,
Receive and keep him in the deepnesses of space –
Profundum, physical thunder, dimension in which
We believe without belief, beyond belief.
Jarrell’s poem addresses the reader who cannot avoid feeling the impact of his poem, the reader who, he believes, must be tutored about brutality but who actually already thinks it’s a bad thing. In other words, the poem has obtained the reader’s approval in advance. The gunner-speaker, dozing on duty (a B-17 might fly for hours to its target), awoke to his death. Similarly, the poem’s reader is supposedly jarred into awareness by the gruesome particulars, but perhaps is merely momentarily startled.
In Stevens’ poem, there is no plane, no place from which to fall, only the endless falling. Nor is there a place to fall to. The poem, addressed to a void, dives into its own depths. Profundum, darknesses: the reach for these words encourages a regard for the poem as a strange and elevated utterance in itself (what some of Stevens’ critics called “decadence”), a gesture Jarrell disparaged in Stevens’ work because “the process is always more evident than what is being processed” …
… a charge that Stevens had leveled against the poetry of his “friend” William Carlos Williams. In a 1946 letter to José Rodriguez Feo, he wrote, “Williams is an old friend of mine. I have not read Paterson. I have the greatest respect for him, although there is the constant difficulty that he is more interested in the way of saying things than in what he has to say. The fact remains that we are always interested in what a writer has to say. When we are sure of that, we pay attention to the way in which he says it, not often before.”
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Vice President of Surety Claims, Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. A corporate officer and actuarial lawyer, known for meticulously reviewing claims against surety bonds.
Actuary: someone whose profession it is to calculate the probabilities of annihilation for a given subject, human or otherwise.
Attorney: someone paid to keep a secret while arguing before a judge.
Milton J. Bates in Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self: “Stevens legend has perpetuated a facile dichotomy between the businessman and the poet, one that should not survive a moment’s introspection. Like most of us, he was simultaneously one and many, whether on stage or off.”
In 1944, posted to London in wartime as the Greek ambassador to Britain, the poet George Seferis was eager to meet T.S. Eliot whom he visited in the latter’s bank office. Seferis complained of having two masters, poetry and diplomacy (his father had also been a diplomat). Eliot told him severely, “One must have another job. You cannot devote yourself to poetry alone, because I believe that a great part of poetic creation is unconscious and there must be times when one is occupied with other things.”
For Stevens, other things could occupy him equably for years, such as during the thirteen years between Harmonium and Ideas Of Order. And during other longish periods of quiescence. He had a muted but continuous sort of fame even after disappearing from sight for years at a time.
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Mastery of life. At times, this seems to be the singular course of action that draws Stevens’ dualities and tensions toward a center. Mariani occasionally touches on the poet’s concern for his abilities, allowing the point to simmer. In a 1945 letter to Henry Church (an American expatriate editor in Paris), Stevens said, “What is terribly lacking from life today is the well developed individual, the master of life, or the man who by his mere appearance convinces you that a mastery of life is possible.”
Stevens behaved as if he both was and wasn’t such a person. He mastered his actuarial profession and was housed and clothed in substantial materials. Earnings were sometimes converted into stylish objets and artworks or top vintage cases of Bordeaux from a wine seller in Manhattan. His annual salary exceeded $350,000 in today’s currency. One wonders if he mastered his sexuality by sublimating it, yet another mystery.
In any event, he exerted control over everything he did. It has been said his career as insurance man was carried out in service of the poetry. I don’t think so. Near the end of his life he said, “I still come to the office regularly because I like to do so and have use for the money, and I never had any other reason for doing so.” This I half-believe. The other half is the portion Stevens didn't articulate. It's what Joseph Conrad’s narrator in Heart of Darkness says: “I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not others – what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
Writing poetry as he did comprised another form of control and a mastery of language. With the Harmonium poems, he found a mode permitting him to be as brutal as a reform school principal and as shamefully glib as the class clown, the two psychic parts united, mastered. He found a resemblance between the pieces via the poems.
In 1915 at age 34, now a vice president at the Equitable Surety Company in New York and sending drafts of poems to Harriet Monroe, he told his wife that “he feared himself to be ‘an erratic and inconsequential thinker.’” Because the poems didn’t register with Elsie, her place on the org chart was assigned to an “interior paramour.” The next year, Stevens went to work for the Hartford to oversee its new surety department.
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In 2004, Christian Wiman, then editor of Poetry, pronounced at a Stevens conference, “[I]f Wallace Stevens is a master influence in fifty years, if the best poets of America look to him as an avatar of integrity and accomplishment, if their subjects are his subjects, their passions and stances ones by which we recognize him – then the break between poetry and American culture will be complete, poets will have made their final retreat from the world in which ordinary men and women live … I am in awe of him. But there is something inhuman and unrooted and remote about that genius, something that – even in the best poems, even in the poems I have by heart – I find both impenetrable and unpenetrating. All of my judgments about Stevens are colored by this.”
It continues to be difficult for our great hearts to concede, as Yeats did in 1931, that “the romantic movement, with its turbulent heroism, its self-assertion, is over, superceded by a new naturalism that leaves man helpless before the contents of his own mind.” Well, such a situation presented no difficulties to Harriet Monroe, but 75 years later one of her editorial successors was wringing his hands.
Yet as always, Stevens’ elimination of standard internal materials from his verse hobbles anyone’s standard analysis of his tone and pitch. His little poem “Flyer’s Fall” suggests the essential helplessness and helpless essentialness of imagination and belief, his singular obsession, worshipped above all other gods. On the other hand, Stevens asserted that a reader who is able to imagine an ethical ideal, a life-supporting illusion, and who is arrested by the poet’s sound, could be transported to “A hero’s world in which he is the hero” (“Montrachet-le-Jardin”). The major man who lives on the hill above the dump.
Dan Chiasson: “He was indeed a man of ‘chilling reticence,’ as Helen Vendler put it, and yet both the reticence and the wild imagination that prospered in its atmosphere registered as emotional facts.”
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Mariani tells us that “in 1940, he’d come to believe that ‘one’s final belief’ had to be found ‘in a fiction’ … This is what a new poem, called ‘Asides on the Oboe,’ was about.” The poem begins:
The prologues are over. It is a question, now,
Of final belief. So, say that final belief
Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose.
But the prologue was never exceeded; it was all there ever was. The prologue was the epilogue, and he had made his choice decades earlier. It was utterly dedicated, as one of the great poems of Harmonium is titled, “to the one of fictive music,” his best impersonal, supra-personal self.
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Mariani takes notice of many trips Stevens made to visit some church or other. "It was 'a habit of mind' with him, he told Hi Simons, always 'to be thinking of some substitute for religion." In a diffuse manner, Stevens was a soldier in the fight against evil. It was 1944, the Allies were progressing toward Berlin. He tried to spell out his cause in "Esthetique du Mal," but fortunately the poem would not be harassed into a sermon. Still, as Mariani says, "Civilization was to be measured, then, by how far poetry could go in imagining the idea of God. After all, was not the very concept of some final knowledge, some Omega point, an idea poetic in itself?"
The aesthetics, yearning to be morals, had been erected into a linguistic church that something like a god could inhabit, something like a god could have built.
Dying from esophageal cancer, Stevens returned to St. Francis Hospital on July 21, 1955 and was baptized. The following day a Father Hanley brought him communion according to the priest himself -- but the parish has no record of the baptism. Stevens died on August 2.
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The Whole Harmonium is a competent biography of a person who was a poet. But it does not believe in its subject nearly as much as the subject believed in poetry. Or perhaps Mariani doesn’t wish to betray his belief out of a commitment to academic professionalism.
“The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy,” writes Susan Howe at the outset of her essay on Stevens, “Roaming,” in The Quarry. “I owe him an incalculable debt, for ways in which, through word frequencies and zero zones, his writing locates, rescues, and delivers what is various and vargrant in the near at hand. As Emily Dickinson put it: ‘The Zeroes – taught us – Phosphorus -- / We learned to like the Fire.”
There is no appreciation of Stevens in this biography. And to appreciate Stevens, you have to (be able to) appreciate the Zeroes.
[Published April 5, 2016. 480 pages, $30.00]