Thursday, December 13, 2007

My Favorite Poet

Wallace Stevens is my favorite poet. To me all the poets who came before seem like his ancestors, and all the poets coming after seem like decendents: I'm sure it's not accurate, but I pretty much see all of poetry coming through the small window that is Wallace Stevens.

What a strange fellow! He worked most of his life for an insurance company, and even turned down a position teaching at Harvard because he didn't want to leave his company. In pictures he looks like my grandfather: grumpy and conservative. But his poems reveal a boundless imagination. He was more inventive and radical than the most radical bohemian. He wrote most of his best work after he turned fifty.

In 1993 I somehow got a copy of The Palm at the End of the Mind. For a long time the poems seemed impenetrable, but the titles alone made me think it had to be a great book.

Anatomy of Monotony
Evening Without Angels
Ghosts as Cocoons
Loneliness in Jersey City
Anything is Beautiful if You Say It Is
A Weak Mind in the Mountains
A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts
Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas
Oak Leaves are Hands
Man Carrying Thing
Someone Puts a Pineapple Together
The Planet on the Table

I didn't, and don't, get all of his poems. I took a class on his work in grad school but dropped it: it was too hard, and it wasn't helping me like the poems any more than I already did. But if I don't get them, why do I even like them?

I think I like the way he moves from images to ideas, and then back to images, and then moves into sounds. Okay, that's an intellectualization of the reason. But it is sort of true: his images are not just images. They're ideas and sounds, too.


The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Reading Stevens I feel frozen up parts of my mind breaking away, shifting, and thawing.

Anyway, I highly recommend reading a little WS to anyone who has a mind of winter these days.


jrlennon said...

You neglect to mention that we had him read at our wedding..."this, then, is the intensest rendezvous."

rmellis said...

Yeah, but I don't think WS would have liked that. He didn't mean a literal rendezvous people!

But it was a trip to hear my brother-in-law reading a Stevens poem.

ed said...

A mind of winter, but in some climes only the auroras of autumn.

TIV: the individual voice said...

Images, ideas and sounds alternating back and forth and overlapping. This poem is exactly as you described it and it reminds me of a short fiction by Lydia Davis called To Reiterate in "Almost No Memory" that I'm planning to review soon on my blog. There is that same shifting-sand-underfoot feeling you get when a really good hypnotist talks you into a deep trance which is why you feel so opened up. I am going to read Wallace Stevens now. Thank you so much for this great introduction.

TIV: the individual voice said...

Oh, and that he refused to give up his job for an insurance company to teach at Harvard? Priceless. Totally endears him to me already. What's with insurance companies and great writers? Kafka loved his job too. I worked for an HMO of an insurance company for years. They are certainly arenas of controlled deviance and mindlessness. But full of writers?

Lee's River/Zlatovyek said... know how these things happen: you keep bumping into a name on one of your favorite blogs (tiv's) and finally decide to follow up the link. Am I glad I did! Definitely coming back.


moonlight ambulette said...

Great poem and great post. I love Wallace Stevens! I think I like poetry that I don't fully get or just barely get or that takes me a while to get -- it's so much more interesting that way. If you fully get it immediately then what's the point, almost?

jrlennon said...

Hey lee's river etc., welcome aboard! Do come back.

Lee's River/Zlatovyek said...

thanks, as a matter of fact, I'm linking up to you guys up over at my place as of now.

RG said...

This is a lovely poem. Thanks for sharing!

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