Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

    Contributing Editor:
    Linda W. Wagner-Martin

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    The sheer difficulty of apprehending meaning from some of Stevens's poems turns many students away. Yet Stevens is one of the most apt voices to speak about the perfection, and the perfectibility, of the poem-- the supreme fiction in the writer's, and the reader's, lives. If students can read Stevens's poems well, they will probably be able to read anything in the text.

    The elusiveness of meaning is one key difficulty: Stevens's valiant attempts to avoid paraphrase, to lose himself in brilliant language, to slide into repetition and assonantal patterns without warning. His work demands complete concentration, and complete sympathy, from his readers. Most students cannot give poetry either of these tributes without some preparation.

    Close reading, usually aloud, helps. The well-known Stevens language magic has to be experienced, and since the poems are difficult, asking students to work on them alone, in isolation, is not the best tactic. Beginning with the poems by Stevens might make reading T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams much easier, so I would make this selection central to the study of modern American poetry.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The value of poetry (and all art); the accessibility of great moral, and mortal, themes through language; the impenetrability of most human relationships; the evanescence of formalized belief systems, including religion; the frustration of imperfection; and others. Stevens often builds from historical and/or philosophical knowledge, expecting "fact" to serve as counterpoint for his readers' more imaginative exploits. But this technique is not meant to lead to easy or facile explication. It is a way of contrasting the predictable and the truly valuable, the imaginary.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Stevens's intricate stanza and rhyme patterns are a school of poetry in themselves, and each of his poems should be studied as a crafted object. His work fits well with that of T. S. Eliot, as does some of his aesthetic rationale: "Poetry is not personal." "The real is only the base. But it is the base." "In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all." "Poetry must be irrational." "The purpose of poetry is to make life complete in itself." "Poetry increases the feeling for reality." "In the absence of a belief in God, the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, not alone from the aesthetic point of view, but for what they reveal, for what they validate and invalidate."

    Original Audience

    Modernism was so specific a mood and time that students must understand the modernists' rage for control of craft, the emphasis on the formalism of the way an art object was formed, and the importance craft held for all parts of the artist's life. Once those conventions are described, and Stevens placed in this period, his own distinctions from the group of modernists will be clearer. ("Not all objects are equal. The vice of imagism was that it did not recognize this." "A change of style is a change of subject." "In the long run the truth does not matter.") Conscious of all the elements of form, Stevens yet overlays his work with a heavily philosophical intention, and the shelves of commentary on his poetry have been occasioned because that commentary is, in many cases, useful.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    The T. S. Eliot of the Four Quartets (likenesses) or the William Carlos Williams of the short poems (differences).