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Friday, October 1, 2010

Wallace Stevens: on his birthday enjoy his walk and his words but watch out for his fist

Wallace Stevens worked by day as a lawyer for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company of Connecticut and often composed his poems as he walked to and from work. In 1998 the Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens created the Wallace Stevens Walk with thirteen granite markers along the 2.4 miles of his daily regimen. Each slab is inscribed with a stanza from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” one of his best-known poems. Each year on his birthday, October 2, fans of his poetry gather to enjoy the walk. A gala Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash will occur on November 6 this year, with a talk by Stevens biographer Joan Richardson. Connecticut Museum Quest offers a helpful (and sometimes witty) commentary on the walk and where to find each marker.

Photo: Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens
The marker in front of 118 Westerly Terrace (left), Stevens’s home, displays the thirteenth stanza:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar limbs.
Winter imagery recurs in Stevens’s poetry and is usually forbidding. Helen Vendler has noted how jarring it is to find among the many comic poems in Harmonium, Stevens’s first book, “The Snow Man,” one of the saddest. It ends with the lines:
For the listener, who listens in the snow
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Vendler remarks the poet’s many contradictions:
Stevens’s poetry oscillates, throughout his life, between verbal ebullience and New England spareness, between the high rhetoric of England (and of religion) and the “plain sense of things” that he sometimes felt to be more American (and more faithful to reality). He would swear off one, then swear off the other, but each was a part of his sensibility. It became a matter of conscience to him to be European and American, to relish the sensual world and yet be true to its desolations. . . very few [other poets] possessed Stevens’s intuitive sense of both the intimate and the sublime, articulated in verse of unprecedented invention, phrased in a marked style we now call “Stevensian” (as we would say “Keatsian” or “Yeatsian”).
Stevens annually fled Connecticut winters for the warm, lush climes of Key West. The tropical locale inspired some of his most celebrated poems, most notably “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Littoral, the blog of the Key West Literary Seminar, recently posted about the pivotal influence Key West had on Stevens’s poetry. It also includes a link to an account of one of his most embarrassing moments: his fistfight with Ernest Hemingway as recounted by Hemingway in a letter to Sara Murphy (including the injunction: “don’t tell anybody ... because otherwise I am a bastard to write it.”). Stevens broke his hand on Hemingway’s jaw and apologized a few days later. Six year later, Stevens even recommended Hemingway as one of the speakers for a series of lectures on poetry at Princeton. “Most people don’t think of Hemingway as a poet,” he wrote to a friend, “but obviously he is a poet and I should say, offhand, the most significant of living poets.”

Related LOA works: Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose

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