Monday, October 4, 2010

Happy Birthday, Wallace Stevens

Or, rather, happy belated birthday, as he was born October 2, 1879.

In the picture above, he looks unnatural to me, matched against the image of him in my head; perhaps he's reacting to someone slamming a door on their fingers, or daydreaming about Elsie drowning in the bathtub. He was, by all accounts, not a pleasant fellow. It requires a rare bird to drunkenly accost Robert Frost, as Stevens did in 1935.

In 1936, another drunken encounter with a writer resulted in a broken hand. In Hemingway's words:

"Nice Mr. Stevens. This year he came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, 'All right, that's the third time we've had enough of Mr. Stevens.' So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door haveing just said, I learned later, 'By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I'd knock him out with a single punch.'

"So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn't harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn't tell this to anybody.

"Anyway last night Mr. Stevens comes over to make up and we are made up. But on mature reflection I don't know anybody needed to be hit worse than Mr. S. Was very pleased last night to see how large Mr. Stevens was and am sure that if I had had a good look at him before it all started would not have felt up to hitting him. But can assure you that there is no one like Mr. Stevens to go down in a spectacular fashion especially into a large puddle of water in the street in front of your old Waddel Street home where all took place. ... I think he is really one of those mirror fighters who swells his muscles and practices lethal punches in the bathroom while he hates his betters."

(His betters, indeed. What a pompous asshole)

The reason he says, at the end of the second paragraph, that "you musn't tell anyone" is because he promised to tell no one, because of Steven's fears of damage to his reputation as an insurance man. Hemingway, of course, proceeded to tell damn near everyone, though to his credit I don't believe he sold the film rights, or bought any billboards. Hemingway does sound pleased with himself in the telling, doesn't he? He neglects to mention that Stevens was very drunk, about fifty pounds overweight, and 59 fucking years-old (Hemingway was 36).

It is a revealing story, really, about each man. Hemingway was a sadist and a bully, and very, very impressed with himself. Stevens may have shared these characteristics—he certainly shared the latter one—yet had not achieved the same level of acclaim. He would, of course, in future years, for certainly his reputation has increased, and continues to, while Hemingway's has diminished, and then sort of levelled off. The argument can certainly be made—and I hold to it—that Stevens was a greater Poet than Hemingway was a novelist. Both had and have great influence, but I believe Stevens' work to be more valuable.

I don't hold, though, with Stevens' rather existentialist ideas about God, nor with his puzzlement over the tension between reality and the imagination, although I admit his conception of supreme fiction is sometimes tantalizing. Certainly, I am enthralled by fictive music, as he has described it—yet I am not troubled to be grounded, too, in that which my imagination cannot yet apprehend. Yet while I disagree fundamentally with his conclusion, the machinery by which he concludes it fascinates and instructs, and somehow, inevitably, unburdens me from those fictions that hector, and worry, and even deaden my imagination. By navigating him, I more easily navigate myself, and that is a valuable thing.

As I tell anyone who does not read Stevens, give him a chance—give yourself over, and see where it leads. He is a poet of uncommon power and music, who has given me solace and sustenance in innumerable ways. He is one of my poets.

Peter Quince at Clavier is my favorite of his poems. If you have the opportunity, speak this poem aloud, as you read it—engage it with your senses.

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna;

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.

Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.

She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.

A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned —
A cymbal crashed,
Amid roaring horns.

Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.

They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;

And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.

Anon, their lamps' uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.

And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.

Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden's choral.

Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death's ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

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