Wallace Stevens, New York Times obituary August 3, 1955
Wallace Stevens, Noted Poet, Dead
Special to The New York Times Hartford, August 2 — Wallace Stevens, vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry this year, died in St. Francis Hospital today. He was 75 years old.
Mr. Stevens joined the local insurance company in 1916 as head of the Surety Claims Department. He was named a vice president in 1934. He also was a vice president of the Hartford Livestock Insurance Company. A native of Reading, Pa., Mr. Stevens attended Harvard and received a law degree from New York Law School. He is survived by his widow, Mrs. Elsie V. Kachel Stevens, and a daughter, Miss Holly B. Stevens, also of Hartford.
His Work Reviewed
Wallace Stevens was a weaver whose threads were words. He spun webs to trap his moods. “Hence, unpleasant as it is to record such a conclusion, the very remarkable work of Wallace Stevens cannot endure,” wrote Percy Hutchison, the late poetry editor of The New York Times. Mr. Hutchison had just reviewed the new edition of the poet’s “Harmonium.” That was in 1931, eight years after the volume first appeared. The poetry editor described the poems as closest to pure poetry. He explained that such works depended for their effectiveness on the rhythms and tonal values of words used with only the remotest link to ideational content. He remarked that the poems were “stunts” in which rhythms, vowels and consonants were substituted for musical notes. But this achievement is not poetry, Mr. Hutchison said before adding: “From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion.”
Yet Mr. Stevens would not compromise with the imagination that in his poems was reality. He was 44 years old when “Harmonium,” his first book, was published in 1923. It contained the four poems that appeared in a special 1914 wartime number of Poetry Magazine. He had begun writing poems upon his graduation from New York Law School in 1904, when he took a job as a reporter on The New York Tribune before beginning his law practice.
In “The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens,” which appeared in 1954 to mark his seventy-fifth birthday, came the realization that he had, in fact, twisted an idea or two into his poetic yarn without dulling the shimmer of the finished product. His earlier illusions were now positive beliefs expressed freely in verse.
When his poems sometimes seemed obscure, he explained: “The poem must resist the intelligence Almost successfully.” However, in his personal and business life there was a very clear discipline. “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job,” Mr. Stevens told a newspaper reporter five years ago in an interview.
He said that he composed his poems just about anywhere. Usually, he said on another occasion, he got most of his ideas when on a walk. Defined Poet’s Role Mr. Stevens said that poetry was his way of making the world palatable. “It’s the way of making one’s experience, almost wholly inexplicable, acceptable,” he said.
In recent years he felt a sense of imminent tragedy in the world, and to this situation a poet addresses himself, he said. “What he gets is not necessarily a solution but some defense against it,” Mr. Stevens remarked. In “The Necessary Angel,” a book of his essays published in 1951, the poet said: “My final point, then, is that imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos.”
His volumes of poems include “Ideas of Order” and “Owl’s Clover” in 1936, “The Man With the Blue Guitar” in 1937, “Parts of a World” in 1942, “The Auroras of Autumn” in 1950. He won a National Book Award in 1950 and again in 1954. Columbia University gave him an honorary degree in 1952. Harvard University had conferred a similar honor on him the year before. And in 1949 he received the Bollingen Prize in Poetry from Yale University. He also received the 1951 Gold Medal of the Poetry Society of America.
Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on October 2, 1879, and died at the age of seventy-six in Hartford, Connecticut on August 2, 1955. He attended Harvard as a special student from 1897 to 1900 but did not graduate; he graduated from New York law school in 1903 and was admitted to the New York bar in 1904, the year he met Elsie Kachel, a young woman from Reading, whom he married in 1909. They had one daughter, Holly Bight, born in 1924, conceived on a leisurely ocean voyage California via the Panama Canal that they took to celebrate the publication of his first book.
Stevens became interested in verse-writing at Harvard, submitting material to the Harvard Advocate, but he would be 36 before his first work was published in 1915. He soon was contributing to Poetry (Chicago), and his first book Harmonium was published in 1923 by the distinguished firm of Alfred A. Knopf. Though he was always much admired by his contemporaries (“There is a man whose work,” Hart Crane wrote of him in 1919, “makes most the rest of us quail”), Stevens felt that the reviews of his 1923 book were less than they should be, and discouraged, wrote nothing through the 1920s. For a second edition of Harmonium, published in 1931, he added only eight new poems.
If he was not writing in the 1920s, he was steadily advancing in business. After working for several New York law firms from 1904 to 1907, he had been hired as a bonding lawyer for an insurance firm in 1908, and by 1914 was hired as the vice-president of the New York Office of the Equitable Surety Co. of St. Louis. When this job was abolished as a result of mergers in 1916, he joined the home office of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity and left New York City to live in Hartford, where he would remain the rest of his life. By 1934, he had been named Vice President of his company.
All his life Stevens collected art from abroad and saw that packages of various gourmet foods were mailed to him regularly. Although he regularly traveled in the South, most notably to Florida and the Florida Keys and Cuba, he never ventured abroad. But his cosmopolitan yearnings were amply satisfied by regular jaunts to New York City. Trains leaving Hartford on a better-than-hourly basis guaranteed that any Saturday he could be on the streets of New York City by 10 a.m. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was welcomed as a member of the exclusive set centered around the artistic and literary devotees Barbara and Henry Church. When Stevens began to write poems with renewed fluency in the 1930s, he arranged for them to be printed in limited editions at the same time as trade editions were prepared by Knopf. Ideas of Order (1935) and Owl’s Clover (1937) were limited editions by the Alcestis Press, while The Man With the Blue Guitar (1937) and Parts of a World (1942) were printed by Knopf, and Notes toward a Supreme Fiction (1942) and Esthetique du Mal were deluxe volumes issued by the Cummington Press in 1942.
In 1939, Stevens was sixty – an age when most poets are ready to look back on what career they might have made for themselves. But Stevens’s best writing still lay before him in the form of extended meditative sequences, quasi-philosophical in their ruminative wanderings but marked always by a vivid sense of the absurd and a darting, whirling inventiveness that took delight in peculiar anecdotal examples. In the loosely connected stanzas of these sequences, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (1942), “Esthetique du Mal” (1945), “The Auroras of Autumn” (1947) and “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” (1950), Stevens perfected what had been, in effect, the work he had been producing all along – a metapoetry that took lavish delight in commenting upon its own making. At the same time, he began to grow interested in putting his thoughts on aesthetics together in prose sentences, essays he collected in 1951 as The Necessary Angel. And there was one final, magnificent turn to his development. Entering his seventies, he began to write a poetry of late old age, in which a sense of the disembodied, the purely mental, gave rise to a discourse that had grown newly austere, solemn, and strange even to its author. Capturing so exuberantly yet so flawlessly the mind at play with an extravagance most often associated with youthful pleasure, with the sheer delights of the sensual body, Stevens preferred to mask his very great sensual satisfactions by suggesting that his doings were in fact all a highly proper set of speculations on “the imagination.” (His prose essays were useful allies in this strategy.) But the sheer verve of local moments, the sumptuous texture of outstanding passages, simply dissolves as pretense the notion that a philosophical enterprise might be underway. Few poets have so fully enjoyed not just their indulgence in their own language but also the game that elaborately insists no such indulgence is occurring.