on 17 March 2002
Harmonium collects poems Wallace Stevens wrote between 1914-1922. It contains many of his most famous poems: Sunday Morning, 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, the Emperor of Ice Cream, the Snow Man. There are also fantastic poems that are less famous: Homunculus et la belle etoile, Le Monocle de Mon Oncle. The collection is full of beauty, humor and a sexual edge. It is probably Stevens' best collection, and is definitely one of the best collections of poetry published in the twentieth century.
Wallace Stevens first revealed his genius in 1923, when his first collection of poetry "Harmonium" was released. While it was only the first part of his career as a poet, Stevens' first book is in some ways his best -- despite being a little uneven, "Harmonium" has a rough, passionate quality.
"At night, by the fire,/The colors of the bushes/And of the fallen leaves,/Repeating themselves,/Turned in the room,/Like the leaves themselves/Turning in the wind," writes Stevens in "Domination of Black," a display of the beauty and eerieness of his work. And Stevens sticks to that in poems like "Infanta Marina" ("Her terrace was the sand/And the palms and the twilight"), the steamy beauty of "O Florida, Venereal Soil," or the eerie surreality of "Tattoo."
While lush, rich poetry was what suited Stevens the best, "Harmonium" also has some more minimalist poetry, such as the sparse "Gubbinal" ("The world is ugly,/And the people are sad"). And one of his rare strikeouts is the confusing "The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad." Even these are not bad, just not as good as they could be.
Virtually anyone can write poetry -- the trick is writing something that stirs the reader, or at least makes them think. Stevens had a rare gift for poetry, and that gift propelled him into fame during his own lifetime. It isn't much of an exaggeration to say that he was one of the great poets of the twentieth century.
Stevens dips into both free verse and rhyming poetry, without sticking solidly to anything for any period of time. At times his poetry is just an intellectual pleasure, without any rhyme or rhythm. But in "Le Monocle De Mon Oncle," he creates a poem with an almost hymnlike quality -- solemn, ornate and thoroughly beautiful.
It's the descriptions that really make his poetry shine. He paints almost everything with color -- sapphire seas, gilt umbrellas, electric fireflies, rotted skulls, and how a "red bird flies across the golden floor." And with lines like "the light is like a spider./It crawls over the water," Stevens also gave his poetry a note of the dreamlike.
Richly surreal and beautiful, "Harmonium" is a remarkably polished first collection. Wallace Stevens wasn't yet at his peak in the years before 1923, but with "Harmonium" he became a must-read.