on 19 February 2009
From the mid 1930s to the late 50s Louis MacNiece supplemented his BBC career as a broadcaster and producer with the publication of several fine volumes of poetry that received a mixed reaction from critics at the time.
This very handsome volume (with MacNiece on the cover looking at his coolest Soho/Boho)contains them all, including his long narrative verse masterpiece "Autumn Journal", written as autbiography in response to the London of the Munich crisis and his own tortured love-life. This in itself would justify the volume, but part of the joy is discovering the less famous poems, "Time for a Smoke" or "October in Bloomsbury" for example, poems that capture a moment of reflection or a passing thought and remain timeless.
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was a trained lawyer, and was employed by the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co all his working life. He lived a relatively quiet life in an upper-class neighbourhood. Here is his poem Disillusionment Of Ten O`Clock:
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns,
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
I suppose if one had met the Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte, in his sober suit and tie, one would be unlikely to guess that he was a painter, much less the weird and wonderful canvases he painted.
Stevens was no surrealist, but he was a sensualist of poetry, one of the most tactile of twentieth century poets, who, in poem after poem, says to the astounded reader: "Look. It`s all here, in front of you. This is it!"
Apparently, WS (oh, lucky initials) was an atheist, and despite the often rapt, awed nature of so many of his poems, what he is saying over and over again is that the world is "what it is" and no more - except to say "look at this... and this... and this too!"
Too many of Stevens` poems at one time tends to have the effect of cancelling each other out, as it were, since a certain repetitiveness ultimately displaces originality, but taken a few at a time - or a few dozen, as many are very short and succinct - they are like nothing else. One might have to look to certain French poets for something at all similar, perhaps Paul Valery`s Le Cimitiere Marin...
Another - rather less `eccentric` - example of this unique poetic voice:
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
(NB. I have reviewed the older 1990 Faber reissue edition of the Collected Poems, with the etching of WS on the cover, which contains only poems, rather than plays or essays. If you only want the poems, look for that one.)
on 18 September 2001
This book is a must for all Stevens-addicts. Or, for that matter, anyone addicted to poetry, criticism or philosophy. Roughly half of the book is poems -- some earlier ones, including an earlier version of 'The Comedian as the Letter C', and many later than the last included in Stevens' Collected Poems. There are thirty pages of poem-plays -- including one peopled by Cat, Bowl and Broomstick. There are twenty pages of aphorisms, followed by a hundred pages of essays, speeches and questionnaire responses.
I don't know where to start in talking about this book. Some of the poems are less good than those in his Collected Poems -- they seem to be drafts for his more successful poems -- but some are as good. The late poems are especially good, clear and imagistic: "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life / As a questioner about reality, / A countryman of all the bones in the world? / Now, here, the warmth I had forgotten becomes / Part of the major reality, part of / An appreciation of reality ..." ('First Warmth') There are many other poems here of equal beauty.
Stevens was an unusually intelligent poet. Perhaps more unusual than his intelligence was the analytic nature of his intelligence. A number of essays here approach the subject of philosophy -- always from a poet's point of view. They offer fascinating observations such as "The marvellous poetry of Nietzsche leaves us with -- the marvellous poetry of Nietzsche, and nothing else." Other essays connect Stevens to his time: there are two reviews of William Carlos Williams, one of which interestingly (and much to Williams' annoyance) characterised Williams as a romantic, whose attraction to the anti-poetic was an necessary corrective to this romanticism.
All the items in this book cover Stevens' major concerns: art, poetry, and its relation to "mere being" (to use the title of one of his last poems). Seen as a volume of poetry or as a volume of criticism, this is work that is far outside the usual order, both in the quality and passion of its thought. Stevens, unlike Pound or Eliot, was a poet who was, to a certain extent, outside the collective enterprise that was Modernism. He left struggles with movements to others, and instead pursued his own path with sure-footed tenacity. "Poetry," runs one of his aphorisms, "must resist the intelligence almost successfully." This book allows us to share in Stevens' high quest for reality, struggled towards through the practice of poetry.
on 28 December 2010
WS was the real deal, although he lost his way mid-period when what came so effortlessly early (Sunday Morning, The Snow Man, and The Idea of Order at Key West, for example), and late (The World as Meditation and Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself) deserted him and he had to resort to much poetic huffing and puffing to achieve little (Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction). John Serio has written about the man in exhaustive detail and edits (or did) the Wallace Stevens Journal, so go to him for plenty of in-depth analyses and insights. I'll just content myself by saying The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain is one of the greatest in the English language - up there with Marvell's The Garden and some of Wordsworth's and Byron's gems - a typically oblique (for all its straightforward language) yet moving account of man discovering himself as an artist and finding the right place for himself in the world. Some of the stuff here is sublime, some forced and pretentious, but overall WS was one of the greats, capable of changing the way you feel and think about things, not bad for an insurance man, harrying you for the next premium and whacking up your excess.
on 17 June 2015
This review is not for Wallace Stevens' poetry, which I love, but specifically for the Faber and Faber edition. Though this edition is beautifully bound and laid out, the index of titles and first lines is entirely useless and bears no relation to the book. The publisher aught to issue an insert correcting this errors. Please, Faber and Faber, make this correction!