Wallace Stevens is one of those rare writers who had a golden touch with words. "Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose" not only brings together several collections and uncompiled poems, but also selections from his journals, essays and letters. And in all of these, he showed himself to be a thoughtful, intelligent and very talented man.
Over his lifetime, Stevens wrote several books of poetry, but his exquisite poems are best taken by themselves: the lush grandeur of "Sunday Morning," the hymnlike "Le Monocle De Mon Oncle," and the humid grittiness of "O Florida, Venereal Soil." He takes multiple looks at "Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird," and the lush "Six Significant Landscapes."
In other poems, Stevens dips into outright surrealism, like in the delicate "Tattoo" ("There are filaments of your eyes/On the surface of the water/And in the edges of the snow"), and also adds a meditative bent into "The Snow Man" ("For the listener, who listens in the snow,/And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is").
But Stevens was a man of many talents -- there is a trio of one-act plays, erudite and a bit whimsical, and which have his usual thoughts on art and poetry woven into some of their passages. It is followed by the essay collection "The Necessary Angel," which reflects on the nature of imagination, poetry, art, and the role of the poet in a society. His "uncollected" prose is not so tight -- there are literary experiments, snippets of atmospheric fiction, and sprawling essays on all sorts of subjects ("Cattle Kings of Florida"?). Even included are acceptance speeches and sound bites, like an enlightening little nugget on Walt Whitman.
Finishing up the volume is a selection from Stevens' notebooks, ranging from puzzling ("Poetry is a metaphor") to revealing ("After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption"). And finally we get his letters and journals, which are friendly, relaxed, laid-back -- and still show that his mind was always thinking about his art.
"Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry And Prose" is probably the best way to get a full view of Stevens' work. And his mind, too -- his poetry gives little glimpses of his attitude toward the world and his art, but his essays and journals add to that. By the time you hit the final page, it's hard not to feel like you know Stevens.
If nothing else, Stevens' writing can be read just because it is exquisitely beautiful. He lavished details all over almost every poem he wrote; his style tends to be a bit on the ornate side -- Stevens freely uses the more exotic terms -- such as "opalescence," "pendentives" and "muleteers" -- wrapped up in complex verse, sometimes with a rhyme scheme and sometimes free-form.
His prose style isn't any less impressive -- Stevens could lavish as much on his essays as he did in his poetry, and showed that he was very good at arguing his points. The last parts of the book are sprinkled with anecdotes about his travels, bits of poetry, and plenty of beautiful imagery ("The streets are blue with mist this morning").
Wallace Stevens is known for his exquisite, lush poetry, but the full "Collected Poetry and Prose" shows just what an intelligent, cultured man he was. A must-have.
on 14 August 2013
This handsome volume contains all the poems, not only from the Collected Poems but also from Opus Posthumous and elsewhere. The prose section includes The Necessary Angel and also a good deal of miscellaneous material. The texts have been critically edited and important material such as the celebrated lines which Stevens cut from The Man whose Pharynx was bad can be found in the notes.
The presentation and binding are up to the high standards of the Library of America. I retain a sneaking affection for the generous selection of Stevens in The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by the poet's daughter and on a larger page, but there is no doubt that the present collection is now the standard one. All those interested in twentieth century poetry should have it.
I wrote the review above in 2013. Since then Knopf have issued a revised Collected Poems with a more accurate text than the original 1954 edition, which had to be produced in a hurry to be ready for the poet's birthday. That is a useful cheap paperback but this LOA edition has an accurate text which can be relied on and remains the best presentation of the poet's work.