Book of a lifetime: Collected Poems, by Wallace Stevens
Friday 15 March 2013
I think that I first read Wallace Stevens at school – I have a vague memory of coming across "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" in some anthology.
The introduction came too early for me. It wasn't until a few years later, as an undergraduate, that I truly discovered him. I remember picking up the fat green hardback of the Collected Poems in the Sussex University bookshop, and scanning the contents.
The titles were alluring: "Poetry is a Destructive Force"; "The Good Man has No Shape"; "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird". For some reason, "A Sea Surface Full of Clouds" made a particularly strong appeal. I read the opening lines: "In that November off Tehuantepec,/ The slopping of the sea grew still one night/ And in the summer morning hued the deck/ And made one think of rosy chocolate/ And gilt umbrellas."
Still in the shop, I read the rest of the poem, beguiled by the gorgeousness of it, by its "chop-house chocolate and sham umbrellas. . . porcelain chocolate and pied umbrellas. . . musky chocolate and frail umbrellas". The baroque virtuosity of these variations was thrilling. Much as I liked the poetry of Eliot, I was resistant to his theology. For Yeats, my admiration was not unconditional – I had little tolerance for his hermetic mumbo-jumbo. With Stevens, there were no such qualifications. Within days of buying the Collected Poems I had read it from cover to cover, and a lifelong affinity was established.
No system underpins this poetry. It is philosophical without being portentous or didactic. Stevens's greatest poems proceed by an intellectual counterpoint, a light-footed self-questioning, in language that can be precise yet sumptuous, rigorous and musical, meditative and ecstatic, whimsical and profound.
Some have traduced Stevens as a thinking reader's Edward Lear. Embarking on a poem such as "The Comedian as the Letter C", you might at first think it beautiful nonsense. But his seeming nonsense is no such thing: the sound-spinning is an aspect of an extraordinary investigation of how we engage with the world, how we construct it through language.
The same poem contains lines that could stand as Stevens's epitaph: "He could not be content with counterfeit,/ With masquerade of thought, with hapless words." The final section of his "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction" is headed: "It Must Give Pleasure". For me, Stevens's poetry has never ceased to do that. My copy of the Collected Poems cost £5 – not a small amount for a student in the 1970s. It was perhaps the best £5 I have ever spent.
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