90th Anniversary of Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium
“At college I knew “Harmonium” almost by heart.” – Elizabeth Bishop
Alfred A. Knopf published Wallace Stevens’s first book of poems, Harmonium, on September 7, 1923. William H. Gass, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Amber Sparks, and Curtis White share their thoughts 90 years after the fact…
William H. Gass:
20 men crossing a bridge into a village means 20 murderers sneaking across 1 bridge out of a clump of trees unless 1 man with the most fatal arms is all that’s necessary to carry the gun while crossing the bridge out of a fist of weeds. This is an old song they aren’t singing while crossing a silence into a clump of reeds where they will waylay their prey. Please keep your boots dry and your powder too. The dancing we shall do. Oh. Shoot. It’s only a movie. Not merely a poem. Simply a metaphor.
Happy birthday to Harmonium, Magnifico.
Micheline Aharonian Marcom:
On Wallace Stevens
I can’t recall when I found Stevens’ work, an old used paperback I picked up somewhere over a decade ago and began to read from The Palm at the End of the Mind. And for years I have kept this book on my desk and in my to-ing and fro-ing and sitting at my desk and not knowing, I often open up the collection and read a poem and am, not consoled, and yet consoled by the possibilities and beauty and strangeness of his work, and of what English is capable of (I forget and reremember again and again), and he reminds me. His work is always contending with what it is we are doing here, or how we are, or simply, usually, with what Is. And he says to me again and again in his work: the poet, the writer, is the metaphysician of our age. And Wallace Stevens, well, his work helps me to live my life.
“The Emperor of Ice Cream” was the first adult poem I remember reading, and it made me a perpetual and willing prisoner of poetry. One late summer day I was digging in my father’s old books, bored by then with ripping heads off in Mortal Kombat, and I came across an old Norton poetry textbook. I flipped through – the poems looked old, stodgy, boring, pious – and then I came across the words “ice cream” and fell in love, very quickly, with what I’d later learn Stevens called “the essential gaudiness of poetry.” I didn’t understand the poem, but I felt some sort of love, some new expanded palate for words–concupiscent curds!–some flash of pre-insight just the same. Harmonium is probably the text I’ve come back to most in my life, after Hamlet, and it’s full of the brilliant gaudiness of poetry, of the way things are and the way they ought to be. I’d like to raise a mental glass to it now, and to many more years of it bringing people to poetry.
“Dear fat Stevens, thawing out so beautifully at forty.”
—W. C. Williams
When I first read Stevens as a very young man, most of what I found was his exuberant, intoxicating, liberating music, the perfect antidote for a suburban youth whose reading experience didn’t go much beyond the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Sporting Green.” But what I find now, forty-plus years later, is an undecided poet, a young poet at forty, in earnest dialogue with possibility.
The reigning critical truism about Stevens in the sixties was that he was the last great Romantic poet, and there is plenty in Harmonium to support that idea. The most famous of the poems here is “The Comedian as the Letter C,” a long Kunstler roman in the tradition of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister (especially the Wanderjahre), Byron’s Childe Harold, and perhaps Wordsworth’s “The Excursion.” It is also a superlative application of Romantic Irony to the Romantic itself.
And of course there are nature images—perhaps I should say that there is language evocative of the idea of nature—everywhere: Firecats, frogs, swans, lilacs, pine trees, wind, winter, and always the sea. For Stevens, the things of nature come on sine waves, oscillations created by the ironies of perception and language. (There is something of the quantum physicist in him.) It’s not just a matter of the sea, something to look over but not into as Shelley does in “Dejection”: “the waves are dancing fast and bright.” That’s how waves ought to behave. But for Stevens it is the more complicated matter of “the makers rage to order words of the sea.”
As a Romantic, Stevens is a “philosopher’s man,” as much at home with Schelling as he is with Wordsworth.
Stevens is also in earnest dialogue with the poetry of the moment, especially what his friends William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound were calling Imagism. They rejected the poetry of the Romantic tradition in the name of a sort of haiku dream in which the world could reveal itself in an “instant of time.” But wouldn’t this quatrain from “Homunculus et la Belle Etoile” pass as an Imagist poem?
By this light the salty fishes
Arch in the sea like tree-branches,
Going in many directions
Up and down.
Of course, for Stevens the point is that the poem doesn’t stop with the image or the instant but goes on profligately to “the thoughts of drunkards, the feelings/ of widows and trembling ladies.” A later poem, “The Red Fern,” seems to mischievously echo Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” but you sure wouldn’t say that Stevens thinks that much “depends” upon this fern. The fern only appears at all as its “double” in clouds. For Stevens the fern itself is inevitably “difficult.”
Williams may have faulted Stevens’s opulence for failing to find itself in the American grain, but Stevens had his own America and it was in venereal Florida and in a tropical and very fecund world further south where Fernando and “pale Ramon” repose on “palmy beaches.”
I still love the great, round voluptuousness and the playful Bach-like intricacy of the poems in Harmonium. But as an older man, it is the few late poems of The Rock and “Of Mere Being” that speak most directly to me now. There are no emperors of ice cream to be found there. No snowmen. Nothing strutting about in gauds. In poems like “The Plain Sense of Things” Stevens achieves a meditative purity, a philosophical dignity, worthy of Keats who is, in the end, his only peer.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 1st, 2013.