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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens, the poet of lush word patterns and evocative images, lived a circumspect daily life that contrasted dramatically with the profession of poet. In his position as vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Insurance Company, Stevens used his law degree for the betterment of his field, and never mentioned to his associates that he was also a poet. Even when his Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, he remained first an insurance executive.

The son of an attorney, Stevens was born and reared in Reading, Pennsylvania. He attended Harvard for three years as a special student, studying languages and publishing poems in the Harvard Advocate. George Santayana befriended him during that time. For a year he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, but he did not enjoy journalism. He then entered the New York University Law School, and in 1904 was admitted to the New York Bar and began to practice law. A partnership failed; he worked in several firms and, in 1909, married Elsie Moll. His move to the insurance field occurred in 1916.

Although Stevens began to publish his mature poems in Poetry and elsewhere in 1914, it was 1923 before Harmonium, his first book, was published. Many of Stevens’s best-known poems were included in that collection, but little notice of it was taken until 1931, when it was reissued. Then Stevens published three collections in quick succession, establishing himself as one of the most skilled and original of America’s modernists. In 1946 he was chosen as a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters; in 1950 he won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and in 1955 both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award.

A distinctively original poet, Stevens was not afraid to write about seemingly “philosophical” subjects, even in a period when the modernist writers concentrated on objects (and Williams said, “No ideas but in things”). Stevens’s art was usually grounded in those things, however, and he called himself a poet of the earth. He met the sometimes rigid demands of the modernists, and yet preserved his own inclination to re-create beauty—the sheer colors of a tropical landscape, the efflorescence of the ocean depths, the stark icy silhouette of a snow-covered tree. For all his interest in abstractions, Stevens was a highly visual poet. He was also the poet of language as sounded speech, and many of his best poems are most effective when read aloud. Stevens did not write from the point of view of a persona—either himself or a disguised person—but he did write with such a true sense of inflected speech that his line, his sound, were his own. “One must have a mind of winter,” “The Snow Man” opens, and while the reader is not sure the speaking voice is that of Stevens, he or she is convinced that it is the voice of some observer or listener. Authenticity rather than personality marks Stevens’s writing.

Most of Stevens’s poems are far from somber, although their meditative pace and generally long lines suggest a seriousness that might turn dour. Instead, he sparks parts of single poems (which are often lengthy) as well as entire collections with comic touches. Like Roethke, Stevens sees with the childlike eyes of innocence. Like Cummings, he was not afraid to share his vision with a world that might have scoffed at its ingenuousness. All the joy and power of language used at its best, and for a myriad of its best effects, is evident in Stevens’s work.

Linda Wagner-Martin
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
A High-Toned Old Christian Woman (1923)
Anecdote of the Jar (1923)
Peter Quince at the Clavier (1923)
Sunday Morning (1923)
The Snow Man (1923)
To the One of Fictive Music (1923)
Of Modern Poetry (1942)
The Course of a Particular (1950)
Of Mere Being (1955)

Other Works
Harmonium (1923)
Ideas of Order (1935)
The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937)
Parts of a World (1942)
Transport to Summer (1947)
The Auroras of Autumn (1950)
The Necessary Angst (1951)
Collected Poems (1954)
Letters (1966)

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Feigning with the Strange Unlike
Criticism and creative work inspired by Stevens.

Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens
A substantive resource, offering poetry texts, an audio reading of Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself, an active discussion list, Stevens-related artwork, and more.

The Academy of American Poets
A biography, several poetry texts, and links.

The Wallace Stevens Journal
An ideal portal to Stevens criticism, providing the tables of contents for all issues of the Journal.

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
An etext of In the Carolinas, a bibliography of secondary sources and links.

Secondary Sources

Michel Benamou, Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination, 1972

Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, 1977

Robert Buttel, Wallace Stevens: The Making of "Harmonium," 1967

Alan Filreis, Wallace Stevens and the Actual World, 1992

Alan Filreis, Modernism from Right to Left: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, and Literary Radicalism, 1994

Barbara M. Fisher, Wallace Stevens, The Intensest Rendezvouz, 1990

Mark Halliday, Stevens and the Impersonal, 1994

David Jarraway, Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief, 1993

A. Walton Litz, Introspective Voyager: The Poetic Development of Wallace Stevens, 1972

Glen MacLeod, Wallace Stevens and Modern Art, 1993

Beverly Maeder, Wallace Stevens' Experimental Language: The Lion and the Lute, 1999

Janet McCann, Wallace Stevens Revisited: "The Celestial Possible," 1995

Samuel French Morse, Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life, 1970

William Van O'Connor, The Shaping Spirit, 1950

Joan Richardson, Wallace Stevens, A Biography, 1986, 1989

Joseph N. Riddell, The Clairvoyant Eye: The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens, 1965

Robin G. Schulze, The Web of Friendship: Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, 1995

Helen H. Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems, 1969

Anthony Whiting, The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens' Romantic Irony, 1996