By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry when it was published in 1955. Stevens’s poetry continues to be popular, but where should the relative novice, the reader yet to discover the joys of this great twentieth-century modernist poet, begin? This post is designed as an introduction to ten of Wallace Stevens’s greatest poems.
1. ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’.
‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ may well qualify for the accolade of ‘most baffling poem of the entire twentieth century’. Who, or what, is the Emperor of Ice-Cream? Follow the poem’s title above to read the poem, and – if you’re curious to learn more about the identity of this mysterious emperor, you can read our analysis below the poem.
2. ‘The Snow Man’.
‘The Snow Man’ is about a rejection of the Romantic impulse to project your own feelings onto the natural world around you, and so ties in with Stevens’s rejection of the Keatsian aesthetic (Stevens was greatly influenced by the poetry of John Keats early in his career).
It’s difficult not to fall for the pathetic fallacy, we might say, but that is what we should strive to do: to stop viewing winter as a time of loss, and stop hearing notes of misery in the sound of the wind.
3. Anecdote of the Jar’.
Variously interpreted as a riposte to Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and an environmentalist poem about the impact of man’s mastery of the natural world, ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ divides readers and critics. The one thing pretty much everyone can agree on, however, is that it’s a truly elusive poem. It’s also strangely haunting.
4. ‘Sunday Morning’.
This longer poem first appeared in 1915 in the magazine Poetry, although the fuller version was only published in Harmonium in 1923. Yvor Winters, an influential critic of modernist poetry and a minor modernist in his own right, pronounced ‘Sunday Morning’ to be ‘the greatest American poem of the twentieth century’.
The poem, which is a meditation on not being a Christian, centres on a woman who stays at home, lounging around, on a Sunday morning, when virtually everyone else is at church. The poem includes the statement that ‘Death is the mother of beauty’.
One of the key ideas underpinning many of Wallace Stevens’s best poems is perspectivism, the notion that it’s important in art to look at the same thing from a variety of points of view.
The title of this, one of Stevens’s most famous poems, neatly highlights the importance of perspectivism to his work, as he views the blackbird from thirteen different perspectives. Unlucky for some, but luckily here, the making of a classic example of what we might call American imagism.
We have analysed this classic poem in a separate post.
This is a later poem – it dates from 1934 – and was published in his collection Ideas of Order, hence the title of this poem. It’s easy to summarise the poem, but notoriously difficult to analyse: on the one hand, it seems to be about little more than the experience of hearing a woman singing and the impression it leaves upon the poem’s speaker, but on the other hand, it is about the human imagination and how we view, and interact with, the real world.
Critics have invited us to compare ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ with a great Romantic poem, John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: as in Keats’s poem from over a century earlier, Stevens’s perspective is transformed by hearing the beautiful song of nature.
7. ‘Of Mere Being’.
If we had to pick our single favourite line from all of Wallace Stevens’s poems, it might have to be ‘The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down’, the line which concludes this poem. In theory, the line shouldn’t work: the triple alliteration followed immediately by double d-alliteration should strike the reader as overdone. But somehow it works, and is a fitting way for Stevens to end this cryptic short poem from Stevens’s later period.
This short poem seems to play on a sort of double meaning of ‘disillusionment’: both ‘stripped of delusions’ and ‘lacking in imaginative power’. Stevens’s repeated use of negatives, and emphasis on colour (mentioned, but only to draw attention to its absence), highlight the empty unadventurousness of most people’s lives, with only the old sailor dreaming in colour.
As you’re reading this, the chances are that you know what it’s like to stay up reading late into the night, and this is, in essence, what this Wallace Stevens poem is about, and how the act of reading, the quiet of the house, and the solitariness of the house-dweller intersect.
It is about the intersection of different sensory experience, and how their combination creates a particular mood or moment.
10. ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’.
We conclude this pick of Wallace Stevens’s greatest poems with a post-apocalyptic poem, spoken by the victims of some cataclysmic event. Stevens gives voice to the dead in this powerful poem from 1935, spoken by the bones of the dead whose bodies were once as ‘quick as foxes on the hill’.
The poem is about the interplay between the present and the future, and about what will last – what we will leave behind, and how future generations will interpret it.
The best edition of Wallace Stevens’ poetry is The Collected Poems: The Corrected Edition (Vintage International), which we’d strongly recommend.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.