I suspect that most people who love Wallace Stevens’s poetry do so not because of the density of its philosophical and aesthetic thought, but simply for the humor and verbal music of his diction, for the haunting suggestiveness of his carefully cadenced lines. Some of Stevens’s titles are almost poems in themselves: “The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade,” “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.”
There are, moreover, scores of glorious lines and phrases, many quite simple: “It was evening all afternoon.” “Pitiless verse? A few words tuned/ And tuned and tuned and tuned.” “The greatest poverty is not to live/ In a physical world.” Best of all may be his easy Erik Satie-like melodiousness — “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/ Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair”— and his jazzy diction: “One’s grand flights, one’s Sunday baths,/ One’s footings at the weddings of the soul/ Occur as they occur.”
Despite its subtitle, Paul Mariani’s “The Whole Harmonium” isn’t just “The Life of Wallace Stevens.” At least half the text is taken up with detailed analyses of dozens of poems, including all the anthology standards: “The Snow Man,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “Sunday Morning,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “To an Old Philosopher in Rome.”
While certainly valuable to the student, these pages of close reading are a drag on the book as a narrative. Mariani — a prolific literary biographer — might argue that Stevens’s poetry was his life, that outside his work as an executive for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., he really only cared about — to use a famous phrase — “heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.” Yes and no. Certainly the married Stevens led a largely stolid, suburban existence, especially when contrasted with the bardic exuberance of, say, Dylan Thomas. But there are oddities, gaps and callous behaviors that Mariani never quite accounts for.
Stevens grew up in Reading, Pa., graduated from Harvard in 1900 and initially hoped to earn a living as a New York journalist. He worked under legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens, reported on the funeral of Stephen Crane, watched Sarah Bernhardt perform “Hamlet,” and regularly visited Manhattan art galleries and concert halls. But Stevens deeply craved financial security, so he enrolled in New York Law School, then joined various insurance companies in their surety divisions. Against his parents’ wishes, he also married a Reading woman named Elsie Moll.
To my mind, Stevens treated his shy, psychologically fragile wife badly. He left her alone or with her mother for weeks at a time as he crisscrossed the country on business. Each year, he would take a vacation without her to the Florida Keys, where he and some of his Atlanta associates would fish a little and drink and eat too much. Once settled in Hartford, Conn., the couple established separate bedrooms, and Stevens preferred to spend his evenings and weekends by himself, staring out his window as poets will or reading and scribbling verses. Only when he was quite rich and middle-aged did he feel that he could afford to bring up a child. Holly Stevens — later her father’s editor and champion — was born in 1924. She was driven to and from school in a hired car.
In between his explications of Stevens’s poetry, Mariani does tell a few good stories. In the way of businessmen of yesteryear, the poet was a zealous social drinker and at parties would loosen up after his usual four or five martinis. At one such social occasion in Key West, he spoke insultingly about Ernest Hemingway to the writer’s sister. Upset, she left the party to tell her brother. That night, Stevens and Papa confronted each other and soon began to trade punches. Although the insurance executive carried the weight of a fullback, he was no match for Hemingway, who mangled his face and then decked him. The next day, a contrite and somewhat worried Stevens — what would his colleagues at the office think? — begged Hemingway to say nothing of the fight. The altercation remained a secret for years.
During his lifetime, Stevens was certainly admired — by fellow poets William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane and Marianne Moore, among others — but many early readers saw him as essentially a verbal dandy. Some critics likened his work to figure skating or tightrope dancing. His chief rival, Robert Frost, even declared that Stevens’s merely wrote about “bric-a-brac.” What’s more, as time went by, the poems grew increasingly abstract and their meaning more and more elusive. They all seemed to have something to do with the power of the imagination or could be construed as gorgeous meditations on time and mortality. In long works such as “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” — and even more so in his talks and essays — Stevens can be well nigh incomprehensible.
While Wallace Stevens is certainly a major American poet, in Mariani’s pages he seldom comes across as a particularly interesting fellow, let alone a likeable or happy one. He did, rather surprisingly, convert to Catholicism on his deathbed, but his funeral was still sparsely attended: Stevens wasn’t close to anyone outside a very small circle. In fact, one could almost legitimately sum up “The Whole Harmonium” by saying that it shows us “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” That’s too harsh a judgment and yet, despite Mariani’s efforts, the mystery remains: Somehow, this dull, buttoned-down, unsmiling public man is also modern poetry’s greatest introspective voyager.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Paul Mariani
Simon and Schuster. 481 pp. $30