A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens

A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens

A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens

A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens


Wallace Stevens is one of the major poets of the twentieth century, and also among the most challenging. His poems can be dazzling in their verbal brilliance. They are often shot through with lavish imagery and wit, informed by a lawyer's logic, and disarmingly unexpected: a singing jackrabbit, the seductive Nanzia Nunzio. They also spoke--and still speak--to contemporary concerns. Though his work is popular and his readership continues to grow, many readers encountering it are baffled by such rich and strange poetry.

Eleanor Cook, a leading critic of poetry and expert on Stevens, gives us here the essential reader's guide to this important American poet. Cook goes through each of Stevens's poems in his six major collections as well as his later lyrics, in chronological order. For each poem she provides an introductory head note and a series of annotations on difficult phrases and references, illuminating for us just why and how Stevens was a master at his art. Her annotations, which include both previously unpublished scholarship and interpretive remarks, will benefit beginners and specialists alike. Cook also provides a brief biography of Stevens, and offers a detailed appendix on how to read modern poetry.

A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens is an indispensable resource and the perfect companion to The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, first published in 1954 in honor of Stevens's seventy-fifth birthday, as well as to the 1997 collection Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose.


Wallace Stevens is, by common consent, one of the great Moderns, those major writers in the earlier part of the twentieth century who changed once and for all the way their art is practised. Among poets, there are at least four such Modern masters: W. B. Yeats (b. 1865), Robert Frost (b. 1874), Wallace Stevens (b. 1879) and T. S. Eliot (b. 1888). Other names such as Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams or Marianne Moore might be added. Among this group, Stevens seems the youngest and the strangest, though he was older than Eliot. But he matured slowly as an artist, and he did not engage in literary polemics designed to further his art, as did Eliot and Pound.

Reaching for a volume by Stevens, readers can be baffled and turn away, as with any new art. Or new art of a certain kind, for much of Yeats and Frost, even when new, was more accessible than much of Stevens. Yet Stevens continues to attract readers, including some who were at first puzzled. His ways of combining words, his wit and seriousness, his pithy and telling affirmations, his gift for titles, his conception and development of a “supreme fiction”: any or all of these keep drawing readers, including the most diverse readers. Stevens is far from being a poet read chiefly in the academy, demanding as he can be. Perhaps his great attraction is that he knows how to be simple too. Some of the work is straightforward and sensuous, in a Keatsian line of inheritance. (I know people who take it along on holidays—maximum value for minimum space.) Or perhaps the academy underestimates the number of serious readers outside its domain.

This guide is designed for all these types of Stevens’s readers—the knowledgeable, the studious, the enthusiastic, the occasional, the curious, the baffled but persistent. Among students at school, it is designed for those at about a first- or second-year college level (or an advanced high school senior) plus those among their teachers who are puzzled by Stevens. Among more knowledgeable readers, those who specialize in Stevens will find both familiar and new material here.

The best reader’s guides seem to me to offer both general and specific information, with some judgments and some help in interpretation up to a point. Thus here. Readers will have no difficulty separating matters of fact and matters of judgment or interpretation. This book is centered on the body of work itself, while including whatever biographical and historical information sheds light on the work. It looks primarily at the poems as literature. That is, it offers a guide to help the reader work out what a given poem is saying, and how. (I’m aware of challenges of the intentional fallacy in such a statement, and would simply say that I like to follow a poem’s apparent intentionalities.) . . .

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