Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things

Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things

Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things

Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things

Synopsis

Wallace Stevens the poet and Wallace Stevens the insurance executive: for more than one critical generation it has seemed as if these two men were unacquainted--that Stevens was a poet who existed only in the rarefied world of language. However, the idea that Stevens lived a double life, the author maintains, is misleading. This compelling book uncovers what Stevens liked to think of as his "ordinary" life, a life in which the demands of politics, economics, poetry, and everyday distractions coexisted, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not. Examining the full scope of Stevens's career (from the student-poet of the nineteenth century to the award-winning poet of the Cold War years), Longenbach reveals that Stevens was not only aware of events taking place around him, but often inspired by those events. The major achievements of Stevens's career are shown to coalesce around the major historical events of his lifetime (the Great Depression and two World Wars); but Longenbach also dwells on Stevens's two extended periods of poetic silence, exploring the crucial aspects of Steven's life that were not exclusively poetic. Longenbach demonstrates that through Stevens's work in surety law he was far more intimately acquainted with legal and economic concerns than most poets, and he consequently thought deeply about the strengths--and, equally important, the limitations--of poetry as a social product and force.

Excerpt

Asked to provide a self-portrait midway through his career, Wallace Stevens replied: "I should say very briefly that I was born in Pennsylvania in 1879, studied at Harvard, am a lawyer, practiced in New York until 1916 and then came to Hartford, where I am in the insurance business." Poetry was important to Stevens, despite his reticence, but so were law and insurance. Yet when readers of Stevens take those interests into account, it is usually to wonder at his "double" life: for several critical generations, the Stevens who matters has existed in a world of words. But Stevens lived no double life. His was what he liked to call an "ordinary" life, one in which the exigencies of politics, economics, poetry, and everyday distractions coexisted--sometimes peacefully and sometimes not.

Appreciated in the context of American political and intellectual history, Stevens emerges not only as a poet aware of events taking place around him but as a poet whose work was often inspired by them. Stevens did not write poetry like a lawyer or execute surety bonds like a poet; his different activities took necessarily different shapes, and those differences kept a single life whole. Consequently, Stevens rarely asked the poet to do the work the politician might do better, even though he knew poetry could not be isolated from political concerns. (As Kenneth Burke once quipped: though all art is political, "one cannot advocate art as a cure for toothache without disclosing the superiority of dentistry.") Stevens's caution should not be confused with indifference: as both poet and lawyer, he thought long and hard about the strengths and (equally important) the limitations of literature as a historical product and force.

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