Insurance Man

By Schjeldahl, Peter | The New Yorker, May 2, 2016 | Go to article overview

Insurance Man


Schjeldahl, Peter, The New Yorker


INSURANCE MAN

The life and art of Wallace Stevens.

Stevens, in 1954: the quintessential American poet of the twentieth century.

Paul Mariani's excellent new book, "The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens" (Simon & Schuster), is a thrilling story of a mind, which emerges from a dispiriting story of a man. It's hard to think of a more vivid illustration of T. S. Eliot's principle of the separation between "the man who suffers and the mind which creates." For most of his life, Stevens was an elaborately defended introvert in a three-piece suit, working as a Hartford insurance executive. He came slowly to a mastery of language, form, and style that revealed a mind like a solar system, with abstract ideas orbiting a radiant lyricism. Mariani persuasively numbers Stevens among the twentieth-century poets who are both most powerful and most refined in their eloquence, along with Rilke, Yeats, and Neruda. He is certainly the quintessential American poet of the twentieth century, a doubting idealist who invested slight subjects (the weather, often) with oracular gravitas, and grand ones (death, frequently) with capering humor.

Stevens's first book, the ravishing "Harmonium," which contains "Sunday Morning," "The Snow Man," "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Anecdote of the Jar," "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," and most of the rest of his poems that people still read--if they read any of them--came out in 1923, when he was forty-four. His next book, "Ideas of Order," published thirteen years later, features what may be the finest American modern poem: "The Idea of Order at Key West." (It gets my vote, with perfectly paced beauty that routinely squeezes tears from me.) His subsequent work, which abounded until his death, in 1955, is less familiar, because most of it is gruellingly difficult; the great mind finally spiralled in on itself, like a ruminative Narcissus. It takes heroic stamina to get through "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" and other of the late long poems, which American literary culture coped with at the time by loading Stevens with every possible prize, honor, and encomium. Since then, his reputation has stood as a windswept monument, tended by professors.

Mariani, an accomplished New England poet himself, with an unstressed Catholic bent, has written well-received biographies of William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He has a prehensile feel for the roots and branches of literary modernism, exemplary taste in what he chooses to quote, and a real gift for exegesis, unpacking poems in language that is nearly as eloquent as the poet's, and as clear as faithfulness allows.

Something like a flame comes off the page (page 71, to be exact) of "The Whole Harmonium" when Mariani quotes lines from Stevens's first published mature poetry, a waltz-timed passage that begins, "An odor from a star." It appeared in 1914, when Stevens was thirty-four. Up to that point in the story, we have attended the growth of a restless child into a skittish adult. Thereafter, the book switches back and forth between Stevens's seraphic art and his plodding life. But they merge as sides of a coin: philosophical, in his continual grappling with implications of the death of God--a loss that he tried to remedy by making poetry stand in for religion--and psychological, in his constant compulsion to cheer himself up.

The key sentence in the biography, for me, tells that Stevens, who was prone to being depressed, "hated depression--hated it." So do a lot of people, but few fight it as tenaciously as Stevens did. He relied, for stability, on the routine demands of his office job. (Whenever free of them, he commonly drank to excess.) He projected his struggles as abstract patterns of human--and, beyond human, of natural and metaphysical--existence. One late poem hints at a nagging anguish that poetry relieved for him: "It is a child that sings itself to sleep, / The mind. …

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