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About this poet

Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879. He attended Harvard University as an undergraduate from 1897 to 1900. He planned to travel to Paris as a writer, but after a working briefly as a reporter for the New York Herald Times, he decided to study law. He graduated with a degree from New York Law School in 1903 and was admitted to the U.S. Bar in 1904. He practiced law in New York City until 1916.

Though he had serious determination to become a successful lawyer, Stevens had several friends among the New York writers and painters in Greenwich Village, including the poets William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and E. E. Cummings.

In 1914, under the pseudonym "Peter Parasol," he sent a group of poems under the title "Phases" to Harriet Monroe for a war poem competition for Poetry magazine. Stevens did not win the prize, but was published by Monroe in November of that year.

Stevens moved to Connecticut in 1916, having found employment at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., of which he became vice president in 1934. He had begun to establish an identity for himself outside the world of law and business, however, and his first book of poems, Harmonium, published in 1923, exhibited the influence of both the English Romantics and the French symbolists, an inclination to aesthetic philosophy, and a wholly original style and sensibility: exotic, whimsical, infused with the light and color of an Impressionist painting.

For the next several years, Stevens focused on his business life. He began to publish new poems in 1930, however, and in the following year, Knopf published an second edition of Harmonium, which included fourteen new poems and left out three of the decidedly weaker ones.

More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the transformative power of the imagination. Composing poems on his way to and from the office and in the evenings, Stevens continued to spend his days behind a desk at the office, and led a quiet, uneventful life.

Though now considered one of the major American poets of the century, he did not receive widespread recognition until the publication of his Collected Poems, just a year before his death. His major works include Ideas of Order (1935), The Man With the Blue Guitar (1937), Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (1942), and a collection of essays on poetry, The Necessary Angel (1951).

Stevens died in Hartford on August 2, 1955.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Harmonium (1923)
Ideas of Order (1935)
Owl's Clover (1936)
The Man With the Blue Guitar (1937)
Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (1942)
Parts of a World (1942)
Esthétique du Mal (1945)
Three Academic Pieces (1947)
Transport to Summer (1947)
Primitive Like an Orb (1948)
Auroras of Autumn (1950)
Collected Poems (1954)
Opus Posthumous (1957)
The Palm at the End of the Mind (1967)

Prose

The Necessary Angel (1951)

Plays

Three Travellers Watch the Sunrise (1916)
Carlos Among the Candles (1917)

The High-Toned Old Christian Woman

Wallace Stevens, 1879 - 1955
Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven.  Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle.  That's clear.  But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets.  Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones.  And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began.  Allow,
Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
This will make widows wince.  But fictive things
Wink as they will.  Wink most when widows wince.

From Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens. Copyright © 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

From Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens. Copyright © 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

Though he did not receive widespread recognition until late in his life, Wallace Stevens—whose work is known for its imagination, whimsy, and relation to both the English Romantics and French symbolists—is now considered one of the major American poets of the century. 

by this poet

poem
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask.  No more
poem
I

In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four
        hills and a cloud.

II

From my balcony, I survey the yellow air,
Reading where I have written,
"The spring is like a belle undressing."

III

The gold tree is blue,
The singer has pulled his
poem
What syllable are you seeking,
Vocalissimus,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.