- Stevens and Frost: “The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world”
I FIRST READ Wallace Stevens in a British and American poetry seminar during my senior year of college. We began with W. B. Yeats and planned to finish with W. H. Auden, but the term ran out, so we finished instead with Stevens. This was almost forty years ago, but the small Vintage paperback The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Stevens’ daughter, is here on my desk now. I had just begun to write poems and was also studying Shakespeare’s plays and printmaking. Some years later, I read Souvenirs and Prophecies, containing the young Wallace Stevens’ vivid journals. Here are a few lines I highlighted from a camping trip he made to British Columbia:
Here come the ants—heads, feet and bellies. . . .(120)
We descended in a heavy rain, each leaf putting a spoonful of icy water down our necks—each tree a bucketful. Home in time to bathe & change clothes before dark. Tommy had hot venison broth waiting for us—and more wild strawberry shortcake. . . .(121)
The twilights grow more short; the stars more in a multitude & immensely bright. The calling moon of the moose is rounding out. I look in the fire at evening & conjure up a hand to hold. . . .(124)
Stevens spoke of this trip during the last weeks of his life, because it had been a time when he “found himself” as a poet, while surrendering any thought of an ordinary literary life (H. Stevens 117). I do not think I understood then what a literary life was, or what it meant to surrender the hope of one, but I know that I was trying to claim something different for myself, too. [End Page 97]
A few years later, when I was a graduate student at Columbia University, I enrolled in a Stevens seminar taught by Mark Strand, an American poet aesthetically sponsored by Wallace Stevens and a poet of mood reaching for the unnamable. What struck me about Stevens’ poems then was the sense that numerous ideas could be explored at once in a poem, instead of a mere plot unfolding. From Stevens, I learned that language was something like an art material—paint, wool, steel—for creating order, and that in a poem language was the ultimate unifying experience. I respected his extreme positions, and, like him, wanted to be “the intelligence of my soil” (see CPP 22). I learned from Stevens that a poem could exist merely for itself, that writing poetry was a passion, not a habit, to be nourished on physical reality, and that a poem must strive to add to life something without which it seems life could not have been lived. For Stevens, a poem was not a small thing following itself into silence.
As I write, it is early summer, my favorite time of the year. I remember the hopeful lines in “Esthétique du Mal,” which helped when I was a young man. Pain may be a compulsory part of life, the poem tells us, but our pain does not exist without our invention:
It seems as if the honey of common summer Might be enough, as if the golden combs Were part of a sustenance itself enough,
As if hell, so modified, had disappeared, As if pain, no longer satanic mimicry, Could be borne, as if we were sure to find our way.(CPP 278–79)
Later in this poem, Stevens says that “The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world . . .” (CPP 286). Without the physical world, there is despair. This morning, as I ponder the jolly, yellow, glutinous sun, rising over my neighborhood, I feel less alone. The boundaries of myself, which so often create self-loathing, seem to disappear. Pondering the ordinary beauty of the world—and sometimes even its ugliness—I am much more aware of words and their magnificence in representing reality.
My first real consideration of Robert Frost was also at Columbia, in a graduate seminar taught by the translator and poet Richard Howard. Our course theme was “The Other,” as it is manifested in...