- Reading and Listening to Stevens's Letters:"The delicatest ear of the mind"
TO PREPARE FOR MY TOPIC, let me start with a few short passages from Wallace Stevens's letters, two early and two late:
The piping of flamboyant flutes, the wriggling of shrieking fifes with rasping dagger-voices, the sighing of bass-viols, drums that beat and rattle, the crescendo of cracked trombones—harmonized, that is Innes band. Red geraniums, sweet-lyssoms, low, heavy quince trees, the mayor's lamps, Garrett playing on the organ, water-lilies and poultry—that is Ivyland.To his mother, July 31, 1896 (L 8)
Now, I wish we could rest after so much disquisition and listen to what we have never heard. The wind has fallen. The moon has risen. We are where we have never been, listening to what we have never heard.To Elsie, July 20, 1909 (L 149)
Hartford is quiet. There is a loneliness and a thoughtfulness about everything which I like, as if all interruptions had come to an end. Time will stand still for a few weeks as the weather itself stands still in August before it removes to Charleston, where it will stand still a little longer before it removes to some place in South America like Cartagena, which is, I suppose, its permanent abode—the place where all the catbirds go, not to speak of the other birds which live in our garden for a while.To Barbara Church, July 27, 1949 (L 642)
Again, when you say that parts of my book baffle you and that you feel as if you did not know English when you read those parts and sit and look into space and despair, content yourself with the thought that every poet's language is his own distinct tongue. He cannot speak the common language [End Page 31] and continue to write poetry any more than he can think the common thought and continue to be a poet.To Peter H. Lee, February 17, 1955 (L 873)
I begin my essay—which, as my title suggests, will take up what it means to listen to Stevens's letters—with these few excerpts to highlight Stevens's unmistakable voice. It is a voice that we recognize in all the different forms in which he wrote—in poetry, essays, aphorisms, and letters. In the first letter, the sixteen-year-old Stevens writes to his mother from Ivyland, Pennsylvania, in exuberant tones detailing with exactness both the sounds of a neighborhood band—the fifes are "shrieking," the bass-viols "sighing," the drums "beat and rattle"—and the abundant summer vegetation, with its red geraniums, sweet alyssums, and low-hanging quince trees. A little over a decade later, in his letter to Elsie, Stevens writes with a tender voice, inviting her to share in his desire to hear the barely audible sounds of the unknown—"what we have never heard." In his last decade, in the letter to Barbara Church, he writes with a more sober voice, appreciating the seeming stasis of the month of August, one of his favorite months to which he devotes some of his most memorable poems. He cannot help but add a whimsical touch, as he imagines how the apparent stillness of the month travels at different moments to various locales. Finally, in his letter to Peter H. Lee, the young Korean scholar and poet with whom Stevens enjoyed corresponding in his final years, he is at his most direct as he reflects on the particular language that each poet possesses—a language that is as unchangeable and continuous as the features of the natural world in which he took so much delight. What we recognize in these passages is Stevens's "distinct tongue"—as present in his letters as in his verse. To Bernard Heringman, in another late letter, dated October 13, 1950, Stevens writes in appreciation of Heringman's readings of his poems, "To have a few right readers is worth everything else" (L 695).
What does it mean to "have a few right readers"? How do Stevens's letters contemplate the relationship between poet and reader? And how might we hear Stevens practicing...