FRIENDS & ENEMIES OF WALLACE STEVENS
Some Enemies Have Their Say
Who is not the blood in a wine barrel
Stevens published his first collection of verse, Harmonium (1923),
at the age of forty-four. Although it was well received by some reviewers,
such as Marianne Moore, it sold only 100 copies...
"...lacking the spell of any emotion, Harmonium loses both itself and
its audience. It has much for the eye, something for the ear, but nothing
for that central hunger which is at the heart of all the senses."
A famous exchange recounted by Frost’s biographer, Lawrence Thompson:
"Stevens I find, because of his insistence that art provide durable forms of happiness
and pleasure, ungenerous. I think he's so fundamentally disappointed with the world
that he overprivileges art and, in doing so, is ungenerous to what actually happens.
And I believe he realizes this in his later poems. What makes Stevens's later poems
his best is the fact that they confront the failure, the parsimony, of his attitude
towards change and the world."
Hugh Kenner in his influential bookThe Pound Era (1971), characterized the work of Wallace Stevens as "an Edward Lear poetic, pushed to all limits."~~~
“The awful thing I've noticed about Stevens that I've noticed is that everybody in English
departments who hate poetry, which is just about everybody, loves Stevens. I liked Stevens
a great deal more before I saw that. You get somebody you know very well just hates poetry,
like some people hate baseball or French movies like I do. You know there's just a real weird
hatred. Well, they always like Stevens, all of these people. And the more they hate poetry
as it is in the process, the more they like Stevens. So although Stevens moves me, I've gotten
more and more distrustful of him.”
The poems of Wallace Stevens are frequently “elusive to the point of incomprehension,
their gorgeous structures of sound not put to the service of illuminating ‘subjects’—human beings.”
Stanley Burnshaw, in a review of Ideas of Order in the New Masses in 1935, while looking back at Harmonium with some praise, he noted, "It is the kind of verse that people concerned with the murderous world collapse can hardly swallow today except in tiny doses."~~~
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