Archive for May 2016

The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, by Paul Mariani

May 15, 2016

In middle-age hoping to twig from
What we are not what we might be next, a question 
The South seems never to raise.
–Auden, “Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno”

Biographies these days challenge the forearms. While pleading for the subject to kick the bucket already, you keep yourself awake in late-night reading bouts, desperate to finish before drowsiness drops the volume onto your nose with ensuing sparks.

So, the reader is grateful for a life that gets it done in 411 pages of text. But still, of course, the reader has whimsies of his own and is impossible to please. Too much is left out! What did Stevens think of Yeats, or Hardy, or Auden? Why did he bull ahead with his blank verse lines, loosening the line only a bit, but never as Eliot did, to melt into prose? How did he handle the apparent rejection of Harmonium when he finally let it loose on the world, publishing for the first time at age forty-three?

There’s no original research shown. The author seems to have flipped through the published Letters, the smaller collections of letters with José Rodriguez Feo and with the poet’s wife Elsie, and the oral biography by Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World. (It is said that there are many letters that Stevens’s only child and literary executor, his daughter, Holly, never let see the light of day, but she has been gone for over twenty years now and should not be able to veto from the grave.) Finally, there are the poems themselves. In any literary biography, there is going to be some analysis of the work product. Mariani makes the curious choice to weave the poetry itself into the narrative. It’s somewhat pleasing if the reader is very familiar with the poems already. Otherwise, it must be very tedious. It would be adventurous to recommend this book to anyone unfamiliar with Stevens’s poetry.

Putting Stevens in our contemporary context would have been useful. One of the finest poems from Ideas of Order cannot be mentioned in polite society these days (and scarcely so when published). He had bourgeois ways of speaking and liked to drink with the boys–too much so, as the author shows, not only on the famous trips to Florida with Judge Arthur Powell, but at literary dinners, too. Do those who care about poetry these days think less of him for all that? They may and likely do, but we are not told.

This is thirty years after the much more ambitious and detailed biography by Joan Richardson. It is good to have a shorter life to read, but more work could have been done to press out the whey and firm things up. The author doesn’t attempt to defend or explain his choices. There is no introduction. The last two pages are an afterword of sorts, though not separate from the main text.

There are not many photographs. Those that are included are not new. In fairness, let us admit that there may not be many to choose from, but it’s too bad that the cover photo is the very same one used on the Library of America’s Collected Poetry and Prose. The photo is not so classic that the choice cannot be ascribed to laziness.

Still, if one admires the poetry of Stevens very much, it is an excuse to dip back in again, if one needs such impetus!


A Fisherman's Paradise - Long Key Fishing Camp (Library of Congress)

A Fisherman’s Paradise – Long Key Fishing Camp (Library of Congress)