Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) lived a double life. Beginning in 1916, he worked as an executive at the Hartford Insurance Company by day, eventually becoming a senior vice president for fidelity and surety claims at the large Connecticut firm. By night, he was one of the leading modernist poets in the United States, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for the dazzling, idiosyncratic poems he wrote in his spare time. The two careers virtually never intersected; during his lifetime, Stevens feared that too much publicity for his poetry would hamper his business career. His abstract poems, for their part, certainly never discussed insurance.

Stevens was born in Pennsylvania and attended Harvard, where he first tried his hand at poetry. Hoever, his literary career did not flourish until much later in life. As a late bloomer – and in many other respects – Stevens defied the conventional expectations for poets. His personal life was unspectacular and, apart from one drunken brawl with Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) in Key West, produced little controversy. He mostly led the quiet, bourgeois life of an insurance executive and disdained the bohemian pretentions of the literary scene. He distrusted left-wing politics and was often uncomfortable among fellow writers.

His work, however, has been of lasting influence on twentieth-century poets. Like T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), Stevens wrote in an abstract, enigmatic style that can be difficult to decode. Unlike Eliot, however, Stevens wrote poems that are often upbeat, even joyful in tone. Stevens bent and shaped the English language into new forms; in one famous poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (1923), apparently set at a fairground*, he writes of a “roller of big cigars” whipping “in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.”

In addition to “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” some of Steven’s best-known works include “Sunday Morning” (1923), “Anecdote of the Jar” (1923), and the long poem Auroras of Autumn (1950), which is considered his masterpiece by some critics. Steven’s poems, especially “Sunday Morning” and Auroras of Autumn, address themes of death, nature, and the spiritual uncertainties of an increasingly post-Christian society.

*This is not the blogger’s interpretation. I interpret the poem as a wake that is set in someone’s home, not a fairground.

From The Intellectual Devotional – American History by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim

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