Wallace Stevens: When Weird Is Grounded in Normal

wallace stevens

“The greatest poverty,” Wallace Stevens once wrote, “is not to live in a physical world.” This observation came decades before the SmartPhone, the Internet, and the iPad, meaning, if Stevens were to return today, he’d find the entire planet a “third-world nation”–impoverished, indeed!

Ironically, Stevens used the physical world for fantastic leaps by using metaphor to couple reality with the imagination. Delmore Schwartz called him “an aesthete in the best sense of the word.” Marianne Moore crowned him “America’s chief conjurer.”

Stevens finishes his poem “In the Carolinas,” for instance, with this surprising proclamation on the physical world: “The pine-tree sweetens my body / The white iris beautifies me.” The effect of such unnatural naturalness might explain his poetry.

Note, for instance, how far afield Stevens goes from the physical world while still hewing close to his own realities in another famous poem:

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded centuries.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

Everything’s normal here, right? And not. We have familiar colors, white night-gowns, and lace socks. But we have reality skewed, too. The house is haunted, the old sailor is drunk, and people might just dream of such realities as “baboons and periwinkles” (what a pair!) if they’re not careful. Best of all, and most memorable, you can catch tigers in “red” weather. For readers, it’s all familiarly strange–a quintessential Stevens poem.

Only Wallace Stevens could look at the abject ordinariness of a blackbird from thirteen angles. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” one of his most famous poems, readers might well surrender all hope of interpretation and take succor on his delicious turns of phrases alone: “twenty snowy mountains,” “of three minds,” “small part of a pantomime,” “A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one,” “the beauty of innuendoes,” “barbaric glass,” “thin men of Haddam,” “noble accents,” “the edge / Of one of many circles,” “bawds of euphony,” “the shadow of his equipage,” “The river is moving,” and “It was evening all afternoon.”

If you don’t understand the poem, you well know the feeling of it being evening all afternoon because you understand evenings and you understand afternoons. You just haven’t understood how one could be the other at the same time. Until now.

Unusual word pairings are Wallace Stevens’ reality, and his readers are at once at home and off balance because of it. That’s why the greatest riches are found while living in his unique physical world. Read him and leave poverty to the SmartPhone addicts.

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