Happy Birthday, Mr. Stevens

As the Mad Hatter says, we all have 364 un-birthdays. But for Wallace Stevens, the greatest American poet who ever lived–epic like Whitman, possessed of Dickinson’s lyric intricacies, fleshier than Bishop, more national than Eliot, beautiful unlike Pound–October 2 isn’t one of those. This year he would have been 136. It’s too bad cryogenics haven’t advanced as much as sci-fi movies suggest.

I am lucky that during the 1990s and 2000s my home state, Virginia, had a superb public education system from K to college. In 1999, when I was seventeen, I spent a summer in the state Arts and Humanities Governor’s School at the University of Richmond, where I took strange, exhilarating classes on things like Critical Imagination and hung out with dancers, poets, painters, photographers, actors, and other weirdos.

In one of those classes we read poets like Yeats, Rimbaud (whom I was really getting into at the time, having discovered Enid Starkie’s biography of him), and Stevens. I remember reading the poem below, “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and feeling immediately, before I understood a word, that it was otherwordly, like Pedro Martinez’s change-up, a text uninterested in anything like philosophical or ideological Content and yet scenically intelligible and eager to show me something pleasingly, oddly beautiful. It wobbled and reverberated with magic Yeats and mad Rimbaud:

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 ceintures.
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.

In 2005 a dear friend gave me a hardcover copy of Stevens’s Collected Poems (the 1954 Knopf edition, still the standard). I’ve read the shit out of it ever since, that husky, taped-up, note-tattooed volume. My favorite poem is still, I think, at least in most moods, “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” which just vaporizes the century’s poetic competition. By turns soulful, satirical, straight-faced, erotic, and cinematic, long but brisk, with a continuous lyric intelligence underlying everything, “Peter Quince” was first published a century ago, in 1915, but it remains strikingly contemporary. You can imagine the guy in jeans, taking a selfie of the pool where Susanna . . . well, you’ll see. Full text here; final amazing stanza below. Happy weekend, y’all.

Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
And let us remember: Stevens was an insurance executive at the company now known as The Hartford. An insurance exec!
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