Wallace Stevens' unique voice combined meditative speculation and what he called the "essential gaudiness of poetry" in a body of work of astonishing profusion and exuberance. Now, for the first time, the works of America's supreme poet of the imagination are collected in one authoritative volume.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1879, Wallace Stevens spent his adult life working in the rigorously non-poetic insurance business. Yet his poetry, most of which he wrote after his 50th birthday, is anything but mundane. Rather, Stevens stuffed his work with the brilliant bric-a-brac of a dozen cultures, celebrating (for example) the "dark Brazilians in their cafes,/Musing immaculate, pampean dits" or the way "that old Chinese/Sat tittivating by their mountain pools/Or in the Yangtse studied out their beards." Stevens wasn't, however, a simple collector of souvenirs. A magpie with a mission, he used the peculiar music of his poetry to investigate grand philosophical dilemmas. What was the distinction between appearance and reality? Does an aesthetic artifact such as a poem bring us any closer to the real? (He seemed to answer the latter question, at least provisionally, by declaring that "the poem is the cry of its occasion/Part of the res itself and not about it.") The Collected Poetry & Prose brings together all of Stevens's published books, including such classic poems as "The Man with the Blue Guitar," "Sunday Morning," and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." There's also a generous sampling of his essays, speeches, letters, and miscellaneous prose. These riches confirm the enormous reach of Stevens's imagination, but they also remind us that for all his internationalism, he remained very much a product of his native soil. As he confessed in a 1948 letter, "I like to hold on to anything that seems to have a definite American past even though the American trees may be growing by the side of queer Parthenons set, say, in the neighborhood of Niagara Falls."