Reading Wallace

January 29th, 2011

My poetic education has been spotty. As a reader, but above all as an American poet writing as part of a tradition of American poets, I have some appalling gaps. One of the poets of whom I am far too ignorant is Wallace Stevens. I am familiar with his most familiar poems, the ones that might have been anthologized or taught in a survey course, but the vast body of his work is unfamiliar to me. Unforgivable, really, for an American poet, and so my project for this year is to read a Wallace Stevens poem each day. I’m currently making my way through Wallace Stevens Selected Poems – I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t just start with Collected Poems and be done with it, because the selected poems will not get me to the end of the year, other than that I had the Selected Poems on my shelf already and international Amazon orders are reliably slow to arrive.

By reading a poem a day, rather than trying to swallow the book whole, I find I’m able to reflect a little about each poem – I’m even keeping a journal of sorts. I hope this slow emersion in his work will allow me to really get to know it rather than just be able to say I have read it. And I’ve noticed in the past week or so that after finishing my poem for the day I want to read more. One poem is not enough. But rather than jumping ahead, gulping down the poems and perhaps losing this reflective approach to them, I move backwards to re-reading.

Today’s poem, “Farewell to Florida,” was the first taken from Stevens’ second collection, Ideas of Order. This is from my reading notes:

The brief chronology included in Selected Poems notes that from 1925 to 1933 Stevens “virtually stopped writing poetry.” I’m curious if there will be some sort of recognizable shift, a change in his voice and style.

Curious because I am definitely recognizing things now. His cadence. The use of rhyme. Repetition. And the colors. The Harmonium poems, at any rate, are bursting with colors: “rosy chocolate” “gilt umbrellas” “Paradisial green” “swimming green” “brilliant iris” “glistening blue.” And those are all just from section I of “Sea Surface Full of Clouds”

The colors are there in this poem, the first included from Ideas of Order, and the use of rhyme. Clever internal rhyme. And the curling back of repetition, the almost-repetitions, the repetitions-with-a-twist. The assertive I voice in section III – “I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools/Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness/Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms” – feels new. Stevens didn’t avoid the I voice entirely in the Harmonium poems, but it appeared rarely (at least in the ones in Selected Poems). It feels like possibly a new experiment on Stevens’ part. I shall have to read more of the Ideas of Order poems to see if it appears again.

Sometimes I start my day with the poem and sometimes it is the last thing before going to bed, but it’s becoming my practice. Some people meditate, some people jog, I read Wallace Stevens. There are worse habits to have.


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