Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Stevens, Wallace (1879–1955)
Author:
Moore, Andy J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Wallace Stevens, a major twentieth-century American poet, is best known for his ingenious explorations of the relationship between reality and the imagination. His most representative poems come from Harmonium (1923), Ideas of Order (1936), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), and Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942). His Collected Poems (1954) won him the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He had one significant book of literary criticism, The Necessary Angel (1951).

At a first reading, Stevens's poems seem to be distant from the Whitman tradition of American poetry or even from things American. His early kinship appeared to be with the French symbolist poets, but it is obvious that Stevens was familiar with the poetry of Whitman. In the opening lyric of "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," Stevens has great praise for Whitman's poetic sensibility. Critics explore Stevens's "The Owl in the Sarcophagus" and see its elegiac roots in Whitman's "The Sleepers" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." They also compare its rock, leaf, and lilac images to those in "Song of Myself."

Stevens's ties to Whitman seem to rest in his delight and vitality in the power of language, his images of light, color, seascape, and death, as well as his spaciousness. In a 1955 letter to Joseph Bennett, Stevens said that a reading of Whitman's poetry "remains highly vital for many people . . . a gatherings-together of precious Americana . . . The superbly beautiful and moving things are those that he wrote naturally, with an extemporaneous and irrepressible vehemence of emotion" (Stevens 870). Both poets focus on the configuration of the role of the poet as an arbiter of reality.

Bibliography

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1976.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1974.

Riddel, Joseph N. "Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens: Functions of a 'Literatus.'" South Atlantic Quarterly 61 (1962): 506–520.

Stevens, Wallace. Letters. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1966.

Yukman, Claudia. "An American Poet's Idea of Language." Critical Essays on Wallace Stevens. Ed. Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese. Boston: Hall, 1988. 230–245.


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