Poet Wallace Stevens & The Power of Imagination

Poet Wallace Stevens was born on this day in 1879. An elegant and playful writer, Stevens—who had a long and very successful career in the insurance business—created poems that richly reward patient reading.

Some of his poems are highly comic, while others are somber and spare. Many of them explore the relationship between consciousness and reality. Take, for example, “The Snow Man,” an excerpt from which appears on the Twentieth-Century Poets stamp sheet. The poem begins:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

In order to understand winter, we must shed our human perceptions and expectations and become like the snow man, for whom the winter world is not cold and desolate. It just is. Human consciousness, Wallace seems to be saying, shapes our reality; to find truth, we must transcend ourselves.

Of course, this is just an interpretation of the poet’s message. Artist Vivienne Flesher (who illustrated the ) chose to represent the poem not literally with the image of a snow man but with what a snow man might see: a single pine tree glowing in the cool winter light.

Isn’t it gorgeous?

This image appears on one of the cards in the , which includes 10 unique note cards and envelopes plus 10 stamps. Each of the cards features a painting by Flesher that, in one way or another, re-imagines the sentiments of the poem it illustrates, rendering the words of the poems both familiar and strange.

Stevens may have appreciated this. Poetry, he once said, is a “a way through reality.” In the words of one critic, “The imagination is the true hero of a Stevens poem.”

The Sensuous Verse of Wallace Stevens

The poems of Wallace Stevens present a luxurious banquet of language and meaning. Their sensuous music and intellectual richness make reading a distinctive experience. Several works by Stevens, such as “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “The Snow Man,” are widely taught in schools. Some of his many books are Harmonium (1923), Ideas of Order (1936), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), and Parts of a World (1942).

Stevens was born on October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania, where his father, an attorney, and his mother, a former teacher, cultivated a literary household. He spent summers at his grandfather’s house in the Pennsylvania countryside, sparking a lifelong appreciation for the American landscape. A talented writer and orator, Stevens published poems in his high school journal. During a three-year course of study at Harvard University, he was particularly influenced by one of his teachers, philosopher George Santayana.

Subsequently, Stevens briefly worked as a journalist. After earning a law degree at New York University, he began a long and very successful career in the insurance business. “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job,” he said. He lived within walking distance of his office in Hartford, Connecticut, and often got ideas for poems on walks. Nevertheless, he maintained a strict separation between the worlds of business and art—to the point where some of his associates were surprised to learn that he was a noted poet.

An elegant and playful writer, Stevens can also be enigmatic. He addresses subjects that can seem abstract and philosophical; draws on references from the arts and literature; and makes sudden shifts in rhetorical tone. Some of his poems are highly comic, while others are somber and spare. They richly reward patient reading. In one of his works, “Man Carrying Thing,” Stevens wrote, “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.”

Many of Stevens’s poems explore the relationship between consciousness and reality. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” collects 13 separate short poems like “chapters” in a brief essay on the relation between the perceiver and the perceived. In “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” Stevens writes of a rabbit at nightfall, liberated from daytime threats now that “the light is a rabbit-light,” and “The whole of the wideness of night is for you, / A self that touches all edges, // You become a self that fills the four corners of night.” In the words of one critic, “The imagination is the true hero of a Stevens poem.”

Accepting an honorary degree from Bard College in 1951, Stevens referred to poetry as “a way through reality.” In “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and other works, he explored how the imagination can harness grief and despair. “Death is the mother of beauty,” he wrote in an early poem, “Sunday Morning.” Impermanence gives experience and things their meaning and value.

Stevens wrote about how uncooperative reality can be, intruding on our generalizations about it. His poems respond to the world of experience without needing to claim or categorize it. They counterpose the human need for order and meaning with the shifting, unknowable nature of the world. They are also a kind of philosophical investigation into the nature of language itself.

First Day Covers (click to order)

In the introduction to his book of essays, The Necessary Angel (1951), Stevens described poetry as a “force capable of bringing about fluctuations in reality in words free from mysticism.” He regarded poetry (and the arts in general) as a compensation for lost religious belief. “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is a long poem spelling out his theory of poetry (and of life) in three sections, headed “It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” and “It Must Give Pleasure.” A late poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” contains the line “We say God and the imagination are one…”

Esteemed as one of America’s greatest and most influential poets during his lifetime—he was awarded many prizes and honorary degrees—Stevens died on August 2, 1955. Since then, admiration for his work has increased.

Wallace Stevens is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

National Book Month: Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems

As an adolescent, I idolized poet Sylvia Plath. While my friends talked endlessly about their favorite bands and actors they wanted hanging over their beds, I spent hours poring over Plath’s poetry and journals, desperately trying to know everything I could about this mysterious woman.

Although Plath published just one collection of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, her complex body of work showcases her ability to conquer such weighty themes as marriage and motherhood, gender and power, death and resurrection, and the search for the self. Her posthumously published Collected Poems (1981) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The collection includes poems written from 1956 until her suicide in 1963.

Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy” (1962), delves into the painful subject of her father’s death when she was a child. Written in the singsong style of a nursery rhyme, the emotional verse evokes the feelings of sorrow and anger she felt at not having the opportunity to know her father before he died. This anger quickly changes direction, focusing on her husband, whose betrayal is connected, in Plath’s mind, to that of her father’s. By the end of the poem, the narrator has shed the burden of grief for both of these painful relationships.

As a teenager I wanted to be a poet, and Plath’s highly autobiographical style appealed to me. The way in which Plath reveals honest details of her life and innermost thoughts seemed so extraordinary. Though I no longer hold a romanticized image of becoming a poet, I do still love Sylvia Plath’s writing. With simplicity of language and self-reflection, she gives a voice not only to her own experiences, but those of many women. She is, in my mind, truly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century.

Upon learning about the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps issuance later this year—and that the set of ten esteemed bards includes Sylvia Plath—my excitement for the 2012 stamp program spiked. Along with Plath, the commemorative pane will pay tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Designed by art director Derry Noyes, the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps will be issued in April.

“Sylvia Plath”, n.d.
Photograph by Rollie McKenna
@ Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation

The National Book Award and U.S. Stamps

Congratulations to all the recipients of this year’s National Book Award! To mark the occasion, we are taking a brief look today at National Book Award winners who have also appeared on stamps.

As you might expect, the Literary Arts series has featured several NBA recipients, including William Faulkner, poet Marianne Moore, and Thornton Wilder.

Robert Penn Warren, featured on the 21st stamp in the series, was America’s first official poet laureate (1986-87) and a three-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. He received the National Book Award in 1958 for Promises: Poems, 1954-1956.

Considered a master prose stylist, Katherine Anne Porter (featured on the 22nd stamp in the Literary Arts series) was best known for her short stories, which earned her both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1966 for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965).

In addition to writers in the Literary Arts series, one other person honored on a stamp has also won a National Book Award: Rachel Carson received an NBA in 1952 for her masterful and poetic study of the oceans, The Sea Around Us.

The 2012 stamp program will see no shortage of National Book Award Winners. In fact, four of the ten poets featured on next year’s 20th-Century Poets stamp pane have received NBAs: William Carlos Williams in 1950 for Patterson Book II and Selected Poems, Wallace Stevens in 1951 for The Auroras of Autumn and in 1955 for The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke in 1959 for Word for the Wind and in 1965 for The Far Field, and Elizabeth Bishop in 1970 for The Complete Poems.

Who’s your favorite?