Domonique Davies, University of Reading
If 1922 was a significant year for Modernism, it certainly was for Wallace Stevens. Aged forty-two and established in his position as chair of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, Stevens spent much of the latter half of 1922 compiling poems for his first collection, Harmonium, which would be published with A. A. Knopf the following year. While Stevens would go on to become one of America’s most anthologised poets, his feelings towards his work during his early career reveal much about his ambitions for his writing, and the roles of language and sound within his poems. This piece will pinpoint the significance of the year of 1922 within the development of Stevens’s poetics, focusing on a letter from Stevens to the editor of Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe, on 28th October 1922.
Stevens reflects on the up-and-coming publication of Harmonium:
Gathering together the things for my book has been so depressing that I wonder at Poetry’s friendliness. All my earlier things seem like horrid cocoons from which later abortive insects have sprung. The book will amount to nothing, except that it may teach me something. […] Only, the reading of these outmoded and debilitating poems does make me rather desperately to keep on dabbling and to be as obscure as possible until I have perfected an authentic and fluent speech for myself.[i]
The strikingly pessimistic tone regarding the prospects of Harmonium combined with the characterisation of his works as insectoid reveals much about Stevens’s self-criticism. His negative outlook bears some similarity to Ezra Pound’s judgement of poetry in 1909-10, where, in Pound’s view, the artform was ‘stagnant to a degree difficult for any young poet of today to imagine.’[ii] Indeed, the opening lines of Pound’s ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ (1921) that discuss the need to ‘resuscitate the dead art | Of poetry’ coheres with Stevens’s thoughts toward his earlier work, wherein the writing has not achieved the intended result and needs to be brought back to life.[iii] However, Stevens’s evident lack of confidence in the ‘horrid cocoons’ of his work gives way to a more positive musing on his future writing: he hopes that his book will be able to ‘teach’ him something.[iv] Insomuch, Stevens only seems to view his early writing as a model upon which to improve his future work. The year of 1922 can be viewed as a crossroads for Stevens, with reflection and future-thinking on his poetic career leading to thought about how he might ‘resuscitate’ his work. One way in which Stevens sought to do so was to push his innovative use of language and sound to achieve his aim of writing ‘the great poem of the earth’[v].
As Stevens writes, he hopes to ‘keep on dabbling’ in obscurity until he has been able to perfect ‘an authentic and fluent speech’, indicating the necessity of experimenting with language and sound to create his own style.[vi] Stevens’s citation of the term, ‘obscurity’ coheres with views around Modernist poetry and its overall tendency towards obscurity. As literary critic Donald Davie explains, the modern poet stands on one side of a gulf and is at pains to ‘show us that the gulf can be bridged’ through experimental and innovative ways.[vii] This bridging of the gulf of speech and language is what Stevens sought to experiment with in his future work and his search for an authentic speech. Indeed, as Anca Rosu (Rutgers University) proposes, one of Stevens’s defining characteristics as a modern poet is his ‘inclination to philosophize’.[viii] For Rosu, Stevens’s ‘stylistic innovations and especially his use of sound’ are ‘intimately connected’ with his philosophical exploration and experimentation.[ix] Rosu further claims that Stevens’s ‘crafty handling of repetitions and sound patterns’ gives him a place amongst modern writers ‘who attacked the established view of language and the world.’[x] It is through a playful use of language, sound and philosophical innovation where Stevens stages his dabbling experimentation, to ‘quiz all sounds, all thought, all everything’ and formulate his own mode of speech.[xi]
1922 was for Stevens, a year that symbolised the bridging of the gulf as described by Davie. With the publication of his first collection approaching, a sense of transition is present in his letter of October 1922. Indeed, his later collections would not include so much of the gaudy and flamboyant linguistic experimentation as Harmonium, signalling that perhaps the work was successful in allowing Stevens to move forward in his search for an authentic speech. Much later in his career, Stevens wrote the essay, ‘Imagination as Value’ where he appeals that ‘the great poem of the earth remains to be written.’[xii] This poem of the earth is predominately caught up in sound, because, as we are reminded in the ‘The Search from Sound Free from Motion’, ‘The world lives as you live, | Speaks as you speak, a creature that | Repeats its vital words, yet balances | The syllable of a syllable.’[xiii]
In Stevens’s search for an authentic speech, he sought to reconcile the boundaries between reality and the imagination to clearly depict to his readers the ‘things as they are’.[xiv] While Harmonium would go on to be well-received and Stevens’s poetic career would flourish, it cannot be said if he ever reached his own admission of a fluent and authentic speech. Even so, we can listen into Stevens’s experimental world and sound-play across his works, which ultimately reveal that the great poem of the earth is that which equals the world itself.
Domonique Davies is a final year PhD student at the University of Reading. Her project seeks to reframe Wallace Stevens as an ecopoet, considering ecocriticism’s address of issues surrounding human and nonhuman relationships. She was one of the organisers of the Inside and Outside Modernism: An Anatomy of 1922 and its Cultures conference in March 2022 at the University of Reading.
Image credit: Photograph of Wallace Stevens twirling a cane, circa 1922, Wallace Stevens papers. Unknown photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
[i] Wallace Stevens, ‘Entry 254, To Harriet Monroe, October 28, 1922’, VII: Preliminary Minutiae’ in The Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed by Holly Stevens, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 198-262, p. 231.
[ii] Ezra Pound, ‘Part One: The Art of Poetry, A Retropsect’ in the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), pp. 3-15, p. xiii.
[iii] Pound, ’Hugh Selwyn Mauberley [Part I]‘, Poetry Foundation, Online: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44915/hugh-selwyn-mauberley-part-i, [accessed 08 October 2022].
[iv] Stevens, ‘Entry 254, To Harriet Monroe, October 28, 1922’, p. 231.
[v] Stevens, ‘Imagination as Value’ in Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1951.), pp. 131 – 156, p. 142.
[vi] Stevens, ‘Entry 254, To Harriet Monroe, October 28, 1922’, p. 231.
[vii] Donald Davie, ‘Chapter XIII: What is Modern Poetry?’ in Articulate Energy: An Inquiry Into the Syntax of English Poetry, (Routledge, 1955), pp. 147-160, p. 147.
[viii] Anca Rosu, ‘Meaning and Repetition’ in The Metaphysics of Sound in Wallace Stevens, (Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2017), pp. 84-98, p. 84.
[xi] Stevens, ‘Le Monocle De Mon Oncle’ in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, ed. By John N. Serio and Chris Beyers, Second Vintage Books edn. (New York: Random House, 2015), p. 17.
[xii] Stevens, ‘Imagination as Value’ in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, p. 142.
[xiii] Stevens, ‘The Search from Sound Free from Motion’ in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, ed. By John N. Serio and Chris Beyers, Second Vintage Books edn. (New York: Random House, 2015), p. 285.
[xiv] Stevens, ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, ed. By John N. Serio and Chris Beyers, Second Vintage Books edn. (New York: Random House, 2015), pp. 175 – 194, p. 175.