Paul Stephenson and Lisa Kelly exchange letters on the poetry of Wallace Stevens
24 August 2023
I was sitting in my usual red armchair and perusing the photos and books on my shelf. Or should I say one book in particular – Harmonium by Wallace Stevens. It sits there like a decorative object with its custard yellow Faber cover. I pick it up sometimes and flick the pages, land on a poem, often feel perplexed, intrigued, a little helpless. Only when I picked it up this morning I read the contents and opening pages and noticed the book was first published in 1923. Which means this year is Harmonium’s centenary. I thought about writing something on it but don’t know where to start. I thought it might be better to reach out and have a conversation. Do you know the book or Stevens’ other work? Do you ‘get’ the poems? Any thoughts and opinions?
25 August 2023
How lovely to think of Wallace Stevens and Harmonium’s centenary. Timeliness is a wonderful thing and an excuse to go back to what we take for granted. I haven’t got Harmonium on my shelf, but I do have Wallace Stevens’ Selected Poems, which I read was compiled by the poet at the request of Faber and Faber in 1953. The cover is a rust red with his name in cobalt, not quite Yves Klein blue, and a jaded primrose for the title. I wonder if he chose the colours? It would also be interesting to see which poems out of Harmonium have made his Selected. One thing I acknowledge, and I wonder if this is true for you, is that he’s a poet whose poetry I have gone to for inspiration. In particular, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. Has every poet got a ‘Thirteen Ways’ poem lurking in their folder? Forgive any facetiousness, but when a poem becomes a prompt and generates other work, what does this mean? I think it’s an indication of a new way of looking at the world that is exciting. I can’t say I get this poem in its entirety, but it does something special for me that makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I find it strangely moving, magical and philosophical. What are your experiences with this poem?
Has every poet got a ‘Thirteen Ways’ poem lurking in their folder?
30 August 2023
‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ … such a landmark poem, isn’t it? As you say, moving, magical and philosophical. But also quizzical, cryptical, picturesque, meditative, opaque. I could read it a hundred times and be soothed by it, satisfied, but still looking for meaning. It has that essential re-readability that many of us strive for in our own writing. And yes, I have my own Thirteen Ways poem, but transposed from bird to city. But it’s the fact that I can read and read Stevens and still not quite fathom the poems entirely which attracts me so. Like ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, for example, perhaps his second most famous poem. I’m sure you know, it, but what do you think it’s about? Maybe celebrity, making it big, being above your station, the American dream, consumerism, being blinded by success, or the theatre and spectacle of ice-cream emporia? Is the poem a celebration or a quiet rage, is it silly pomp, or mocking, a satire? Back to ‘Blackbird’ though, I’m struck by the very close-up observation and looking in the truest of ways, almost Attenborough-slant. It makes me wonder, especially given his other poems that address nature, flowers, clouds, and the general display and arrangement of things, their relation to humans, if he was in his own way an environmental poet, an eco poet of sorts avant la lettre. What do you think?
2 September 2023
Is there something that allows a great poem to be felt in many different ways? It is open to meet you with your ideas, your reasoning, your understandings in a way that doesn’t force you down one route. Undoubtedly, you could read it as a critique of consumerism with the humour in the grandiose title of Emperor and his domain – ice cream. But ice cream can be soothing, a treat, an art. Think of your favourite flavour. Think of how you felt it was worthy of celebrating when you were young. And even now, the slightly illicit feeling of having an ice cream.
The fact you ask so many questions that don’t need answering, because your questions provide the answers, underlines for me, how big this poem is – how it has the capacity for all our attitudes and perhaps prejudices to be explored. Nothing is shut down. The roller of big cigars has been called for a celebration, but the wenches needn’t dress up, the boys can bring flowers in last month’s newspapers. The quotidian is immaterial, what politicians vaunt in headlines is old news. The flowers, once picked, are dead, because we only have the present: “Let be be finale of seem”. Don’t you just love the elan of the double ‘be’? I feel it’s a plea to live in the present – we only have ‘be’ and it’s the end of impression, the end of falsehood, the end of appearances and living in the past or projecting into the future. There is a death in the second stanza – the sheet, which displays the departed woman’s craft, embroidered with fantails, is testament to the legacy that covers us, that outlives our death, but beyond that, the only solace we have is to live in the present, in the ‘be’ and accept that the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. We’re subject to our appetites and the empire that is life.
I feel it’s a plea to live in the present – we only have ‘be’ and it is the end of impression, the end of falsehood, the end of appearances and living in the past or projecting into the future
As for questions of nature and environmentalism, I would have to trick my mind into many knots to convince myself of this. I’m sure it can be done, but I’m also sure that we all, as poets and writers, are environmentalists today – or at least would like to portray ourselves as such. There are trends and there is truth. However, Stevens’ intense powers of observation (his focus on what he sees before him in the ‘be’) does lend his poems a truth. To see things as they are – to not dismiss nature and the environment or use it for your own ends; to stand apart from it and appreciate it without the human-centric permeating the poetry – could be a way of forcing the final corner of the jigsaw puzzle into an eco-poetic space.
3 September 2023
I admire that last line you mention from ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’: “let be be finale of seem”. That double appearance of ‘be’ side by side is so pleasing because it’s jarring and visually arresting. You do a double take, literally. A plea to live in the present, indeed. And a reminder that none of us know of our finale. It’s striking how ‘be’ is being used today in slang and as a meme (‘Guys be like … Monday be like … Work be like …), with ‘be like’ standing in for ‘is’ or ‘is often’.
And you asked me about ice cream. A good pistachio, I’d say. I remember the perfect fresh pistachio ice cream at L’Isle-Adam on the banks of the Oise, 30 kms north of Paris. More brown than green and not overly blended so there were still pieces of nut. Texture and mouthfeel. I was completely taken aback by how good it was, expecting nothing in particular, just a regular scoop. It’s like poems, isn’t it? The utter pleasure of stumbling across a poem that speaks to your senses, makes you see / hear / taste the world afresh. And finding poems in the most unassuming of places, like small, independent poetry magazines. Which reminds me, I must get round the reading Magma’s food issue (86). Maybe there’s an ice-cream poem. I’m also reminded of Peter Sansom’s pamphlet The Ice Cream Carpet.
It was a hot pistachio afternoon and we walked up the river to Auvers-sur-Oise (a mistake, main road traffic), where Van Gogh spent the last 70 days of his life, an incredible prolific period, when he experimented with new approaches, colour and brushwork, painting more than one canvas a day. His bare room in the Ravoux Inn. The gravestone in the cemetery alongside Theo. The menacing sky of ‘Wheatfield with Crows’, the dead-end path, the brush strokes yellow-orange. As Stevens says,
Let the place of the solitaires
Be a place of perpetual undulation
You mention Steven’s ability to appreciate the world without “the human-centric permeating the poetry”. And it’s true he doesn’t use the first person much, quite in contrast to much contemporary poetry. Or at least, he transfers the ‘I’ to other protagonists, so it’s not necessarily the poet speaking in the first person. Does this make the work harder to engage with, not least given the immediate lack of emotion at surface level? Or is a strange emotional bent conjured precisely through this absence of the self (a realisation of the insignificance of the self in the grand scheme of things, perhaps?). Oh, and what’s your favourite flavour?
10 September 2023
Your memory of your favourite ice cream unlocked a lovely story about the unexpected deliciousness of your pistachio choice. My favourite ice cream is mint choc chip. I used to let scoops melt in the bowl when I was young and the chocolate bits would sink. I’d pretend I was eating pea soup and delay the chocolate treat! A long time ago, you’ll be pleased to know. Maybe, if ice cream is a poem, it says something about how I like to split it into its constituent parts and savour elements separately rather than just giving in to be seduced by the whole. How do you read a poem? How do you read a Wallace Stevens poem? Do you bother looking for meaning or are you a receptacle for being lulled by image-making and sound etc. without working out what you enjoy most?
Penelope Shuttle has a poem – ‘Handover’ – in the Food issue of Magma – there’s a fleeting mention of ice cream in what is essentially an affective list poem of food preferences for her mother’s carer, which is intimate and sad because of, not despite, its note form:
Doesn’t eat desserts but sometimes will have ice cream.
Maybe there’s always room for ice cream, even towards the end of our lives. It’s a treat and a comfort and takes us back to our youth. Perhaps, like smell, it can directly access memories.
You mention Van Gogh towards the end of his life and how those 70 days were incredibly prolific. I wonder about urgency. How did Stevens write? It feels like he knew what he wanted to achieve from the get-go.
23 September 2023
From what I understand, Harmonium was entirely written over a summer vacation, though given some of the epic poems such as ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’ (18 pages) and Sunday Morning (5 pages), I wonder if this can really be true. What seems so coherent and distinctive about the collection is the sense of hyperreality – the vivid colours and glaring images take me back to that sunny spring of the first lockdown in 2020, the sky so ultramarine, the blossom so very pink and blossomy. My local woodland park was a sanctuary, with only the occasional other person coming the other way, as if actors in some strange Truman-show like episode.
In Harmonium you stumble across a whole cast of characters, all figments, one presumes, of Stevens’ imagination: The Ordinary Woman, The Doctor of Geneva, The Silver Plough-Boy, The Weeping Burgher, The Cuban Doctor (another doctor!), The Virgin Carrying a Lantern, Peter Quince at the Clavier, The Prince of Peacocks (Anecdote of). Where others might tend to write on family or lovers, Stevens has created his own personal mythology, majestic and painterly in parts, sorry in others, yet also triumphant and full of bravado. Who are these people to Stevens? Drawn from life or completely imagined? Are they a random cohort of bit parts or is there a main protagonist?
You ask me how I read a Wallace Stevens poem? Like an exhibit on display, I think
And much of it is completely timeless. How has that been achieved, I wonder? The capitalisation of the first word on each line is a giveaway, of course, and if I’m honest, distracts me from the poems, makes them more distant to me (might an editor one day decide to adapt the presentation of the poems for a modern poetry readership?). I say timeless, and yet I do wonder what the poems can tell us one hundred years later in 2023, how they can help us in this age of Covid, Brexit, war, climate change. Do the poems engage with or reference any kind of present? Should they even have to?
You ask me how I read a Wallace Stevens poem? Like an exhibit on display, I think. There’s a sense of artifice, decoration, and play. But also, like a clue for a cryptic crossword – can I decipher it? Can I find the hidden message? I’m certainly a sucker for sound and image, and egging the linguistic pudding, but I do also need heart. What do the poems reveal do you think? Do you find them devoid of emotion? At times one senses slight despondency (‘Depression before Spring’, ‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’, ‘The Death of a Soldier’, ‘Negation’) and so I wonder if the tomfoolery of many poems was a cover.
17 October 2023
You pick up on summer and how Stevens wrote Harmonium at speed during a vacation. Do we all have times of intense productivity and then our fallow periods? I realise that we’re asking ourselves questions as well as each other in our correspondence. Is that a good thing? I have no definitive answers, but as we draw towards winter, I am conscious of ends. Or beginnings of more ends. I returned to one of the longer poems you mention, ‘Sunday Morning’. The colours in this poem, I agree do give a sense of hyperreality, but they’re used for everyday experience – the ‘she’ of the poem enjoying a lazy morning in her peignoir “and the green freedom of the cockatoo”. She finds comfort in the bright day – the sun, pungent fruit, and “bright, green wings” – the pleasures of the senses. This hyperreality of the everyday contrasts with where her thoughts are drawn:
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of the old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
It’s the afterlife which cancels out colour, and the struggle to not let it leach that colour and vitality from thought:
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
Perhaps that’s a struggle we all face in our lifetime? The pull of Thanatos. How do we reconcile this urge to live, to lose ourselves in sensuality, in the hyperreal with the reality and shadow of death? I have no answers, only questions, but I’m interested that the first lockdown was a moment carved out of time for you that felt like a respite, where you were able to appreciate every detail and shade and iteration of nature. Stevens creates characters that feel more like epithets than people. Maybe it’s a way of making people you know become more alive, more hyperreal, more relatable for the reader. Each of those character titles suggests its own story before the poem has even begun.
This is what I love about Stevens, and I think it’s what you love too – the invitation to the reader to bring their own experiences and imagination to play with the poems
This is what I love about Stevens, and I think it’s what you love too – the invitation to the reader to bring their own experiences and imagination to play with the poems. Yes, there is playfulness, and yes there is mystery, but there is undoubtedly timelessness because we are communing with Stevens now at another terrible time in our history.
By the way, I like his capitalisation! I enjoy the sense of announcement and assurance.
As winter approaches, I have re-read ‘The Snow Man’ and thrill at that first stanza every time:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow
What thought. What imagery. What sadness.
Lisa Kelly‘s second collection, The House of the Interpreter (Carcanet), is a Poetry Book Society Summer Recommendation. Her first collection, A Map Towards Fluency (Carcanet), was shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Poetry Prize 2021. She has single-sided deafness and co-edited What Meets the Eye (Arachne Press). She is Chair of Magma Poetry. Her website is here. She tweets here.