Helen Vendler on Wallace Stevens

Wallace_Stevens
Wallace Stevens

When I first heard Wallace Stevens’ voice it was by chance: a friend wanted to listen to the recording he had made for the Harvard Vocarium Series. In a listening room in the Harvard Library, the quiet authority of his voice entered my mind like a life-saving transfusion: “Sister and mother and diviner love. . . .” In my younger days, I had been insusceptible to the idea that there were thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird; Stevens’ sophistications were beyond me then. Hearing him read many poems aloud naturalized me in his world.
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Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” was the first of Stevens’ sequences that I struggled with. I was, as a graduate student, enrolled in a seminar on Pope’s poetry, but my whole mind was on Stevens. I asked my teacher, Reuben Brower, whether I could write my final paper on didactic poetry, taking as my examples “An Essay on Criticism” and “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.”  He indulgently allowed this bizarre intrusion of Stevens into the eighteenth century, and I am still grateful to him; the paper became the core of my eventual book on Stevens’ longer poems.
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Part III of “Notes”—“It Must Give Pleasure”—was recorded by the Y during Stevens’ reading there on November 6, 1954. Now, listening to him enter upon this strange and difficult poem, I am surprised that he expected it to be understood by his audience—or perhaps he didn’t. When one of his colleagues (according to the oral biography) complained to Stevens that he didn’t understand his poetry, Stevens answered (as I recall): “That doesn’t matter; what matters is whether I understand it.” And he was of course right: over time, poems clarify themselves, and sophomores read “The Waste Land.”
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Read the complete article and listen to Stevens read “It Must Give Pleasure”

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