“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:16
One of the first poets who fascinated me was Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). His day job was working as a lawyer in a large insurance company. Yet his interest in writing made him a poet in his spare time, and he equally excelled in this as he did in his day career. Abstract and philosophical, his poems are complex, and yet accessible in strange and mysterious ways. Something I read about Mr. Stevens’ poetry recently is that he also was proficient at creating memorable phrases in his poems.
Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania and was able to attend Harvard University where his writing ability was manifested in both articles and poems published in this university’s newspapers. Unfortunately he was unable to graduate due to family financial problems. After Harvard, Stevens wrote for newspapers in New York yet yearned for something more fulfilling. He eventually finished college and entered law school. During this time he wrote some poetry, however concentrated more on getting his law degree and acquiring work as a lawyer. It was after he married, had a child and began to work full time for an insurance company in Hartford, CT that Stevens’ poetry began to flourish.
There are several poems of Mr. Stevens that I like. It was hard to choose a selection for this blog. One of these I’ve chosen I actually thought was written by another poet (!) so I decided to include it. It’s an example of a renown modern poem.
Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
***Here is a link to Peter Y. Chou’s piece on wisdomportal.com that gives some brief additional background on Wallace Stevens and his poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:” http://www.wisdomportal.com/Poems2009/Notes-MotherBird.html