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Wallace Stevens Portrait

Had Wallace Stevens not existed—a lifelong insurance executive writing some of his country's most insistently metaphysical poetry—it would hardly have been plausible to invent him. Yet Stevens had actually committed himself to writing poetry before taking a position with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company; the job was a way to earn a living. He was born and grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was educated at Harvard and at the New York University Law School. He began publishing poems in magazines in 1914, but his first book, Harmonium, did not appear until 1923.

Although Stevens lived and worked in Connecticut, a number of his poems drew on the Florida landscape he saw on regular business trips. Indeed the sheer riotous excess and profusion of Florida's flora and fauna often gave him a perfect analogue for the mental life he used nature to evoke. The poems are thus at once referential and devoted to elaborate rhetorical invention that creates a world of its own. In comments in letters that are less than fully trustworthy or definitive, Stevens sometimes denied the poems this double life, but readers should judge for themselves. The poems are so captivating in their rhetorical inventiveness—the play of words deployed for their sound, the almost palimpsestic thickness of imagery, the wit—that one can easily miss Stevens's regular (if abstract) engagement with the issues of his day, but it is nonetheless a continual feature of his work. Debates both with the world of public events and between contrasting philosophical or cultural positions occur throughout the poems. To some degree, such philosophical issues crowd out the sensuous surfaces and the rich music in his later poems. Some critics also find many of the late lyrics too similar to one another. Yet their obsessive circling around related themes of emptiness is a large part of their interest. They form a single, driven project that anticipates postmodern work like W.S. Merwin's poetry of Vietnam War despair.