An Irishman's Diary

 

Fifty years ago tomorrow, the American poet Wallace Stevens died, bringing to a close a career that began in 1915 with publication of his remarkable verse in Poetry magazine, writes Kevin Stevens.

At the time, Stevens was a lawyer working for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he specialised in the intricacies of surety bonds on large construction projects. At work all day on contract instruments and actuarial tables, in the evening he would come home and write lines like these:

Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,

Clippered with lilies

scudding the bright chromes,

Keen to the point of starlight,

while a frog

Boomed from his very belly

odious chords.

Over the next four decades, as Stevens published the collections that established him as the greatest of the American modernists, he continued to work for "the Hartford", becoming a vice-president in 1934 and remaining at the firm until his death in 1955. Most of his insurance colleagues were not aware of his literary stature. "What - Wally a poet?" a fellow executive said when he won the Pulitzer Prize. Another colleague tried to read Stevens's poetry but said it was a "bunch of gobbledy-gook".

Stevens lived in Hartford, Connecticut, in a house called "Asylum", which overlooked a dump. He never left the United States, except to go to Cuba, yet all his life he collected art from abroad and had packages of gourmet food mailed to him regularly. Though very good at his day job, he told his daughter that "making your living is a waste of time. None of the great things in life have anything to do with makingy our living".

At six-foot-three and 18 stone, Stevens was physically imposing. On the surface he was formal and austere, and was once described as "a man who wore a four-piece suit". He liked cold roast beef and dry martinis. He could be waspish.

When a Connecticut professor asked him whether he could bring fellow poet Archibald MacLeish to see him (MacLeish was head of the Library of Congress at the time), Stevens said: "Tell him when he gets a reputation I'll be glad to see him." He was fascinated by the life of Pope Pius X, and on his deathbed converted to Catholicism.

A business associate, Robert DeVore, liked to tell the story of his first meeting with Stevens. In 1928 DeVore, who worked for the Philadelphia branch of the Hartford, was having trouble with a bond for a building contractor who had gone broke while developing a large construction project for the city. Over the phone he described the situation to Stevens, who said it was important enough for him to make the trip down from Connecticut. He asked DeVore to meet him the next morning at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.

When he arrived the next day, Stevens told DeVore that he wanted to avoid time-wasting and get to the city attorney's office right away. Off they rushed. But outside the station, Stevens paused and said, "The attorney's office is on Chestnut Street, right? So on the way down what do you say we get some cinnamon buns."

DeVore said, "Cinnamon buns?"

"Whenever I come to Philadelphia," Stevens said, "I always buy cinnamon buns at Lahr's." So, on their way to the office, they stopped off at Lahr's Market, where Stevens bought two dozen buns - a dozen to be shipped back to Hartford and a dozen to take away. DeVore wondered when his colleague in the four-piece suit was going to eat these sticky treats, but when they got to the lawyer's office Stevens opened the bag, set it in the middle of the table, and said, "Let's have a cinnamon bun". Determined to be polite, everyone took a bun, got their fingers covered in icing, and started the conference.

Anyone who knows Wallace Stevens's poetry should not be surprised that he had a sweet tooth. His language is indulgent. He revelled in the pure sound of words, and his lines hang in the mind like a lemon drop on the tongue. He is uncanny at capturing the quirkiness, colour and beauty of the physical, as when describing summer as "jangling the savagest diamonds and/ Dressed in its azure-doubled crimsons".

Even when writing about death and despair, Stevens used words that resonate sensuously:

Call the roller of big cigars,

The muscular one, and bid him whip

In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

These lines open Stevens's favourite of his poems, "The Emperor of Ice Cream", a meditation on death that includes this stark contemplation of a sheet-covered corpse:

If her horny feet protrude,

they come

To show how cold she is,

and dumb.

Death and pleasure are thus linked, ambiguously but firmly. And in Stevens's mind, what lay beyond the grave may also have been sweet. A Hartford neighbour who once served him a piece of home-made pie later recalled, "I put it on the table and I said, 'Mr Stevens, this is called Heavenly Pie'. He looked at it and said, 'Open up the gates!'"