“From this the poem springs”: On Paul Mariani’s The Whole Harmonium

Reviewed in this essay:

Paul Mariani, The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens
Simon & Schuster
April 5, 2016
$30; 496 pp.

One of Thomas Jefferson’s biographers, Alfred J. Nock, remarked that Jefferson was “easy and delightful of acquaintance, impossible of knowledge.” This is also a good way to describe Wallace Stevens, who charmed many of the people he met (when sober—Hemingway claimed to have punched him for being an inebriated boor in Key West) but remained wary of intimate relationships with business associates, other poets, even his wife. A closely buttoned man, Stevens preferred speaking to the world through those strange, meditative, endlessly beguiling poems.

To get around such reticence, we rely on the detective work of biographers, who assemble a pontoon bridge between published texts and private lives. You form a powerful relationship with a writer when reading a brilliant biography. In books like Richard Ellmann’s life of Joyce, Hermione Lee’s Woolf, Ian Hamilton’s Robert Lowell, Richard Davenport-Hynes’s Auden, or the meandering grandfather of them all, Boswell’s Life of Johnson—a narrative that tells the truth without always being factually accurate—the intimate structure of an artist’s experience becomes tangible and vivid. The Life evokes a real, singular life, the unfolding conditions of a mind and body amid an entire historical life-world. Good biography aspires to the intensity of fiction.

For a poet long considered a Modernist giant, Stevens has been the subject of comparatively little biography. From three decades ago we have Joan Richardson’s exhaustive, occasionally exhausting, two-volume Wallace Stevens: A Biography (1986-1988); from slightly earlier, there is Peter Brazeau’s oral compendium, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (1983), which contains invaluable recollections of Stevens by friends, acquaintances, and coworkers. An excellent monograph by Alan Filreis, Wallace Stevens and the Actual World (1991), historicizes his work by plotting his responses to events like the Great Depression and the world wars. James Longenbach’s superb Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (1991) does the same. But until now there has been no prominent single-volume life. Enter the prolific critic Paul Mariani (a biographer of John Berryman and William Carlos Williams, among others) with The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens.

A challenge for a biographer is that Stevens’s external life was boring much of the time. He went out of his way to maintain a suburban respectability, having little use for bohemian tropes about the disordered lives of poets, so after trying his hand at freelance journalism in New York, where his first job as a stringer was covering Stephen Crane’s funeral, he became a lawyer and settled in bucolic Hartford, Connecticut. He excelled at an arid kind of legal practice, insurance law. His reputation grew slowly—he was forty-four when his first book, Harmonium, which sold terribly, was published. He routinely turned down opportunities to read his poems in public and seldom gave lectures even after he became famous in the 1940s. He married one woman, and while the marriage ended up frosty, he took no lovers. He seldom travelled outside New England except for business and went abroad only twice (to Cuba and Panama) despite having disposable income and a taste for peppering his poems with foreign words and places (a friend remarked that “he preferred the Paris of his imagination to the real thing”). He did not correspond with many writers; he did not review books; he preferred gray suits; he was a Republican.

In a first-rate biography, this isn’t an insurmountable problem. But The Whole Harmonium is not first-rate or even particularly memorable, despite its length (nearly 500 pages). Now, it is not a truly bad book. It gets nothing wrong about Stevens’s life or the importance of his work, and while Mariani has a habit of mimicking his subject’s voice in purple style (“Ah, to be the moonlight itself, and recite lines of poetry and be poetical”), his prose is competent enough. Yet The Whole Harmonium falters in three respects: it turns up no new information about Stevens’s life; though reverent, it offers no fresh insights into how that life shaped his writing; and Mariani’s readings of the poems are mostly a pastiche of quotation, summary, and humanist platitude (“for the Romantic had a way of renewing itself just as mankind inevitably had a need to renew itself”). Mariani might not turn new readers away from Stevens, but he doesn’t offer much to those who are already familiar with the poet.  

For an account, albeit partial, of Stevens’s life, the best texts are Brazeau’s oral biography (upon which Mariani draws) and the poet’s letters (ditto), which his daughter Holly edited into a superb collection. In the latter, he is almost always guarded, even with favorite correspondents, but nevertheless but he frequently comments on his art in illuminating ways. It is in the Letters that we find him judging himself “at best, an erratic and inconsequential thinker.” Elsewhere he explains, “Thinking about poetry is, with me, an affair of weekends and holidays, a matter of walking to and from the office.” He tells a reader, “I am sorry that a poem of this sort [“Domination of Black”] has to contain any ideas at all, because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with the images & sounds it contains. A mind that examines such a poem for its prose contents gets absolutely nothing from it.” He repeatedly emphasizes that his ideal poetry is not rarefied or transcendental but instead seeks “insight into the commonplace, reconciliation with every-day reality.” The Letters are where Stevens confides, as the Second World War approaches, that “My own way out toward the future involves a confidence in the spiritual role of the poet, who will somehow have to assist the painter, etc. (any artist, to tell the truth) in restoring to the imagination what it is losing at such a catastrophic pace.”

I found myself skimming through Mariani’s glosses on the poems as the book wore on. This was usually not because I found myself disagreeing with him. He is right about the beauty of Stevens’s work, “beauty” being an overused but indispensable word here, as a random five-minute perusal of the Collected Poems will confirm. It is just that Mariani works in a lush register that ventriloquizes Stevens’s language and forfeits the critical distance that would enable sustained formal, biographical, and historicist explications of the poems. Everything becomes a warm bath of truisms, and while I find that comfortable, it does not add to my understanding. It also puts the critic’s voice in a poor light, considered against the majesty of the lyrics. Here are a few sample quotations from Mariani.

Regarding “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle”:

Consider those Japanese beauties brought to life in the prints of Utamaro in the eighteenth century, which influenced so many of the French impressionists. Consider the sensuous nuances the Japanese artist caught in the “all speaking braids” of those ladies. Consider too “the mountainous coiffures of Bath,” those London ladies of the Enlightenment on holiday with their luscious locks.

This is his explanation of an early lyric, “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”:

It is the imagination here—not as fuzzy blanket, but as roaring lion, fierce bear—which confronts the nothing that is. It is here too that the poet descends from his Jovian cloud, his regal beard sprinkled with heavenly ointment for his self-anointing, while high hymns buzz about his ears and the tidal force of the imagination sweeps through him, until

            Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
            And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard. . . .
            I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
            Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
            And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

A bit of vague biography concludes this reading: “Though he would put this purple vision of the self back into his wardrobe for another ten years and shrink into the cipher of a single consonant, Stevens would return to the Palaz of Hoon, where the sleeping giant would awaken and blaze with the radiance of the radiant sun god Ra once more.”

Here he is on the mock-epic “The Comedian as the Letter C”: “So, in the miasmic moonlight world of the romantic imagination falsified, he ‘grips more closely the essential prose’ of things as the ‘one integrity’ still left him, the antipoetic, if you will, though that phrase will provoke a dispute with [William Carlos] Williams ten years hence.”

It goes on like that. At least some readers will find the prose cloying.

Stevens, for his part, didn’t consider his work difficult to understand. “My poems seem so simple and natural to me,” he told one correspondent. Despite what generations of critics and readers have turned out to think, he thought his texts were “all perfectly direct,” protesting that they “mean just what they say even when that may seem a bit neither here nor there.” I’m not so sure about that, though I do agree that readers often overthink poetry, as though it were a lyrical code.

In his essay “Je Suis ein Americano: The Genius of American Diction,” Tony Hoagland observes that “Stevens, often represented to college students as the major philosopher of modern American poetry, is in fact one of its true comedians.” Not that a poet can’t be comic and philosophical at the same time. “The Comedian as the Letter C” contains an ironic self-description that could apply to anyone who gets self-serious, which is most of us:

                        Hence it was,
            Preferring text to gloss, he humbly served
            Grotesque apprenticeship to chance event,
            A clown, perhaps, but an aspiring clown.

Funny as Stevens can be, a deep sadness animates his work. Relations between us aspiring clowns tend to wear thin, and eventually death cancels every bond; late in life Stevens would write to his nephew that “it is the easiest thing in the world for us to drift apart instead of clinging to each other as we should.” But while art can’t vanquish mortality—“immortal” though a great poem may be, it saves nobody’s life—it can help us confront loneliness, ambiguity, and death with dignity. The late masterwork “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” addresses this as directly as any of his poems do:

            From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
            That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
            And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

A great writer, whatever his circumstances, remains unknowable in a way that will always frustrate. Even a better biography than The Whole Harmonium would be up against this. The poems are so enormously compelling; you can return to them endlessly. Why can’t we know the poet himself that well? Why does the creative magic remain opaque even under scrutiny? Why is it so hard to see how an actual, messy, limited human life produced such glorious art? What is genius, anyway?

No biography can do more than suggest provisional answers to such questions. What matters are the poems, of course. When the mortal life falls away, there they are. And there Stevens lingers, amid his.

—Ryan Boyd