Poetry in 1914-1945 saw form experimented with by such pioneers as Ezra Pound, T. S. Elliot, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens.
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Wallace Stevens was born in Pennsylvania, educated at Harvard College and New York University Law School. He practiced law in New York during the 1904-1916, the years that saw the flourishing of artistic and poetic activity there. Having moved to Hartford, Connecticut, he became an insurance executive and, in private, wrote poetry, eventually developing his own style.
His poetry is populated by extremely intricate and aesthetic images that are reflected in the fittingly named books: Harmonium, Ideas of Order, and Parts of a World, and his poems such as “Sunday Morning,” “Peter Quince the Clavier,” and “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Stevens uses his writings to artfully study the finesse of imagination, the yearning for aesthetic form, formulating the belief that the order in art matches the order in nature.
His vocabulary is opulent and colorful. He can paint a lush tropical scene with the same finesse which he uses to weave dry, humorous vignettes. While soaring into intellectual heaven, Stevens masterfully laughs at popular culture, sophisticated society. He uses exuberant word play as a musical instrument:
“Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.”
Stevens likes to surprise readers with his insightful tricks, as in “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” (1932):
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
The poem bewails the unimaginative lives of plain white nightgowns while instilling into the reader’s innerscape a world of vibrant images. The drunken sailor does end up catching the tigers, at least in his dream. Stevens shows that the human mind can be one – with the sailor as well as with the reader – and always find the thirsted-for arty outlet.
His life is worth of close scrutiny for anyone aspiring to be a writer: he was able to separate the artistic and business activities so successfully that his associates in the insurance business had no clue of his poetry, and the artistic world until recently, did not know of his business.