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Wallace Stevens
American poet
(1879-1955)



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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,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

-- 'Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock' (1915)

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe, (...)

And in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

-- 'Sunday Morning' (1915)

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

-- 'Anecdote of a Jar' (1919)

Music is feeling, then, not sound. (...)

Beauty is momentary in the mind—
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body's beauty lives.

--‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’ (1915)

The day of the sun is like the day of a king. It is a promenade in the morning, a sitting on the throne at noon, a pageant in the evening.

-- Journal entry (20 April 1920); as published in Souvenirs and Prophecies: the Young Wallace Stevens (1977), edited by Holly Stevens, ch. 6

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-- ‘The Snow Man’ (1921)

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

-- 'The Emperor of Ice-Cream' (1922)





Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns. (...)

We agree in principle. That's clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began. (...)

This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

-- 'A High-Toned Old Christian Woman', first published in The Dial, No. 73 (July 1922)

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. (...)

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

-- ‘Sunday Morning’ (1923)

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

-- ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ (1923)

Let wise men piece the world together with wisdom
Or poets with holy magic.
Hey-di-ho.
-- 'Hieroglyphica' (1934)

Everything is complicated; if that were not so, life and poetry and everything else would be a bore.

-- Letter (19 December 1935), as published in Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), edited by Holly Stevens, (No. 336)

If some really acute observer made as much of egotism as Freud has made of sex, people would forget a good deal about sex and find the explanation for everything in egotism.

-- Letter (10 January 1936); as published in Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), edited by Holly Stevens, (No. 339)

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are." (...)

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.

-- ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ (1937)

We are the mimics. Clouds are pedagogues. (...)

As a man and woman meet and love forthwith.
Perhaps there are moments of awakening,
Extreme, fortuitous, personal, in which

We more than awaken, sit on the edge of sleep,
As on an elevation, and behold
The academies like structures in a mist.

-- 'It Must Be Abstract' in: Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942)

They will get it straight one day at the Sorbonne.
We shall return at twilight from the lecture
Pleased that the irrational is rational,

-- 'It Must Give Pleasure' in: Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942)

One of the limits of reality
Presents itself in Oley when the hay,
Baked through long days, is piled in mows. It is
A land too ripe for enigmas, too serene.…
Things stop in that direction and since they stop
The direction stops and we accept what is
As good. The utmost must be good and is…

-- 'Credences of Summer', in: Collected Poems (1954)

After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.

To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing.

-- Opus Posthumous (1955)

The number of ways of passing between the traditional two fixed points of man’s life, that is to say, of passing from the self to God, is fixed only by the limitations of space, which is limitless. The eternal philosopher is the eternal pilgrim on that road. It is difficult to take him seriously when he relies on the evidence of the teeth, the throat and the bowels. Yet in the one poem that is unimpeachably divine, the poem of the ascent into heaven, it is possible to say that there can be no faults, since it is precisely the faults of life this poem enables us to leave behind. If the idea of God is the ultimate poetic idea, then the idea of the ascent into heaven is only a little below it.

-- 'A Collect of Philosophy' in: Opus Posthumous (1955)

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises. (...)

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm.

-- ‘Of Mere Being’ (1957)

The imagination is man's power over nature.

-- ‘Adagia’ (1959)


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The selection of the above quotes and the writing of the accompanying notes was performed by the author David Paul Wagner.

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