Notebook and Circle: Wallace Stevens

I love, love, love Wallace Stevens!

Ok, so he’s not Frost, but he’s pretty fantastic anyway. An insurance exec by day and poet by night, Stevens wrote some truly amazing poetry. He has the gift of weaving colour and music into his words, and has an incredible imagination. Not to mention a talent for putting words together in a way that’s beautiful and new without being jarring. Some of his poems, like “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” are more philosophical and experimental than poetic, but others are simply beautiful.

My favourite is “Peter Quince at the Clavier”. There’s something incredible about the image of Peter Quince  sitting at a piano in a jazz club, playing the melody of blue-shadowed silk.


Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna;

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.


In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.

Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.

She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.

A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned —
A cymbal crashed,
Amid roaring horns.

The poem goes on, but you can read that on your own. I also love “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “The Idea of Order at Key West”. The former is a collection of thirteen unconnected stanzas, each of which concern blackbirds in some way. Some choice quotes:

The blackbird whirrled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.


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

“The Idea of Order at Key West” is a meditation on creativity, the imagination, and the Muse; like a lot of Stevens’ poetry, it explores the impossibility of separating the work of our imaginations from reality, the thing-in-itself. It is told by a group of narrators who watch a woman singing by the seaside, and can’t quite separate her being from that of the sea:

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

You can read the whole poem here… and then tell me what you think!


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