Literary Triskaidekadecennary: Wallace Stevens


American poet Wallace Stevens was born on 2 October 1879, which makes today his triskaidekadecennary. (Before you reach for your dictionary, I just made that word up. As a triskaidekaphile, I think there should be a lot more words for multiples of thirteen.)

Because he was born 130 years ago, not 65 years ago, Stevens never held an academic job in creative writing. While writing the most distinguished poetry of his generation, he had a a day job. His day job was “insurance lawyer.” His specialty was bonding – not the kind of bonding you do with the kids over BBQ and touch football, but the bonding that contractors do to make sure they pay attention to their contract. Stevens had the legal skills and the Sitzfleisch to rise to the top, becoming a vice president at The Hartford.

During business hours at The Hartford, Stevens was just Wally from the home office. But on his lunch hour, he would compose poems in his head. He’d have them typed, then slip them into a desk drawer. Other times, he’d think of titles for poems, much as you or I might think of names for garage bands. He’d slip the titles into another drawer. When the time came, he would grab a poem from one drawer and a title from the other. This helps explain why Stevens’s poems have titles like “Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs” and “The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade.”

His most famous poem is called, for no apparent reason, “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” It is about growing old, though Stevens was just a lad of 39 when it was published. Stevens thought in pictures and phrases, with no explanations attached:

The measure of the intensity of love
Is measure, also, of the verve of earth.
For me, the firefly’s quick, electric stroke
Ticks tediously the time of one more year.
And you? Remember how the crickets came
Out of their mother grass, like little kin,
In the pale nights, when your first imagery
Found inklings of your bond to all that dust.

He had a persistent theme: why be a poet if you’re on a one-way journey toward death? “A Postcard from the Volcano”:

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill.

Later he would say (of his own poems, perhaps):

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

“The Planet on the Table”

That’s why be a poet. Life, the universe, and everything.

In those days, you didn’t need a college degree to be admitted to the bar, and Stevens never earned a B.A. He studied at Harvard for three years, dropping out in 1900 when his family ran out of money. 110 years later, Wallace Stevens would be an attrition statistic. But Harvard was more concerned with educating whole people than meeting statistical benchmarks. His professors introduced him to literature, and Stevens began to write poetry at Harvard.

Nowadays, emerging research universities are tempted to remove the liberal-arts core from a college education. Meanwhile, “fast-track” degree plans strip away everything but the minimum of courses needed for degree production. But what if Wallace Stevens hadn’t taken literature at Harvard? What if his father had said, “I’m paying for pre-law, not for poetry! Get on the fast track and produce that degree!”

We can’t immediately measure the benefit of literature for college students. Some college administrators seem to think that literature is only in the curriculum to slow down business majors. But a literary education didn’t seem to hurt Wallace Stevens in the business world. And if you never study literature at all, what are your chances of growing old, rich both financially and intellectually?

—Tim Morris


  1. Thanks, Tim, for the beautiful excerpt about the “intensity of love” and the “verve of earth.”
    I didn’t know it and I’m glad I now do.

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