March 17, 2018

Wallace Stevens & his Blue Guitar

On this day in 1937, Wallace Stevens published his fourth book of poetry, The Man with the Blue Guitar. Stevens was a lawyer with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company for almost forty years, and he was forty-four when he published his first book of poetry. This was Harmonium, a collection which included some of his most anthologized poems -- "Domination of Black," "The Emperor of Ice Cream," "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" -- but which sold fewer than 100 copies at the time. It was dismissed by its New York Times reviewer as a "glittering edifice of icicles" within which "there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion." But in 1955, the year of his death, Stevens's Collected Poems won the Pulitzer and National Book Awards, and he had come to be seen as a founding father of modern poetry -- though some still complained that Stevens succeeded too well at implementing his belief that poetry "must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully."

Stevens's long title-poem in The Man With the Blue Guitar was partly inspired by Picasso's "The Old Guitarist," one of the paintings in a Picasso exhibition which came to Hartford in 1934. Another inspiration was the complaining of many politically-minded critics in the 30s, who did not like his emphasis on the independent imagination of the artist and his unconcern with "things exactly as they are":
    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. . . ."
Stevens took a daily two-mile walk to the office, so gaining inspiration for some of the century's most famous and metaphysical poems; Hartford is currently rasing funds to commemorate Stevens by placing the stanzas of his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird at regular intervals along his route. These are the last of the thirteen ways:
    He rode over Connecticut
    In a glass coach.
    Once, a fear pierced him,
    In that he mistook
    The shadow of his equipage
    For blackbirds.

    The river is moving.
    The blackbird must be flying.

    It was evening all afternoon.
    It was snowing
    And it was going to snow.
    The blackbird sat
    In the cedar-limbs.

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