Wallace Stevens, New York Times obituary

August 3, 1955

Wallace Stevens, Noted Poet, Dead

Special to The New York Times

Hartford, August 2 -- Wallace Stevens, vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry this year, died in St. Francis Hospital today. He was 75 years old.

Mr. Stevens joined the local insurance company in 1916 as head of the Surety Claims Department. He was named a vice president in 1934. He also was a vice president of the Hartford Livestock Insurance Company.

A native of Reading, Pa., Mr. Stevens attended Harvard and received a law degree from New York Law School.

He is survived by his widow, Mrs. Elsie V. Kachel Stevens, and a daughter, Miss Holly B. Stevens, also of Hartford.

His Work Reviewed

Wallace Stevens was a weaver whose threads were words. He spun webs to trap his moods.

"Hence, unpleasant as it is to record such a conclusion, the very remarkable work of Wallace Stevens cannot endure," wrote Percy Hutchison, the late poetry editor of The New York Times.

Mr. Hutchison had just reviewed the new edition of the poet's "Harmonium." That was in 1931, eight years after the volume first appeared. The poetry editor described the poems as closest to pure poetry. He explained that such works depended for their effectiveness on the rhythms and tonal values of words used with only the remotest link to ideational content.

He remarked that the poems were "stunts" in which rhythms, vowels and consonants were substituted for musical notes. But this achievement is not poetry, Mr. Hutchison said before adding:

"From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion."

Yet Mr. Stevens would not compromise with the imagination that in his poems was reality.

He was 44 years old when "Harmonium," his first book, was published in 1923. It contained the four poems that appeared in a special 1914 wartime number of Poetry Magazine.

He had begun writing poems upon his graduation from New York Law School in 1904, when he took a job as a reporter on The New York Tribune before beginning his law practice.

In "The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens," which appeared in 1954 to mark his seventy-fifth birthday, came the realization that he had, in fact, twisted an idea or two into his poetic yarn without dulling the shimmer of the finished product. His earlier illusions were now positive beliefs expressed freely in verse.

When his poems sometimes seemed obscure, he explained: "The poem must resist the intelligence Almost successfully."

However, in his personal and business life there was a very clear discipline. "It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job," Mr. Stevens told a newspaper reporter five years ago in an interview.

He said that he composed his poems just about anywhere. Usually, he said on another occasion, he got most of his ideas when on a walk.

Defined Poet's Role

Mr. Stevens said that poetry was his way of making the world palatable. "It's the way of making one's experience, almost wholly inexplicable, acceptable," he said.

In recent years he felt a sense of imminent tragedy in the world, and to this situation a poet addresses himself, he said. "What he gets is not necessarily a solution but some defense against it," Mr. Stevens remarked.

In "The Necessary Angel," a book of his essays published in 1951, the poet said:

"My final point, then, is that imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos."

His volumes of poems include "Ideas of Order" and "Owl's Clover" in 1936, "The Man With the Blue Guitar" in 1937, "Parts of a World" in 1942, "The Auroras of Autumn" in 1950. He won a National Book Award in 1950 and again in 1954.

Columbia University gave him an honorary degree in 1952. Harvard University had conferred a similar honor on him the year before. And in 1949 he received the Bollingen Prize in Poetry from Yale University. He also received the 1951 Gold Medal of the Poetry Society of America.


Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Stevens/obit.html
Last modified: Monday, 21-Dec-1998 07:24:12 EST