Dead more than half a century, Wallace Stevens hardly needs anyone to celebrate his birthday. Born on October 2, 1879, he hasn’t enjoyed one since 1954, having left this world the following year at age 75. But it was cake and champagne among the stacks and study carrels of the Hartford Public Library recently for the Sixteenth Annual Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash thanks to the library and the small cadre of devotees who keep the poet’s legacy alive under the auspices of The Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens. Former Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky capped the gathering of about fifty people by reading both selections from Stevens’ work and his own, a fabled living poet by his voice breathing life into another long dead.
One of the nation’s most significant poetic voices of the twentieth century, Wallace Stevens came to Hartford, Connecticut in 1916 where he worked at the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company (now The Hartford). A lawyer, he was an expert in the arcane world of surety claims and bond covenants. He became a vice president of the company in 1934. Every business day he walked about two miles from his home to work and would often jot notes for poems while passing though familiar streets, poems that would go on to win a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. The synergies between this landscape and Stevens’ work is deep and unfathomable.
None of the revelers knew Stevens and most weren’t even born when he last had a birthday. So while the great poet had no need of a party an no one possessed a personal mremory of the birthday boy, we nevertheless shared something driving us to party for him, to keep his presence close. Although his proximity at the event was perhaps less intense than that experienced by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill who conjured Stevens via Ouija board in his Stonington, Connecticut apartment, it was hard to have so many admirers of Stevens’ work gathered in one place without feeling some presence of the man.
I’ve always found Stevens devoted following somewhat curious since his work is enigmatic, metaphysical, and often elusive. As Pinsky observed, Wallace Stevens was “limited in his heart” and few people, few emotions populate his stanzas. “Exquisite about perception, Stevens was not much on social relationships.” Regardless, I imagine like me, others are drawn to him for the hypnotic weave of his rhythms, the explosive beauty of his metaphors, and the fresh intrigue of his language. “He had a great instrument,” Pinsky said, “and he could play it like hell.”
As I looked around the crowd of lawyers, teachers, therapists, real estate agents, journalists and others with ordinary, everyday jobs, I wondered whether Stevens’ real attraction was in the way he found the confluence between the hard, practical business mind and poetic imagination. He kept those worlds strictly separate in his daily life, yet he simultaneously held them in his mind and excelled at both. Could that be the secret of Stevens’ lasting attraction despite the difficulty, well rewarded, of exploring his poems? So many of us would delight to find that fulcrum balancing those twin means of perception.
Reading Stevens, Pinsky’s voice was soft and fudge rich with a slight hint of whiskey rasp. It penetrated without startling, lulled without the listener losing attention. The power of Stevens’ words hung in the air almost palpable enough to grasp. In ways I hadn’t quite realized before, I momentarily thought I’d touched the “mind of winter” in “The Snow Man” and understood “the access of perfection to the page” from “The House was Quiet and the World was Calm.” The experience seemed exhausting and afterward a slice of cake and a sip of champagne seemed necessary resuscitation.
Looking around, I delighted in a library that saw itself as not just as a warehouse of books, periodicals and compact discs, but as a home in which to celebrate literature. I imagined the words of Pinsky and Stevens echoing among the shelves of fiction and biography with brightly colored spines in orderly rows. I thought of seventeenth century English poet John Milton’s admonition that “books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are.” I dreamed that after the last person switched off the light and left for the evening that the books, like the toys in the movie “Toy Story,” would come alive, dance, and celebrate among themselves.