image by James Baker









Some Enemies Have Their Say

Who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language, have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without
forgiveness. This song is for my foe,
the clean-shaven, gray-suited, gray patron
of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness
blue as a body made of snow.

—Terrance Hayes, last 8 lines from "Snow for Wallace Stevens," Lighthead (Penguin Books, 2010)


Stevens published his first collection of verse, Harmonium (1923), at the age of forty-four. Although it was well received by some reviewers, such as Marianne Moore, it sold only 100 copies...

"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. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead."

Percy Hutchison, The New York Times (August 9, 1931).


"...lacking the spell of any emotion, Harmonium loses both itself and its audience. It has much for the eye, something for the ear, but nothing for that central hunger which is at the heart of all the senses."

Louis Untermeyer, Yale Review (1922)


A famous exchange recounted by Frost’s biographer, Lawrence Thompson:
Stevens: “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about—subjects.”
Frost: “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about—bric-a-brac.”


"Stevens I find, because of his insistence that art provide durable forms of happiness and pleasure, ungenerous. I think he's so fundamentally disappointed with the world that he overprivileges art and, in doing so, is ungenerous to what actually happens. And I believe he realizes this in his later poems. What makes Stevens's later poems his best is the fact that they confront the failure, the parsimony, of his attitude towards change and the world."

Donald Revell, an interview by Tod Marshall, The American Poetry Review (July-Aug 1996)


Hugh Kenner in his influential bookThe Pound Era (1971), characterized the work of Wallace Stevens as "an Edward Lear poetic, pushed to all limits."


“The awful thing I've noticed about Stevens that I've noticed is that everybody in English departments who hate poetry, which is just about everybody, loves Stevens. I liked Stevens a great deal more before I saw that. You get somebody you know very well just hates poetry, like some people hate baseball or French movies like I do. You know there's just a real weird hatred. Well, they always like Stevens, all of these people. And the more they hate poetry as it is in the process, the more they like Stevens. So although Stevens moves me, I've gotten more and more distrustful of him.”

Jack Spicer, The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan U. Press), edited by Peter Gizzi


The poems of Wallace Stevens are frequently “elusive to the point of incomprehension, their gorgeous structures of sound not put to the service of illuminating ‘subjects’—human beings.”

William H. Pritchard, On Poets & Poetry (Swallow Press)


Stanley Burnshaw, in a review of Ideas of Order in the New Masses in 1935, while looking back at Harmonium with some praise, he noted, "It is the kind of verse that people concerned with the murderous world collapse can hardly swallow today except in tiny doses."


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