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1 Mastery of life: at home with Wallace Stevens

1 Mastery of life: at home with Wallace Stevens

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Bourgeois abstraction


was undeniable. Such subtleties would take years to appreciate; many

remain challenging to this day. For example, in ‘late Stevens’ the ‘cool

abstraction’ of poems from The Auroras of Autumn  – say, ‘The Owl in

the Sarcophagus’ – differs from the ‘warm abstraction’ of certain poems

from The Rock  – say, ‘A Quiet Normal Life’. Similarly, in ‘last Stevens’

the coolly abstract ‘Of Mere Being’ differs from apparently ‘warmer’ texts

such as ‘Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination’ (or ‘First

Warmth’ and ‘As You Leave the Room’).4 However, even Stevens’ most

impenetrable work tends toward human abstractions of desire. Mastery

of life  – rather than mastery of poetry or the imagination  – becomes

his enduring theme. As with his despair at Peter Lee’s ‘literariness’, the

world of Mallarméan ‘pure poetry’, for the older Stevens, was a literary

dead-end. Although Stevens himself was charged with promulgating artifice (a world of ‘wax stuffed with sawdust’), and although his verse relied

upon Mallarmé’s example (the quintessential poet of the ‘Idea’), Stevens’

mature aesthetic shifted as he absorbed his theoretical speculations concerning abstraction and came to rely more on abstract meditation itself as


Simultaneously, Stevens drew his poetry toward the ‘normal’, ‘central’

and ‘ordinary’  – even as he aestheticized these domains, encouraging

readers to speculate on their extraordinary qualities. When Stevens read

Mauron, he underlined the following:

It seems to me that the perfect artist would admit into his work all inward voices,

until the moment when he ceased to listen and began to yield to their promptings. For at that very moment he would have forgotten his art and become a

commonplace human being.6

Little did Stevens know this idea of the ‘commonplace’ might serve the

maturing artist because of his penchant for abstraction. ‘Notes Toward a

Supreme Fiction’ insisted ‘[t]he major abstraction is the commonal’, but

that poem had not discovered how to make abstraction seem in touch with

common things.7 In his last decade, however, Stevens refined his abstract

aesthetic in order to reflect (on) commonality. His middle to late phases,

as Longenbach notes, suggest that ‘the sublimity of the humdrum is an

See Introduction.

Longenbach argues that Stevens’ abstract aesthetic ‘was achieved under the stress of the Second

World War, but when the stress slackened, the aesthetic was strong enough to perpetuate itself

on its own terms’. In my view Stevens’ rhetorical figures (his literal ‘terms’) were expendable and

non-reiterable. Longenbach rightly adds that Stevens aimed not to ‘build a world from poetry’

but ‘to build poetry a place in the world’ (Wallace Stevens, 280).


Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, Stevens’ copy, 64.


CPP, 336.




Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

achievement’.8 Stevens’ developing tastes in painting, his enlarging correspondence and the later Necessary Angel essays testify to this emphatic


In 1946, almost four years after creating his crystalline ‘mundo’,

Stevens wrote:  ‘For myself, the inaccessible jewel is the normal and all

of life, in poetry, is the difficult pursuit of just that.’ 9 By 1949 Stevens

noted a comment from Edward Sackville-West which clearly illuminates

a change of objective:  ‘the later proliferations of romantic and symbolist theory have tended to obscure one of the most valuable functions of

poetry: the illumination of the usual’.10 Stevens’ pursuit of the ‘normal’

or ‘usual’ led him to evade the merely ‘literary’, as he became increasingly

disenchanted with literary circles and literary renown. Stevens refused to

give an address at Dylan Thomas’ US memorial, kept out of the Pound

and Bollingen Prize controversy (despite Tate’s cajoling) and refused to

sanction either his views of other writers publicly or the use of their views

of his own work for promotional materials (even Ransom was cautioned

for describing Stevens’ work in terms of ‘nobility’).11 Writing to Tate about

Jean Wahl’s review of Ransom’s 1945 Selected Poems, Stevens remarked: ‘I

am going through a period in which I am inexpressibly sick of all sorts

of fault-finding, and if Wahl has been finding fault with Ransom, I don’t

want to know anything about it.’ 12

The mid-1940s embrace of the ‘normal’ informs Stevens’ view that an

‘abundant poetry’ should replace a Mallarméan ‘pure poetry’.13 In 1944

Stevens wrote of ‘The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician’ that

it was composed when he ‘felt strongly that poems were things in themselves’.14 An abstract imagination, by contrast, aims to rejuvenate the ‘normal’ in a poetry gesturing toward ‘things’ at large. Literature as an end

in itself is irrelevant here. When composing ‘Description Without Place’

Stevens insisted: ‘Reality is the great fond, and it is because it is that the

purely literary amounts to so little’ (adding later:  ‘Intellectual isolation

loses value in an existence of books’).15

Longenbach also links Cavell’s notion of being ‘in quest of the ordinary’ with the ‘humdrum’

quality of late Stevens (Wallace Stevens, 264).


L, 521.


Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 103.


See L, 802. Tate compiled a letter to be signed by ‘100 writers’, including Stevens, disapproving of the Saturday Review of Literature’s attack on Pound, ‘modern poetry and criticism’, 18

October 1949, WAS, 2382. Stevens wrote to Tate: ‘1. I know nothing about this; 2. care less; 3. do

not believe that the Saturday Review or Benet or Hillyer […] could possibly harm the cause of

letters; 4. prefer to keep out of this; and 5. intend to do just that’, 20 October 1949, WAS, 2404.

For ‘nobility’, see 7 October 1954, WAS, 1542, and L, 880.


L, 511.  13  Ibid., 495.  14  See CPP, 49; L, 463.  15  L, 505, 513.


Bourgeois abstraction


Certainly, Stevens was no Philip Larkin, Tony Harrison or Peter

Reading:  he was unlikely to take verse-writing to task when poetry

remained his ‘piety’.16 But like these poets he was aware that literary

self-consciousness blocks poetic expression. Fear of the ‘literary’ caused

Stevens to distance himself from Tate and the New Critics (not to mention Eliot and Pound). In 1944 Stevens observed of Tate:

He wrote the other day calling attention to a group of his poems in the kenyon

review. After reading these, I wonder whether there is enough of the peasant in

Tate: Il faut être paysan d’ être poète […] [H]is pride is a little like Pierre duPont’s

[sic] pride in his espaliers. Not that I prefer the wild, old bush, but I like sap

and lots of it and, somehow, this Kenyon group seems to me like poetry written

under glass[.]17

Stevens implies poems should be neither museum pieces nor artificial

‘hothouse’ creations. Poetry’s ‘sap’ should ooze naturally, even as the poet

becomes wary of ‘the wild, old bush’. Stevens likewise observed of Jules


Renard constantly says things that interest me immensely. They are, however, on

the literary level on which it seems possible to say such things for a lifetime and

yet be forgotten on the way home from the funeral. The writer is never recognized as one of the masters of our lives, although he gives them their daily color

and form.18

By 1945, becoming a master of life was Stevens’ implied aim. Given his

milieu as a Connecticut surety bond lawyer – whose greatest ‘sins’ were

hasty trips to New York  – it is unsurprising the thirst for abstraction

would take a ‘bourgeois’ form in his late work.

This new direction is glimpsed in 1943. Writing about Van Gogh,

Stevens explained:

The word for all this is maniement: I don’t mean a mania of manner, but […] the

total subjection of reality to the artist. It may be only too true that Van Gogh

had fortuitous assistance in the mastery of reality. But he mastered it […] And

that is so often what one wants to do in poetry: to seize the whole mass of everything and squeeze it, and make it one’s own.19

‘Description Without Place’ would critique Nietzsche’s ‘mania of manner’, a solipsistic idealism in Stevens’ eyes. Nietzsche constructs ‘an

innate grandiose’ responsible for ‘gildering the swarm-like manias’.20 The

philosopher’s idealism, despite its anti-metaphysical allure, is portrayed

through a mind too self-contained:


Ibid., 473. 


  Ibid., 460–1. 

  Ibid., 510. 



  Ibid., 459. 

  CPP, 299.



Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

Nietzsche in Basel studied the deep pool

Of these discolorations, mastering

The moving and the moving of their forms


His revery was the deepness of the pool,

The very pool, his thoughts the colored forms,

The eccentric souvenirs of human shapes,

Wrapped in their seemings, crowd on curious crowd,

In a kind of total affluence, all first,

All final, colors subjected in revery

To an innate grandiose, an innate light,

The sun of Nietzsche gildering the pool,

Yes: gildering the swarm-like manias

In perpetual revolution, round and round…

(CPP, 299)

‘Maniement’ means ‘handling’. Stevens suggests Van Gogh’s deft brushwork conveys mastery of reality. For there is a difference between handling ‘reality’ such that it is controlled by the artist (‘the total subjection

of reality to the artist’) and, for Stevens’ Nietzsche, perceiving ‘reality’ as

nothing more than one’s own mind at work: a ‘revery’, ‘first’ and ‘final’.

Those ‘swarm-like manias’ also recall the ‘Schwärmerei’ of ‘Notes

Toward a Supreme Fiction’, save that ‘Description Without Place’ is wary

of the ‘innate grandiose’ in which Nietzsche goes ‘round and round’.21

‘Schwärmerei’ in ‘Notes’ connotes enthusiasm and the desire to attain

‘a kind of Swiss perfection’.22 But the ‘swarm-like manias’ Stevens

attributes to Nietzsche connote the fanaticism Coleridge associates with

‘Schwärmerei’, as he discusses poets who lack ‘imaginative power’:

Cold and phlegmatic in their own nature […] they head and inflame by coacervation; or like bees they become restless and irritable through the increased

temperature of collected multitudes. Hence the German word for fanaticism

[…] is derived from the swarming of bees, namely, Schwärmen, Schwärmerey.23

Nietzsche fails, then, to attain ‘a kind of Swiss perfection’, despite residing

‘in Basel’. His ‘Schwärmerei’ are more disturbing, connoting the ‘swarmlike manias’ Coleridge detects in unimaginative poets. Such ‘mania’

Stevens felt an increasing need to avoid as his own poetry aimed to realize

the serenity or mastery of reality the poet admired in Van Gogh.


Ibid., 334. 


  Ibid., 334. 

  BL, I, Ch 2, 30.


Bourgeois abstraction


With regard to Stevens and painting, this book has focused primarily

on Picasso and Cézanne. Stevens overcame his initial distaste for abstraction partly through ‘accepting’ Picasso, which led to an about-turn where

Cézanne became the more exemplary artist. By the late 1930s Stevens

was already tiring with Modernist art’s ‘intellectual’ dimensions, and

especially with Picasso. Cézanne provided him with an older model for

abstraction. Stevens’ inspirations drew, consciously or otherwise, from

the British Romantics  – as well as Emerson and Whitman  – through

Cézanne and Van Gogh, uniting abstraction and idealism. Such a legacy helped Stevens understand how to avoid becoming, as Furst wrote

of Picasso, ‘an over-intellectual designer who moves one to thought, but

not to feeling’, even although abstraction would prove a risky strategy for

some readers in this respect.24

As Chapter 4 revealed, Stevens endorsed Furst’s view whilst embracing

Cézanne. But, in reality, the poet’s dismissal of Picasso, intensifying post1945, involves protesting too much. Stevens had engaged with Picasso

partly because he worried over the relationship between poetry and the

‘actual world’ of the Depression. As ‘Owl’s Clover’ exemplifies, Stevens

initially feared abstraction because of the charge of evading ‘reality’.

However, his scrutiny of Picasso in ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ was

pivotal since that poem enabled him to dramatize his fear of and fascination with abstraction. Although he never experimented extensively with

a pared-down poetry mimetic of ‘abstract art’, Stevens was drawn to that

art’s representational issues:  from the 1913 Armory Show to the institutionalization of Modernist artworks during the 1940s and 50s. Focillon’s

The Life of Forms in Art also clearly helped Stevens consolidate his sense of

abstract power.

But this picture is simplistic. Undeniably, Stevens’ initial embrace

of abstraction united mind, world and poetry, paradoxically to evade

‘intellectualism’ or manifesto-movements. But Stevensian abstraction

only becomes clearly delineated in the poet’s final decade as his sense of

painting developed. The period 1945–55 arguably witnesses Stevens’ most

remarkable poetry, coinciding with an increase in correspondence and

picture-purchasing. During this time Stevens also became convinced he

would never travel outside the USA again. Apart from the occasional trip

to New York, his world grew literally smaller as it became imaginatively

larger, as Stevens’ domestic situation indicates.


  Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 61, 63.


Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

One aim of this concluding chapter, then, is to suggest how Stevens’

changing tastes in painting – as he responded to Modernism – affected his

final decade. Focusing on the art criticism of Stevens’ personal library –

as well as his voluminous correspondence – the chapter charts the shades

of abstraction to which Stevens was drawn. Discussion then turns to

Stevens’ domestic space, where art, literature, gastronomy and the pleasures of private meditation unite through bourgeois abstraction.25 This

imaginative defence-mechanism scorns the pejorative ‘bourgeois’ whilst

lauding a fecund domestic space: one neither luxurious nor impoverished

or even, for that matter, house-proud. Rather than provide exhaustive

close-readings, my aim is to portray Stevens’ final decade through reference to this study’s collective reflections on abstraction.

Stevens’ earliest exposure to the relations between poetry and painting

was probably through Lessing’s The Laocoön.26 Lessing argues that artists

are concerned with ‘personified abstractions’, suggesting painting is limited to ‘represent[ing] the visible as invisible, or the invisible as visible’.27

However, the poet may ‘raise this degree of illusion in us by the representation of other than visible objects’.28 Given Stevens’ own mid-career conviction that robust poetry should make things ‘a little hard / To see’, Lessing’s

arguments may have been formative.29 Stevens also owned titles on the

Dutch Masters, Impressionists, Expressionists, Primitives and Modernists

as well as closer-to-home figures such as Maine painter Russell Cheney or

imported Surrealist Yves Tanguy (who lived in Woodbury, Connecticut

from 1939 to 1955).30 The study of Tanguy was by James Thrall Soby;

Stevens acquiring the majority of Soby’s moma publications.31 The poet’s

Sharpe notes the ‘domesticated vision’ of ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven’, arguing that

‘Stevens was not the helpless victim of his rocking-chair’ for all his disinclination to travel

(Sharpe, Wallace Stevens, 179, 178).


See Stevens’ copy of Lessing, The Laocoön.


Lessing, The Laocoön, 59, 81.


Ibid., 88.  29  CPP, 275.


Russell Cheney, Russell Cheney 1881–1945:  A Record of His Work (New York: Oxford

University Press, 1947); Eugene Delacroix, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix trans. Walter Pach

(London: Jonathan Cape, 1938); Klee, Dokumente und Bilder aus den Jahren 1896–1930; Agnes

Mongan, ed., One Hundred Master Drawings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949);

Walter Pach, The Masters of Modern Art (New York: Huebsch, 1924); Daniel Catton Rich, Henri

Rousseau (New York: MOMA, 1942); James Thrall Soby, Yves Tanguy (New York: MOMA, 1955);

Wilhelm Uhde, Five Primitive Masters trans. Ralph Thompson (New York: Quadrangle, 1949);

Vincent Van Gogh, Letters to Emile Bernard trans. Douglas Lord (London: Cresset, 1938).


Stevens also owned Soby’s Salvador Dali (1941), Georges Rouault:  Paintings and Prints (1945),

Contemporary Painters (1948) and, with Alfred J. Barr, Twentieth-Century Italian Art (1949). Soby

even considered writing about Stevens, but found him hard to engage personally (Brazeau, Parts

of a World, 117).


Bourgeois abstraction


mournful 1949 complaint about ‘professional modernism’ no doubt derives

from reading such art criticism and, of course, frequenting galleries.32

Revealingly, Charles Henri Ford had written earlier on the relationship

between Soby and Stevens in Hartford. Although a quirky ‘interview’,

Ford witnessed Stevens’ domestic art collection, reporting the poet’s more

loaded statements:

[He] show[ed] me […] the kind of things he liked… Paintings here and there

by obscure Frenchmen, mostly impressionist in style… You see? he said…

‘Soby would probably be contemptuous of these paintings.’… Yes, I said, recalling Soby’s beautiful Chiricos and Tchelitchews… ‘You could probably duplicate Soby’s collection fifteen times,’ said Stevens… I wondered, thinking of the

uniqueness of each picture, not of the names… Did Mr. Stevens mean to imply

that he himself was more independent in his choice of painters, more original?33

Certainly Stevens eventually developed strongly independent views of his

own paintings. That Ford thinks ‘of the uniqueness of each picture, not of

the names’ also shows Stevens’ influence, the implication being that much

other ‘Modernist’ painting, by 1940, was commodified and all but canonized. Stevens was, by contrast, seeking the so-called lesser talents who might

be silently changing the course of painting. What the poet did not reveal

was that these ‘minor figures’  – Tal-Coat, Dufy, Gromaire, Cavaillès  –

­enabled him to transform his private, abstract meditations into poetry.

Some critics are surprised that Stevens did not acquire more overtly

Modernist works, suggesting his ‘bourgeois’ tastes clashed with a passion

for Klee, as well as being discontinuous with the painterly dimensions

of his own writing.34 To some extent, Stevens could not acquire Picasso,

Matisse, Kandinsky or Klee even if he had wanted:  firstly, because of

the expenditure and, secondly, because these artists’ works were largely

unavailable (the poet did own a Braque, but that was an exception). What

really characterized Stevens’ purchases was his desire to make an aesthetic

virtue of necessity: ‘what I want is something exquisite and at the same

time something for which I should not be obliged to pay as if I were a

wealthy merchant’.35 Such ‘modest’ paintings represented opportunities to

project his own imagination domestically rather than in a museum space

L, 647.

Charles Henri Ford, ‘Verlaine in Hartford: Has the Mystery Man of Modern Poetry Really

Another Self?’ View 1.1 (1940), 6.


James Johnson Sweeney thought Stevens’ art collection was ‘bourgeois’ and that it betrayed

‘playing it safe’. Bernard Heringman lamented Stevens’ ‘established bourgeois taste’ (Brazeau,

Parts of a World, 228, 201). These views underestimate the subtlety of Stevens’ imaginative

responses to his own pictures.


L, 577.




Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

(despite visits to the Wadsworth Athenaeum); and, as with Tal-Coat and

‘Angel Surrounded by Paysans’, such meditation initiated poems. Stevens

cherished, therefore, cheerful, charming, even paysan work: not unsophisticated, but not stylized either and certainly not indebted to any particular school of art, Modernist or otherwise. He relished the ‘second-rate’.36

Admittedly, Stevens was not alone in mourning derivative ‘abstractionists’. The early American interest in European abstract painting  – as in

A. E. Gallatin’s ‘The Evolution of Abstract Art’ (Museum of Living Art,

New York, 1933) and Alfred H. Barr’s ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ (MOMA,

1936) – was by the early 1940s on the wane. Indeed, by the Second World

War, the American Abstract Artists Association essentially folded, having already spread their abstract message following formation in 1937. If

Duchamp and Picabia challenged American tastes after the Armory Show

and if Surrealism challenged regionalist and social realist 1930s American

art, by the mid-1940s New York had absorbed abstract painting (albeit

before the advent of Abstract Expressionism).37 Nevertheless, Stevens’

tastes in French painting were relatively idiosyncratic, and he never lost

faith in his favourite contemporary abstractionists: Klee, Mondrian and


But how did Stevens discuss abstraction, painting and poetry in his

final decade? In 1948 the poet wrote to Feo:

I think that all this abstract painting […] going on nowadays is just so much

frustration and evasion. Eventually it will lead to a new reality. When a thing has

been blurred by the obscurity of metaphysics and eventually emerges from that

blur, it has all the characteristics of a brilliantly clear day after a month of mist

and rain. No-one can predict what that new reality is going to be because it will

be developed in the mind and spirit and by the hand of a single artist or group of

artists strong enough to conceive of what they want and to produce it.38

Superficially, abstract painting does not speak to ‘metaphysics’. But Stevens

knew Klee, Kandinsky and Mondrian variously insisted that abstraction

enabled access to spiritual domains. Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art

(1912) absorbed German idealism, Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810) and

Theosophy. Mondrian, also a Theosophist, desired access to the ‘spiritual realm’ in painting, observing:  ‘Cubism did not accept the logical

Ibid., 728. Stevens refers here to ‘second-rate cheese’ and ‘second-rate wine’, but his gastronomic

imagination is of a piece with a ‘bourgeois’ desire for the paysan; hence his liking for Primitive

painting, Henri Rousseau especially.


See Moszynka, Abstract Art, 141–3; and David Anfam, Abstract Expressionism (London: Thames

& Hudson, 1990).


L, 593.


Bourgeois abstraction


consequences of its own discoveries; it was not developing abstraction

towards its own goal, the expression of pure reality’.39 Klee, like Stevens,

was more mystified by abstraction, feeling that ‘reality’ often held sway

regardless in his work.40 As Klee observed in one of his Bauhaus notebooks:  ‘It is interesting to observe how real the object remains in spite

of all abstractions […] It is possible that a picture will move far away

from Nature and yet finds its way back to reality.’ 41 Klee also resisted

autotelic abstraction: ‘We construct and keep on constructing, yet intuition is still a good thing.’ 42 Stevens was certainly impressed by Klee’s

desire to uncover ‘the secret places’, as ‘The Relations Between Poetry and

Painting’ demonstrates.43

Stevens’ letter to Feo, then, sees hackneyed abstract painting to be

‘frustration’ or worse ‘evasion’ from reality, as if the ‘metaphysics’ of

abstraction had, in minor examples, substituted for genuine revelation.

As the poet observed to Thomas McGreevy, ‘It is easy to like Klee and

Kandinsky. What is difficult is to like the many minor figures who do

not communicate any theory that validates what they do and, in consequence, impress one as being without validity.’ 44 Stevens would contrast

Jean Arp with Klee and Mondrian thus:

[Arp’s] imagination lacks strength. His feelings are incapable of violence […]

[T]he human spirit need not fear him […] He was a friend of Klee’s and he knew

Mondrian. He goes along with Klee’s prismatic and Alpine snowdrops […] But

he does not go along with Mondrian. It is nonsense to speak of his integrity as

an abstractionist in the same breath with which one speaks of Mondrian. Arp

is a minor stylist, however agreeable. But for Mondrian the abstract was the


Stevens displays some machismo in desiring the bedrock of ‘reality’, encouraging the ‘human spirit’ to fear creation. But note that, for

Stevens, Arp’s problem is not that he relies too much on the ‘human

Eeckhout compellingly analyses Mondrian’s influence on Stevens. Mondrian’s aim was to see

through nature, to ‘abstract everything until I arrive at the foundation (always still an exterior

foundation)’. In effect, Stevens was attracted to Mondrian’s desire to realize ‘reality’ without the

intrusion of human sentiment and to Klee and Kandinsky as exemplars of an idealist abstraction

in which mind and world interact (Eeckhout, Wallace Stevens, 176, 179 n. 40). See also MacLeod,

Wallace Stevens and Modern Art, 114–21.


See Hajo Düchtung, Paul Klee: Painting Music (Munich: Prestel, 1997), 25.


Moszynska, Abstract Art, 100. Moszynska argues that the Bauhaus represented a ‘dichotomy’

between ‘the mathematical precision’ of the Constructivists and ‘the more intuitive, subjective

and expressionist attitude of Klee and Kandinsky’ (98). Although Stevens was clearly entranced

by Mondrian’s ‘cool’ grids and lines, he was equally comfortable with Klee’s and Kandinsky’s

‘warm’ abstractions.


Ibid., 98.  43  CPP, 750.  44  L, 763.  45  Ibid., 628.



Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

spirit’, but that he lacks the capacity to perform creative ‘violence’. Stevens

observed elsewhere: ‘Abstract sculptors, like abstract painters, should be

totally abstract, not half so. Arp is only half so […] His forms will never

constitute a “visionary language.” Unlike the things of Brancusi they

never intimidate one with their possibilities.’46 If Stevens sought vibrant

minor figures, clearly not every candidate would do. Perhaps conveniently, Stevens does not ponder how ‘abstract’ the poet ‘should be’, even

although the notion of intimidating with possibilities effectively describes

Stevens’ most abstract poems.

When it came to the painters Stevens collected, the poet experienced

pleasure and frustration in assimilating his purchases. Late Stevens witnesses not just a poet who revels in abstraction, but one who derives

‘ideas’ for abstract poetry from paintings. As Filreis argues, Stevens transformed the largely representational French paintings he collected into

abstract poems rather than identify with the American abstract painting

then gathering pace.47 A French still-life bought on the report of Paule

Vidal was something Stevens relished ‘in the abstract’, but once it arrived

in Connecticut its physical reality Stevens would abstract again, not

merely to review the same painting with fresh eyes, but as a stimulus to

poetry. In the well-documented case of the Tal-Coat that ‘became’ ‘Angel

Surrounded by Paysans’, Stevens oscillated between disappointment (‘Tal

Coat is supposed to be a man of violence but one soon becomes accustomed to the present picture’) and curiosity: ‘This man [Tal-Coat] puts

up a great deal of resistance to the effort to penetrate him […] A violent

still life sounds like a queer thing. Yet I suppose the thing is violent.’ 48

The creative violence with which Stevens repeatedly renewed his homeworld finds its source in precisely this kind of abstract effort: to make TalCoat into the painter who will almost satisfy Stevens’ incessant longing

for vibrant ‘reality’.

Significantly, Stevens judged figures like Tal-Coat in the same breath

as his beloved Klee. The barrier of a worn-out ‘metaphysical’ aesthetic

became a frequent theme:

Cogniat says that Tal Coat is one of the few young painters from whom it seems

possible to expect a new reality. A painter […] [of] abstract painting is likely to

pick up a certain amount of the metaphysical vision of the day […] I don’t object

Ibid., 629.

Alan Filreis, ‘“Beyond the Rhetorician’s Touch”:  Stevens’ Painterly Abstractions’ American

Literary History 4.2 (1992), 230–63.


L, 649, 652. The letter has ‘Tal Coat’, but the painter’s surname is usually hyphenated.



Bourgeois abstraction


to painting that is modern in sense. To illustrate: I have the greatest liking for

Klee. No-one is more interested in modern painting if it really is modern […]

if it really is the work of a man of intelligence sincerely seeking to satisfy the

needs of his sensibility. But the so-called metaphysical vision has been intolerably exploited by men without intelligence.49

Stevens relishes bringing a nominally ‘second-rate’ painter like Tal-Coat

to the table alongside Klee. If this required abstract embellishment  –

transforming the charming into the fecund – Stevens willingly exerted the

effort, especially if the ‘pay-off’ was a poem such as ‘Angel Surrounded by

Paysans’. But this craving is subtler still. Stevens was drawn to artists who

seemed ‘ordinary’ but had painstakingly achieved the semblance of simplicity. Speaking of another portrait in his collection, Stevens observed,

without apparent criticism: ‘The picture occupies me when I lean back to

rest from reading. Why is the artist, Jean Cavaillès, a nobody and why is

the picture commonplace?’50

As Stevens pondered Tal-Coat, Cavaillès, Dufy, Dubuffet, Brianchon

and others, his suspicions of professionalized modernism deepened:

‘Somehow modern art is coming to seem much less modern than used

to be the case. One feels that a good many people are practicing modernism and therefore that it no longer remains valid’, observing in another

letter:  ‘I rather resent professional modernism the way one resents an

excessively fashionable woman.’51 Clearly, when Stevens began publishing

poetry, ‘Modernism’ was anything but professionalized. But by the late

1940s, if not before, the poet distanced himself from the ‘mass’ absorption

of abstract art, at least as it was expressed in museum collections.

For example, after a frustrated visit to moma, Stevens reported:

Is all this really hard thinking, really high feeling or is it a lot of nobodies running after a few somebodies? I enjoyed quite as much the window in a fruit shop

that I know of which was filled with the most extraordinary things: beauteous

plums, peaches like Swedish blondes, pears that made you think of Rubens and

the first grapes pungent through the glass. But on the whole New York was a


Stevens’ aesthetic pleasures constitute gastronomic, painterly and literary

complexes. That New York is ‘a lemon’ (a dud or disappointment) wittily

contrasts with Stevens’ salivation at other fruits, as he constructs his own

‘still life’: the ‘beauteous plums’, the ‘peaches like Swedish blondes’, the

pears reminiscent of Rubens and those first-season grapes almost smelt

Ibid., 595. 


  Ibid., 836. 


  Ibid., 630, 647. 


  Ibid., 647.


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