The Auroras of Autumn
By Wallace Stevens
Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Current Publisher: Out of Print
Katie Peterson writes:
All great poets gather myths around them, and Wallace Stevens, recognized as a giant of American Modernism, is no exception. The most persistent, in Stevens’ case, is that of his life as a “regular” person. This is, of course, itself a myth: Stevens was well educated, with social position; he was on the prosperous side of regular. A law school graduate, Stevens made his living as a Vice President for the Hartford Insurance Company; when offered an appointment in English Literature at Harvard University after he had become respected as a poet, he declined because he would have had to resign his day job. In 1950, he was quoted in an interview as saying, “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.” Autobiographical accounts and memoirs alike relate how Stevens wrote poems on the daily walk to the office, but he wasn’t exactly a character from “The Office.”
Stevens’ work has, on the surface, everything to do with ordinary life. His mediations often arise from moments of domestic leisure, which, however luxurious, are decidedly imaginable: “Complacencies of the peignoir and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,” (“Sunday Morning”); “The house was quiet and the world was calm,” (“The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm”). One of his richest long poems (and the third-to-last poem in the NBA-winning The Auroras of Autumn) is called “An Ordinary Evening at New Haven.” Deep in that poem he writes, “We keep coming back and coming back / to the real…” There’s a purpose to this activity past the celebration of the quotidian—the renewal of our perceptions, and of language. The Auroras of Autumn closes with “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” a poem in which the inhabitants of a village are visited by a supernatural creature whose non-dramatic descent (the angel comes to the door) reveals a purpose that confounds profound and ordinary:
Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,
Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,
And in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone
Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings,
Like watery words awash; like meanings said
By repetitions of half-meanings.
Stevens’ work, situated in ordinary life, doesn’t assume ordinary life’s dignity. The poems of The Auroras of Autumn and the entire Collected Poems recognize the effort that must be made to refresh our love of what is mortal and perishable. Stevens makes that effort through an almost unbearable density of language, those “liquid lingerings” that remain with the reader for days. Phrases from the poems begin to seem like mantras because of their sonority. I have muttered one line from the long poem “Sunday Morning” everywhere from the dentist (try it when you’re getting a filling—it’s really distracting in a good way) to moments before a first date: “gusty / emotions on wet roads on autumn nights.”
But I have heard another myth of Wallace Stevens: that he used to carry cinnamon buns around in his pockets. Strangely, I think this myth is more complicated. Ultimately Stevens’ poems delight because they show indulgence to be a kind of virtue—they claim indulgence in sensation as the way to recover the dead meanings in language overused by a culture of buying and selling, transaction and loss. Indeed, the indulgences in sensation in the language (what makes the language so memorable) are confrontations with the possibility of divinity, of order, and even of justice. The cinnamon bun in the pocket is more than comforting: it’s necessary. For Stevens, appetite and imagination have everything to do with each other. Stevens’ imagination doesn’t just elevate daily life—it makes deeper questions stranger, more comic, and more vocal. I would argue that some of the sections of “An Ordinary Evening At New Haven” that seem the most obscure are actually the most immediate, because of their lush sound—because of the cinnamon buns hiding in their pockets. Consider this passage:
The dry eucalyptus seeks god in the rainy cloud.
Professor Eucalyptus of New Haven seeks him
In New Haven with an eye that does not look
Beyond the object. He sits in his room, beside
The window, close to the ramshackle spout in which
The rain falls with a ramshackle sound. He seeks
God in the object itself, without much choice.
It is a choice of the commodious adjective
For what he sees, it comes in the end to that:
The description that makes it divinity, still speech
As it touches the point of reverberation—not grim
Reality but reality grimly seen
And spoken in paradisal parlance new
And in any case never grim, the human grim
That is a part of the indifference of the eye
Indifferent to what it sees. The tink-tonk
Of the rain in the spout is not a substitute.
It is of the essence not yet well perceived.
Stevens imagines a dramatis persona, Professor Eucalyptus, out of a natural desire, the desire for a tree to have rain. There is a tenderness to this act of mind: are we witnessing a self-portrait? “Seeking god,” the poem proceeds into a script of thinking that is nothing short of aria, full of repetitions and qualifications that come to no conclusion save that a conclusion cannot be reached. It is, instead, “the description that makes it divinity.” “It is a choice of the commodious adjective.” It is being in language itself that leads us towards “paradisal parlance new.” 2010 National Book Award Winner Terrance Hayes agrees. In his beautiful poem for and against the very white Stevens (who doesn’t shy from referencing “negresses” and using a “Nigger cemetery” as the base of some of his philosophical investigations) African-American Hayes, born in 1971, writes: “I too, having lost faith / in language, have placed my faith in language.”
The Auroras of Autumn was published relatively late in the poet’s career—in 1950, the poet was seventy-one. Stevens started “late” by poets’ standards, publishing his first book, Harmonium, at forty-four. Perhaps this explains why the playfulness of the poet is indulgent without being full of self-regard: energetic, but never trivial. In “The Planet on the Table,” a poem from the final collection, The Rock, Stevens concludes: “Ariel was glad he had written his poems.” Some conclusion—it’s the first line of the poem, which pursues again, the nature of the pursuit of the world through language. He goes on, “It was not important that they survive.” I can only conclude that part of the reason why they have is that the poet knew this: the poems give to the future the ability to renew and understand happiness in the moment of thinking, the joy of thinking itself. Bad poems are self-satisfied; Stevens’ are “glad.” His work reminds us that satisfaction may be hard to come by, but happiness is a necessity.
Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues, 2006). She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her reviews have appeared in the Boston Review and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches literature at Bennington College.
(Photo credit: Ariana Ervin)
Poetry Finalists that Year: Not Announced
Poetry Judges that Year: Gwendolyn Brooks, Marianne Moore, Lloyd Frankenberg,
Padraic Colum, and Karl Shapiro
The Year in Literature: Complete Poems by Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was born in Reading, PA.
- Marianne Moore’s and Stevens’ work was published in the same journals, such as Others and Poetry, for years. Moore mentioned Stevens in her first major essay, “The Accented Syllable.” Of Stevens’ work, she wrote, “I am inclined to think that the meaning has little to do with the pleasure the words give us.” Stevens and Moore did not meet until 1943, but of their relationship he later wrote, “The web of friendship between poets is the most delicate thing in the world—and the most precious.”
- Neil Baldwin's National Book Awards Classics Essay about The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
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