literature, Personal story

The nobility of poetry and a normal life

Yesterday I visited the State Library of Victoria and there I read from the Collected Poetry and Prose of Wallace Stevens.

Wallace Stevens is perhaps my most loved American poet, and certainly an influence on me – his diction, his mix of abstraction with the most remarkable particulars of the beautiful world, his romance of the self, his playfulness with the treasure-hoards of the things of the world and the words that name them.

I have at home both an old copy of his Selected Poems, which I bought in my early twenties from the second-hand bookshop near Melbourne University, and a more recent edition of his  Collected Poems. At one point this year I had the mad plan to only read from these Collected Poems and one other book, von Eschenbach’s Parzival. Curiosity, thankfully, overwhelmed this puritanical plan. I learned by heart some years ago “The Idea of Order at Key West”. Its line that “there never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang and singing, made” is talismanic for me. I might even pin it with some suited image, and display it on the pinboard that sits beside my desk.

Stevens also seemed a role model for me. His life as an insurance executive grounded him in something outside his imagination, and did not defeat his poetic venture. So much of the superfluous romance or self-defeating sturm und drang of writing is unnecessary – belonging to circles, issuing manifestoes, rebelling against the world. The greatest of art and the purest of imaginations can arise from a quiet, normal life.

Still, I had never read any of Wallace Stevens’ prose. Yesterday I dipped into the first of his essays in The Necessary Angel: essays on reality and the imagination, which I have just now discovered is available online in full on This essay, “The noble rider and the sound of words” proceeds from a discussion of a figure from Plato of the imagination at work, a noble rider of a chariot in the sky.  Towards the end of the essay, Stevens asserts the importance of nobility for poetry, not grandiloquent nobility, but a nobility that sits at the base the call to write poems. In so doing he reanimates contemporary poetry with the dignity of free imagination. He writes that:

There is no element more conspicuously absent from contemporary poetry than nobility. There is no element that poets have sought after, more curiously and more piously, certain of its obscure existence. Its voice is one of the inarticulate voices which it is their business to overhear and to record.” (664)

This is a paradoxical idea, that nobility is an inarticulate voice, which the poet must search for and rescue from shadows of obscurity. Nobility is more commonly seen, if I may use a pastiche of current academic discourse, as a site of privileged cultural power. But Stevens’ idea connects more deeply to the striving I feel when I write poetry, a striving to find some kind of nobility in this life.

Stevens goes on to elaborate what I may be feeling in those moments. He writes:

For the sensitive poet, conscious of negations, nothing is more difficult than the affirmations of nobility and yet there is nothing that he requires of himself more persistently, since in them and in their kind, alone, are to be found those sanctions that are the reasons for his being and for that occasional ecstasy or ecstatic freedom of the mind, which is his special privilege.

I think I am discovering, I hope not too late, that the pursuit of the ecstatic freedom of the mind, that complete and utter freedom, is indeed a special privilege, and a privilege that can confer nobility on, and be claimed justly within, the most ordinary and normal of suburban lives.

So let me close off by transcribing here, as a tribute, one of Stevens late poems, “A quiet normal life.”

A Quiet Normal Life by Wallace Stevens

His place, as he sat and as he thought, was not

In anything that he constructed, so frail,

So barely lit, so shadowed over and naught,


As, for example, a world in which, like snow,

He became an inhabitant, obedient

To gallant notions on the part of cold.


It was here. This was the setting and the time

Of year. Here in his house and in his room,

In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked.


And the oldest and the warmest heart was cut

By gallant notions on the part of night –

Both late and alone, above the cricket’s chords,


Babbling, each one, the uniqueness of its sound.

There was no fury in transcendent forms.

But his actual candle blazed with artifice.

[From The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens: the corrected edition (2nd Vintage Books edition, 2015), p. 553.]

May all our candles, and our archives, blaze with artifice.


Image Source: Photograph of Wallace Stevens’ home, Hartford Courant

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