How to Live, What to Do: Commemorating Wallace Stevens’ Birthday

Guest Post by Thomas G. Sowders

On this 134th anniversary of Wallace Stevens’ birth, we might well ask: Why do we keep turning to this poet? Paradoxically both one of the most highly regarded and least-known major men of the modernist era, Stevens’ ideas—his belief in a supreme fiction, his faith in the abstract, his fascination with metaphor—surely are known quantities. What can Stevens tell us 100 years after Poetry magazine, in its first year of publication, introduced its American reading public to a new modernist movement called Imagism?

One of Stevens’ lesser-known poems, “How to Live. What to Do,” offers a good entry point, both for the novice and for the “prodigious scholar” of his books. The idea that Stevens’ work can help us figure out “how to live” and “what to do” may surprise those who know him more as the cerebral poet of philosophical perplexities, and yet this idea finds many expressions in Stevens’ poetry. In “The American Sublime,” for example, Stevens invites his reader to wonder about the possibility for nobility in everyday American culture, and to consider if and how everyday actions can be sites of the sublime: If so, “What wine does one drink? / What bread does one eat?” As a current trend in literary study—evident in recent issues of The Wallace Stevens Journal—is to think about the social functions of poetry, I want to talk about how I have found Stevens’ work to be useful, even personally meaningful, during a year whose challenges have returned me to Stevens’ poetry less as a scholar than as a reader in search of solace.

As a doctoral candidate writing on Stevens, I have been vitally aware of parallels between Stevens’ life and my family’s. Like Stevens, my father spent the majority of his life working and acquiring material wealth in the insurance business. And, like Stevens, I was, for some of my adult life, at odds with my father. Moreover, it was while my dad and I were at odds, during my undergraduate years, that I fell in love with Stevens’ poetry.

From left, Thomas G. Sowders, his son, Leo, and his father, Hal.

From left, Thomas G. Sowders, his son, Leo, and his father, Hal.

In contrast with what I perceived as my dad’s absence of imagination, Stevens’ voice emphasized the importance of the imagination in ways that were validating and helpful, sometimes as an antidote to my dad’s cold reasoning. Like Stevens, I found in poetry something to fill the still-nagging void left when believing in God became intellectually impossible, sometime around middle school.

Stevens’ poetry invited me in with its beauty, mysteriousness, and rigor. As I read more ambitiously into his oeuvre, I felt pushed, even coached, by Stevens to be more imaginative. In his “planet on the table,” I was thrilled by peacocks and “sun-bronzed air,” and I had to recognize that “In a world without heaven to follow, the stops/ Would be endings, more poignant than partings, profounder.” I began to see the grace in Stevens’ suggestions for how to live: “Just to be there and just to behold,” and I started to ask “what spirit/ Have I except it comes from the sun?” Stevens’ “dark voice of the sea” lured me to a meandering path that felt more organic than the rigid path to a career my dad would have preferred.

But my dad was especially good at intuiting people’s capacities, assessing their options, and making decisive choices: When I mentioned a PhD in the humanities to study Stevens, he supported the choice. And yet, I come to Stevens differently now than I did during my undergraduate years or even the start of my doctoral career. As Stevens writes, “it must change”; and not only art but life changes (and changes us). Last December, my father, who had been the voice helping me figure out “what to do” and “how to live,” succumbed to illness.

I’d imagine that whenever—however—you lose a father, what’s most apparent is the absence of that voice in your life. Scholars have told us that Stevens lost that paternal voice early, too, over a disagreement about the suitability of his spouse. (Incidentally, Stevens’ father was probably right.)

Of course, not everything lines up. Born in 1938, the year Stevens published melancholic poems like “Dry Loaf,” “The Poems of Our Climate,” and “The Man on the Dump,” Dad’s childhood was from the start very different from Stevens’ middle-class upbringing. Handed around like a burden, his difficult early life marked by orphanages and violent step-parents, my dad didn’t know stability until high school, when he moved in with his grandparents in Washington, D.C. There was a “violence within” my dad’s soul to match the “violence without,” and, not surprisingly in hindsight, he became a local high school football star. My dad began to enjoy the admiration of many friends, a self-bought Chevrolet, awards and newspaper coverage (even a poster-sized oil painting) adumbrating the achievements of his record-breaking career. In the summers he rented out chairs on the beach in Ocean City to vacationers who could afford them, and he lived under boardwalks, momentarily entranced, like Stevens in Florida, by the sea, before a football scholarship made college possible, before failed marriages (another point of reference, although my dad would eventually meet my mom and enjoy a long, loving marriage), and before entering the insurance business, eventually becoming the intimidating executive sales manager he would remain until old age softened him some.

And then, his long bitter struggle with illness. The included photo was taken six weeks before my dad passed away, during the only time that he was healthy enough to travel during his last three months. It documents his one meeting with his grandson. Do you see the look on my dad’s face? It’s pride, but what else? There’s also fear. And, importantly, there’s that look that says that suffering is inevitable, but that life is still worth it. Because, to use Stevens’ words, “We make a dwelling in the evening air / In which being there together is enough.” Dad never said anything like that to me. As with Stevens, Dad’s lessons about how to live and what to do had always to be inferred—and that active participation in making meaning from my dad’s voice and his facial expressions is what made his advice so engaging and gave it so much gravity. It’s why he could say so little and have me meditating on his meaning for weeks, years.

This year, Stevens has reminded me that if we strengthen our imaginations and use them to envision the kind of lives we want, we can set ourselves on a course that will lead us to doing good work that brings pleasure to ourselves and our audiences, as all imaginative and hard-working contributors to the Wallace Stevens Journal know. Dad’s absence, an “[ending], / More poignant than [a parting],” aches terribly and tempts my mind toward hopelessness, but being here, now, with my small family, making a dwelling together in this evening air, is finally enough get me through that difficulty. My scholarship on Stevens’ work has changed this year, as well, focused more on the ways digital technology could make his helpful work more accessible, which is important, because Stevens wants to assure us, reader by reader, that even when partings or endings make reality seem nothing more than “muck,” in those moments of rage against the empty “sky” you wish were “much friendlier,” our imaginations, in the creative act of reading poetry, can restore hope by creating a “heroic sound / Joyous and jubilant and sure.”

Happy Birthday, Wallace Stevens. I’m so glad to still have your voice with me.

Thomas G. Sowders is a PhD student in English at Louisiana State University. He also works as an editorial assistant for the Wallace Stevens Society.