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Editor’s Choice: ‘The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens’ by Paul Mariani

The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani, Simon and Schuster, 483 pages, $30. It is unquestionably artificial that the American publishing business declares separate months of the year to be Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Poetry Month etc. Out of that artificiality, though, some extraordinary books inevitably emerge for minority readerships. April is poetry month and this is such a book – a biography of one of America’s most difficult lives by Paul Mariani, who previously gave us biographies of Hart Crane, John Berryman, William Carlos Williams, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Lowell. If specialization in the lives of poets suggest something formulaic or industrial, this invaluable life of Wallace Stevens is anything but. It fills a huge need brilliantly.

The first difficulty about Stevens is that unanimity about his worth is still not automatic (unlike Eliot or Frost or Yeats.) Eliot functioned separately as a publishing executive, when not writing poetry. Stevens, far more famously, spent his life at the Hartford Indemnity and Insurance Company seemingly far removed from the epicurean profundities and modernist pagan ecstasies of his poetry which is, to so many, some of the greatest ever written in this country.

The personality that went with it was rather different. Would you believe, Wallace Stevens, cub reporter for the New York Tribune, “hoping for something to happen” and, when it didn’t, composing “lines for sonnets in his head?” Or Stevens, unhappily married and given to heavy drinking – which he didn’t handle well – telling Hemingway’s sister that her brother was “no real man” at a party John Dos Passos threw in Key West? When Hemingway found about the insult, he rushed to Dos Passos’ bungalow, decked Stevens “spectacularly” (Hemingway’s word) and then repeatedly until Stevens could fight no more and had broken his hand in two places? Reconciling THAT Stevens with the insurance executive and poet who wrote “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “Sunday Morning,” “The Snow Man” and other 20th century masterworks was a task for a scholar, poet, critic and no small virtuoso. Mariani, in this book fills a difficult bill superbly. – Jeff Simon