“Poet” would not be the first description that comes to mind in this photograph of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who looks more like a buttoned-up CEO than any cliché image of a creative type. Indeed, Stevens’ day job was as an insurance executive, but he became one of the great voices of modernist poetry. (The image is among those featured in Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets, on view through April at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.)
As I read through that great compilation of his work, The Palm at the End of the Mind (including the aforementioned “Emperor,” with the indelible line: “bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds”), there were two poems that especially brought me back to the percipience of Stevens, both offering intriguing connections to the realm of art.
In an analysis of the astonishing “Sunday Morning” the writer Robert Buttel saw Stevens as establishing himself as a kindred spirit to Henri Matisse, in that both artists “transform a pagan joy of life into highly civilized terms.” Based on a languid woman’s spiritual reveries on a Christian sabbath, and replete with religious allusions, its opening lines are among the most descriptively scene-setting in modern American poetry:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
And while the kindred-spirit aspects that Buttel alluded to in the connection to Matisse were no doubt philosophical, it’s not a stretch to see a visual bridge between the opening tableau of “Sunday Morning” and a piece like Interior with an Etruscan Vase (left) by the French painter, which followed many years later.
If the Matisse comparisons are subtle and under the surface, “The Man With the Blue Guitar” is an overt homage to another artistic soulmate, Pablo Picasso, whose The Old Guitarist was painted in 1903. Again, a poem that features a striking Stevens opening:
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’
The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’
David Hockney played that guitar forward when he reexamined the Picasso work after being fascinated by the Stevens poem, in a series of drawings from 1977 (one of which is seen right), entitled The Blue Guitar: Etchings by David Hockney Who Was Inspired by Wallace Stevens Who Was Inspired by Pablo Picasso.
Talk about full circle. Which, incidentally, is so much of what art is all about.