Kathleen Flenniken came to poetry late, after earning B.S. and M.S. degrees in Civil Engineering from Washington State University and University of Washington, and working eight years as an engineer and hydrologist, three on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. She started writing when she quit work to stay home with her children.
Kathleen's poems have appeared in Poetry, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, Mid-American Review, Farm Pulp, Prairie Schooner, and Poetry Daily. Her first collection of poems, Famous, won the 2005 Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry and was released by University of Nebraska Press in August 2006. She was awarded a 2005 Literary Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
To read other poems and read more about Kathleen, please visit her website
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Letters of Wallace StevensSelected and Edited by Holly Stevens
University of California Press, 1966
Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens RememberedAn Oral Biography by Peter Brazeau
Random House, 1977
The selected Letters of Wallace Stevens present Wallace Stevens as he wished to be known to his world. The oral biography Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered is a different projection entirely—an amalgam of friendly and hostile impressions from Stevens’s relatives, friends, business colleagues, and literary acquaintances. It is difficult, sometimes poignant, to try to match these versions of the man. What is evident in both is a complex, sometimes contradictory personality who could be as easily dismissive as sensitive, even timid, who was every bit as much a businessman as a poet. Clearly, Stevens was not entirely knowable to anyone.
The letters, edited by Stevens’s only daughter Holly, are enlightening and always interesting. They cover Stevens’s life from teenage years to his death at 75 in 1955. They include many of his courtship letters to Elsie Moll in 1904-1909, which become more fascinating in retrospect, as a wedge into and counterpoint to their very private, seemingly unfulfilling, but stable married life. The letters cover his early publishing relationship with Harriet Moore, his trips to Key West and Florida in the 1920s, his publication of Harmonium. But beginning in the 1930s, when Stevens returned to poetry after a several year absence and developed a devoted if small audience, the letters provide background and sometimes basic explanations of his poems and philosophy. It is in this period and until his death that Stevens develops some important friendships through letters, many of them overseas, and many of them with fellow writers. Poets Tom McGreevy of Ireland, Peter Lee of Korea, Jose Rodriguez Feo of Cuba, along with art patrons Barbara and Henry Church, Paris art and book buyer Paule Vidal, biographer Hi Simons and Italian translator Renato Poggioli, all become sounding boards for Wallace Stevens as he works out his philosophies of Imagination and Reality, Words and Ideas, Order and Poetry. These letters also demonstrate his sense of humor, his humanity, and his capacity for true affection. Letters were proper, as befit his time—though the Churches proved to be among the dearest friends of his life, Stevens never addressed them as anything but Mr. and Mrs. Church, and his fondest letters were signed “Very Sincerely Yours.” But he expressed his friendships in warm sentiments, interest, and thanks. There are no business letters here, and correspondences with strangers are unfailingly correct, if sometimes brusque. It is possible Holly Stevens selected letters that would not expose her father’s sometimes chilly side. One exception is Wallace Stevens’s intolerant vocabulary; casual use of racial slurs taint a few of his letters. Otherwise he emerges as a sympathetic, loyal, deeply thoughtful man.
Peter Brazeau takes the biographer’s angle with a difference—in Parts of a World he invites scores of people to describe the Stevens they knew, with very little editorial interruption. The remembrances, collected in the 1970s, run the gamut, from worshipful to derogatory, and they cover not just his literary but also his business life and family life—even venturing inside the closed door of the Stevens’ home on 118 Westerly Terrace. Brazeau begins with business colleagues, and a large man (six foot two with a weight that varied from 200 to 270) begins to emerge, working diligently and expertly for his company, rising to Vice President of The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. It is a myth that Stevens’s business colleagues were unaware of his stature as a poet, but there were less than a handful of employees who understood or enjoyed his poetry; Stevens felt rebuffed and rarely mentioned it. Fellow workers admired his work ethic and his brilliance as a bond lawyer. They were split on his sometimes biting sense of humor, his tendency toward rude and random dismissals, his unsociability. With one or two exceptions, none of Stevens’s business friends (or, we come to find out as the book progresses, any of his friends) were invited inside his home.
Wallace and Elsie Stevens’s privacy at home both protected Stevens from intrusion and cost him friendships. The common complaint that Stevens did not open his home seems to have insulted or hurt a great number of friends and colleagues. Frost was appalled to be put up in a hotel in Hartford, when he fully expected to stay at the home. William Carlos Williams and Carl Sandburg were both shocked to find themselves booked in Hartford hotels. Peter Lee was a correspondent with Wallace Stevens in the 1950s, a young poet from Korea who came to Yale to study. They met a few times in Hartford, but never at Stevens’s home. Perhaps this is why Lee registers Stevens’s kindness, but does not imply a reciprocal feeling. This is in stunning contrast to Stevens’s letters to Lee, which are full of fondness, grandfatherliness even. Jose Rodrigueze Feo, a young poet from Cuba who corresponded with Stevens for many years (and acted as trigger to more than one Stevens poem), remembered visiting Hartford. “I didn’t feel very happy. He never took me to his house, and he was very mysterious about his family. When I went to see him for the first time in Hartford, he said, in sort of an apology, his wife wasn’t feeling very well and he didn’t think I’d enjoy going to the house. That’s when I had a first inkling there was something wrong with her.” Stevens was loyal to his wife, who wanted little if any contact with his world—he honored her privacy. But it’s probable he let her take the blame too, while he protected his privacy for selfish reasons—for time to read, to listen to music, and to sit and think. To Feo he wrote, “You have to think two or three hours every day….You have to think [not only] about what you read, but you have to think about your life and the things around you.” With his days taken up by the insurance business, the evenings and weekends and lunchtime walks were precious time for Stevens’s work.
A man is insinuated between the lines of Stevens’s letters and those interviews, in the disparity between what Stevens would not or could not say in his letters, and what his acquaintances felt compelled to say. Some interviews expose his odd home life and his own strained relationship with his wife. Others describe his struggle to be both part of the poetry world and separate. A few share insights into the poetry and the man. For instance, Jose Rodriguez Feo speaks of Stevens as a sensualist: [H]e is the poet of the enjoyment, in the sense that those realities that he speaks about—for instance, when he talks about fruits or when he talks about pictures, or looking at something in nature—those are the things that make life enjoyable. He’s a hedonist, in that sense….[T]he first time we went to the Chambord, a very good restaurant, he said to me, ‘Jose, we will have one of your tropical fruits because I see on the menu they have avocados, alligator pears.’ They brought us half of the avocado, which was very expensive, in the center they had cheese. To him that was a beautiful thing; it became almost a poetic object, to be eaten, but to be enjoyed, to be looked at.” Some of Stevens’s adventures appear in interviews, though they are decidedly absent from correspondence. His fistfight with Hemingway never appears in a letter—but instead in a couple of boisterous conversations, after a few drinks. Stevens revels in his dirty jokes at the canoe club, though more than once a friend recalls “He called me up the next morning to apologize for having told that raw story. I can’t imagine how he could regret it; it wasn’t raw at all, whatever it was” (Monroe Wheeler).
It becomes clear that, though Stevens had a reputation as a philosophizing poet, an aesthete, these assessments break down somewhat under scrutiny. Paul Weiss, a philosopher, speaks of Stevens as “a phenomenologist—that is, somebody who is alert to what he confronts and gives it its full value, doesn’t reduce it by virtue of some preconceived concept, but tries to accept things in their immediacy and their full richness. This is of course what one looks to in a poet…. [H]is ultimate passion was to try to get to the clean, clear ultimate reality, which required thrust through everything that we are thinking, naming, using, saying. What I’m not clear about is what he saw when he got there…. Say ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ is an insight into how some ordinary humdrum occurrence can stand out as a pivotal event in somebody’s life. In that sense, he is somebody that a philosopher can read with pleasure and understand, but when he begins to write in prose as if he were talking technically about philosophy, he’s rather naïve.” Monroe Wheeler, of the Museum of Modern Art, invited Stevens to speak there about “The Relations between Poetry and Painting.” Though Stevens’s letters document his long-time devotion to visiting galleries and museums, and collecting art through his personal dealer in Paris, Wheeler observed, “I discovered finally that he didn’t know a great deal about painting; he really hadn’t the time to study it. He visited the museums, there’s no doubt about that; he paid close attention, probably, to art magazines, too. …He simply took pleasure…he didn’t analyze.” Acquaintances who managed entry into Stevens’s home called it “bourgeois,” the French paintings that he so prized “second rate.” His surroundings were mostly conventional, no matter how striking and new his poetry might be. And though most of his life Stevens resisted religion and its troubles, in his last weeks, dying of cancer, he asked to be baptized into the Catholic Church, and requested that a Saint Christopher medal be pinned to his pillow--some Stevens scholars choose not to believe this turn of events.
In the face of contradiction and complexity, of half-formed images of his life as a businessman, his family life, it is satisfying to turn to the letters, where Stevens is Stevens, musing about poetry and life. “I am at work on a thing called An Ordinary Evening in New Haven. This is confidential and I don’t want the thing to be spoken of. But here my interest is to try to get as close to the ordinary, the commonplace and the ugly as it is possible for a poet to get. It is not a question of grim reality but of plain reality. The object is of course to purge oneself of anything false.” “I came across some such phrase as this: ‘man’s passionate disorder’, and I have since been very much interested in disorder.” “I think I should select from my poems as my favorite 'The Emperor of Ice Cream.' This wears a deliberately commonplace costume, and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry; that is the reason why I like it.” “Reality is the great fond, and it is because it is that the purely literary amounts to so little. Moreover, in the world of actuality…one is always living a little out of it.” “It interests me immensely to have you speak of so many places that have been merely names for me. Yet really they have always been a good deal more than names. I practically lived in France when old Mr. Vidal was alive because if I had asked him to procure from an obscure fromagerie in the country some of the cheese with raisins in it of which I read one time, he would have done it and that is almost what living in France or anywhere else amounts to.” “In the long run, as Poe said in one of his essays which nobody reads, the generous man comes to be regarded as the stingy man; the beautiful woman comes to be regarded as an old witch; the scholar becomes the ignoramus. The hell with all this. For my own part I like to live in a classic atmosphere, full of my own gods and to be true to them until I have some better authority than a merely contrary opinion for not being true to them. We have all to learn to hold fast.”