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Wallace Stevens : Collected Poetry and Prose (Library of America) Hardcover – October 1, 1997
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From Library Journal
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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'I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.'
The poem is both Emersonian and Whitmanian in formulation, and I suggest memorising it (it is only four stanzas) and chanting it to yourself at any melancholy moment of your life. This aspect of Stevens is built up even more beautifully in the much longer poem 'The Idea of Order at Key West'. Stevens' quest as poet is to aid us in finding outselves more truly and more strange. This, however, does take some effort on the reader's behalf, such as in a great stanza from 'Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction':
'It must be visible or invisible,
Invisible or visible or both:
A seeing and unseeing in the eye.'
Lines such as these only begin to unfold themselves for you if you engage with Stevens deeply. One way to do this is to read Stevens from his first book of poetry called 'Harmonium' right through to his last collection called 'The Rock'. Now this is one reason why the Library of America edition is particularly impressive. It contains all of Stevens' published poems in chronological order. This gives you the liberty to get a real feel for his transformation as a poet - and believe me, there are startling evolutions to be found, such as the one already mentioned, but more particularly when he reaches such heights as 'The Auroras of Autumn' and 'Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction'. If you are looking for a guide, understanding the early poem 'The Snow Man' goes a long way in opening up Stevens' method of thinking.
The virtues of this edition do not stop there, however, and once the poetry has finished up (all 600 pages of it) there are plays (they are very short) and a large selection of very illuminating prose, including essays by Stevens and a small selection of letters and journal entries. While the collection of essays under the heading 'The Necessary Angel' are mostly of very high quality, it is worth pointing out that many letters which I have found helpful for reading Stevens (many of which he wrote to Hi Simons) are not in this edition. It is lamentable that the editors would make questionable inclusions regarding the letters, because some offer nothing of benefit to us as readers and only involve Stevens writing to thank a friend or reflect on an event they attended. This, however, should not deter you from purchasing this edition over any others available. These letters are only there to garnish the remarkable poetry and essays, and if you are really interested in reading Stevens' best letters then purchase 'The Letters of Wallace Stevens' edited by Holly Stevens, which unfortunately isn't available on Amazon.
At over 1000 pages one would presume this book to be quite large and heavy, but the Library of America find a way to deliver well-made and light editions, which are never cumbersome to read or carry around with you. On the countrary, the layout and typeface are elegant and make reading it very comfortable. The paper is quite thin, but it is of good quality. Standard to the LoA editions is a useful ribbon sewn into the spine, and these don't tend to fray at the end like they do in some other books (I'm looking at you, Everyman's Library). Even though Holly Stevens put out a great 'Collected Poems' of Stevens, this edition is easily the best for anyone with a real interest in the man.
This collection, however, is the collected poetry and prose, and needs to be considered in that light. Including much of Stevens' prose gives insights into his thinking and aesthetics that may be harder to glean, particularly given Stevens' canonical status in modernist American poetry.
The Library of America addition is nice, well-edited, and a solid physical object that will probably last. Overall, this may be overwhelming to readers new to Stevens, but for fans and scholars, this volume is a sound place to start.
My only slight complaint is that the notes are extremely terse, and do not annotate many important poems. They do, however, translate words and phrases in languages other than English. For more elaborate notes and glosses on Stevens's work, I recommend A Guide to Wallace Stevens by Eleanor Cook.
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The presentation and binding are up to the high standards of the Library of America. I retain a sneaking affection for the generous selection of Stevens in The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by the poet's daughter and on a larger page, but there is no doubt that the present collection is now the standard one. All those interested in twentieth century poetry should have it.
I wrote the review above in 2013. Since then Knopf have issued a revised Collected Poems with a more accurate text than the original 1954 edition, which had to be produced in a hurry to be ready for the poet's birthday. That is a useful cheap paperback but this LOA edition has an accurate text which can be relied on and remains the best presentation of the poet's work.