When is the last time you walked up to a shelf of books—in your house or somewhere else—randomly pulled one off the shelf, opened it up, and began reading? It had been a rather long time for me when I found this the other morning, in a beautiful, archival edition of Wallace Stevens's poems and prose. I'm guessing anyone who's ever felt thwarted by a house overflowing with family energy will get a kick out of these two short letters, written in the 1920s, when Stevens was in his forties.
Dear Miss Moore [the poet Marianne Moore, who at the time was editing the influential Dial magazine]:
Sometime ago The Dial sent me Gorham Munson's note in your November number. I ought to have thanked you, and Munson, too; but there are a lot of things one ought to do. Generally, people look at it the other way: there are a lot of things one ought not to do. And I feel sure that one of the things I ought not to do is review [William Carlos] Williams's book. What Columbus discovered is nothing to what Williams is looking for. However much I might like to try to make that out—evolve a mainland from his leaves and floating bottles and boxes—there is a baby at home. All lights are out at nine. At present there are no poems, no reviews. I am sorry. Perhaps one is better off in bed anyhow on cold nights.
Isn't it cheeky and rich (and wise) to compare writing and reading a book of poems to exploration on par with a search for undiscovered lands? Stevens may have been busy with work and family, but because this note was not deleted–I mean thrown away–we know he had a profound appreciation for what can happen in a book of poems and a sense of humor about the ordinary constraints upon his life. I like knowing that even Wallace Stevens experienced a writing drought as he focused for a decade or so upon family life.
A couple of years later, Stevens wrote the following to Williams himself:
. . . I'm as busy as the grand Mussolini himself. I rise at day-break, shave etc; at six I start to exercise; at seven I massage and bathe; at eight I dabble with a therapeutic breakfast; from eight-thirty to nine-thirty I walk down-town [These healthful behaviors were not “me time.” They were a matter of life and death after blurred vision led to a diagnosis of “acromegalic and overweight, with high blood pressure”], work all day [for the Hartford Insurance Company] . . . go to bed at nine. How should I write poetry, think it, feel it? Mon Dieu, I am happy if I can find time to read a few lines, yours, [Ezra] Pound's, anybody's. I am humble before Pound's request [for a poem? a review?]. But the above is the above.
Note that Stevens gives what little spare energy he has to reading others' poems rather than to reviewing them–or writing his own. No doubt he agreed with Williams, who thirty years later would write, in a love poem to his wife: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what it found there."
Who among us, pressed to participate in one thing too many, hasn't wanted to say, after rattling off a list of responsibilities, something along the lines of, "The above is the above." I am far from the first person to remark upon this, but it seems worth contemplating: what correspondence will survive these snap-chat times? How will we get glimpses into the clever ways today's writers navigate the overlap of domestic and professional lives, keep colleague connections going with humor and good-natured evasion? We've all had those emails in our in-boxes. But where are our in-boxes going to be ninety years from now?