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Poetry Lovers, Walk This Way

The Friends (And Enemies) Of Wallace Stevens Preserve His Work In Granite

March 11, 2007
By CAROLE GOLDBERG, Courant Books Editor

The other shining star in Hartford's literary firmament is about to get his walk of fame.

The Mark Twain House draws a steady stream of visitors to the Farmington Avenue home where Samuel L. Clemens created such masterpieces as "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but less attention is paid to the life of Wallace Stevens, the insurance company executive who created some of the most challenging and admired - if not always well understood - poetry of the 20th century.

Winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, Stevens often composed his deceptively minimalist but deeply complex poems as he walked from his home on Westerly Terrace to the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., now Hartford Insurance Co., on Asylum Avenue, where he was a vice president from 1934 to 1955.

On Wednesday at noon, an intrepid band of Stevens' friends (and one "enemy" who claims to dislike his poetry but supports making people aware of his achievements) will cap 10 years of fundraising with the unveiling of an engraved stone marker on the grounds of the Greater Hartford Classical Magnet School at 85 Woodland St.

At the event, the noted Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who counts Stevens as an influence, will read from his work, and Carmen Blatt, the 2007 winner of the annual Wallace Stevens Scholarship, a student at Hartford Public High School and the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, will read one of her poems. Zagajewski also will give a free reading Tuesday at the 44th annual Wallace Stevens Poetry Program at the University of Connecticut.

One of 13 to be installed, the marker will bear the sixth stanza of Stevens' poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which reads:

Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.

That poem is considered Stevens' best known and most accessible, says Christine Palm of Hartford, the president of the Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens, which is sponsoring the project. The poem's stanzas can be read as "13 individual vignettes, like haiku," she says.

Founded in 1995, the group works to support education, civic pride and cultural tourism through awareness of Wallace's work and sponsors programs and events, including scholarships, readings by nationally known poets and an annual "birthday bash" fundraiser.

"I share this part of the world with him and from childhood was aware of his legacy," says Palm, who grew up in and now lives in the neighborhood where Stevens made his home.

"You don't have to know about him to enjoy his language," she says, acknowledging that Stevens' work is "astonishingly challenging."

"Anyone who says he understands everything [Stevens wrote] is lying or hasn't read him."

But it can be a mistake to get hung up on the literal meaning of a poem, Palm says.

"The language must wash over you - you may understand very little but still be moved, [as with] music.

"It was in high school, upon hearing my English teacher read "The Emperor of Ice Cream" aloud," Palm says, that she became fascinated by Stevens' poetry. "I was completely hooked by the time he got to `bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds...' The language just washed over me long before I had any idea what concupiscence was."

Three of the markers have been completed. Architect (and Stevens "enemy") John Orofino, refined and executed a design the entire board conceived, working from an initial concept by Brendan Miggins of Amenta/Emma Architects. The engraving is by John Zito of Beij, Williams and Zito Inc. in Hartford. Two markers will be placed on the Classical Magnet School property and another at Asylum Hill Congregational Church on Asylum Avenue.

Other stones in the series are expected to be placed at such sites as the Hartford Insurance Co., St. Francis Hospital, Hartford Conservatory of Music and the green that runs along Westerly Terrace, across from the home at 118 where Stevens lived, which is now owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Hartford.

When all of the approximately 2-foot by 2-foot by 2-foot cubes of Connecticut granite are installed, each bearing one stanza of the poem, they will mark a 2.4-mile self-guided walk from the insurance company, where a kiosk will offer brochures on the poet's life and work, to Westerly Terrace. The city of Hartford has officially named the route Wallace Stevens Way and will mark it with street signs.

The nonprofit group now has about half of the $75,000 it will need and is seeking more donations.

"It's not an easy sell, but some people feel passionately about poetry and Stevens," Palm says. Among the national figures who have contributed are poets Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand and Richard Wilbur and literary critic Helen Vendler.

Founder Dan Schnaidt says the group grew out of a response to an op-ed piece he wrote for The Courant when he moved here from New York and was disappointed to find no signs mentioning Stevens' legacy.

"We can't wait to raise the full funds" before beginning to install the markers, says Schnaidt, who is academic computing manager for the arts and humanities at Wesleyan University. "Getting something on the ground is just crucial."

Palm says she hopes the project will be completed in about a year. She says having the marker bearing the sixth stanza be the first one installed is "guided by Wallace's iconoclastic spirit."

The group will handle maintenance of the markers with an eye to meeting city codes and safety issues, she says, noting that Stevens "was after all a lawyer and conservative."

Wallace Stevens Way, the organization hopes, will raise awareness of the poet's work for Hartford-area residents, improve the streetscape and attract national and international visitors to the city.

"He used extraordinary language to describe ordinary things," Schnaidt says. "It's our long-range goal to create a tangible sense of place about Stevens."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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