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Blue Order: Wallace Stevens’s Jazz Experiments
Corey M. Taylor

Journal of Modern Literature, Volume 32, Number 2, Winter 2009, pp. 100-117 (Article) Published by Indiana University Press DOI: 10.1353/jml.0.0048

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Blue Order: Wallace Stevens’s Jazz Experiments
Corey M. Taylor
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Wallace Stevens, one of America’s most recognizable modernist poets, separated himself from social, political, cultural, and even aesthetic milieus of the modernist era. His aloofness notwithstanding, modern tenets such as meditations on reality, debates about culture, and experimentation with music occur in Stevens’s poetry. Critics often, and rightly, align the musical qualities of Stevens’s verse with classical motifs. This article places the musicality of Stevens’s poetry in a jazz context, and contends that poems from throughout his career — especially in Harmonium (1923) and Ideas of Order (1936) — contain jazz elements and can be read as jazz texts. Stevens employs linguistic repetitions, thematic variations, improvisatory flourishes, allusions, and wordplay that indicate the influence and presence of jazz, without ever mentioning the music by name. Ultimately, Stevens can be considered a poet who experimented with jazz, giving his work additional sonic and contextual resonance. Keywords: Wallace Stevens / modernism / jazz / poetry / improvisation

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n 1900, a degree from Harvard in hand, Wallace Stevens lived in Lower Manhattan and worked the graveyard shift at the New York Tribune. He enrolled in New York Law School in 1901, graduated in 1903, joined the New York bar in 1904, and traded law for the insurance business in 1908 (Kermode and Richardson 960–61). Despite his formal education and employment, Stevens lived like a bohemian during these years. He attended and wrote plays, immersed himself in politics, and drank a good deal. In the 1910s, he established friendships with modernist artists and critics including William Carlos Williams, Marcel Duchamp, Carl Van Vechten, and Walter Conrad Arensberg. These and other individuals first exposed Stevens to cubism and surrealism, movements which Glen MacLeod claims profoundly impacted Stevens’s development as a poet (58).1 Thus began one of twentieth-century literature’s double lives: Wallace Stevens — insurance company man and inventive modernist poet. Ironically, when he was in his twenties, Stevens wrote little of anything and published no poetry. He did, however, develop an affinity for one of the early twentieth century’s most popular musical styles. According to Linda DuRose,

Blue Order: Wallace Stevens’s Jazz Experiments

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after leaving Harvard “the young Stevens . . . was struck by the playful tempos and irregular rhythms of a new style of music played by African Americans” (7). DuRose refers to ragtime, the immediate predecessor of jazz, which is perhaps the quintessential American (and modernist) art form. Living and working in New York City provided Stevens with several opportunities to listen to ragtime and early jazz, and to establish connections with musicians and other artists. Indeed, both ragtime and jazz would have a definite effect on Stevens’s poetry. It must be said, though, that associating Stevens and his work with ragtime, jazz, or any facet of African American culture presents certain problems. Even though his first collection, Harmonium, appeared in 1923 — the same year as Jean Toomer’s Cane unofficially initiated the Harlem Renaissance — little evidence exists that Stevens felt any interest in or camaraderie with young African American artists. C. Barry Chabot wonders how Stevens could remain detached from authors and socio-aesthetic movements that resided in such close proximity to him (142). Rachel Blau DuPlessis echoes Chabot’s...
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