The poet Susan Howe discusses the legacy of Wallace Stevens. Photo: Alizah Salario
The world — or perhaps just a few squares of Chelsea sidewalk — arranged itself into a poem on July 11 in front of the former home of Wallace Stevens.
Considered to be one of the greatest American modernist poets of the 20th century, Stevens was recognized with a cultural medallion honoring his legacy and New York influence outside 441 West 21st St., where he resided in the top floor apartment from 1910 to 1916.
A handful of distinguished poets, Stevens aficionados and the occasional Chelsea dog walker withstood the afternoon heat to pay tribute to Stevens, who composed some of his greatest poems in his stately Chelsea home, including “Sunday Morning” and “Peter Quince at the Clavier.”
Though Stevens never quit his day job and spent many years practicing insurance law and living in Hartford, Conn., “New York remained his aesthetic point of reference,” said Glen MacLeod, vice president of the Wallace Stevens Society, which nominated the poet for the honor.
MacLeod, a Stevens scholar, noted that the poet’s work was transformed after seeing an early show at the Armory consisting of modernist paintings. The influence on his work was profound; the analogous processes between poetry and painting began to inform his work.
“His work matured in this house,” said MacLeod.
The poet Deborah Garrison, now the poetry editor at Alfred A. Knopf and a senior editor at Pantheon Books, read a moving letter from Stevens to his wife, Elsie, written upon his discovery of what would become their Chelsea home.
“It has everything in its favor, and I know you will like it,” Stevens wrote.
Lisa Goldfarb, president of the Wallace Stevens Society, spoke about the master stylist’s love for the landscape of New York. Stevens took pleasure in walking the length and breadth of the city, she said, and was known for walking from Chambers Street to Spuyten Duyvil in one day.
“Somehow, the rhythm of my walking gets into the rhythm of my poems,” said Goldfarb, quoting Stevens.
The Stevens medallion is one of about 120 cultural medallions throughout the five boroughs. Started in 2000 by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, chair and founder of the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center, the cultural medallion program marks sites where individuals who made an impact on New York lived, worked and created. The program is patterned after London’s famed blue plaques program, both reminding passersby of living, breathing history and linking the past and present.
At the ceremony, Diamonstein-Spielvogel encouraged New Yorkers to nominate individuals whose imprint on the city deserves to be remembered.
Distinguished poets in attendance included Susan Howe, who spoke of how “extraordinarily moving” it was to remember Stevens.
“I turn to Stevens these days almost as a form of prayer,” she said.
Howe closed with a reading from the ending of “Sunday Morning,” which is considered one of the greatest poems in the English language.
“At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make/Ambiguous undulations as they sink/Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”