Literary daybook, Oct. 4

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


the Salon Books Editors
October 4, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On Oct. 4, Lord Peter Wimsey receives a John Donne manuscript page from his bride-to-be.
-- "Busman's Honeymoon" (1937)
by Dorothy L. Sayers

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1937, Wallace Stevens published his fourth book of poetry, "The Man With the Blue Guitar." Stevens was a lawyer with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company for almost 40 years, and he was 44 when he published his first book of poetry. This was "Harmonium," a collection that included some of his most anthologized poems -- "Domination of Black," "The Emporer of Ice Cream," "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" -- but that sold fewer than 100 copies at the time, and was dismissed by its New York Times reviewer as a "glittering edifice of icicles" within which "there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion." By 1955, the year before his death, Stevens' "Collected Poems" had won the Pulitzer and National Book Awards and he had come to be seen as a founding father of modern poetry -- though some still complained that Stevens succeeded too well at implementing his belief that poetry "must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully."

Stevens' long title-poem in "The Man With the Blue Guitar" was partly inspired by Picasso's "Old/Blind Guitarist," one of the paintings in a Picasso exhibition that came to Hartford in 1934. Another inspiration was the complaining of politically minded critics in the '30s; they did not like his emphasis on the independent imagination of the artist, and his lack of interest in "things exactly as they are":

"The man bent over his guitar.
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, 'You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.'

The man replied, 'Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.'

And they said then, 'But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

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A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are ...'"

Stevens took a daily two-mile walk to work, and Hartford has plans to commemorate him by placing the three-line stanzas of his "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" at regular intervals along it.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.


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