Poet Wallace Stevens was born on this day in 1879. An elegant and playful writer, Stevens—who had a long and very successful career in the insurance business—created poems that richly reward patient reading.
Some of his poems are highly comic, while others are somber and spare. Many of them explore the relationship between consciousness and reality. Take, for example, “The Snow Man,” an excerpt from which appears on the Twentieth-Century Poets stamp sheet. The poem begins:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
In order to understand winter, we must shed our human perceptions and expectations and become like the snow man, for whom the winter world is not cold and desolate. It just is. Human consciousness, Wallace seems to be saying, shapes our reality; to find truth, we must transcend ourselves.
Of course, this is just an interpretation of the poet’s message. Artist Vivienne Flesher (who illustrated the 2005 Love Bouquet stamp) chose to represent the poem not literally with the image of a snow man but with what a snow man might see: a single pine tree glowing in the cool winter light.
This image appears on one of the cards in the Twentieth-Century Poets note card set, which includes 10 unique note cards and envelopes plus 10 stamps. Each of the cards features a painting by Flesher that, in one way or another, re-imagines the sentiments of the poem it illustrates, rendering the words of the poems both familiar and strange.
Stevens may have appreciated this. Poetry, he once said, is a “a way through reality.” In the words of one critic, “The imagination is the true hero of a Stevens poem.”