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A Poet's Legacy: The Wallace Stevens Walk


September 30, 2011

Among Hartford's literary luminaries over the past two centuries, Wallace Stevens is right there: That is, wholly within the shadow ofMark Twain.

Twain is the subject of constant scholarship, essays and books. Stevens is the poet some Connecticut people have heard of but never read.

But Stevens is regarded as a major American poet. He won a Pulitzer Prize, National Book awards and many other honors. He has his passionate devotees, if comparatively small in number. Just a couple of years ago, The Hartford Friends of Wallace Stevens, less formally known as the Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens, put together something very appropriate and clever that will help ensure the Stevens literary legacy endures.

They created the Wallace Stevens Walk, which follows the route Stevens took every day from his home at 118 Westerly Terrace in Hartford's west end to his office at the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co. building, now part of the Hartford Group 690 Asylum Avenue, where he became a vice president.

It is perfect for a half-day outing in the fall, with fall foliage color brightening the cityscape amid often-comfortable temperatures. One way, it is 2.4 miles, or 4.8 miles round trip, mostly down Asylum Avenue, with Hartford landmarks all along the route.

Though he wasn't born in Hartford, Stevens spent most of his life in the city. If the image of a poet is a financially struggling bohemian type, Stevens was the antithesis a successful insurance executive who wore gray suits every day, even weekends.

He lived a most comfortable life in a neighborhood of Hartford's biggest and most expensive homes. He did not believe poets needed to fit an anti-establishment mold. For him, financial security assured intellectual freedom. In a city that is all about financial security, maybe Stevens is its perfect literary manifestation.

Perhaps the most radical thing the man ever did was not learning to drive. So he walked to work, sometimes composing poetry as he did hence the Wallace Stevens Walk.

Thirteen granite markers were placed along the route Stevens walked, each with a stanza from one of his most famous poems, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

These stanzas are not necessarily easily digested intellectually.

"A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one."

OK. So I asked the president of The Hartford Friends of Wallace Stevens about the man and his poetry. Stevens often explored the difference between the way we experience things in our imagination and the way we experience them in reality, says Jim Finnegan ofWest Hartford.

That the stanzas can be intriguing is actually a plus. The group has heard from a number of people who have come upon one of the granite stones, read the stanza and discovered the rest of the poem and Stevens through an Internet search.

The walk happens to take you right by a number of Hartford landmarks beginning with the Hartford Group itself, where the first stone was placed, curbside. You can't miss it. Nearby is the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, the large, Gothic brownstone church dating to 1866, where the second stone marker can be found.

In addition to the stone markers, there is much to see on this walk. There are old, sizable trees, many of them historically or otherwise notable. At the corner of Woodland Street and Asylum, on the grounds of St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, there is the largest known specimen of a shingle oak in the state. Nearby is an enormous sassafras tree. Some of the most interesting trees on the grounds are marked.

Continuing west, standing almost all by itself next to the main entrance to the Hartford Classical Magnet School is an extremely rare hybrid buckeye.

The nearby Connecticut Historical Society is a possible extra stop for walkers. Another is Elizabeth Park, where there are gardens and scores of impressive trees to explore. Stevens himself often walked in Elizabeth Park, and used the park in some of his poetry.

The walk continues into the comfortable residential neighborhood of larger homes where Stevens lived. The entire route is on sidewalks.

As for the "Enemies" in the informal name of the Hartford Friends of Wallace Stevens, it is partly a nod to Stevens sometimes off-putting personality, as well as an acknowledgement that modern poetry, even poetry from the mid-20th century, can be difficult.

The website for Hartford Friends of Wallace Stevens, with a map of the walk, is http://www.stevenspoetry.org.

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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