Literary Places

Literary Excursions: The Wallace Stevens Walk in Hartford, Conn.

Sometimes, I think that not reading would actually take more effort for me than reading. Words are my Pied Piper. I see them – on billboards, boxes, or between the covers of a book – and I must follow them to see where they’ll take me. I am that person who reads signage out loud without realizing it, who gets distracted by the text on cereal boxes, and who is compelled to stop and inspect bookshelves and book displays wherever I find them (hotel lobbies, hair salons, craft grocery stores – just you name it).

Except … poetry. For me to read poetry takes a concerted effort. Meaning I have to remind myself, oh go read a poem, why dontcha? I’m always happy I did, but I have to remind myself to do it.

I’ve explored reasons why this may be so elsewhere (namely here and here, if you’re interested). Even if poetry never becomes my default genre, even if I never feel as at home reading poetry as I do reading novels, even if I never quite understand what’s happening in the world’s greatest poems, I can still appreciate, marvel at, and enjoy them.

Last year, I heard about the Wallace Stevens Walk in Hartford in my home state of Connecticut. In addition to being a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Stevens (1879-1955) was an insurance executive who penned many a memorable poem on the 2.4-mile walk between his home and the insurance company where he worked. (Apparently, he never learned to drive, and if you’ve ever driven just about anywhere in New England, you can imagine why he might have felt averse to it.)

Dedicated to preserving Stevens’s legacy in Hartford, cheekily named nonprofit Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens came up with the idea to commemorate Stevens’s walk. Strategically placed along his route are thirteen stones fashioned from Connecticut granite and engraved with stanzas from his poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Perhaps “Pulitzer Prize winning poet” and “insurance executive” shouldn’t seem so incongruous. Maybe I’m just inspired that he held down a Very Serious Job while also being productive creatively. Whatever it was, even though I didn’t know that much about Wallace Stevens, I became enchanted by the idea of doing the walk.

My friend Johnna Kaplan—who pens the brilliant travel blog The Size of Connecticut—and I had talked about doing it for months (maybe even 12 of them). After multiple reschedules, we finally made it happen on a balmy July day. Map in (Johnna’s well-organized) hand (you can download the map here), we began at the Harford Insurance company, located at 690 Asylum Avenue:

Hartford Fire Insurance

And here are the thirteen stones in order:

Blackbird 1

Blackbird 2

Blackbird 3

Blackbird 4

Blackbird 5

Blackbird 6

Blackbird 7

Blackbird 8

Blackbird 9

Blackbird 10

Blackbird 11     \ Blackbird 12

Blackbird 13

The trail ends on Westerly Terrace. On one side of the street is the thirteenth stone and on the other, Stevens’s former home at number 118:

Wallace Stevens' Hartford Home

It’s a curiously moving experience, looking for the next stone and then the next one and the next, following the trail from the citified part of Hartford to a more leafy and grand old New England-y part of the city, walking in the echo of a man in a suit who trod along this route, perhaps as he balanced figures with beautiful imagery.

At one crucial turn, trying to figure out whether we’re meant to go straight or turn right, Johnna and I stand at the corner of Terry Road and Westerly. I’m looking down the street, hands on hips, while Johnna studies the map. We’re in a quiet part of the city now, so the four or five camera-wielding people walking in our direction are a surprise.

“Wallace Stevens?” one of them asks. In response to our nods, several hands motion down the street, voices chiming in, “this way.”

I can see how “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is an exemplar of the modernist aesthetic etc. etc. What I really want to say about this poem is that I kind of love it. It’s weird and evocative, and I think of it when I hear the birds in my yard twittering with every ounce of strength in their teeny lungs.