How to Live, What to Do is an indispensable introduction to and guide through the work of a poet equal in power and sensibility to Shakespeare and Milton. Like them, Stevens shaped a new language, fashioning an instrument adequate to describing a completely changed environment of fact, extending perception through his poems to align what Emerson called our “axis of vision” with the universe as it came to be understood during his lifetime, 1879–1955, a span shared with Albert Einstein. Projecting his own imagination into spacetime as “a priest of the invisible,” persistently cultivating his cosmic consciousness through reading, keeping abreast of the latest discoveries of Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Louis de Broglie, and others, Stevens pushed the boundaries of language into the exotic territories of relativity and quantum mechanics while at the same time honoring the continuing human need for belief in some larger order. His work records how to live, what to do in this strange new world of experience, seeing what was always seen but never seen before.
Joan Richardson, author of the standard two-volume critical biography of Stevens and coeditor with Frank Kermode of the Library of America edition of the Collected Poetry and Prose, offers concise, lucid captures of Stevens’s development and achievement. Over the ten years of researching her Stevens biography, Richardson read all that he read, as well as his complete correspondence, journals, and notebooks. She weaves the details drawn from this deep involvement into the background of American cultural history of the period. This fabric is further enlivened by her preparation in philosophy and the sciences, creating in these thirteen panels a contemporary version of a medieval tapestry sequence, with Stevens in the place of the unicorn, as it were, holding our attention and eliciting, as necessary angel, individual solutions to the riddles of our existence on this planet spinning and hissing around its cooling star at 18.5 miles per second.