It drives me crazy. In every article about how you can’t make money as a writer–and so you’re going to have to work in academia or take some crappy job–there’s Wallace Stevens, listed alongside Kafka. Woe, the writer will mourn, Wallace Stevens, forced to work for an insurance company. Why couldn’t writing have saved him from such a life?
Thing is, Stevens wasn’t forced. Stevens wanted to work in insurance. He actually–gasp–liked it. And it wasn’t just an entry level job, either. It was a career, and he was good at it. He worked his way up through the years to become vice-president at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. The same kind of unusual, creative thinking process that made him a fantastic poet also made him a fantastic insurance man. He enjoyed the challenge of that work, and the fact that it made it possible for him to write and live in comfort, to provide for his family and avoid the poverty so many of his friends faced.
Stevens tried to keep the two worlds relatively separate. His co-workers didn’t really get what he was doing writing poetry, or even know that he was writing it, and he was cool with that. When he wanted to talk writing or philosophy he hung with George Santayana, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, E.E. Cummings, Marcel Duchamp, etc. He and his wife lived for a while in Chelsea, in the middle of an artist’s community, though he eventually left to take a position with the Hartford. He loved the company of artists, and I’m guessing maybe even preferred it to insurance salesman. But he loved his job (and loved his friends’ consternation about him loving his job) and never had any qualms about doing both kinds of work and doing them both well. He would compose poems on the way to work, and have his secretary type them up when he got in. That’s an image I have to admit I love–the Don Draper exec, giving dictation–but instead of the annual reports letter, the “Anecdote of the Jar” gets barked out.
In fact, his job in many ways directly influenced the poetry he wrote, and he liked that. When he was traveling extensively, checking people’s claims, he was able to see for himself the vast diverse geography, the shifting terrain and weather across the U.S. The weather, temperatures, the shape of the land, became crucial elements in his poetry, in expressing mood and theme, the search for the perfect and something in between. I would also argue that his lack of sentimentality about things like religion, heavenly pursuits–and his focus instead on people, what we do here and now and what kind of place we make for ourselves–probably comes at least in part from his day to day interactions with people, his interest in the social fabric of society and how we keep it together. Not to mention his frequent trips to the aftermath of some dreadful event, to check the claim of an unfortunate victim or victims. Surely these must have reminded him often how little time we have and how much we must make of it, however we can.
Artists love to toss out the idea of the office job as a plague, as the creativity-killer that ruins today’s artists. It’s not just writers, either. I took the title of this post from the ironically meant MGMT lyrics to “Time to Pretend,” when singer Andrew VanWyngarden kids about how tough it is to be rock stars:
Yeah it’s overwhelming
But what else can we do
Get jobs in offices and
Wake up for the morning commute?
It’s satire, but clearly based in a certain reality–a lot of artists would rather do anything than work in what they see as the establishment (Academia is clearly another matter, for some reason). And it’s clear that they’d like to paint all great artists going all the way back with the same broad brush. These are often the artists of the school that values experience above all, that say to be a poet you have to live as a poet. But Stevens was not a poet of the experience school. He was a poet who valued the life of the imagination above all else, and believed that all we need is contained within it. Just like Emily Dickinson, another of my favorite, favorite poets. Okay, perhaps she had little choice in the life she lived. But Stevens chose law school, chose Hartford, chose the insurance company and the quiet life. (For good examples of Stevens and poetry of imagination versus poetry of experience, I like this essay in the Economist.)
I think it’s good to tell the truth about artists and work, and stop trying to make it all seem either/or. Sure, some of our most brilliant art has come from suffering, from madness, from poverty, from desperation. Sure, some artists may simply not be able to produce art unless they think about, dream about art full-time, endlessly, obsessively. Some artists may not have the opportunities or talents open to them in other areas–art may be their only avenue for some sort of success. And there’s nothing wrong with any kind of work, especially now, especially with our economy the way it is. Full-time, part-time, whatever you can do to make a buck or make your lifestyle work.
But I think it’s nice to know that it works the other way, too, that one of the most brilliant poets of the twentieth century was also one of its brightest insurance executives. I think it’s nice to know that you can have a career and make time for writing, too. I think it’s nice to know that an ordinary life does not preclude an extraordinary literary talent from emerging.