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Get Jobs In Offices and Wake Up for the Morning Commute: Stevens, Poet and Insurance Exec

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.

  • Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

45 thoughts on “Get Jobs In Offices and Wake Up for the Morning Commute: Stevens, Poet and Insurance Exec

    1. It’s true, Joseph. Most people hate their jobs. I think, though, that artists feel a special animosity toward the desk job, as though it were sucking the life out of them. Probably it does for a lot of people.Stevens is definitely lucky he liked doing something that a lot of people would hate.

      1. it’s a strange psychology, that sucking the life out of you thing. eg, i spent several hours saturday–a beautful fall day–converting videos from one format to the other, a pretty much tedious, mindless activity, but because it was in the service of art not only did i not mind, i actually enjoyed it, whereas the same time spent on such a beautiful day doing medical copyediting, which i do for some of my living, and which takes more mindful engagement than video conversion, i would have resented. seems to me you can both choose, and not choose at all, what inspires you and what sucks the life from you.

        1. This seems to me like a slogan for modern life: “seems to me you can both choose, and not choose at all, what inspires you and what sucks the life from you.”

  1. Wonderful Amber.

    I feel many artists, no matter the art, seek out something very the opposite of what they do. For writers, that would have to be standing and moving around. I’ve worked in demolition, in gardens and done other ‘labor’ jobs – very important for my creative life. Giving it a rest.

    I believe Stevens also said scrubbing floors is good for making poetry ‘happen.’

    1. For some people, definitely, that’s true. For me, it’s the exact opposite–I never had the time or leisure or energy to write until I got an office job. When I was selling things all day (cars, makeup, whatever) or flipping burgers, shelving books, etc, I would come home way too tired to be creative. I didn’t really start writing again for about five years after college–until I was in graduate school and had more time/energy to use my brain again.

  2. I dug this post too, Amber. It seems that many (myself included at times) are willing to take it as a given that the ideal job for a writer is to be teaching workshop classes, to have one’s head in the genres in which one writes for as much of the time as possible. But it’s good to get out of what can become a closed loop, I think. For five years I worked in a psychiatric hospital for many reasons, but one was to get away from the “literary”–in some ways to give it space to thrive in absence, in some ways to put it to the test (like forcing a long-distance relationship to make the heart grow fonder), and in some ways to force myself to make new connections, to rethink it. And also to collect a paycheck, and because it was pretty damned interesting along the way.

    While I like what you’re asserting here about Stevens, I do have some questions…things, distinctions, appear to break down at certain points. Like Stevens kind of kept his insurance-life and poetic life sequestered from one another, but it seems like you are arguing that they bled into one another, that as much as Stevens was an adherent of the school of imagination that he did draw from his experience in the insurance biz. I mean, from the sound of it he wasn’t exactly William T. Vollmann crossing Afghanistan with the mujaheddin, but he also wasn’t ensconced perpetually in some cubicle, sitting in front of a monitor processing claims. And if he had been? I wonder…I guess. I wonder also whether it is different for a fiction writer versus for a poet…whether fiction writers are more dependent on the nutriment of experience in some fundamental way.

    1. Thanks, Tim. I agree that it’s not a perfect equation, and I don’t think there’s anyone, really, who’s a “pure” writer of the imagination or of experience. Even Vollmann makes stuff up–sometimes wild, wild stuff–and examines the inner life, too. And yeah, agreed–it’s not like you can’t keep some stuff from bleeding into your writing. Especially if the job is such a big part of your life, as it was for Stevens–if it’s essential to you, it’s going to shape you, transform you, and your writing, too. So it’s really more of a percentage split, I think, or maybe just a way of looking at things differently.

      Somebody who maybe does have that pure experience–maybe Kafka? His job sounds like it was pretty god-awful bureaucratic mind-numbingness. And it clearly affected his writing pretty deeply.

      I admit it’s not a perfect argument for anything, though–I was more thinking through things, wondering Steven’s career pleases me so much and why so many artists seem to particularly hate desk work–and does it matter, and why or why not? So all these comments are great because I’m being forced to refine the question–and the answers. :)

  3. Solid, Ms. Sparks. I’ve always liked Stevens, and I believe in the value of being grounded in some parts of your life so you can go off in others. I also think betting everything on making money through art-making is foolish, for most. Jeanette Winterson once told me in an interview that she didn’t take advances for her books b/c she wanted the work to come out of place of purity, or something like that. In other words, once finances factor into the creative act, said act of creation will be influenced by financial concerns. There’s no way around that. Problem is, though, as you point out, it can be draining working a straight job for mo-nay, leaving little time or headspace or energy to write. Finding our own personal ways to balance this stuff is tricky, but not impossible, and that balance is key. Speaking of which… I’m turning off this computer NOW. Thanks for this level-headed reminder.

    1. Thanks, Jesus. I agree–no right or wrong answers here, it’s all about balance. I guess that’s what this whole post is, really. Find your zen wherever you can, right? It works differently for everyone. But yeah, be realistic, and don’t bank everything on making money off of your art, whatever that is. It seems like a good idea, especially in this day and age, to keep your eggs in a bunch of different baskets.

              1. Beautiful! I haven’t bought tix yet, but yeah, I’m gonna be there, probably just for off-site events and free book fair on Saturday. I only went to one panel last year. I just want to see everyone and go to parties/readings.

                Also, I set up a show with a bunch of good peeps at the Velvet Lounge. It’s on Thursday 7 – 9pm. Maybe you can make it? If not, let’s keep in touch and find a time to connect. “IRL” meetup is where it’s at, yo. No?

                1. Yeah, I plan to do the same. Parties and readings and book fair. I’m doing a reading on Thursday (Annalemma/PANK/Mudluscious) which is not too far from Velvet Lounge, so we should for sure meet up. Let’s touch base beforehand and make sure, yes!

                    1. Bummer. Maybe yours will start later and we can all head over there afterwards. Who knows. I’ll be on the lookout for dets. If Thursday’s no good, then let’s make a party plan for Fri or Sat. Looking forward to it.

  4. Let me add my thanks as well, Amber. Other than that, the one point I can contribute is that Kafka, too, flourished in the insurance industry. I mean, insofar as he flourished anywhere. Kafka earned a remarkable series of promotions & kudos, for someone of who often was laid up in sanitoria — and a Jew in central Europe, besides.

    The author of “The Metemorphosis” appears to have viewed the work as a way to change the world for the better, or at least improve things for the common man. He devised the first system of workers’ compensation in Europe (or perhaps one of the first) and for that was awarded a medal by a Czech laborers’ union.

    1. That’s some wild bio info, John. I always thought Metamorphosis was an imaginative extrapolation on Kafka’s cog existence in the thankless machine. Maybe I should read more biographies.

  5. What I’ve been wondering though, and I think it’s not unconnected — Wallace Stevens stopped writing for over a decade from his mid-40s until mid to late 50s. How did he manage to get his writing self back?

    1. It’s a good question, and I think he stopped to focus on his insurance career for a while, too. I guess I stopped writing for five years–but I’m not fifty, either. Don’t know how he did that.

      Sent from my iPhone

      1. From the Poetry Foundation website:

        “Although apparently undaunted by the poor reception accorded Harmonium, Stevens produced only a few poems during the next several years. Part of this unproductiveness was attributed by Stevens to the birth of his daughter, Holly, in 1924. Like his autobiographical character Crispin, Stevens found that parenting thwarted writing. In a letter to Harriet Monroe he noted that the responsibilities of parenthood were a “terrible blow to poor literature.”

    2. Oppen is supposed to have not-written for 25 years.

      I think, from a person, silence is stranger than music or noise.

      Of course, not publishing and not even scribbling aren’t really ‘silence’:

      The imperfect is our paradise.
      Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
      Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
      Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

  6. The greatest ENGLISH poet of the second half of the 20th century was a librarian, and a very good one too. Roy Fuller, who could write a bit, was high up at the Woolwich, a Building Society, and Matthew Arnold was an Inspector of Schools.

    1. Just a guess, but I think John is talking about Philip Larkin. If so, I agree: “the greatest [England-English] poet of the second half of the 20th century”. (The library was that of Hull.)

  7. I have been waiting to read this posting for the past thirty years. Thank you. Teaching writing is an entirely honorable and legitimate way of making a living but so are many other ways and we’re never told about the reasonably happy writer who is more, um, in the world.

    Stevens isn’t the only one, especially these days when universities are cutting faculty and faculty are complaining about teaching (at least I hear many complaints). Whatever.

    Why I didn’t write your post is an interesting puzzle (to me) but I thank you fully and from my rich-in-spirit but otherwise unemployed heart.

  8. Amber, have a look at Stevens’s essay Surety and Fidelity Claims. It’s a short discussion of, well, insurance-claims work: when someone tells the insurance company that it is contractually obliged to pay money, that’s a “claim”, and handling such business was Stevens’s job. I think the essay makes clear that Stevensian kaleidoscopy is not separable from Stevensian rigor and care – it’s important that readers not mistake Stevens’s sensual indulgence for slovenliness of thought or word.

    (The essay is in the comprehensive Library of America Collected Poetry and Prose. That’s a hell of a series they’re accreting.)

    Also, let me recommend to Stevens fanatics Parts of a World, an ‘oral biography’ of as much of Stevens as could then be gleaned. (It’s composed of reminiscing interviews with people who knew Stevens in the different “parts” of his life: youth, work, poetry, and so on.)

    It’s my understanding that Stevens did not ‘choose’ law school. Rather, he wanted to stay at Harvard and study literature, but his father compelled him to make a vocational non-choice and go down to NY to get a law degree. That he did relish the insurance work he eventually got, nobody seems to deny, and maybe, as you suggest (?), his poetic life was the better for the business career that, as I understand, he was paternally pressured into.

  9. I’m kind of thinking of becoming a librarian. It’s a thing I’ve thought about before. My concern is that, in academia, to some degree writing, your own writing, is seen as part of your job–the research end. Although maybe that’s becoming less and less true, as more and more of us serve to simply fill slots in comp programs, with the possibility of teaching the occasional lit and creative writing classes held out to us (basically) as carrots to keep us teaching comp…

    I may be kind of disgruntled at the moment. What I mean to say is, this was a great post, and has me thinking.

    1. Thanks! I can see how that would be a drain in academia–the pressure to publish, too. That’s one of the things that made me not want to get my PhD, which I had strongly considered doing. I’m just too lazy to publish regularly.

      You know what? My secret dream is to be a librarian. I have done nothing about it, and probably never will. But oh, what an awesome life it seems like it would be…(well, except for the whole libraries-closing-and-digital-books-and-what-have-you thing).

    2. Hey Tadd, not meaning to crush your dream of hanging out with books all day, but the library people I know either work part-time b/c full-time’s not available or overwork (as an admin) b/c there aren’t enough employees sharing the workload. Library gig’s a good dream, I think, but a fantasy. I hear James Frey’s got a golden opportunity for cash mo-nay, though, that doesn’t involve teaching.

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