Wallace Stevens: A Case Of Poetic Justice

by Debra Eve | @DebraEve

Wallace Stevens

“I prefer to think I’m just a man, not a poet part time, business man the rest…I don’t divide my life, just go on living.”

In 15 Fascinating Legal Late Bloomers, I profiled folks who detoured to law school before pursuing their creative impulses. The diverse group included:

  • literary heavy-hitter Goethe,
  • songman Hoagy Carmichael,
  • comedian John Cleese and
  • New York Times bestseller Gretchin Rubin.

One of the fifteen, however, practiced law to the end. Right before his death at age 76, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry while serving as Vice President of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company (now The Hartford Group).

How did Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) reconcile this double life?

He didn’t.

“It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job,” Stevens once told a newspaper reporter.

Stevens was born 132 years ago today in Reading, Pennsylvania, the son of a prosperous lawyer. Like many late bloomers, he skimmed through high school. One semester he’d pull perfect grades, the next he’d flunk out. He had to repeat his freshman year.

But he flourished later, when given the freedom to pursue his own agenda.

Young Stevens

Young Stevens

Stevens’s poor grade point average excluded him from college, but Harvard accepted him as a “special student” (meaning they’d take his money and let him attend classes, but he couldn’t earn a degree). He soon outshone his peers, especially in writing. As a junior, he became president of Harvard Advocate, the undergraduate literary magazine.

Many articles report that Stevens’s brilliance allowed him to graduate early. Not true. He withdrew for financial reasons. His father had made some poor investments and his once-lucrative law business flailed. He couldn’t afford to let Wallace doss around at Harvard anymore.

Stevens decamped to New York with vague literary ambitions, but ended up a journalist with the New York Tribune. That lasted nine months.

Finally, unable to make a living as a writer, Stevens followed his father’s advice and entered law school. He passed the New York bar in 1904. On the way back home, he met a girl on the train, “the prettiest girl in Reading,” Elsie Kachel. (Elsie may have been the model for the now-defunct Mercury dime.) They married five years later, after he’d established himself.

Stevens spent the next several years moving from firm to firm. In 1916, at age 35, he joined The Hartford Group (where he’d spend the rest of his professional life) as an insurance lawyer. Perhaps not coincidentally, he turned to writing again.

Stevens and daughter Holly

Stevens and daughter Holly

In 1923, he published his first poetry collection, Harmonium. His only daughter, Holly, was born a year later.  (Holly edited and published her father’s correspondence after his death.)

Stevens spent the next eleven years climbing the corporate ladder and caring for his family. In 1934, The Hartford Group made him Vice President. Two years later, at age 57, he published his second poetry collection, Ideas of Order.

Finally secure in his career, Stevens became a prolific poet. But he didn’t gain popular recognition until in his seventies, when he won The National Book Award (twice) and the Pulitzer.

After he won the Pulitzer, Harvard offered him a faculty position. He declined, with good reason.

He would have to resign from The Hartford, and he finally had it cushy. A few years ago, The Hartford Friends (and Enemies) of Wallace Stevens created the Wallace Stevens Walk, which follows Stevens’s daily 2.4 mile route from his home to his office.

You see, Stevens never learned to drive. He wrote his poems in his head during the 4.8 mile round trip walk, scribbled them on note paper and had his secretary type them. (Ah yes, this was the ’40s and ’50s.) But to be fair, Stevens  suffered from blurred vision and took three medicines for his eyes.

Wasn’t Stevens A Bore?

Not at all.  Stevens adored good food and Cuban cigars. He  built an extensive wine cellar, collected antiques and leather-bound books — the things an affluent lawyer could afford. He knew what he wanted in life, and took a little longer to have it all. A friend remembered:

[Once] he was walking down Madison Avenue, looking at the antique stores. This particular one was closed…He recognized it as a choice piece of pottery, porcelain I guess it was, and some kind of fancy shade on it. He wanted to know if I could go up there that day and see if I could buy it for him. So I went up and the price on this little old table lamp was two hundred dollars. That was a lot of money in the thirties. “Oh, good God!” he said, but he sent the two hundred dollars down.

On one of his annual trips to Key West, at age 57, he got into a brawl with the young Ernest Hemingway. Apparently, he insulted Papa’s writing, then broke his hand on Papa’s jaw. He certainly wasn’t perfect. (Hemingway escaped unscathed.)

Stevens’s Poetry

Stevens is a Modernist poet, like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Hilda Doolittle (“HD”). He describes images in glorious abstraction, but he doesn’t always make you feel them. Here are two views of his work:

I’m not a fan of modernist poetry (except  T.S. Elliott). I too find Stevens difficult. But I want to share one poem with you, so you can get a feel for this insurance lawyer many critics place among 20th century America’s greatest poets.

My favorite (inspired by Stevens’s Key West trips), but not considered one of his “masterpieces”:

Nomad Exquisite

As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth
The big-finned palm
And green vine angering for life,

As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth hymn and hymn
From the beholder,
Beholding all these green sides
And gold sides of green sides,

And blessed mornings,
Meet for the eye of the young alligator,
And lightning colors
So, in me, come flinging
Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames.

I love that last line. “So, in me, come flinging forms, flames and the flakes of flames.” Isn’t that what later blooming is all about? Passions taking shape chaotically (or so it may seem), yet burning bright.

What Later Bloomers Can Learn From Wallace Stevens

  • Keep your day job, if you can make it work for you.
  • Find creative ways to be creative. Stevens didn’t drive, he walked and wrote in his head!
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