The Rhapsody of Things as They Are

It must be this rhapsody or none,
The rhapsody of things as they are

-- Wallace Stevens,
"The Man with the Blue Guitar"

When I joined the Hartford Insurance Group in 1973, there were still old-timers at the company who remembered the poet Wallace Stevens. He had been a surety claims executive there until his death in 1955. Stevens, I discovered, had been roundly disliked by those who knew him there — not because he was a poet but because he was what might charitably be described as a curmudgeon. “Unless they told me he had a heart attack, I never would have known he had a heart,” his boss reportedly said. One senior executive who had worked for him as a young lawyer told me, “I was one of the few people in the company who could·stand him, and even I wanted to knock his block off half the time.”·

Of course, there is nothing to say someone with a poetic sensibility can’t also have a difficult personality. Robert Frost was also known as something of a curmudgeon, notwithstanding his grandfatherly public persona. As it happens, Frost and Stevens would sometimes run into each other in Key West, where both took refuge from New England winters. They did not get along, although they never came to blows, the way Stevens did with another Key West literary icon, Ernest Hemingway. Stevens did not approve of the fact that Frost made a career out of being a public bard. He quipped, “It gives the man character as a poet to have…daily contact with a job.”

Much has been made of Stevens’ double life as a poet and an insurance man, with most critics finding it hard to imagine how someone with his exquisite literary sensibilities could pursue such a “plodding” career. In fact, he excelled at his day job. A lawyer by training, Stevens was in charge of settling surety bond claims. Surety bonds typically guarantee the completion of construction projects, some of which can be quite large and complex. During Stevens’ tenure as vice president, The Hartford insured the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam. Handling claims on projects of this magnitude required detailed knowledge of engineering, construction and finance, as well as the law. It was a job for a hardheaded businessman, not a poet.

Stevens never denied his poetic bent, which would have been impossible in any case as his reputation grew. But he tended to sidestep his literary accomplishments, at least locally, so as not to tarnish his standing in the insurance world. He explained, “In Hartford I'm known as a businessman." Far from seeking to abandon his day job so he could devote himself fulltime to poetry, Stevens continued in his position well past normal retirement age. He even refused a one-year appointment as Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard for fear that the company would not keep his position open for him. He was 75.

A journal entry written when Stevens was still in college many provide an early clue as to how he was able to reconcile his poetic side with the practical necessities of life. “The mind cannot always live in a ‘divine ether,’” he wrote. “The lark cannot always sing at heaven’s gate. There must exist a place to spring from—a refuge from the heights, an anchorage of thought.” Even after he was well launched on his business career, he wrote, ““But after living there [in a world of the imagination] to the degree that a poet does, the desire to get back to the everyday world becomes so keen that one turns away from the imaginative world in a most definite and determined way.”

In a group portrait taken on the front portico of The Hartford’s home office building, Stevens towered over his colleagues, a big, bluff man in a baggy gray suit. He neither looked nor acted like a poet – or at least not what we imagine a poet ought to be like. One can sooner picture him getting into a barroom brawl with the likes of Ernest Hemingway. Notwithstanding, he is regarded as one of the finest American poets of the 20th century. His poetry can be difficult, requiring a level of erudition I do not possess. And yet much of the stuff I do understand is sublime. He strikes me as a mystic, although not the Blakean sort who is transported by visions of another world. Stevens is more like a Zen master in a business suit who sees “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” to steal a line from “The Snow Man.” Read his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” with its 13 short stanzas, each as inscrutable as a Zen koan, each designed to crack your mind open like a walnut.

Zen Buddhists seek transcendence without theological trappings, much as Stevens did. “After one has abandoned a belief in God,” he said, “poetry is the essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” So how do we explain his deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism? The truth is that he had been edging toward it for a long time. Religious belief had never been a matter of indifference to him but a preoccupation from his earliest poems, even when he viewed it skeptically. In “Sunday Morning” (1915), the woman in her peignoir, relaxing in the sun with her coffee and oranges, reflects that “in contentment I still feel/ The need of some imperishable bliss.” A poem entitled “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” written near the end of his life, seems to find some resolution of the issue:

We say God and the imagination are one. . .
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

You can’t be a mystic without having a deep sense of life’s essential mystery – not necessarily in the next world but most definitely in this one. The poet would turn over phrases in his mind on his daily two-mile walk to work, handing off verses scribbled on scraps of paper for his secretary to type. Then he would sit down at his big wooden desk in his big office on The Hartford’s Executive Row and pore over stacks of legal briefs and claim reports all day long. One colleague described him as the “grinddingest guy” he knew. And yet he would pause at odd moments during the day to pull a draft poem from his bottom drawer to make corrections. A mind immersed in matters of concrete and steel would disappear once again into the divine ether, a lark singing at heaven’s gate.

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