Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955) failed at his attempts to become a writer, and then a lawyer, and ended up working for an insurance company in New York. In 1916, he relocated to Hartford, Connecticut and joined the Hartford Accident and Life Indemnity Company where he stayed until the end of his career. Throughout those 39 years at The Hartford, Stevens published nine poetry collections, including Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1955.
Wallace Stevens tried to maintain a definite line between poetry and business. He composed many poems on long walks, and then, arriving at the office at 8:15 AM, gave them to his secretary, Miss Flynn, to type. Other than Miss Flynn, very few of his colleagues at The Hartford knew of his poetic endeavors and his success outside of surety bonds claims. Stevens equally protective his non-literary career, turning down Harvard’s invitation to serve as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, partly because he feared it would force his retirement from Hartford. Although he liked to keep his lives separate, Stevens felt:
“It gives a man character as a poet to have a daily contact with a job. I doubt whether I’ve lost a thing by leading an exceedingly regular and disciplined life.”
Of all the double life poets I’ve discovered, I’ve always felt my life most resembles Wallace Stevens. He achieved great success and respect in his non-literary career as an expert in surety bonds. Although Stevens did not write about work, his poems were influenced by his business trips to Key West:
She sang beyond the genius of the sea
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves
The demands of a full-time job no doubt diminished the amount of poetry he produced, and his comfortable lifestyle probably put less pressure on him to continuously publish—and yet, he didn’t let work get in the way of pursuing his passion for poetry. If Wally managed to live the double life, then so can I.
Chair Emeritus is a monthly feature highlighting famous poets who have lived or are living the double life.