Good question.

wallace stevens wood cut

How could a conservative, heterosexual, monogamous, stay-at-home vice president of an insurance company produce the sort of art that makes Allen Ginsberg–fine man, mediocre poet–look like Robert Service?


  1. Simple: he was a liberal, homosexual, polyamormous, globetrotting unemployable risk-taker on the inside.

    • Oh, I get it – kinda like I’m really a lesbian trapped in a man’s body?


      • I mean, are any people really themselves?

        • Men should be what they seem.

        • Rustin Cohle says

          We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, an accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.

          • Yeah, when you’re at my house for dinner, you just keep that kind of talk to yourself.

            • Rustin Cohle says

              I’m bad at parties.

              • Martin Hart says

                You ain’t great outside of parties either.

              • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

                Word to the wise, Rust: Also avoid trying to engage him in dinner-table conversation on genetic chimerism, multiverse hypotheses, the vastness of space, the vastness of time, and certain episodes of Doctor Who.

                • What he’s saying is, I cry easily. The Doctor Who mention was a bit rough, though.

                  • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

                    There there, Mr Lickona. Strong men also cry.

                    Strong. Men. Also. Cry.

                    • You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.

                      [T]his is what it’s like. [It’s] what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul. […] But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or to laugh, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali–it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.

                      –Wallace, David Foster. ‘Good Old Neon’. Oblivion. Emphasis added.

        • In some evolving civilizations, for reasons which we don’t entirely understand, the evolution of consciousness is attended by a disaster of some sort which occurs shortly after the Sy[mbol] breakthrough. It has something to do with the discovery of the self and the incapacity to deal with it, the consciousness becoming self-conscious but not knowing what to do with the self, not even knowing what its self is, and so ending by being that which it is not, saying that which is not, doing that which is not, and making others what they are not.

      • Jonathan Potter says

        Cf. House of Words, p. 25.

  2. Lansing Priest says

    “His wife didn’t like his poetry.”

  3. Jonathan Potter says

    I do wonder how Wally would feel about you making him your poster boy in the kultur wars.

    • That’s just what I was trying not to do.

      In fact, I honestly thought it was a good question about the source and manifestation of inspiration.

      Really, I’m sorry if it seemed a turd in the punchbowl sort of question…


      • A Low-Toned Old Catholicish Scribbler says

        Call the mixer of big sidecars,
        The spectacled one, and bid him slip
        In tin tureens tempestuous turds….

      • Jonathan Potter says

        You’re right, it’s a good question. There’s a secret life of Walter Mitty aspect to Stevens, but on such a high plane. There’s also a double-agent aspect to him. And an ex-suicide thing (ala Percy). The greatest poet in the world going to work every day at the firm because he didn’t have to.

        • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

          Dana Gioia’s website has some extensive excerpts from Gioia’s book Can Poetry Matter? that are highly relevant to this discussion. Gioia treats the professional and artistic careers of Stevens, T.S. Eliot, James Dickey, and other businessmen-poets, and draws some very interesting conclusions:

          ‘Business and Poetry’

          If you don’t have time to read that, Gioia also wrote a compact but substantial three-paragraph comment on his own seventeen-year career as a businessman-by-day/poet-by-night:

          ‘A Spy in the House of Commerce’

          Both of these are well worth a look.

      • Jonathan Potter says

        Still, the way you framed it did seem to have an axe-grinding edge to it.

        • But that’s just it, it wasn’t my question… In fact, the guy writing it in the review (note, in 1970, at the dawn of the culture wars,) seems to have an axe grinding going on – at best, I was merely axe grinding about his axe grinding…

          For that matter aren’t you axe grinding on my axe grinding of his axe grinding?

          Bah! Axe me no more questions and I’ll automattockly tell you no more lies!

          • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

            Too many critics have expressed a sort of innocent amazement that businessmen could actually write poetry, not to mention good and even great poetry. […] Everyone enjoys stories of double lives and secret identities. Children have Superman; intellectuals have Wallace Stevens.

            Even first-rate critics found it impossible to avoid sensationalizing the paradox of the mild-mannered insurance executive who wrote uncompromisingly Modernist poetry at home. […] But was Stevens’s gift to create supreme fictions while working in Hartford more surprising than Ezra Pound’s ability to write majestically of life’s beauty while living in a Pisan detention camp?

            from ‘Business and Poetry’, by Dana Gioia

          • Jonathan Potter says

            My bad. I didn’t notice that (a) you were quoting directly from the article and (b) it’s from 1970(!). I’m an idiot. Have you read the book? It would be fun to make Stevens the hero of a series of murder mysteries. Sort of like Fr. Brown, except he solves the crimes through a mixture of poetry and actuarial statistics.

            • All is forgiven in love and war and poetry and money as long as you remember that in some cases there is a substantial penalty for early withdrawal.


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