We know many people who work hard at jobs they don’t love in order to pay for the lives or creative work they do. Our role model for how to do both kinds of work is the great poet Wallace Stevens, who was an insurance executive for much of his life; many of his greatest poems were written after the age of fifty. In the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch describes Stevens as “The Patron Saint of Inner Lives held captive by the outer life“:
His daily existence offered no scope for self-expression, but on his walks to and from work, in the evenings up in his study, he was confronting the ultimate questions of art and life. How can humanity live without God? Can religion be replaced with another kind of myth? How does art reflect and transcend reality? And he was answering in a language at once voluptuous and intellectual, elegant and eccentric—a language such as no one had spoken before…
The truth depends on a walk around a lake,A composing as the body tires, a stop
To see hepatica, a stop to watch
A definition growing certain and A wait within that certainty, a rest
In the swags of pine-trees bordering the lake.
Perhaps there are times of inherent excellence
“At the age of 71, he looked back at his life and wondered whether he could ‘ever find a figure of speech adequate to size up the little that I have done compared to that which I had once hoped to do.’…Out of what seemed like nothing, he created a universe.”
A Rabbit as King of the GhostsThe difficulty to think at the end of day,When the shapeless shadow covers the sunAnd nothing is left except light on your fur—There was the cat slopping its milk all day,Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milkAnd August the most peaceful month.To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,Without that monument of cat,The cat forgotten in the moon;And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,In which everything is meant for youAnd nothing need be explained;Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;And east rushes west and west rushes down,No matter. The grass is fullAnd full of yourself. The trees around are for you,The whole of the wideness of night is for you,A self that touches all edges,You become a self that fills the four corners of night.The red cat hides away in the fur-lightAnd there you are humped high, humped up,You are humped higher and higher, black as stone—You sit with your head like a carving in spaceAnd the little green cat is a bug in the grass.