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…
Wallace Stevens NYPL plaque
Stevens’ “walks to and fro from work” were part of his writing practice and material for his poems. The most ordinary moments are rich with revelation…
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
Stevens did his daily “straight” work and at night, wrote poetry, diligently and without much fanfare, and apparently, little real awareness of what he had created. Wrote Kirsch:
“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.”
The “universe” Stevens —the drab, the unlikely insurance executive —created has moved and influenced many artists and writers. Here’s Bill Murray reading the stunning A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts. Just listen…(Video link here). We’ve excerpted a perfect bit; it you can’t watch it here, please click on the link.)

A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts
The difficulty to think at the end of day,   
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun   
And nothing is left except light on your fur— 
There was the cat slopping its milk all day,   
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk   
And 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 you   
And 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 full 
And 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-light 
And 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 space   
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.
We found Patti Smith immersed in  The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens
Lawrence Schwartzwald
Lawrence Schwartzwald


With thanks to David Saltman for alerting us to The Patron Saint of Inner Lives.

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4 replies on “Wallace Stevens: Patron Saint of Creatives Held Captive by Work

  1. FYI: video not working on my Mac.

  2. Hello Ann, Could you be more specific, what device, system etc? It’s working on my Macs but doesn’t show on my phone. But I can click the video link to watch it elsewhere.

  3. Thank you for this much-needed, and perfectly-timed revelation today. Going by the used bookstore today after work to pick up some Stevens 🙂

  4. Hi Sally,
    I use Firefox on a MacBook Pro running OS 10.10.5. I can’t watch the video on your site, or when I click the link. I use pretty tight privacy settings (don’t allow most cookies), so it may be my settings that are causing the problem. I don’t think I’ve been to TubeChop before. Maybe it’s TubeChop that my computer doesn’t like.

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