A Poem a Day

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) spent almost the entirety of his life within a fairly small geographical circle of the Northeastern United States. He was primarily employed as an executive for an insurance company based in Hartford, Connecticut, born into a wealthy family, son of a lawyer and studied law himself at the New York Law School. He married a woman his parents objected to (considering her low class), and had a daughter fairly late into his middle years. They lived in a white, two-storey home and vacationed in Key West, Florida. All of that reads as being terribly unremarkable, and even just typing out the description has left me on the edge of boredom. His life, like yours and mine, was passed in an endless series of routines and small comforts, of quiet expectations met and three square meals a day, taking the dog for an extra long outing on Sunday afternoons. Yet he was also a poet, and is said to have written as steadily as the rest of what he did. He walked to work and wrote one poem a day. Here are two stanzas from his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“:

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

There are many things that could be written about this poem, many ways to parse its lines and analyze its phrases, to lift up and out and observe its words, carefully, delicately. That, however, is not our task, for what interests me most about this seemingly staid and oh-so-average, oh-so-white man of the nineteenth into twentieth centuries is how he incorporated his writing into the fabric of his life. I do not know if it is actually true whether he wrote a single poem per waking day, and the fact of the matter hardly seems to mean anything. What he did was to make writing a central part of his life, within the confines of that life as circumstances dictated to him. He made the deliberate choice to honor and enact his desire to write, but he did not place it on a romantic pedestal nor ask more of it than it could provide for him – and in his case that provision was essentially personal and probably mostly hidden. He did publish his works, starting with a collection called Harmonium in 1923, but it sold terribly and the run was remaindered. A measure of success greeted him in 1951 though when he won the National Book Award for Poetry, and then suddenly in 1955 it seems that the public caught up with him for he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (and the National Book Award again), only to die later that year. (Yet what good fortune to have been alive to receive the Pulitzer!) What must he have been thinking all those long years as he trod out his career in insurance and penned poem after poem after poem?

I’ve written here before on goals, objectives, targets, desired output and the like, and concluded that what is needed for the writing life is some kind of format, a steady structure – in whatever shape that might take – if it is to entail a “writing life” and not merely a “life with writing”. Stevens had that, and he had it in spades. What his personal motivations might have been is anyone’s guess, but it’s a safe bet that they weren’t externally oriented. He must have genuinely enjoyed writing all of those poems, and his own satisfaction kept him at it. Did he consider himself a poet? Was that an integral part to his identity, or did he see it more as a hobby? Those are important questions, but they are also impossible to answer. Impossible for us to answer for him, that is, but not so for ourselves. For us, each of us, we must face writing as it calls, look it in the eye, and decide what to do with it. Will we dance with it, flirt with it, give it a call on an empty Friday night, or set it up as the basis of our chosen lifestyle? Stevens had his response, and he lived that despite all the cold he must have felt from the literary world that surrounded him and clearly penetrated deeply into his thoughts. We must imagine that he passed his days contentedly, never even guessing – or caring – about that Pulitzer waiting so close to his grave.


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