Tuesday, August 23, 2011

They Didn't Give Up Their Day Jobs

It’s a good thing William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens or Franz Kafka stuck it out. It didn’t seem to limit their output; in fact they mined their professions in quite different ways.

Stevens was a Modernist poet who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955. He died that summer having worked up until his death as a lawyer for Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. He was offered a faculty position at Harvard but declined because it would have interfered with his post at the insurance company.

His desk job as vice president of Hartford Insurance was what Stevens called, his necessary angel. He regarded reality as an essential grounding for his imaginative flights. Without it maybe he would have written in tongues from cloud nine. As it is, Stevens’ body of work is both cerebral and sensual; sometimes silly, other times it resists interpretation almost successfully.

A few years ago Peggy and I made a pilgrimage to his Hartford home; a modest house on an upscale block. He is said to have walked to his office and back each day, about a mile, rain or shine. There is a story of someone offering him a lift one day which he accepted provided there would be no talking. Apparently when his work day ended he switched immediately to his transcendent mode and guarded that time fiercely.

Dr. Williams was a Rutherford, New Jersey general practitioner. He didn’t write so much about his medical experience but it made him a close listener and observer. His poetry picked up the cadences of ordinary speech. Many contemporary poets, including Allen Ginsberg, are his heirs. Williams was a descendent of Whitman in terms of his plain language and inclusiveness.

I once met a woman who was delivered by Dr. Williams. Imagine being brought into this world by the pre-eminent poet; first seen by his knowing eyes. That would be better than a signed first edition. I wonder if she carries that specialness around with her.

I expect Franz Kafka labored, not happily, at his job with the Workers Accident Insurance Company. Yet he was able to transform the tedium and detached nature of the work into high art. He captured the predicament of twentieth century man. Kafka grasped the existential despair of bureaucracy and the labyrinthine path which separates man from the consequences of his job.

It is remarkable how these writers found the creative energy, after a day’s toil, to give us the gift of their genius. Most poets in America are forced into academia. Yet Ted Kooser, a former Poet Laureate, was also in the insurance business and Philip Levine still draws upon his days on the assembly line in Detroit.

In South America it isn’t uncommon for writers to hold political office. Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa saw no division or distraction from their chosen art form.

The closer an artist can live in the working world the more enriched is his work, provided he doesn’t get sucked up in the workaday mindlessness and conventions. The writer/poet/artist lives both in and outside the circle. Too far inside blunts consciousness, too far removed blinds and deafens the scribe.

And then there is Emily Dickinson………….

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