Business and Poetry
Excerpts from Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture, by Dana Gioia.
“Money is a kind of poetry,” wrote Wallace Stevens, a vice president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity, a corporate lawyer, an expert on surety bonds, and, almost incidentally it might seem, one of America’s greatest poets. It is a shame Stevens never expounded on this remark, for he certainly knew as much about both sides of the equation as any man of his time. But significantly, Stevens, who spent most of his life working in a corporate office, never made the slightest mention of business or finance in all of his poetry and criticism.
That so prolific a writer would have maintained half a century of silence on the world of his daily life seems strange at first. His personality must be partially responsible. Few men and fewer writers have proven as reticent as Stevens about their private affairs. But personality is only part of it. Steven’s silence was hardly unusual when seen in the context of American poetry. There have been many important American poets who supported themselves—either by necessity or choice—by working in business, but none of them has seen it as an experience to write about.
Another American poet, T. S. Eliot, spent the most productive decade of his life working in the international department of Lloyd’s Bank of London, but the closest he ever came to writing about that milieu was in these lines from The Waste Land:
At the violent hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting…
Hardly a major statement. But these lines summarize all that modern American poetry has had to say about the business world—its tedium, isolation, and impersonality.
American poetry has defined business mainly by excluding it. Business does not exist in the world of poetry, and therefore by implication it has become everything that poetry is not—a world without imagination, enlightenment, or perception. It is the universe from which poetry is trying to escape.
Modern American poets have written superbly of bicycles, of groundhogs, of laundry left out to dry, of baseball cards and telephone poles. One of Randall Jarrell’s best poems depicts a supermarket. Elizabeth Bishop has written movingly about an atlas, and Robert Lowell about breaking in a pair of contact lenses. James Dickey found a way to put animals in heaven, and Ezra Pound put many of his London literary acquaintances in hell. Sodomy, incest, and pedophilia have been domesticated by our domineering national Muse as readily as have skunks, armadillos, hop toads, and a least one wart hog. But somehow this same poetic tradition has never been able to look inside the walls of a corporate office and see with the same intensity what forty million Americans do during the working week. It often seems to be a poetry of the exception rather than the rule. Our poetry, in short, seldom deals directly with the public institutions that dominate American life, or with the situations that increasingly typify it. If our poetry recognizes business at all, it has reduced this enormous and diverse national enterprise into a few outdated images inherited from the movies—the factory smokestack belching fumes (circa 1870), the potbellied tycoon puffing his cigar (circa 1890), the Charlie Chaplin look-alike subverting the assembly line (circa 1920) and for the truly au courant the man in the gray flannel rushing to an expense account lunch on Madison Avenue (circa 1950). All images of a world seen only from the outside. For American poetry what happens on Wall Street or Wilshire Boulevard seems as remote as icebound Zembla. No, more remote, for even Zembla has had its recent admirers.
To say all this is not so much to criticize as to observe and, I believe, to observe fairly. The business world, including the huge corporate enterprises that for better and for worse have changed the structure of American life over the past fifty years, is generally and noticeably absent from the enormous body of poetry written in this century. While this omission is hardly a cause for alarm or even regret, it certainly deserves notice.
This exclusion is especially puzzling when one remembers that an important and recurring claim of contemporary American poetry has been its professed ability to deal with the full range of modern life. Everything, critics have insisted for decades, is the proper subject for modern poetry; unlike the art of the past, contemporary poetry excludes nothing. Our poets have often announced their indiscriminate openness to experiencing everything America encompasses. The most succinct of these avowals appeared in Louis Simpson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning volume At the End of the Open Road (1963). Instructively, the poem is entitled “American Poetry.” The entire poem runs:
Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
A brilliant short poem. But like most discussions of our native genius, it is prescriptive rather than descriptive. Like it or not, certain foods agree best with certain stomachs. American poetry has always had an easier time digesting other poems than rubber or coal, and it has found even the most seasoned executive unpalatable. Although American poetry sets out to talk about the world, it usually ends up talking about itself.
3. Ways of Surviving
Reading over this account of a literary apprenticeship, I find that it often mentions very small sums of money. There is good reason for the mention, considering that money is the central problem of a young writer’s life, or of his staying alive.
-Malcolm Cowley, And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade
Few critics, I suspect, will be concerned about the absence of business from modern American poetry. They will probably feel that its omission is proper. The world of commerce will seem to them the territory of novelists rather than poets. It reflects a world of common experience, not the particular and private experiences supposedly at the center of poetry. If pressed, they might argue that its omission also comes from the personal backgrounds of our best poets. Few, they would assume, had much experience in the business world, so how could they write about it with any authority or interest?
We Americans have strong preconceptions about our poets. They must be people out of the ordinary; they must be strong, even eccentric individuals. Most often they are pictured either as scholars or vagabonds, Longfellows or Whitmans, Allen Tates or Allen Ginsbergs. The popular arts are full of such images. Consider dreamy-eyed Leslie Howard wandering through America with a knapsack in The Petrified Forest. To a surprising degree, even the more serious arts share these stereotypes—witness Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and the various Beat novels. Both academics and bohemians are perceived as living outside the economic and social systems that characterize our nation. They are cut off, usually by choice, from the daily lives of the American middle class. And we have been trained to respect them for this separation.
One anecdote will serve to summarize the conventional wisdom about business and poets. Allen Tate’s brother, Benjamin Nathan Tate, was a self-made tycoon who had formed two coal companies in Cincinnati and sat on the board of directors of several large corporations including Western Union. When Allen left Vanderbilt in 1922, Benjamin decided to start his brother on a business career by securing him a job in one of his coal offices. “In one day I lost the company $700 by shipping some coal to Duluth that should have gone to Cleveland,” Tate later explained. Benjamin soon agreed that Allen should seek a literary career. The moral is easily drawn. The poet is an impractical, dreamy sort of fellow incapable of holding down a real job. Too bored with business to pay attention to the most basic details of a job, a poet can be nothing but a poet.
But these stereotypes do not hold up to scrutiny. As often as not, American poets have emerged in the most unexpected places, including corporations. Stevens in not the inexplicable exception he is usually made out to be. Rather, he is the exemplary figure for a certain type of American poet, a type he did not even originate.
Although one now thinks of Stevens as the archetypal businessman-poet, Stevens himself would have looked back to Edmund Clarence Stedman as a role model. Stedman, a now forgotten poet, was probably the most influential critic and anthologist of poetry in turn-of-the-century America, and his work was still a powerful presence during Stevens’s youth. Born in Stevens’s adopted Hartford in 1833, Stedman entered Yale at sixteen only to be expelled before graduation (though in that sweet irony that follows poets’ careers, twenty-two years later the University awarded him an honorary degree). After several unsuccessful attempts at journalism Stedman came in 1863 to Wall Street, where he soon opened up a brokerage firm. His financial and poetic careers prospered together. In his own poetry Stedman was a leading spokesman for the Genteel Tradition, but in his criticism he exhibited a broad appreciation for other poetry, which found its fullest expression in his once definitive collection An American Anthology (1900), which celebrated the nation’s third century by defining the poetic achievement of its past. In town he presided over New York literary life, while out in his country manor in the newly established artists’ colony of Bronxville he entertained obscure young poets like E. A. Robinson with his reminiscences of Whitman. He died at the height of his fame and prosperity in 1908.
Stedman has had many successors beyond Stevens and Eliot. Richard Eberhart was for many years one of the chief executives of the Butcher Polish Company in Boston and sat for years on its board of directors. The late L. E. Sissman was a director and eventually a vice president of Kenyon and Eckhart, a Boston advertising agency, where he worked on accounts in the financial and food industries. Even the late Archibald MacLeish, a lawyer by training, spent a decade as an editor of Fortune, the major American business magazine of the thirties and forties.
A. R. Ammons, who has won the Pulitzer Prise, the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, was a salesman for a scientific glass manufacturer in New Jersey when his first book appeared. He had left elementary-school teaching a few years earlier and joined the sales department of his father-in-law’s company, Friedrich and Dimmock, Inc. “It was total isolation,” he later recalled, but when making sales calls in the Paterson area he did manage to visit the invalid William Carlos Williams and take him out for the occasional drive. He spent ten years in business before leaving to teach at Cornell.
In his early thirties James Dickey also left teaching for a successful stint in business. He joined the McCann-Erickson advertising agency in New York in 1956 as a junior copywriter on its newly acquired Coca-Cola account. When the advertising agency moved the account to its Atlanta office, Dickey was promoted and transferred along with it. Three years later, having established himself in his new profession, he switched agencies to increase his salary and responsibilities, becoming copy chief at a small Atlanta agency. Two years later Dickey made another career jump, this time to become creative director at Burke Dowling Adams, Atlanta’s largest agency. While making his career in advertising, Dickey also published his first book, Into the Stone and Other Poems, on the strength of which he won a Guggenheim fellowship, which inspired him to quit business for writing.
Robert Phillips also left academics for advertising. After six years of college teaching, Phillips joined the creative department of Benton & Bowles as a copywriter in 1964, then moved through McCann-Erickson and Grey Advertising before becoming a vice president for J. Walter Thompson, America’s largest domestic agency, where he has had major responsibility for the enormous Ford Motor and Eastman Kodak accounts. In his early forties, David Ignatow spent eight years helping manage the Enterprise Bookbinding Company, a family business. After his father’s death he briefly became president of the firm before liquidating it. Ignatow then took two other jobs in the printing industry before receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, which eventually led him to teaching.
There are many more examples. The late Richard Hugo spent thirteen years working for the Boeing Company in Seattle until the publication of his first book brought him the offer of a teaching position. In 1964 Ted Kooser left graduate school at the University of Nebraska and took a temporary job at Lincoln Benefit Life. He has worked there ever since, first as an insurance underwriter then as a marketing executive. William Bronk managed a family lumber and fuel company in upstate New York. R. M. Ryan works as a stockbroker in Milwaukee. Richard Grossman spent nearly ten years working for Gelco, a family-controlled leasing company in Minneapolis. James Weil also helped manage a family business for many years in addition to running a private literary press. Terry Kistler, a past chairman of Poets & Writers, manages an investment firm. James Autry, the president of Meredith Corporation’s magazine group, is the author of two poetry collections. The late Ronald Perry was director of advertising and public relations for Outboard Marine International. Art Beck, the mysterious San Francisco poet, is the pseudonym of a local banker. If one also added poets who practiced law (a distinct profession that in some respects is more closely related to academics than to business), such as Melville Cane, Archibald MacLeish, and Lawrence Joseph, the list would be even longer. And there are undoubtedly many other businessmen-poets unknown to me. 
There have also been some would-be poets among American businessmen, most notably Hyman Sobiloff. A great philanthropist and mawkishly sentimental poet, Sobiloff sat on the board of half a dozen large companies and must have had a yearly income considerably greater than that of the top twenty American poets combined. He also bore the curious distinction of being the only American poet to have been nominated for an Oscar.  Sobiloff, however, recognized that his verse was less than perfect and paid Conrad Aiken, Anatole Broyard, and later Delmore Schwartz to give him weekly poetry lessons, though he did have to park his limousine around the corner to avoid infuriating Schwartz.
There were then at least half a dozen important American poets, and many minor ones, who were also businessmen. While this is an interesting fact in itself, it is also one that requires some qualification lest it be misleading. The exceptional careers these poets pursued while writing stand in such sharp contrast to the more conventionally “literary” careers of their contemporaries that it is easy to overlook the similarities. For both the lives and the works of these businessmen have more in common with the mainstream of American poetry than one might suspect. It is first necessary to recall that none of them chose to make careers in business. Initially all of them attempted some conventional literary career. Eliot studied philosophy and then, like Dickey and Ammons, taught briefly. Eberhart studied at several universities and later became private tutor to the son of the King of Siam. Phillips served as a university administrator and teacher. But soon, because of exhaustion, failure, dissatisfaction, or poverty, all of these poets left their vocations for business jobs. Business was the most convenient alternative that society offered them when their earliest ambitions went sour, and they made what their parents and family probably called a sensible choice.
That poetry was a long-standing vocation in the minds of these men has an importance beyond biographical accuracy. It is a necessary element in understanding their development as writers. When one sees how these well-educated men had professed poetry since youth, it becomes obvious that it is both naïve and ill-informed to portray them as primitives emerging from the dark woods of corporate life suddenly able to speak with the tongues of men and angels. Too many critics have expressed a sort of innocent amazement that businessmen could actually write poetry, not to mention good and even great poetry. In different ways the public images of Stevens and Dickey have been especially distorted by this type of anthologizing. And it is too easy to see why. The businessman-by-day-poet-by-night contrast makes good copy. 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. Witness Delmore Schwartz’s mischievious glee in beginning his discussion of Stevens’s poetry with a description of his office life. 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? The course of Stevens’s career, like those of the other businessmen-poets, was hardly unusual. Was it really surprising that a Harvard man, formerly editor of the Advocate and fledgling writer in New York, would eventually become a major American poet? Rather it seems a classical background for an American writer of that generation. What was most odd about Stevens was not his occupation, but rather that he never visited Paris or Rome, since most corporate vice presidents do that.
For some American poets, then, business was just one more way of surviving. While it was not the career that any of them originally wanted, it did support them until that other, more difficult career became reality. Let the naïve think that the support they needed was only financial. Certainly a job in business paid the bills, but it also provided each poet with more than money. At least outwardly, it gave direction to his life, providing him with a sense of place and purpose in his society. It gave him attainable goals—raises, promotions, pensions—in contrast to the seemingly unattainable goals of his artistic life. (Witness Eliot’s pride at each of his promotions in the Lloyd’s Bank international department during his early London years.) The routines of office life could be anaesthetizing, but this very feature also had it advantages for a poet. The pattern each job imposed on his life helped numb the anxiety he felt between poems, in those long, dry periods when it seemed he would never write again. For a job is more tangible than talent. It can’t vanish suddenly the way that inspiration often seems to. In short, business provided these men with the same security and satisfaction that many of their contemporaries found in teaching. Young poets chose between the two careers looking for the same rewards. Which direction they took was ultimately a matter of temperament and values.
4. The First Voice
The first voice is the voice of the poet talking to himself—or to nobody.
—T. S. Eliot, “The Three Voices of Poetry"
Stevens, Eliot, Ammons, Dickey, and other poets I have mentioned form an extremely diverse group. They differ as much in the types of companies they worked for as in the poetry they wrote. They come from different parts of the country and different levels of society. They share no obvious spiritual or literary affinities. Their careers exhibit little similarity, except that they all wrote poetry while working in business. Yet if one studies the lives of the poets about whom some biographical information is available, curious resemblances begin to emerge.
All of these poets were successful in their business careers and soon achieved a comfortable, secure standard of living. Yet once they had achieved any level of fame, they quit their jobs (all except Stevens, that is, for whom real fame came very late in life). And finally and most significantly, although they wrote much of their best work during their years of employment, none of them had anything to say about their experiences at work, at least in their poetry. While their working lives may have had an important influence on the course of their writing, this influence was never directly manifested. They maintained a disinterested silence about their workday worlds. Confessional poetry may be a dominant mode in American poetry, but while it has unlocked the doors to a poet’s study, living room, and bedroom, it has stayed away from his office—unless the office happened to be located in an English department.
Given the strongly personal and often autobiographical character of most American poetry, it seems astonishing that these men did not use the images and situations of their daily occupations as what Marianne Moore called the “raw material” of their poetry (which, as she pointed out earlier in the same poem, should not “discriminate against business documents”). Their aversion to using this part of their lives is an indication of how strongly the prevailing fashions in American poetry have determined what is written even by its most gifted poets. It is also proof of Northrop Frye’s conjecture that what a poet writes more often comes from other poetry than from life experience. And finally their collective taciturnity suggests that in the creative process of businessmen-writers there is a form of voluntary censorship that often determines what and how the poet will write.
The inability of these businessmen-poets to write about their professional worlds is symptomatic of a larger failure in American verse—namely its difficulty in discussing most public concerns. If business is nonexistent as a poetic subject, there is also a surprising paucity of serious verse on political and social themes. Not only has our poetry been unable to create a meaningful public idiom, but it even lacks most of the elements out of which such an idiom might be formed. At present, most American poetry has little in common with the world outside of literature—no reciprocal sense of mission, no mutual set of ideas and concerns, no shared symbolic structure, no overlapping feeling of tradition. Often it seems that the two worlds don’t even share a common language. At its best our poetry has been private rather than public, intimate rather than social, ideological rather than political. It has discussed symbolic places rather than real ones, even when it has given the symbols real names. It dwells more easily in timeless places than historical ones. For many reasons—some of them compelling—most of our poets have rejected the vernacular of educated men and tried to develop conspicuously personal and often private languages of their own.
Much was gained in this process of refinement—greater accuracy and intensity in language, intellectual rigor, and surprising originality. Much was also lost, not the least of which was the poet’s audience. But long before his audience disappeared, a more important thing had happened: the poet had lost his sense of addressing a public, lost the belief that he and they had anything significant in common. This failure of assurance changed everything he wrote. There still could be occasional public statements or popular successes, but they seemed incidental to the general course of the art. Readers still existed, but no longer did they form a cohesive or important group. Nor did they matter economically. They were too few and too scattered to reward the poet with either wealth or fame. At times they almost seemed to exist in spite of him, and he in spite of them.
Paradoxically, the poet in business has thrived in this neglect. His job, like the academic’s, has sheltered him from the economic consequences of writing without an audience. It even tutored him in surviving alienation. Every day at the office reminds him what an outwardly futile spiritual life he leads. If they knew about his writing, his business associates would surely see no more value in such unlucrative endeavors than his fellow poets would see in his drab job. The poet then is doubly dismissed—by his peers in both professions. Meanwhile he is doubly busy with both vocations. If he survives as an artist, he will certainly be able to face the neglect of an invisible public without much additional difficulty. If he perseveres as a poet, he will be writing primarily for himself, but performing for such an appreciative and discerning audience has its advantages (though fame and wealth are not among them). Writing for oneself makes autobiographical exposition unnecessary. The poet can plunge immediately into the particular idea or experience that interests him. The organization can be complex, the ideas difficult, and the symbolism private. It doesn’t matter as long as the poet himself can follow them. They belong to the private world that is the poet’s mind. His poems are what Stevens described in “The Planet on the Table”:
Ariel was glad he had written his poems. They were of a remembered time Or of something seen that he liked.
Other makings of the sun Were waste and welter And the ripe shrub writhed.
His self and the sun were one And his poems, although makings of his self, Were no less makings of the sun.
It was not important that they survive. What mattered was that they should bear Some lineament or character,
Some affluence, if only half-perceived, In the poverty of their words, Of the planet of which they were part.
6. Some Conclusions
Though Stevens found it tiresome when others pointed to his dual career as businessman-poet, that afternoon he himself called attention to it and the way he handled it. Louis Martz, his campus host that day, recalls “…he opened up his briefcase and he said, ‘Now you see everything is neatly sorted here. Over here in this compartment…is my insurance business with the farmers, and over here in this compartment is my lecture and some poems that I want to read. I keep them completely separated.’ At other times though, Stevens might argue just the opposite, stressing the seamlessness of his career…
“Wallace Stevens on the Podium:
The Poet as Public Man of Letters”
The purpose of this study so far has been to challenge some assumptions normally made about American poets and to raise a few unorthodox questions about the relationship between life and art. The discussion has centered on a curious collection of modern poets who were also businessmen—a group whose very existence no scholar has previously noted. Sticking close to biographical facts and textual examples from these writers, it has pointed out a few unexpected features and demonstrated the difficulty of making easy judgments about the problematic interaction between their two careers. The issues raised in this discussion, however, extend far beyond this small group. Ultimately they concern how any serious artist survives in modern society. Looking at poets who worked in business merely focused the discussion on one of the more extreme and paradoxical examples of the alienated modern artist. In further exploring the broader issues raised by this odd group of individuals, I will try to deal with the more general problem of how American poets, who cannot make a living from their art, still manage to write and develop.
First, it is necessary to recapitulate the key questions raised thus far in this discussion. How did their business careers affect the lives and works of these poets? Why did these men write nothing about their working lives? What personal and artistic changes did they undergo in the years they spent in jobs that were alien if not antagonistic to their vocations as poets? Were these jobs only ways of surviving until fame caught up with them? Is anything even gained by segregating them as a distinct group of writers and comparing them to other poets whose lives seem more typical? These are serious questions that anyone who looks closely at the lives of these poets must ask. And for the most part they are impossible to answer directly. The facts, as they exist, point toward an almost absolute separation between their business careers and imaginative lives. But can this really be all there is to say about the matter? Common sense instinctively demands a more direct relationship between life and art. Parts of the same man’s life can’t be split apart as easily as Stevens claimed to Louis Martz. While it is certainly true that for many years these poets led strictly divided lives, there must also have been deeper connections between their two careers. Here the critic must become a speculator, using not only scholarship and analysis but also inference and intuition. My conclusions here are admittedly both tentative and subjective, but the investigation nonetheless seems worthwhile. Risks are sometimes necessary to achieve difficult goals. One law of investment remains constant between business and poetry—the higher the risk, the higher the potential reward.
There is no need to dwell on the unfortunate effects of business careers on each of these poets. The personal difficulties these men faced are obvious. Their careers took up the greater part of their time and energy. Coupled with the responsibilities of family life (all of these poets were married),  their careers forced their reading and writing into odd hours (late evenings, weekends, brief vacations) and probably prevented them from reading and writing as much as they would have liked. Stevens and Eliot both complained about this deprivation, and it is reasonable to assume that one would hear similar complaints from Dickey, Ammons, Bronk, and others if one had access to their letters and journals. In Eliot’s and Stevens’s cases at least, the strain of managing two careers also put severe pressure on their marriages. Their business careers also isolated them to a greater or lesser degree from the society of other writers, artists, and intellectuals. Unless like Eliot they had the friendship of a Pound, they lived very much on the margins of the literary world. Working in regular jobs, they did not have the flexibility or leisure to participate fully in either the formal or informal artistic life of their times. There was little freedom to travel, give readings, lecture, edit magazines or anthologies, accept residencies at universities, or even much time for mixing at the parties, festivals, and conferences where writers so often meet. Business turned these poets into outsiders in the literary world.
These are considerable disadvantages. Time to think, time to read, time for idle but intelligent conversation—all of these are essential for most young writers’ development, and it is foolish to think that without them a poet’s performance wouldn’t suffer in some way. It is hard, discouraging work to write in isolation during one’s few spare hours after working a full day in an office (or a classroom). How inconceivably private the act of writing must have been for Stevens drafting out poems night after night in the dull solitude of suburban Hartford.
From another perspective, however, these unsupportive conditions might well seem like advantages. For example, while working in business might have cut these poets off from the literary world, it also sheltered them from it. Working obviously helped them economically. It gave them an income independent from writing, freeing them from most literary hackwork. They did not have to review uninteresting books, write matter-of-fact lectures, teach unwanted classes, or quickly sell every poem and essay. They could afford to choose what to write and where to publish.
An outsider has another advantage. While he may feel intense pressure to prove himself as a writer to the people he rightly or wrongly perceives as “insiders” (editors, reviewers, academics, self-supporting writers), he has the advantage of setting his own pace. Paradoxically, this double busy man enjoys a leisure that professional poets both inside and outside the academy do not. The outsiders can wait however long it takes to mature as a writer, whereas the professional poet must try to speed up the process. Hence Stevens could wait until he was forty-three before publishing Harmonium, perhaps the most remarkable first book in American poetry, and then could afford another thirteen years of silence before bringing out a second collection. Ammons managed a decade of quiet growth between the publication of his first, privately printed volume and his second, widely acclaimed book. And Eliot, in another way, could carefully conserve his energy, waiting month or years between perfectly achieved poems. By contrast, for the creative-writing teacher the pressures of “publish or perish” may be fatal. The same university job that frees a young poet from many financial worries can also add the irresistible pressure to write too much too soon. Of course, poets inside the academy can survive these pressures, but it is not easy, given the demands of tenure, promotion, and professional prestige.
There may even be advantages in missing the society of other writers. One may lose the fun of talking with professional wordsmiths or miss the confidence of knowing the people whose names one sees on bylines and editorial mastheads, but one also doesn’t waste ideas in conversation. Talking is easier than writing and much more immediately gratifying. More than one poet has poured his genius into conversation at the expense of his poetry. A person working in business is also not constantly besieged by the latest artistic and political fads. A poet’s sense of his own direction might sharpen best if he is not forced to defend or discuss it every day in a classroom or café. Witness how steadfastly Stevens followed his independent imaginative course during the frenetically political thirties. Would he have been able to maintain his quirky integrity had he not been working in a Hartford insurance office? Eliot, Ammons, Bronk and Dickey show the same stubborn independence in following their own sensibilities. Whatever their faults, they are clearly strongly individual writers.
Eliot saw an additional advantage in being constantly busy with another career. It kept one from writing unnecessary poems. Eliot frowned on poets who wrote when they had nothing new to say. Nor was it necessary, he felt, to make oneself write, since the really important poems would force themselves out. When George Seferis, the modern Greek poet, visited Eliot in London, he complained that his duties as a diplomat left him no time for writing. Eliot chided him, saying that this was actually a blessing and his poems would be better for the wait. The unconscious, he told Seferis, is working all the time.
As usual, Eliot had a point. For some poets at least, long silences are an essential stage in their creative growth. The classic examples are Rilke and Valéry, for whom many years of poetic silence became the necessary preparation for writing their greatest work. Their cases are extreme, but silences of more modest duration have often proved necessary for many authors, especially at turning points in their careers. A few poets like Hardy or Lawrence apparently manage to write continuously throughout their lives, but for most poets, even great ones, writing is an exhausting, intermittent process. A competent poet can usually turn out some lines of verse for any occasion, but a serious poet at some crucial point in his artistic development may hesitate to write at all. His old style may no longer seem authentic or appropriate, and a new form of expression that answers his particular needs may still seem impossible to find.
How poets overcome these imaginative challenges in life is an interesting study. Stevens, whose confidence was shattered after the uneventful debut of Harmonium, stopped writing for years and devoted himself to office work and private reading. Eliot, on the other hand, abandoned poetry at the height of his career after the triumphant reception of Four Quartets, turning his creative attention entirely to writing for the theatre. Many poets, however, undergo less dramatic transitions, which nonetheless demonstrate the courage to endure months or even years of self-doubt while they wait between poems. Like Rilke, they will not write when there is nothing to say. They let the work mature slowly in the back of their minds or shape itself through innumerable drafts and revisions. It is essential for these poets not to force themselves to write too much or too quickly.
Business is a helpful shelter for this careful and introspective kind of writer because his job keeps him sufficiently occupied to take away some of the guilt and self-questioning of not being able to write. For other poets, teaching or translation fills a similar need, but these undertakings may be too closely related to writing to offer comfort for everyone. To businessman-poets like Stevens and Eliot, the steady rhythm of office life provided a sense of security and relief. While such regulation would have been unbearable to extroverted poets like Pound or Auden, for some of their more private contemporaries it obviously worked, and the proof is in their poetry.
Outside careers also sheltered these men from other dangers. In some way hard to pin down, their jobs protected them from the occupational hazards of writing poetry. For whatever reasons, the profession of poetry is a dangerous one in America, perhaps because it is so damnably difficult to succeed at in any meaningful way. Some poets have literally killed themselves for fame, destroying themselves slowly in public before distastefully appreciative audiences. Suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, and madness are all too often fellow-travelers of poetry in this country, as the biographies of our poets tragically demonstrate. This essay is not the place to speculate on why this should be so, but the lives of writers like Vachel Lindsay, Hart Crane, H. D., Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Weldon Kees, Robert Lowell, Winfield Townley Scott, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton show it to be the case. Nor is this self-destructiveness new. Baudelaire noticed this distinctively American curse in the life of Poe, and it creeps less overtly even into the lives of writers like Robert Frost, Conrad Aiken, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Theodore Roethke.
Somehow, working in business gave the poets I have discussed a saner perspective on their careers as writers. It gave them other accomplishments that helped soften the recurrent sense of frustration and failure any poet at times experiences. It also tutored them in the difficult virtue of patience. But most important, working in nonliterary careers taught them a lesson too few American writers learn—that poetry is only one part of life, that there are some things more important than writing poetry. This is an obvious statement to anyone but a writer, yet it is one that few American poets have ever learned because it addresses life and not art. It has nothing to do with writing poetry, and knowing it will never help a writer gain fame or perfect his craft. But learning it may help him or her survive.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that “there are no second acts in American lives” is too often true about our poets. But it need not be so. The young Eliot survived a disastrous marriage, the agonizing physical and mental decline of his wife, and his own mental breakdown. The middle-aged Stevens weathered the public failure of Harmonium and the more bitter private failure of his family life. Yet both kept their sense of artistic purpose intact, and both went on to write their most ambitious and influential work because they possessed a hard-earned realism about their lives. They did not define themselves as men by poetry alone but recognized other ambitions and responsibilities—even when the resulting actions were painfully at odds with their literary dreams. They knowingly sacrificed time and energy away from their writing. Paradoxically those compromises saved them as artists. By refusing to simplify themselves into the conventional image of a poet, they affirmed their own spiritual individuality, and the daily friction of their jobs toughened their resolve. Ultimately the decisions they made forced them to choose between abandoning poetry and practicing it without illusions. Anyone who studies the lives and works of the men who combined careers in business and poetry finds this hard-won sense of maturity and realism at the center. Their lives may not always provide other poets with overly inspiring examples, but their careers offer pragmatic and important lessons in spiritual survival. In a society that destroys or distracts most artists, they found a paradoxical means to prosper—both as men and writers. In American literature that is not a small accomplishment.
First published in The Hudson Review, Spring 1983 issue. The entire essay can be found in Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture ,by Dana Gioia. (1992. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.)