Wallace Stevens published his first and arguably greatest book of poetry, Harmonium, at the age of forty-four. Thirteen years later, he published “The Idea Of Order At Key West”. I do not know what future generations will make of Stevens or his work — as with Eliot and Pound, I suspect that the exhaustive demands that Stevens makes of the reader, his footnote-fancy-free requirements that one be both massively erudite and finely sensitive, will cause him to eventually disappear from a canon unable to properly encompass much more than the feelgood blatherings of Maya Angelou or Pablo Neruda. Stevens wrote for men like himself, men who were not immune to emotion but who had subjugated their passions to the work of creating the Western World. We will not see their like again and their cultural legacy will not fare well in the new pedagogical tradition that largely defines itself in terms of the negative space between tangible accomplishments.
Perhaps all that anybody will remember is that Stevens worked tirelessly in the insurance business for most of his adult life. By the time Harmonium was published, he had already put in seven years at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he would work well into his seventies. Never well-liked at his day job, Stevens was nevertheless efficient and successful. He was also sufficiently vigorous at the age of fifty-six to break his hand on Ernest Hemingway’s jaw in a rather odd dust-up that was apparently founded on mutual artistic contempt and in which Hemingway, like recent lime-green Huracan purchaser Conor McGregor, failed to capitalize on a considerable advantage in youth.
I think about Wallace Stevens quite a bit when I read today’s younger autowriters. Almost without exception, they would be better off working some kind of day job and thus having the freedom to be a bit choosier about both the assignments they accept and the quality of the work they turn out. I’ve had this discussion with a few of them and I’m always told that “nobody is hiring”. That’s ridiculous. McDonald’s is hiring. Home Depot is hiring. Your local car dealership is hiring salesmen and service writers. What they mean is that nobody wants to pay them $75,000 a year to perform some kind of vague white-collar work that requires no prior skills or experience. That’s a shame but I can’t help but point out that I faced an identical situation when I left school in 1994 with an English degree and an extremely patchy resume consisting mostly of missed opportunities.
There’s a lot to be said for flipping burgers nine hours a day and spending the rest of your waking hours becoming a better writer. It’s going to pay off much sooner than sitting around the house talking shit on Twitter and curating the pornography collection on your laptop. There’s something about repetitive, unpleasant labor that really stimulates creativity in people, assuming they have the knack for it in the first place. Oh well. I don’t expect anybody to take this advice. It’s too easy to stay plugged into social media and the Brownian motion of endless, pointless conversations.
Let’s see what I managed to get written this week while also working a “real job”. As the man said, let be be the finale of seem.
If you’re at your local bookstore, keep an eye out for the new issue of Road&Track with the Swiss hotel on the cover. More details on that once I get MY copy.