“Insurance Man,” by Peter Schjeldahl. The New Yorker, 5/2/2016.
Wallace Stevens, the subject of this New Yorker article, was a well-known blank verse poet of the 1930s who only wrote poetry as a sideline to his career as an insurance company executive, a strange combination that many have noted. He was said to have composed his poetry on his way to work, then had his secretary type it up. He would periodically publish the recent ones in an anthology.
His popularity faded as he aged and his works became too difficult for most readers to struggle through. They became “gruelingly difficult; the great mind spiraled in on itself, like a ruminative Narcissus.” He died in 1955. Today, he is known mainly by academics.
(A Pennsylvania boy born in in Reading, he married a noted beauty, also from Reading. In 1916, her profile, sculpted by an artist who was a chance acquaintance, is said to have become the face of Winged Victory on the dime until replaced by Franklyn Roosevelt’s image in 1946. If her face on the dime is accurate, she is not a beauty to me. Stevens and his wife hobnobbed with other artists on vacations in Key West. He tended to drink too much, and at various parties he famously insulted Robert Frost and lost a fistfight with Earnest Hemingway.)
I am working my way through his earlier work, “The Idea of Order at Key West” because of the recommendation in this article, and the subject matter: a woman is observed singing as she walks alone by the ocean. I could find all I needed, several synopses and the poem itself, on the Internet.
I generally read a mature poem at least four times: The first is a skip-through to get the gist of the piece. Then I re-read it line-by-line along with a synopsis that explains the subtitle meanings and metaphors that I would never discover myself. Once I understand it, the next reading is for enjoyment. The fourth reading is to interpret it by my experiences and give it my own unique meaning. I probably read it again months or years later in retrospect of my new experiences and insights. I have read books in less time.
(Somewhere along the way, long past high school, I learned the meaning of “iambic pentameter,” and, more recently, “enjambment.” Google is a great help for definitions. Just enter the word followed by “def”)
I assume everyone must do the same. The process is so time-consuming, a fan of poetry must be retired or somehow have time on their hands. And that’s just for a reader, let alone a writer. The wonder is that we have poetry at all. But I admire the extreme care given to each word and comma, like each brushstroke laid down by a master artist. Everything is there for a reason; nothing is there by chance.
I have no desire to write poetry. The effort is well past my patience and ability, and that is not just false modesty, I kid you not. Most of the poetry I have read is Japanese Haiku (See posting “Haiku Poetry,” 9/1/2011.) consisting of only three lines of 5–7–5 syllables. That much I can handle.