One of the most important names in the world of 20th century Modernist literature, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is practically as famous for what he did when not writing poetry as he is for what resulted when he set to work writing verse. Stevens remains the ultimate model for the argument that creative writers need not work in an environment that stimulates artistry. For almost the entirety of his adult life, Wallace Steven got up every workday and headed off to his job in the insurance industry. Not only did Steven not need to find employment within an artistically stimulating milieu, his place of employment has attained almost mythic proportions for weeding out any sign of creative artistry.
While the spirit of creativity may studiously be shunned by the insurance industry, the reverse is not necessarily so. The influence of dealing with insurance documents on Stevens is inescapable throughout his entire body of work. Few lines of work put such a premium upon precision of language as insurance; even legalese falls short because its purpose too often is obfuscation rather than illumination. The poetry of Stevens is an exemplary exhibition of choosing exactly the right word to convey a specific meaning. Within the verse construction of Wallace Stevens can be found a meticulous focus on the insertion or deletion of the most seemingly superfluous word that becomes, by virtue of the manner in which Stevens chooses to delete it or insert, capable of endowing the entire poem with thematic unity. “The Snow Man” is often utilized to reveal the full depth of this power of precision exhibited by Stevens where the simple placement of the word “the” becomes instrumental in explicating the full import of the poem’s thematic assertion of the ineffability of the concept of nothingness.
Stevens commenced publishing his poetry in 1914 as one of the many who took advantage of the plethora of what was commonly referred to as “little magazines” to show off his stuff. These periodicals which took their collective name from the fact that their subscription numbers were, indeed, quite little in comparison to the big name magazines of the time like the Saturday Evening Post. Nevertheless, many poets used them as a stepping stone publishing collections in book form. Which Stevens did in 1923 with Harmonium, a collected volume of poems that had made their debut in many of the various little magazines.
Stevens would subsequently be published in magazines of increasingly larger subscription figures and more and more readers on his way to publishing subsequent collections. That journey from unknown poet to one of the most influential of the 20th century would include two collections that won the National Book Award before taking home America’s top literary honor in 1955. Stevens was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry that year for Collected Poems.
The vast majority of poetry to be found in all those collections show a creative artist obsessed with literature as a forum for examining ideas through an alchemy of precision of language and a much looser subject matter of abstract metaphysics. An appropriately Modernist sense of existential despair also permeates much of the often difficult—and occasionally impenetrable—verse of the insurance man who would be poetic genius.