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The Game ChangedESSAYS AND OTHER PROSE
By Lawrence Joseph
THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESSCopyright © 2011 Lawrence Joseph
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Poet and the Lawyer
The Example of Wallace Stevens
"The slight tobaccoy odor of autumn"—Wallace Stevens begins his introduction to Williams Carlos Williams's 1934 Collected Poems—"is perceptible in these pages. Williams is past fifty."
Autumn this evening is perceptible in Hartford. Wallace Stevens was born 127 years ago this past Monday ...
I knew I would write poetry forty years ago, during the autumn of 1966, my first semester as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. I had elected an upper level "Introduction to Poetry" course and the class was assigned "The Emperor of Ice Cream" by Wallace Stevens. I was also taking an upper level course in Latin, which concentrated on Book VIII of Virgil's Aeneid. In the evenings, in the University's Main Library, I would work through Virgil, and then through the poems assigned in "Introduction to Poetry." I usually had some sense of a poem's meanings—poems by Milton and Donne, Spenser and Eliot, Coleridge and Dickinson, Pound, Frost, Moore, Hopkins. But "The Emperor of Ice Cream"—I had no idea what it was about, which both frustrated and intrigued me. After the professor took us through it, explaining its multiple meanings as best he could, I felt that this was the highest form of expression, and that I wanted to emulate it. I wanted to create this kind of art—to create poems that would have the same effect on a reader that Wallace Stevens's poem had on me.
Professor Coles would provide literary and biographical information about each poet. He told the class that for most of his life Stevens had been a bond lawyer with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Hartford. I distinctly remember him saying this. I was raised to be a lawyer. My grandparents were Lebanese and Syrian Catholics who emigrated to Detroit before World War I. My mother and father were born in Detroit after the war ended. My grandparents on both sides were grocers. Each spoke and read and wrote Arabic—they also learned to speak English quickly and proficiently—but could neither read nor write English. My parents, my aunts and my uncles, all born in Detroit, were educated in Catholic grade and high schools. My father and his brother inherited their father's grocery store, which became a grocery party-liquor store. It was located in Detroit's most violent neighborhood during the nineteen-fifties and sixties. The only member of the family of my parents' generation who did not enter into that declining business of city-family-owned grocery stores was my mother's younger and only brother, who, after being in a Catholic seminary for his college years (the first of his generation to have gone to college), left the seminary and attended law school at the University of Detroit. Our uncle was held up to me and my older brother by both my father and mother as an example. Both my brother and I became lawyers.
I began law school in 1973, at Michigan again, after two years of postgraduate studies in English Language and Literature at Magdalene College, the University of Cambridge. I had been writing poetry since that autumn of 1966 and have continued to write it to this day. Since that autumn forty years ago, whenever I've thought of Wallace Stevens, I've thought of him both as a poet and as a lawyer.
In 1900, after three years at Harvard—his undeniable talent for writing poetry recognized by his peers and his professors—Wallace Stevens moved to New York City, where, with the intention of devoting his life to writing poetry, he worked the overnight shift as a journalist for the New York Tribune. After a year as a journalist, Stevens took the advice of his father, who was a lawyer, and followed his father and his two brothers to law school, entering New York Law School, in downtown Manhattan, in the fall of 1901. Three years later, in 1904, he was admitted to the New York Bar. He then practiced, on and off, for four years with a number of private firms. In 1908, he took a job with the American Bonding Company, handled claims made on the company's surety bonds. He left American Bonding in 1913 for the Equitable Surety Company, having acquired a specialty in surety bonds. When, three years later, Equitable unexpectedly failed, Stevens took a position with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Hartford, where he not only covered surety claims, but also oversaw the legal affairs of Hartford's expanding bond claims department. By 1918, Hartford had established a separate surety bond department, which Stevens headed for the rest of his life. In 1934, he was promoted to vice president, becoming one of four vice presidents of one of the major insurance companies in the United States.
In 1983, Random House published Peter Brazeau's Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, An Oral Biography. After law school and a two-year judicial clerkship in Detroit with a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and then three years as a member of the University of Detroit School of Law faculty, I was—at the time that the Brazeau book came out—practicing law in New York City. That year, my first book of poems, Shouting at No One, was published.
Until Brazeau's book, poets and critics (as well as the continuously growing readership of Stevens's poetry) thought generally of Stevens as a poet who also underwrote insurance. Brazeau's interviews with Stevens's former colleagues at the Hartford made clear what Professor Coles had said, that Stevens was a lawyer. The most succinct and accurate description of Stevens's law practice that I know of, is found in Stanford law professor Thomas C. Grey's indispensable book on Stevens, The Wallace Stevens Case: Law and the Practice of Poetry:
On a typical working day, Stevens came to his office around nine, read his mail, then turned to the stack of files of claims requiring review, and worked on them systematically through the day. He was renowned both for his steady diligence at work ("the grindingest guy ... in executive row") and for his meticulous attention to detail; he left a clear desk at the end of each day, and did not take work home. Stevens stayed in his office, cherishing his solitude as he ground through his files. A number of colleagues recall him reacting with annoyance when interrupted, even for a business purpose, or continuing to work head down, for long minutes as they silently waited. No office politician, he was often famously undiplomatic, with superiors as well as subordinates, peers, outside agents, and other sources of company business....
A surety bond is a promise by the insurer to pay a legal obligation of an insured; its purpose is to assure third parties who are at risk of loss if the insured becomes insolvent. To take the most common example, a builder might have to post a performance surety bond in order to get a construction job; the bond means that if the builder doesn't finish the job or botches it, the insurance company as surety will pay the resulting damages to the other party, even if the builder has gone broke in the meantime....
As Stevens reviewed surety claims, he was making both legal and business judgments. On the legal side, he had to decide whether the claim was valid. Did the insured builder, for example, breach its contract? The insurance company could assert any defense available to the builder (for example, breach of a condition on the part of the claimant); deciding whether such a defense existed required close investigation of the facts and review of the original contract....
When he judged a claim to be valid, there remained, in contractor bond cases, the decision whether to pay off the bond or attempt to finish the work contracted for. Here is where Stevens achieved his greatest reputation; he was "a very imaginative claims man" .... The decision required evaluating which contracts could still be performed for less than the damages payable to the other party, and thus at a profit to the company. Good judgment on such matters required being "highly practical, realistic".... It was in connection with this ability of Stevens's that colleagues came to judge him "the dean of surety claims men in the whole country."
"Poetry and surety claims aren't as unlikely a combination as they may seem," Stevens once remarked. He did not have, he said, a separate mind for legal work and another for writing poetry; he did each with his whole mind. The Stevens who specialized in surety law possessed enormous capacities of concentration and focus. He was expert at the various legal languages that came into play in the practice of surety law. He could absorb extraordinarily complex sets of facts, while moving them in his mind through the complex languages of the applicable substantive law. He was diligent and disciplined. He was tough-minded. He was a note-taker (as most lawyers are) and did his own research (which he liked to do). He preferred to work alone. He was highly demanding on himself. His work required that he read almost all the time. The Stevens who wrote poems also worked in his mind, composing while he walked to and from work, after dinner, before sleep. The making of a poem was, for him, a solitary act of the mind, which he wholly engaged in. He was always jotting down notes when thoughts of poems came to mind, often during his workday. His appetite for reading was wide-ranging. "I have been making notes on the subject in the form of short poems during the past winter," he wrote in reference to what became the poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar." "Poetry is, of all others," he noted in his commonplace book, "the most daring form of research." "Poetry," he noted in his Adagia, "is the scholar's art."
There was nothing perfunctory, Stevens once said, about the handling of a bond claim. Each case had its own facts and issues, its own legal language, each case had its own requirements and demands. There was nothing perfunctory, either, Stevens said, about writing a poem. Each poem was different, with its own issues, its own language. "Poetry," Stevens once told a fellow worker, "is what you feel, and what you sense, and how you say it." "Poetry," Stevens wrote, "seeks out the relation of men to facts." Poetry, he said during World War II, presses back against the "pressures" of factual reality. Reviewing The Man with the Blue Guitar for the Partisan Review in 1938, Delmore Schwartz observed that, from the beginning, Stevens's poetry was "absorbed in 'response' to various facts," absorbed, Schwartz added, "to such an extent, that the facts can scarcely get into the poems at all. By thus placing facts within the poem, the responses to the facts gain immeasurable strength and relevance. We may compare Stevens"—Schwartz went on—"to William Carlos Williams, whom Stevens admires, and who may be said to represent the other extreme, a poet whose whole effort is to get the facts into his poem with the greatest exactitude and to keep everything else out." In Stevens's poems there are no specific scenes, nor times, nor actions, "but only the mind moving among its meanings and replying to situations which are referred to, but not contained in, the poems themselves. The poems, because of the extent of the poet's awareness, are located in the middle of everything which concerns us."
In a 1945 letter, Stevens wrote: "Moreover, in the world of actuality ... one is always living a little out of it. There is a precious sentence in Henry James, for whom everyday life was not much more than the mere business of living, but, all the same, he separated himself from it. The sentence is ... 'To live in the world of creation—to get into it and stay in it—to frequent it and haunt it—to think intensely and fruitfully—to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation—this is the only thing.'" I use this quotation as the epigraph of my book of poems, Into It.
Combinations of fact and thought, of feeling and meaning, pressured into the depth and intensity of composed language; these lines are from Stevens's poem "Large Red Man Reading" in The Auroras of Autumn:
There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had
There were those that returned to hear him read from the
poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into
They would have wept and then been happy, have shivered
in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was
And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the
The outlines of being and its expressions, the syllables of its
Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines ...
And, these lines from Stevens's poem "Of Modern Poetry," in Parts of a World:
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir ...
... It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.
And, so, we celebrate him this evening, in this city where he lived and worked for forty years, writing a body of poems unparalleled in American literature. So, on this autumn evening in Hartford, we celebrate the tremendous satisfaction that this large red man's readings have given us—the poems of the acts of the mind both of the poet and the lawyer, the vitally compounded and combined acts of his poesis, the syllables of its law.
Happy birthday, Mr. Stevens.
Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets
The book equivalent of a poetsbiography.com? How about, instead, more than sixty essay-like stories, with titles like "'Not as I suld, I wrait, but as I couth': Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, Stephen Hawes" and "'Arranging, deepening, enchanting': Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Amy Clampitt, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty"? A summa poetica that begins with a piece titled "The Match": "While the Irish football team played the Soviet Union in 1988, four English poets were confined in a radio studio in Dublin—it was the Writers' Conference—to take part in a round-table discussion. English-language poets, that is, for none of them"—Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, Les Murray— "accepts the sobriquet 'English.' In the chair ... an anglophone Mexican publisher, me."
The "me"—Michael Schmidt, born of American parents in Mexico in 1947—is quite consciously and strategically present in his Lives from the outset. Schmidt's first language was Spanish (he has translated Octavio Paz, among others), American English his second. He attended Harvard and then Oxford, where, in the late sixties, he began his life as a publisher and editor, starting Carcarnet Press. In 1972, he founded the poetry magazine PN Review, which he also edits. Carcarnet has published more than a thousand titles, mostly poetry, but challenging fiction as well, including translations from other literatures, from every time period. In addition to his publishing and editorial work, Schmidt directs the writing school at Manchester Metropolitan University. In his spare time, he's managed to publish poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and other critical writing.
Excerpted from The Game Changed by Lawrence Joseph Copyright © 2011 by Lawrence Joseph. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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