Perspective | Playing With Words: The Job of a Poet or an Underwriter?

By: | September 3, 2019

Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected]

When you think of poets, you probably imagine a Roman with a laurel wreath on his head, a tortured beatnik or a Shakespeare-type with a lute.

Now think of a high-powered insurance executive: Almost the exact reverse. A solid citizen in a business suit; a conformist.

Yet these disparate types are akin. The disciplines in which they labor rely equally on mathematical structure. In insurance, it’s expressed as percentages and averages. In poetry, it’s meter. Rhythm is as critical to one as the loss ratio is to the other.

Now, meet a senior insurance executive who was also one of America’s greatest poets: Wallace Stevens.

His poetry drew on the symbolism and enigma evoked by the paintings of Klee and Cezanne, with a recurring theme of universal fluctuation. William Carlos Williams compared Stevens’ poetry to that of Dante and Milton.

Confirming the notion that poets should be “out there,” Stevens argued publicly (and drunkenly) with Robert Frost, and later fought with Ernest Hemingway in Key West. He broke his hand on Hemingway’s jaw.

By day, this tearaway worked in insurance, specializing in claims and surety bonds. A lawyer, he worked for the American Bonding Company and the Equitable Surety Company in New York before joining the home office of The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1916. He evaluated surety claims there for almost 40 years.

The New Yorker writer Brendan Gill grew up in Hartford, where he occasionally caught sight of Stevens. “He marched,” Gill recalled, “like a tame bear through the streets of our city, but there was nothing tamed about him; he had chosen to imprison his fiercer self in a cage of upper-middle-class decorum.”

Gill also told of his sister seeing Stevens out walking: “As she watched, he slowed down, came to a stop, rocked in place for a moment or two, took a step backward, hesitated, then strode confidently forward,” listening keenly all the while to the rhythm of the words his mind was forming.

Gill’s vignettes paint the outward solidity of the claims expert and the inner turmoil of the poet and underline the importance of rhythm to both. Gill throws a human light on a man whose conflicts few of us would willingly shoulder.

In 2009, The Hartford opened The Wallace Stevens Walk: 13 stone markers installed along the 2.4 miles the poet walked from his home to his office. Each marker contains one stanza of his poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Stevens was not alone in combining insurance with rhyme. The 13th Poet Laureate of the United States, Ted Kooser, was an executive at Lincoln Benefit Life Insurance Company in Nebraska for many years. Both he and Stevens won Pulitzer Prizes.

So perhaps the creative spirit and the organization man are not so far apart. Was it Stevens the lawyer or Stevens the poet who famously said, “the words of the world are the life of the world?” &

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