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Cultivating an Inner Life

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

“The Idea of Order at Key West,” Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens spent a lifetime ruminating and expounding upon imagination and creativity through his often self-reflexive poems. Marked by his famously precise use of language, Stevens employed his prodigious vocabulary to fashion prose that touched on the inner workings of the medium. On the surface, his poems often offered tasty tidbits of reality, tantalizingly simple in both form and intent. And yet, as one sits with his work, often these morsels of life are revealed to cut beyond the meat of objective reality, instead striking the bones of life - exposing the sinews of emotion and passion that articulate the complexities of our experiences.

Now often regarded as one of the most prominent American poets of the 20th century, Stevens’ story starts with humble beginnings. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879 and spent his early years buried in books. Naturally drawn to self-expression through language, he enrolled at Harvard to pursue journalism, spending the next few years heavily involved in the school’s Advocate and Harvard Monthly publications.

Financial hardship forced him to cut his studies short in 1900. Undeterred by the setback, he found work at the New York Evening Post, covering various cultural affairs. Like many people interested in the arts, he eventually needed to search outside his passion for financial security. At his father’s insistence, he attended the New York Law School. Upon graduation, he briefly formed a partnership with a former classmate before dissolving the practice to work at the American Bonding Company within their surety division.

Stevens found great success within the insurance industry. Over the next three decades, he slowly worked his way up the corporate ladder within several companies, eventually settling into the role of Vice President at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, remaining with the organization for the rest of his life.

Throughout this time, Stevens spent his evenings and weekends writing. After publishing a handful of poems and plays in the 1910s, he completed a collection of poems for publication in a single volume entitled Harmonium. Published in 1923, the book was initially panned by critics, but it is now recognized as one of his most important collections. Over the next thirty years, he published several more collections, including The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), Parts of a World (1942), and Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942).

Before his death in 1955 after a lengthy battle with stomach cancer, Stevens received many awards recognizing his contributions to poetry, including the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, two National Book Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize. In the decades since his passing, his reputation has only grown as scholars and literary critics continue to unpack his dense and often opaque prose.

A perfect companion piece to Wallace Stevens' poem, "The Man with the Blue Guitar," The Old Guitarist was painted by Pablo Picasso in 1903, after the suicide of his close friend, Casagemas.

Stevens writes:
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."

Image courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago.

An Interwoven Inner Life

In the 15th century, we likely would have called someone embracing seemingly disparate fields like Stevens a Renaissance Man. Two centuries later, these multifaceted individuals would be dubbed polymaths, from the Greek term for “having learned much.” History is filled with figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Buckminster Fuller, who spent a large portion of their time cultivating curiosity and pursuing whatever they found of interest.

Today, we might refer to Stevens’ late-night poetry pursuits as a side hustle. Like many of us, he spent a substantial chunk of his life toiling away at the seemingly mundane, the stability of his corporate job serving as a security blanket so he could pursue writing without fear of financial failure. Regardless of how we might characterize his life in hindsight, one thing is abundantly clear: Wallace Stevens had an incredibly active and evolved inner life.

Broadly speaking, our outer life comprises our external activities - the types of things we might list on a résumé or dating profile. Outer life is the external you, the part of you that handles responsibilities and obligations, sacrifices to maintain relationships, and ensures your future well-being. Our inner lives are the private areas of our life not often readily revealed to others. Inner lives are filled with your passions and secrets, dreams, beliefs, and fantasies - in short: it is who you are, not what you do.

Getting caught up in surviving the day-to-day and losing touch with your inner self is easy. But nurturing your inner spark can lead to great things. Maintaining a healthy balance between our external and internal lives can reduce our stress levels, in turn lowering our risk of heart disease, diabetes, skin disorders, migraines, and other stress-related illnesses. Feelings of insecurity, doubt, and indecision can be signs that there is a gap between your internal desires and your external actions.

Portrait of American poet Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) used for the first-edition cover of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (1954). Photograph by Sylvia Salmi.

Embracing your passions and pursuing your interests can help you lead a well-rounded life. Stevens found stability by making conscious decisions informed by his interests and needs while making time for his passions. We might all learn from his example, and embrace the possibilities of life that nuture our inner beings and connect with our true self. Time well-lived is not wasted.


Wallace Stevens.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.

Dirda, Michael. “Who Was Wallace Stevens? A New Biography Looks at the Man and His Work.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 April 2016.

La Bier, Douglas. “Building an inside-out Life - Part 1Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 8 June 2010.

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