Money is a kind of poetry.
– Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens was a surety claims attorney for the Hartford Insurance Company. I don’t know if he made enough selling his poems to quit the business, but as I understand it he didn’t want to.
A surety bond guarantees that a construction company will complete the work it’s being paid for, according to specifications and on time. What can go wrong? Plenty. The contractor might not have the know-how to tackle a really complex job. Maybe they’ve never done such a big project before. Maybe they’re overextended – too much work spread across too many job sites and not enough foremen to keep things on track. Maybe they underbid the job and just can’t afford to complete the project. Maybe they’ve gotten distracted by some other problem on some other job, and they lose focus on the jobs they could do in their sleep. So many ways for things to go wrong. If the contractor can’t get the job done, then it’s up to the surety company to find somebody else who can. That’s not so bad – there are plenty of other companies out there willing to do the job. The problem is paying for it.
When a contractor runs into problems on the job, he thinks he’s going to be able to fix them eventually. Usually it takes money to fix problems. So the contractor keeps submitting progress reports and invoices, keeps cashing checks, keeps spending money, and still the problem doesn’t fix itself. Instead it gets worse, and it spreads. Pretty soon the contractor is borrowing money from his other jobs to try to fix the bad one, and after awhile he can’t pay his workers and subcontractors and suppliers. He gets past due letters: 30 days past due, 60 days, 90. Pretty soon somebody slaps a lien on the job, and that’s when the owner – the guy who hired the contractor, the guy who pays the contractor – first gets the clue. Something is going terribly wrong here.
That’s when they call the surety company. Maybe the bond underwriter already knows that things are going badly for his client. Usually there’s at least some prior indication that things are a little shaky, but the contractor can always come up with an explanation. And you’re inclined to believe him. You’ve been doing business with the contractor for years, collected tens of thousands of dollars in premiums from him, sat down across the table from him, walked through his yard, kicked the tires on his trucks, joked around with his office manager. You like the guy. Besides, if you pull the plug, stop writing bonds, what’s the contractor going to do? He needs new work to pay for cleaning up the problems on the old jobs. But sometimes you can feel it; you know you’re just throwing good money after bad. Finally the whole house of cards falls down around the contractor’s head. Then comes the sickening moment when the underwriter, the guy who has stuck his neck way out for this contractor, hands over his file to the claims attorney. And then you know you’ve just cost your company a few million bucks.
Stevens said that holding down a regular job was good for him, good for his writing. It’s hard to imagine. Here’s a guy who’s just spent all day wrangling over past-due bills and selling off contractors’ houses to pay off the creditors. Then he closes his files, walks to the train station, buys himself a drink in a plastic cup, hops the train, sits down and writes a poem on the commute home? I read somewhere how Stevens would be at the office, right in the middle of dictating a letter, when he’d just stop, pull out a pad of paper, and write a few lines of poetry. They say he kept his poetry in the lower left drawer of his desk, separate from his claims work. Still, how separate could they have been?
One of Stevens’ poems starts like this: “I placed a jar in Tennessee.” He might have said “jar,” but maybe he was thinking about a building, some surety claim, some half-built eyesore that Stevens found a way to get finished. Was he proud to see that building sitting on top of that Tennessee hill, turning the surrounding wilderness into a kind of landscaping? Or did he wish he could have demolished the thing? Maybe Stevens just decided to make a settlement with the owner, and they left a half-finished empty shell of a building up there on the Tennessee hill, “tall and of a port of air.”
Every once in awhile you get the sense that some of the papers from the right desk drawer found their way to the left drawer. “The earth is not a building but a body,” Stevens wrote. His job was to make sure that buildings got built on the body of the earth. “There is no difference between god and his temple,” he wrote. “A claim man finds it difficult sometimes to distinguish himself from the papers he handles,” he wrote in a 1938 article for Eastern Underwriter.
“Money is a kind of poetry” – I wonder what he meant by that? They say he wrote his poems on little slips of paper that he’d stash in the lower left desk drawer. When he was finished with a poem he’d hand the little papers to his secretary and she’d type them up for him. Maybe when he’d open that drawer at the office, those little slips of paper would remind him of money, like a wad of dollar bills stashed in there. But then wouldn’t he have said it the other way around – poetry is a kind of money?
“Money is a kind of poetry.” Was he just another greedy bastard, and that’s why he kept his claims job, so at the end of the day he could go home, pour himself a glass of claret, and admire the fine paintings on his walls? He made poems, and he made money – same thing, just little pieces of paper, two sides of the same coin. Then again, maybe he was looking at money like a bond claims man, a poetic one. The flows of money, the meaning of money, the reality made up of an accumulation of abstract things, like a poem that’s really not just a string of words.