Poetry Insurance

“Temperance” from the Lo Scarabeo Tarot

I’ve been thinking a lot about balance, lately. About how I can devote the time necessary to writing, and still go to work, earn a living…essentially, how to “pursue my passion” without abandoning adulthood entirely.

Which brings me to Ted Kooser and Wallace Stevens. I’ll start with Ted Kooser: he’s a former VP at an insurance company called Lincoln Bankers Life. He was also the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. He managed the job/passion balance for a long while—by the time he retired from the insurance industry, he had published seven books of poetry.

Wallace Stevens was another poet insurer, but from a different age. He was born in 1879, and died in 1955. And, apparently, he never retired. He worked as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut for most of his life. He was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955. That same year, Harvard offered him a faculty position, but according to Wikipedia, he declined it “since it would have required him to give up his vice-presidency of The Hartford.”

Speaking of working in a different era, regarding the insurance industry connection, Ted Kooser reportedly quipped: “Stevens had far more time to write at work than I ever did.”

Kooser would write in the morning before going to work (like me. Or like I’m supposed to be doing). Writing time of day aside, I certainly find more in Ted Kooser’s profile to identify with than Wallace Stevens’s. Stevens traveled to Key West quite a bit, where he’d tussle with the likes of Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. And when I say tussle, I mean it in the corporeal sense—he evidently had several arguments with Frost, and at least one physical altercation with Hemingway.

If I were to dust up with current literary giants while on vacation, I’m pretty sure it would be all over social media. I’m also 100% certain I’d lose my job.

So I’m back to identifying with Ted Kooser. His Wikipedia page is pretty light on famous fights. He’s now 78-years-old, and still working that balance. While he’s retired from insurance, he’s the editor of a national newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry.” His poetry seems really accessible, and he also seems like someone you wouldn’t mind knowing in person.

This poem from Ted Kooser struck several emotional chords with me, so I thought I’d share it. Maybe one day my early morning writing sessions will yield something half as poignant:


Today you would be ninety-seven
if you had lived, and we would all be
miserable, you and your children,
driving from clinic to clinic,
an ancient fearful hypochondriac
and his fretful son and daughter,
asking directions, trying to read
the complicated, fading map of cures.
But with your dignity intact
you have been gone for twenty years,
and I am glad for all of us, although
I miss you every day—the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.
On this day each year you loved to relate
that the moment of your birth
your mother glanced out the window
and saw lilacs in bloom. Well, today
lilacs are blooming in side yards
all over Iowa, still welcoming you.

from Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA 2004

You can find out more about Ted Kooser here: www.tedkooser.net


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