Wallace Stevens was one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, and an insurance executive who led a perfectly ordinary life. In his college diary, he reflected on how a life of discipline and duty towards something other than art made its creation possible:
The mind cannot always live in a “divine ether.” The lark cannot always sing at heaven’s gate. There must exist a place to spring from—a refuge from the heights, an anchorage of thought. Study gives this anchorage: study ties you down; and it is the occasional wil[l]ful release from this voluntary bond that gives the soul its occasional overpowering sense of lyric freedom and effort.
Late in his life, Stevens made a poignant observation about his vocations as an artist and a workman:
But I have not even begun to touch the spheres within spheres that might have been possible if, instead of devoting the principal amount of my time to making a living, I had devoted it to thought and poetry. Certainly it is as true as it ever was that whatever means most to one should receive all of one’s time and that has not been true in my case. But, then, if I had been more determined about it, I might now be looking back not with a mere sense of regret but at some actual devastation. To be cheerful about it, I am now in the happy position of being able to say that I don’t know what would have happened if I had had more time. This is very much better than to have had all the time in the world and have found oneself inadequate.
I deeply appreciate Stevens’s point, and admire his self-knowledge. Along these lines, I remember when I was 27, and quit my job, and lived alone in the country in a big, empty house, just me and books and a laptop and all the time in the world. I had thought that the main thing standing between me and writing a book was time to devote to it. But it turned out that the obstacles were a lack of personal discipline, and a lack of anything to say. Learning that truth about myself was painful; my romantic, self-serving illusion about the writer’s life had been so comforting.
Who was the artist who said something along the lines of “I am ordinary in my life so that I may be radical in my art”? What’s the quote?
(Quotes from Stevens taken from Alison Johnson’s Stevens biography.)