What is it with poets and capitalism? The two, it seems, are like oil and water.
At the end of last year, Alice Oswald and John Kinsella withdrew their respective books from consideration for the T.S. Eliot Prize because the £15,000 award was being underwritten by Aurum Fund Management. Oswald suggested that it is unethical for a literary prize to be sponsored by an investment firm that manages hedge funds. As an "anti-capitalist," he stated, "Aurum does not sit with my personal politics and ethics."
This is not an isolated instance. From writing against "Reaganomics" to supporting the Occupy Wall Street protests, contemporary poets seem generally predisposed against capitalism. What's going on here?
In The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century (Harvard, 2011), Christopher Nealon explains that many 20th century poets -- particularly American -- have spoken out against capitalism because of their fear that capitalism causes cultural homogeneity and political and economic turmoil. Nealon's understanding of changes in the American economy in the second half of the 20th century is overly ideological, but he is right that the poetry of this period was (and continues to be) preoccupied with capitalism.
No doubt many poets believe that capitalism leads to both homogeneity and instability, and the best among them subtly critique the consumerism and excess that one finds in all affluent societies, America in particular. Wendell Berry's agrarianism and Philip Levine's "portraits" of the working class suggest that we have lost something of the relational aspect of work. This critique of capitalism -- or the excesses of industrialization -- is worth hearing, whether or not one agrees that capitalism itself is to blame. It is constructive, free of shrill, and generous.
But there are two further responses to capitalism in contemporary poetry that are less constructive and effective, both of which are rooted in the idea that capitalism has spoiled poetry's audience by encouraging the objectification of all things, including people and works of art.
One of those responses has been for poets to create poems that rail against hierarchy and morality in an effort to free their audience from the shackles of the great capitalistic machine. The form of these poems is usually highly experimental, using repetition and fragmentation, along with taboo subject matter, to supposedly create a poem that both resists commodification and shocks the middle-class into seeing that property ownership, marital fidelity, proper grammar, and so forth are all constructs that restrict personal and, importantly for poets, aesthetic freedom.
Allen Ginsberg's famous long poem, "Howl," is a case in point. In the poem, Ginsberg laments the destruction of the "best minds of our generation" by "Moloch." In his own annotation in the poem, Ginsberg defines Moloch as "the Cannaanite fire god, whose worship was marked by parents' burning their children as proprietary sacrifice." The use of absurd images and obscenity is intended to shock Ginsberg's audience into seeing the oppression all around them. He explained to William F. Buckley in a 1968 interview when he was asked not to use any "dirty words" on the show why such a request presents a "moral problem":
There's a political function to the language of everyday use. The language we actually speak to each other off the air. There's a communication that's involved, and there a classical use of all sorts of what we call "off color" words in art, as well as images. So our problem here, or what I've been proposed with, is having in a sense to censor my thought patterns.
For Ginsberg it is the poet's duty to break such censorship.
If Ginsberg's poetry, while often obscene, is rarely if ever vitriolic, later poets have unfortunately supplied more than enough. Much of Amiri Baraka's later work is one long tirade against Jews, and June Jordan and Haunani-Kay Trask's work is little more than a rant against whatever (and whomever) they think are the tools of a fictional, but nevertheless oppressive, God. These condescendingly mock or berate the middle-class rather than free them. And since few people willingly expose themselves to derision, it is no surprise that these volumes are met with general disinterest, which, for certain poets, is only further proof of the slavery or the simple-minded boorishness of the middle-class.
A second response has been for poets to no longer write for a general audience but for their fellow poets and kindred spirits alone. Paul Goodman was the first to suggest this in his 1951 article "Advance-Guard Writing." The problem for the avant-garde writer, Goodman states, is that he has internalized societal conflict and re-presented it in his work, which is rejected by his audience and sanctioned. The communal aspect of art has been broken, and what Goodman proposes is that poets stop writing for a general audience and reestablish a "plausible" audience of peers.
The so-called "New York School" of poets -- John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch -- followed this advice, at least in part. While O'Hara in particular established a community of readers through his use of names and personal anecdotes that lack sufficient context in the poems for comprehension, later poets have turned to the jargon of critical theory as a shared vocabulary, which, combined with the great number of poetry books published today in order to fuel burgeoning MFA programs, has made contemporary poetry a coterie art.
So we have two responses to what poets perceive to be capitalism's destruction of the poet's relationship to his audience that add to, or in some instances completely accomplish, that destruction. It is an extraordinary example of wish fulfillment.
Is the secret hope of poets that capitalism will fall and a new order will rise in which they are valued? Czeslaw Milosz points out in The Captive Mind, which was first published 59 years ago, that this was the proposal offered to artists in Poland and other (now formerly) Eastern Bloc countries in return for their support of the Kremlin. "The intellectual's eyes twinkle," Milosz writes,
with delight at the persecution of the bourgeoisie, and of the bourgeois mentality. It is a rich reward for the degradation he felt when he had to be part of the middle class, and when there seemed to be no way out of the cycle of birth and death…Yet he is warm-hearted and good; he is a friend of mankind. Not mankind as it is, but as it should be.
While the poet later suffers because he realizes that this new order imposes painful aesthetic constraints, "the recompense for all pain is the certainty that one belongs to the new and conquering world, even though it is not nearly so comfortable and joyous a world as its propaganda would have one think."
Some American poets may nourish exactly this hope, but I doubt most harbor such catastrophic dreams of the end of the current economic order. The fact is capitalism coupled with democracy, despite all the problems and potential pitfalls, offers the poet a greater opportunity to practice his craft to connect with his audience than most political systems of the past, and most poets recognize this. But in order for this connection to happen, poets must write for their audience rather than merely against them, connecting in love, not self-serving egotism.
John Burnside, this year's winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, which was announced last month, reminds us of the importance of a poetry that engages the world (and its readers):
[P]oetry is important because it makes us think, it opens us up to wonder and the sometimes astonishing possibilities of language. It is, in its subtle yet powerful way, a discipline for reengaging with a world we take too much for granted.
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