VINTAGE GEMS Ben Skelton

NWR Issue 107

The Financial Lives of the Poets

The reputation of Seamus Heaney was built at least partly on the way he dealt with the big issues of his time and place – the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But by the time of his death last year, Ireland had long since ceased to be defined by violence. Since the late-1990s, Ireland’s big issues have been economic – the Celtic Tiger, European monetary union, the housing boom, bust and austerity – and Heaney had nothing to say about them.

To be fair, that silence is fairly typical of poets – even when, as in the case of TS Eliot, they have day jobs at Lloyds Bank. In contrast, there are plenty of prominent novels ( Little Dorrit, The Bonfire of the Vanities, American Psycho, etc) and plays ( The Merchant of Venice, Serious Money, Enron, David Hare’s The Power of Yes) that deal with finance or are set in a financial milieu.

So was Robert Graves right when he said there was no poetry in money? And does that hold true during exceptional economic circumstances such as our post-2007 era of austerity? Is Heaney’s economic silence shared by his fellow poets in Ireland and other European countries hit particularly severely by economic crisis – countries such as Greece, Spain and Iceland?

Last year, the Newry-born poet Connor O’Callaghan published The Sun King, which includes ‘Tiger Redux’, a post-Blake reflection on Ireland’s economy. O’Callaghan says there are now plenty of Irish poets writing about the Celtic Tiger. (A list of books by contemporary Irish poets – not offered by O’Callaghan – that have engaged with economics might include Leontia Flynn’s Profit and Loss (2011), Stephen Murray’s On Corkscrew Hill (2013), William Wall’s Ghost Estate and the pre-austerity Other People’s Houses (1999) by Vona Groarke.)

But O’Callaghan describes much of the Celtic Tiger poems as ‘poetry of reaction’. At the time of the boom, he says, ‘the Celtic Tiger didn’t exist in people’s poems, and yet the moment it ended everybody was describing its demise’. O’Callaghan, in contrast, would rather mourn its passing than dance on its grave (‘Spare us from the dope who (bore)/Digs the hole we were before’, Tiger Redux says), and asserts: ‘I think the language and imagery of economics are absolutely fascinating. It does surprise me that they don’t seem of more interest to other poets.’ He sees a whole set of similarities between money and poetry, saying: ‘I would argue that there is an analogy between the world of finance and the world of poetry, that each has this elaborate, convoluted vocabulary and grammar that the vast majority don’t understand and don’t care to understand, that each exists out there as some acknowledged constant but with which the vast majority of people don’t engage…

‘I’ve often heard it argued that the relationship between writer and reader is very similar to that between creditor and debtor. As a reader you are advancing credit to the writer that only lasts so long in terms of this reading relationship.’

In contrast, David Constantine, the English poet and former editor of the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, sees only polarities between poetry and money.

‘The essence of poetry is its passionate loyalty to individual human beings,’ he says. ‘Global capitalism has no interest whatever in individual human beings except as mercantile atoms in a huge structure to its advantage.’

In Whoops!, his non-fiction account of the mortgage-backed derivatives bubble that precipitated the financial crisis, the novelist John Lanchester says: ‘With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which … there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense.’ And in her book on the same subject, Fool’s Gold, the Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett says: ‘The situation was almost akin to that of the European medieval church: although almost nobody in the congregation really understood the financial “Latin” in which the service was being conducted, few rebelled because they were receiving blessings. The congregation was mystified, but it accepted that the priests were the keepers of the faith.’

Constantine, who wrote at length about economic issues in his MPIT editorials, agrees that the story of the post-2007 financial crisis is partly a story about the misuse of language, but denies that this should be a compelling theme for poets. He says: ‘The point of poetry is to demonstrate an opposite sort of language, not to make yourself a vehicle of a treatise on mendacious language.’ Constantine draws an analogy with poetry in the former East Germany. ‘I knew and spoke with East German poets before the Wall came down,’ he says. ‘The one thing they hated was the feeling they had to write about it. It was a well-known phrase that they thought they laboured under – “dictated dissidence”.’ He adds:

‘I would resist absolutely any suggestion that poets should be in full-scale frontal attack on this odious system, because if you do that you forfeit your autonomy and you’re not providing an alternative language.’

His position is similar to that of the Greek poet Katerina Iliopoulou, who appeared last year in London at the South Bank Centre event 'Greece Is the Word: The Culture Behind the Crisis – What You Need to Know'. In print and interviews, she has stated that Greek poets have no obligation to engage with the economic crisis, and suggested a need for ‘alternative narratives’.

But enough Greek poets are engaged with economics to inspire Andy Croft of Middlesbrough poetry press Smokestack Books to commission the anthology Crisis, which was published in May. Croft says: ‘I’m very happy to put something into print that is recording something that is unrecorded in Britain.’ He says there are two big exceptions to the British silence – anthologies edited by the Brighton-based Hereward the Wake figure Alan Morrison: Emergency Verse: Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State (Caparison, 2011) and The Robin Hood Book: Verse Versus Austerity (Caparison, 2012).

Croft says: ‘Both books were almost completely ignored in the poetry world because it’s a little bit embarrassing.’ He adds that one consequence of austerity in the UK has been the ‘collapse of the poetry economy… So many of the institutions which supported the very fragile economy of poetry, like libraries, schools, independent and children’s publishers, arts councils and local authorities have been hit so badly,’ he explains.

Madrid-based US poet, publisher and translator Lawrence Schimel makes a similar point about Spain. He says: ‘The crisis has affected poetry most in the fact that there are now fewer paid opportunities for poets to read. There used to be a very healthy circuit of paid poetry readings, which supported many poets, and helped them earn far more than they could from their book sales. Much of that has dried up.’

Schimel says ‘poetry has not made a major response’ to the economic crisis in Spain and that graphic interpretations have had much more of an impact. He does, however, acknowledge the existence of poetry festivals, such as Voces del Extremo, and online anthologies, such as Estudios’ Poesía y Crisis, dedicated to the subject, and in March, Bartleby Editores in Madrid published En Legítima Defensa, a crisis-themed anthology featuring 229 Spanish poets and poems.

Bartleby Editores publishing manager Pepo Paz Saz says: ‘We had the suspicion that, as in the rest of Spanish civil society, the theme of the crisis had to be very urgent in the daily work of the poets. And, indeed, this was so.’ Saz says the contributors to En Legítima Defensa include winners of Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes award José Manuel Caballero Bonald and Antonio Gamoneda as well as poets who have never previously published.

On the other hand, Andy Croft’s suggestion, that poetry that engages with economic issues might be considered embarrassing, is echoed by the Irish poet and critic John Redmond. He compares what he sees as contemporary cynicism with the utopianism of the 1930s. ‘There’s a lot more nihilism now,’ he says. ‘Any kind of utopianism is liable to be severely questioned or shot down, by comparison with the period of the 1930s, when poetry was much more shot through with that.’ Last year, Seren published Redmond’s book Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, a collection of essays exploring the extent to which individual poets focus either on public or private issues; it is the more privately oriented poets who Redmond considers the more successful and original.

That thesis might seem to chime with Constantine’s argument about poetry’s need to safeguard its autonomy against the temptation to engage with the big public narrative of economics, but Redmond says: ‘I don’t know what it means to say poetry’s autonomous. How would it be sealed off from things?’ One of the poets discussed in Poetry and Privacy is Vona Groarke. The book says: ‘Her mature phase as a writer begins with Other People’s Houses, where she links the theme of imaginative sovereignty to the eclipse of publicly oriented narrative.’ Redmond describes how Groarke engages with economic issues obliquely through a series of poems about houses. In interview, Redmond says: ‘She doesn’t deal with these things straight on, but brushes against them. Partly, that’s through thinking about other people’s houses, which has certain economic charge – thinking about house prices. That’s as close as she gets to thinking about that issue, and then there’s a certain element of “go no further”.’

Leontia Flynn does something strikingly similar in Profit and Loss. Besides containing a number of poems about flats and houses, the book addresses Ireland’s economic situation in the long verse letter ‘Letter to Friends’. Again there is, according to Redmond, an aversion to appearing ridiculous or too earnest. Redmond says: 'I think it’s telling that when 'Letter to Friends' chooses to talk in an extended way on political themes, it’s liable to drop complete seriousness. I think she is worried about coming across as portentous or heavy-bottomed.’

The Welsh poet Dai George seems to have had similar concerns when writing ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’ and ‘Inside the Company’, which are included in The Claims Office, also published by Seren in 2013. George admits he was conscious of doing something unusual in writing money-engaged poems, and adds: ‘I did have a word with myself, saying, “Do you actually want to take on the mantle of this angry, 20-something, political poet?”’ He says: ‘If you’re writing about a field or your garden or your grandmother, people might have their own views on it being clichéd but they’re not going to take issue with it. Whereas, as soon as a poem enters into a wider field of discourse – [issues] like inequality of wealth, the convolutions of latter-day capitalism – you’re answerable to a far bigger potential audience, and you’re aware that you might have to cover yourself in a different way against a much broader range of critiques. You don’t want to look like an idiot, I suppose is the simple way of saying it.’

But for Redmond there is a bigger reason for poets’ reticence about money and economics. He expresses qualified support for the ideas of US philosopher and professor of comparative literature Richard Rorty, who Redmond says argues that the technical nature of economic and other big contemporary issues can only be addressed through highly technical language. If you try to present these problems to general readers,’ Redmond summarises, ‘you will probably be speaking a language they won’t get to grips with.’ Redmond continues: ‘How are you going to admit that type of technical language? How is poetry going to accommodate that? Possibly it’s just too difficult most of the time.’ He says he can see that poets might want to ‘grapple with’ such potentially toxic language, but agrees with Constantine that other types of writing are better suited to the task. ‘It would seem that it’s so complex talking about derivatives and betting on insurance and the peculiar financial instruments that were associated with the financial crisis,’ Redmond argues. ‘I don’t think I’ve read any accounts of that in poetry; it’s mostly long pieces in the London Review of Books or the New Yorker or factual books, which seem like the better instruments.’

One example of someone embracing the challenge of turning such technical language into poetry comes from Iceland, where Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl says the country’s over-weening banks once subsidised poets and poetry presses and festivals (including his own Nýhil press and festival), poets appeared in commercials for banks, and wider society’s response to the subsequent crisis has been intensely poetic. Norðdahl says: ‘The production of slogans, actions, protest signs, speeches … took on an overall “poetic” feel. You could feel language being used not just as a tool to convey meaning, but to convey an aesthetic or feeling, reaching for metaphors and similes and alliterative tools.’
Besides Norðdahl’s book, Fist or Words Bereft of Sense, the response of actual poets has included Jón Örn Loðmfjörð’s Spread, which Norðdahl describes as ‘a digital reworking of a nine-volume report about the collapse by a parliamentary committee’. No English or Welsh translation exists of Loðmfjörð’s for readers to judge whether it succeeds in accommodating that technical language!

But for Seren poetry editor Amy Wack, it is not so much poetry that is ill suited to accommodating finance but a particular, and dominant, type of it: lyric poetry. She argues: ‘The lyric form of poetry – perhaps limited to a single page – doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the complex scene-setting required by fiction into which economic questions can arise in the course of a lengthy plot.’ The financial ‘madness’ of recent years, she says, is ‘perhaps only worthy of a sort of epic satire that requires a sensibility like that Alexander Pope’s or the imagination of Milton, who produced a magnificent Satan for his Paradise Lost’.

George agrees that it is the importance of plot and narrative in fiction that explains why novelists are so much more likely to write about money than poets. He says: ‘With any fictional narrative, you’re looking for the drivers that change a character’s situation, and money is one of the key things that could do that. ‘Lyric poetry doesn’t deal with narrative in the same sense, so there’s less reason for it to take an interest in the individual’s economic fortunes. The traditional lyric plots a subjective moment in time, but isn’t plotting the course of a person’s fortunes.’ And he is sceptical about the likelihood of other forms of poetry challenging the dominance of the lyric mode. He says: ‘The thought of writing an epic, public narrative poem is audacious and eccentric in the current climate. ‘This might also tie in with the slow death of satirical verse. If you think about the great novelists who have written well about money – Thackeray, Dickens, Amis, Wolfe – they’ve largely been expert satirists. Wealth, poverty and the drive to acquire wealth are a fairly squalid and grotesque business. To deal with it in literature, you need a sense of humour and the monstrous, or else you’ll descend into preaching. Not many of our finest poets are so good with humour any more.’

Ben Skelton is a freelance journalist based in Whitstable, Kent. He’s written for the Observer, New Internationalist, Egypt Today, Red Pepper and Insight Europe, and worked as a production journalist for organisations including The Ecologist, the British Film Institute, the New Statesman and the National Housing Federation.

       


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