ESSAY 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…

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previous essay: The Girl in Red Boots
next essay: Scenes from a Hokkaidan Life


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