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Poets and Capitalism

Poets and Capitalism

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Published by Syed Furqan

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Published by: Syed Furqan on Jul 21, 2012
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11/20/2012

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ByMicah Mattixon 2.27.12 @ 6:07AMA mismatch made in democracy heaven.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 booksfrom consideration for the T.S. Eliot Prize because the £15,000 award was beingunderwritten by Aurum Fund Management. Oswald suggested that it is unethical for aliterary 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 theOccupy Wall Street protests, contemporary poets seem generally predisposed againstcapitalism. 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 -- havespoken out against capitalism because of their fear that capitalism causes culturalhomogeneity and political and economic turmoil. Nealon's understanding of changes in theAmerican economy in the second half of the 20th century is overly ideological, but he isright 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, andthe best among them subtly critique the consumerism and excess that one finds in allaffluent 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 aspectof work. This critique of capitalism -- or the excesses of industrialization -- is worthhearing, whether or not one agrees that capitalism itself is to blame. It is constructive, freeof shrill, and generous.But there are two further responses to capitalism in contemporary poetry that are lessconstructive 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 andworks of art.One of those responses has been for poets to create poems that rail against hierarchy andmorality in an effort to free their audience from the shackles of the great capitalisticmachine. The form of these poems is usually highly experimental, using repetition andfragmentation, along with taboo subject matter, to supposedly create a poem that bothresists 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, Ginsberglaments the destruction of the "best minds of our generation" by "Moloch." In his ownannotation in the poem, Ginsberg defines Moloch as "the Cannaanite fire god, whoseworship 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 theoppression all around them. He explained to William F. Buckley in a 1968 interview whenhe 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 actuallyspeak to each other off the air. There's a communication that's involved, and there aclassical 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 haveunfortunately supplied more than enough. Much of Amiri Baraka's later work is one longtirade against Jews, and June Jordan and Haunani-Kay Trask's work is little more than arant against whatever (and whomever) they think are the tools of a fictional, butnevertheless oppressive, God. These condescendingly mock or berate the middle-classrather than free them. And since few people willingly expose themselves to derision, it isno surprise that these volumes are met with general disinterest, which, for certain poets, isonly 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 his1951 article "Advance-Guard Writing." The problem for the avant-garde writer, Goodmanstates, is that he has internalized societal conflict and re-presented it in his work, which isrejected by his audience and sanctioned. The communal aspect of art has been broken, andwhat Goodman proposes is that poets stop writing for a general audience and reestablish a"plausible" audience of peers.

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