Liz’s Weekend Poetry Series: Capitalism, Poetry, and War
I received two books this week that have me daydreaming about going back to UM for an MFA. THE MATTER OF CAPITAL: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century, by Christopher Nealon, and PARTISANS AND POETS: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War, by Mark W. Van Wienen.
The latter work has already hooked me, setting the context of how poetry functioned as a critical part of the public discourse in the build up to America’s entry into Europe’s war (unlike today, where poetry is rarely given mainstream space or attention in response to our perpetual state of war). Here’s a snip from the introduction:
To grasp the significance of these poetries whose artifacts are so abundant, varied, and forgotten, we need to imagine a very different poetry-producing and poetry-reading culture than the one we are accustomed to in the late twentieth century. To begin with, many of these poems were written by amateur poets—people who may have read, written, and published poetry regularly but who did not or could not take poetry to be their occupation.
Poetry was read by many people, in many venues, for many different purposes: not only published in books and literary periodicals, but printed in “ladies'” magazines and daily newspapers; not only read in private, but recited in pubic spaces and sung en masse by large groups; not only for the sake of contemplation, but for protest, political persuasion, and mobilization; certainly not for the “poem itself,” but for worldly purposes lying beyond the poem.”
With this context in mind, Van Wienen examines the rich variety of verse that was consciously employed by both sides of the debate over intervention.
What has already jumped out reading the introduction is the author’s assertion that pacifism and opposing intervention was a much more popular sentiment than is often depicted:
While in the first two years of the war many states instituted educational programs emphasizing patriotism and readying boys for military service, other school districts stressed internationalism, pacifism, and something bordering on socialism. In May 1915, President Wilson proclaimed “A Mother’s Day Dedicated to Peace,” merging the Mother’s Day holiday with another celebration, a May “Peace Day” commemorated annually in many American schools since 1905, the opening year of the Hague conference on international peace. From the beginning of the war up to the U.S. intervention, the president of the New York City Board of Education endorsed a pacifist stanza written by Katherine Devereux Blake for use in the public schools. Blake’s stanza, set to the tune of the “Star Spangled Banner,” shows how the definition of “Americanism” was up for grabs before the U.S. intervention:
O say can you see, you who glory in war All the wounded and dead of the red battle's reaping? Can you listen unmoved to their agonized groans, Hear the children who starve, and the pale widows weeping? Henceforth let us swear Bombs shall not burst in air, Nor war's desolation wreck all that is fair, But the star spangled banner by workers unfurled Shall give hope to the nations and peace to the world.
The first book I mentioned, The Matter Of Capital, looks to be a rather chunky theoretical examination of specific poets. It’s broken down into only 4 chapters:
1. A Method and a Tone: Pound, Auden, and the Legacy of the Interwar Years
2. John Ashbery’s Optional Apocalypse
3. “Language” in Spicer and After
4. Bubble and Crash: Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism
I can’t wait to wade into this one when I get some summer reading time, especially the chapter on Jack Spicer, who is one of my most favorite poets. But, again, just reading the introduction produced this little gem:
This book is not about the resistance to the idea of writing about capitalism. But a glance at some contemporary poetry that takes up that resistance can serve as a handy measure of why, for so long, it has been difficult to name exactly the extent to which many poets have written about it. Here is a 2005 poem by the poet Katy Lederer, who gained extrapoetic notice during the financial crisis of 2008-2009 as the “Hedge Fund Poet,” because she worked at D.E. Shaw, a private equity firm in New York:
A NIETZSCHEAN REVIVAL I thought I was almost lost. Or overwrought. Or rotten. As I stroked with quivering fingers this harp, the tongue-perturbed minions running amok, their scaffolded ears waiting isolately for the word that would deign to leave heaven. In the morning, when I manufacture lyrics on these listless keys, when the money and its happy apparatus do call and lure, do call and lure. These poets speak of capital as if they have some faint idea. Capital: a sexy word they read in Marx their freshman year. I ask you: what do these poets know of capital? Across its strings, their fingers play a Nietzschean revival. I envy them their will to power.
That’s right, a hedge-fund poet. Nealon’s response:
Capitalism, in this poem, is work for experts; poets, whether or not they or their families have lost their mortgages, of their retirement, cannot “know of” it, because they don’t work at investment banks. And for a poet to write about capitalism is hubris, or worse, a “will to power” that drowns out the vulnerable harpist, the real poet—notice that her poems are “lyric” poems—who also, by chance, happens to work right at the heart of things, where capital actually resides. All the ugliness is on the side of the critical poets; the movements of money are just a “happy apparatus.” The poem could not be more efficient in performing the punishing, all-too-familiar reversal by which critics of capital, not its agents, are imagined as the bringers of violence to the world.