Liz’s Weekend Poetry Series: Capitalism, Poetry, and War

by lizard

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:

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.

  1. Turner

    In a 1940 discussion between Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost, the following exchange supposedly happened:

    “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about subjects.”

    “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac.”

    A more recent exchange might be between poets who write about politics (subjects) and poets who write about their feelings (bric-a-brac).

    Or maybe it’s the difference between public and private voices.

    • If Frost actually said that to Stevens then I must suggest that Frost was a worse poet than I often suggest he was.

      And I would suggest this, rather, would have been Steven’s response to such a silly notion by Frost.

  2. Ingemar Johansson

    Forget the author.

    File in the “War” category.

    Under the wide and starry sky,
    Dig the grave and let me lie;
    Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.

    This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
    Here he lies where he longed to be;
    Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

  3. Ingemar Johansson

    What the heck.

    I was sent from planet Xiron to conquer the earth
    I had a terrific plan — I thought it would work
    Tried to get the Earthlings all to kill each other you see
    But it all went wrong and now I must decree…
    You are worthless Alec Baldwin, you are worthless Alec Baldwin
    You failed in every way and now my stock in you has fallen
    Your career is stallin’ and you’re worthless Alec Baldwin
    That’s why I blew your head off and your children are all bawlin’

    Planet Xiron is inhabited with Xipods like me
    But also with Balmacs who are giant bees
    The Xipods and Balmacs are at constant war
    So we wanted a new home and that’s what Earth was for

    But you are worthless Alec Baldwin, you are worthless Alec Baldwin
    You fucked up my whole plan and now Xiron is smeared with Balmac pollen
    Your garbage needs some haulin’ and you’re worthless Alec Baldwin
    Now I must return home a failure — I’m afraid the pit of Kryrok is callin’…

    • lizard19

      thank you, Ingy, that was delightful. five stars. here is my humble retort:


      the numbered days of Glenn Beck’s show
      makes me kind of sad
      the froth was fun, and chalkboards, neat
      and his rabbit hole was rad

      his rabbit hole, the FEMA camps
      the Kenyan socialist caliphate cramps
      with a fondness for his own set of facts—

      and circled names, connect the dots
      O please stop, Murdoch, you clever fox
      and keep him on the screen
      Glenn Beck is useful evidence

      that the right have gone insane

  4. JC


    Bad Indians

  5. Jesse Homs

    Darn it anyway. I tried to use my special powers to ban Budge, and it didn’t work.

  1. 1 An April Feast Of Poetry « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Capitalism, Poetry, and War […]

  2. 2 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Anticipating April | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Capitalism, Poetry, and War […]

  3. 3 152 Poetry Posts to Celebrate April, National Poetry Month | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Capitalism, Poetry, and War […]

  4. 4 It is Difficult to Get the News from Poems | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] the “popular press”? Indeed. I wrote about this book when I first got it 4 years ago, here. In that comment thread, and a few others, there were actual back and forth conversations in verse. […]

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