- Getting and Spending
"Money is a kind of poetry." This is one of Wallace Stevens's zingers in "Adagia." Stevens dealt with money in his daily business at Hartford Indemnity, and I imagine he made quite a bit of it after all. But is it poetry?
Money and poetry are systems of symbols. A coin, a piece of change, a paper bill are all representations of wealth stored elsewhere. They stand in for gold or silver or, of course, other pieces of paper. Poetry's wealth of words is also figurative. "Tree" points to that leafy thing with bark and sap growing outside your window or in the park. The word represents the thing. Poetry and money both stand for something else.
But they are also, importantly, distinct—at least in my own system of values. Poetry resists commodification in significant ways, whereas money is about "getting and spending," as William Wordsworth complained more than two hundred years ago. I also realize it's naïve to think that poetry stands apart from commerce, value, and commodity. A few poets make big money giving readings and lectures, and many people earn comfortable, salaried livings with benefits, insurance plans, IRAs, and the like, working as editors, publishers, and teachers of poetry writing and reading. In fact, poetry can feel like a polite bourgeois activity in contemporary America.
This tension is the focus of "Getting and Spending," our latest mini-feature of poetry in the Kenyon Review. These five poets approach and engage the double subject from several angles—from the point of view of a blue-collar laborer to an investment banker; from 401(k) projections to the brutal sacrifices and self-erasures of a prizefighter or the powerful ironies of a twentieth-century Japanese haiku master.
As for myself, I am grateful for essential aspects of valuelessness in poetry, its resistance of the trade and commerce of capital and moneymaking. Lewis Hyde makes a sustained study of this point in The Gift, arguing that works of art operate—or ought to operate—in a [End Page 47] culture of gift-giving and exchange, not in a culture of commodification and the greedy hoarding of wealth and power.
Perhaps poetry's real function as currency is its aptitude for speaking of the current day, its being-in-the-current. We live in a country occupied, currently, by a force of warmongers and money-hoarders, a country inequitably divided into the haves and have-nots: the obscenely privileged, the "merely" privileged, and the large battered populace who serves as sacrifice to the appetites of wealth, ease, and malignant power.
What can poetry do in the midst of such heartbreak and harm? It can insist on and enrich its own long history of beauty, complexity, and artful articulation. It can resist the mean and brutal. It can be a form of generous gift-giving. And, as these eight poems show, it can name names and testify to our fullest experiences. In such a way as these poems show, we may know poetry, in Brandon Amico's words, by "what it pushes up against." [End Page 48]