Politics, Economy, and Poetry

The recent political climate in the US has gotten me thinking about the relations between politics, economy, and poetry. With a handful of notable exceptions, it seems that most American poets have mostly avoided engaging with public issues even glancingly in their verse. I’m aware of a number of explanations for this, my favorite being the idea that technological, artistic, and market factors have unwittingly conspired to delegate to poetry the domain of private experience. I don’t think this isolation of personal language has necessarily diminished the beauty or profundity of American poetry, but I do suspect it has contributed to an impoverishment of American public life.

Consider the following “equation”: money is trust, and trust is word. It’s easy to forget even such simple and true correlations as this in the midst of the daily bewilderments of modern life. But we have to remember that a dollar is nothing more than a promissory note, nigh useless in any material way, beyond useless when converted to an electronic figure. The value of a dollar lies strictly in its unspoken language, which, I suppose, is worth speaking once in awhile. A dollar literally says something like this: “I don’t have an egg on me right now, because carrying eggs around is precarious business, but if you want an egg later, you can stop by my house and give me this note, and I’ll give you an egg then. In fact, my neighbors have agreed to give you an egg for it, too, in case I’m not around when you stop by.” The value of the note is entirely based on how much you trust me, on how much you believe I’ll live up to my word. (You probably see where I’m going with this now.) If I have established a reputation of not taking language seriously, of not accurately describing what I’ve done, or not doing what I’ve said I’m going to do, no one will trust me, and my promissory notes will have no value among those in the know, which, given the nature of human language, will eventually be everybody.

This is happening in America, and one of the major contributing factors is that Americans simply aren’t taking words seriously. They’re not taking them personally. They’re expecting double-speak and deceit, because “words are just words,” and, consequently, poetry is just poetry. But that’s not the way it works. Words are either trust or they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. On the most fundamental level, our economy is based on how we each individually feel about one another. It’s based on poetry.

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