Over at Stoning the Devil, Adam Fieled has put up two excellent posts in a row, both inspired by our tanking economy. Today’s is essentially a meditation on money, especially on the fact that poets can’t make a living from their work. In a Depression, which Fieled thinks is imminent or with us already, this not being paid becomes more than an academic issue. Will the Depression undermine the will of poets to do the work they cherish? I posted some thoughts on the questions in Adam’s comment stream, and I want to note a couple of them here, in a somewhat different form.
We all know that poetry has never paid the bills. Unlike novelists, who at least have examples here and there of writers who do make a living from their writing, poets have no such models. The fact is that our countrymen don’t pay for poetry because it’s utterly irrelevant to them—and that’s where the real angst comes from; we all make livings one way or another, but what we poets love is meaningless to most of our neighbors, friends, and family. As a result, lack of money represents for poets a larger lack—the more hurtful lack. When a poet as electrically inventive and prolific as Bill Knott can declare himself, in apparent seriousness, a “failed poet,” we know that real damage is being done by lack.
People deal with lack in different ways, whether the lack is monetary, political, emotional, or intellectual. Some find comfort in hanging out with fellow sufferers; others find a religion or philosophy that explains away or denies their lack; others blame their fellow suffers for their lack; and a few simply succumb in one way or another, usually by giving up the writing of poetry altogether, or at least giving up the publication game. No wonder that the lack poets feel has resulted in the proliferation of writing programs, the popularity of writers conferences and retreats, passionately debated poetic movements, and the often angry rhetoric of poetry blogs (mine included).
With all this in mind, Adam wonders if poets will fare worse than ever. “I think there’s a decent chance that not all of us who call ourselves poets will survive this Depression,” he writes. “Some will survive, but will lose their capacity to create. Some will sink into a torpor that may be irremediable. Some will be forced by circumstance to give up writing. Some will lose their edge.” All this, he seems to say, ultimate goes back to the fact that poets can’t make a living from their work.
He may be right, of course. But I have to believe that we can, in fact, keep writing into and through this Depression. The first step is to stop confusing our core lack with the lack of money. As the Depression deepens, Adam notes, it’s likely that our warrior nature will assert itself itself to deal with the lack of money. But he doubts, as I do, that our warrior nature can help with the other—the primary—lack that poets feel, for who would we fight to overcome that lack? Instead, we should take the second step, which is to consciously decide to suffer our lack and oppose it with all the wiles of art—and a sense humor. But the second step is impossible without the first. Just because Wallace Stevens said that “money is a kind of poetry” doesn’t mean he was right. (Stevens was gainfully employed as an insurance executive before, during, and after the Great Depression, which may account for his feelings about money.) Just because we live in a materialist culture doesn’t meant we have to judge ourselves by its standards. Once we decouple poetry and commerce, we can at least realize that no steely-eyed banker will ever foreclose on the joy of writing.