Money and Poetry

Money and Poetry

In an earlier post (1) I drew some parallels between money and the value of literary effort, suggesting they both rested on shared assumptions of what’s important to us. Reading Glyn Davies’ A History of Money recently, I came across this remark: (2)

There are few things more impressive than the haughty analytical certainty with which fundamental theories of money are for a time universally held, only to be discarded in favour of a diametrically opposite but equally firmly and widely held new orthodoxy which in turn lasts until the whole process reverses itself suddenly a generation or so later. . . Born of the crisis, new monetary practices come quickly into being, accompanied at a rather more leisurely pace by the appropriate theories which rule until the next crisis or series of crises cause a reverse swing in the whole process. Going off gold, discarding the folklore of bank rate, changing from dear money to cheap money, from free trade to protection, and from perfect competition towards monopoly marked the beginning of the revolution and more general change from classical to Keynesian economics in the 1930s.

I should explain that the matter referred to is not some theoretical quibble belonging to a footnote in the history of economic ideas. Britain had put herself on the gold standard (or one approximating to the gold standard) after the First World War, not simply for reasons of prestige but because bankers believed that money must rest on something finite and tangible. The result was deflation, massive unemployment and strikes. The Macmillan Report of June 1931, compiled by the leading banking luminaries of day, argued that the gold standard should nonetheless stay in place, whatever the social cost. Yet Britain a few months later was forced off the gold standard, and in June 1932 threw the bank rate into the dustbin for twenty years. In fact, the reversal came only just in time, because the period of ‘cheap’ money that followed allowed Britain to equip her armed forces and meet the Nazi challenge. Had there been no change from orthodoxy, the map of Europe might today look very different.

Now the pendulum has swung back. America continues to print cheap money in unsustainable quantities, but Britain and the EEC countries have ‘sound money’ again: austerity, unemployment and mounting social unrest in Greece, Spain and elsewhere. What money represents, or should represent, which is the fair reward for individuals who have some accredited place in society, goes largely overlooked in contemporary solutions: i.e. the crux is shortcomings in the social fabric of western society, and not banking or money as such.

So what is illustrated, I think, is the doubtful status of theory that represents only the special pleading of certain classes: in the 1930s case it was the banking community over the needs of the great mass of citizens. In poetry the analogy may be Modernist and ‘serious poetry’ versus the traditional and amateur variety. Both positions create problems if too firmly entrenched. Unlimited quantitative easing will destroy the dollar as the world’s preferred currency. Austerity has never worked: in all cases studied it has simply made matters worse. (3) Unfortunately, economics, which might arbitrate between the two positions, has become excessively theoretical, divorcing itself from political and social issues – become a science its supporters believe, or a self-referencing illusion critics contend. (4) But a world that spends ten times more on war than aid, or rewards the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs with the lowest salaries is scarcely sane, and some common sense must apply also to poetry. Serious poetry has become institutionalized, financially supported, but not popular. (5)

With that in mind, I need to add something to that earlier post, where I said: (1)
Poems are a touchstone of how a society sees itself and so a form of currency: they are convertible, via various rules of reading, to experiences that are held to be significant, valuable or even life-enhancing.

How far should the analogy be taken? Poets sang for their supper in medieval Islamic courts, and landlords have been known to take paintings in lieu of rent from impoverished artists – sometimes very good paintings – but art is not a liquid investment generally. Nor do poems disappear when their issued loan of faith and goodwill is cancelled, or not obviously so.

But perhaps something analogous does happen when the poem is no longer read or prized. That draft on the ‘assumption that the poem really does represent what the poet is prepared to accept as his or her personal statement’ is written off. We don’t find the vision or its expression so exciting, but only an expression of some past concern, interesting to literary historians perhaps, but no longer compellingly relevant. Just as a loan paid back no longer gives us money to spend, so a style no longer relevant is an obsolete currency we cannot usefully employ any more. The Elizabethan love sonnet is rooted in Renaissance court life, when poets had long hours to woo imaginary ladies: it rarely expressed the underlying and dangerous political realities, or applied to the hard lives of most outside such conspicuous displays of wealth. The carefree shepherd’s life was seen through the lens of Arcadia, and not via a notebook-in-hand tramp through the rain-soaked Cotswold Hills.

But that does not, by itself, make the sonnet an invalid form. The working class lives of Rome were celebrated with pungent if not sordid accuracy in the sonnets of G.G. Belli (1791-1863) – to quote a celebrated example – and, if Alexander Pope’s ambience is glittering London, the rhyming couplets of George Crabbe portrayed the penury of contemporary rural life: ‘nature’s sternest painter, still the best’ as Byron put it. What it does rule out, however, is using the tokens of Elizabethan sonnets (or Pope’s couplets) in any straightforward, unexamined relationship to the present day. The coy maiden was an artifice, perfectly acceptable in the rituals of court life, but not persuasive to ‘that woman in Accounts’, who does not have the classical languages at her command, nor perhaps any wish to emulate their heroines. The successful poem here (if literature still has such powers) would have to be couched in terms that made sense to her, and to her conception of poetry – probably in fact to her sense of self-worth and to what was seen as appropriate behaviour in the circumstances.

Contemporary poems must therefore be rooted, it seems to me, in some aspects of contemporary life, drawing on words that still have forceful currency: attribution, associations, social usage in the media and everyday life. No doubt diction will rarely be wholly contemporary because poetry is partly backward-looking, as concerned with past literary usage as the shining up-to-date. That ‘backing’ or collateral for word usage comes from an informed appreciation of poetry as it was in all its aspects¬† – why good poets are wide poetry readers – but also an intuitive awareness of emerging themes and needs.¬† Choosing the best form immediately plunges us into the warfare of contending schools of poetry, of course, but there does need to be an aesthetic shape of some sort if the work is to be poetry and not social comment, engrossing though that often is.

In short, poetry is a social phenomenon, or can be seen so, and the analyses we apply to other social phenomena will apply here too, perhaps allowing us to come down from the barricades for a while and see matters in their larger perspective.


1. In Praise of Literary Criticism. November 2013.
2. Davies, G. A History of Money: From Ancient Times to the Present Day. (Univ. of Wales Press, 1994) 380.
3. USA Forecasts.
4. Neoclassical Economics.
5. American Poetry and its Institutions. November 2013.
6. Alice Oswald’s ‘Memorial’ and the Reinvention of Translation by Mira Rosenthal . Kenyon Review.
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