Poetry & Money: A Speculation by the award-winning poet Peter Robinson is a study of the relationships between poets, poetry, and money from Chaucer to contemporary times. Through its close readings of poems over many centuries directly or indirectly engaged with money, the book demonstrates the extent to which money and its metaphors permeate areas of cultural value and valuation. In this blog post, Robinson considers the beginnings of his study, and offers justification for how ‘poets have been more interested in money than you might think’.
Recently on a constitutional stroll around my father’s last parish of St Michael, Garston, Liverpool, I passed the old vicarage by the railway lines at the corner of Horrocks Avenue. It had evidently been sold. Where our short asphalt drive once let directly from door to pavement, now a high, spiked, sliding gate with an intercom had been installed, and around the top of the garden wall were coils of razor-wire. ‘Beirut,’ my friend exclaimed, as I looked across the dual carriageway to the row of semis on the opposite side. Open to the street, the house had been frequently visited by people begging in the late 1960s and early 1970s. ‘There’d be a poem here,’ I came back, ‘if I could only get in and find it.’ For it was in this house that I had passed my teenage years, and there the range of socio-economic tensions that have shaped me were defined and confirmed.
Poets have been more interested in money than you might think. But then again, why might we suppose that they wouldn’t be? There are perhaps two main and related reasons. The first is that poets are assumed to be unworldly and impractical creatures, who have to be left to their dreaming, and they shouldn’t be entrusted with anything so important as money. The other is that when not caricaturing and denigrating poets in this fashion, we haplessly idealise them, expecting that—like members of the clergy—they will provide us with values and viewpoints free of, above and beyond, the entailments of getting and spending, and they can thus relieve us of the burdens and obligations that living in an economic system necessarily require. There are always, it would seem, numbers of unworldly poets helping to keep up the stereotype, but plenty of others that have held down jobs, and raised families, and for all the Shelleyan idealists there is likely to be a Byron to befriend them.
One of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Adagia’ asserts that ‘Money is a kind of poetry’ and the early chapters of Poetry & Money, as its subtitle has it, speculate on what this aphorism might mean and imply. My book is premised, then, upon the idea that poetry and money are not the incompatible alternatives that the stereotyped denigrations and idealisations sketched above might suppose. It accepts—as however could it not—that we all have to live in the economic conditions that blow in like the weather, a simile which suggests that the climate is still a mysterious series of variations beyond our influence or control. The book begins with an illustrative episode in which the calculation of a value in strictly economic terms serves to prevent that very value from being realised in a situation of human exchange. It proposes that monetary values can only themselves have value if they are maintained in beneficial relations with values other than monetary ones, and it takes poetry as an exemplary instance of a cultural activity that cannot exist without the money necessary to enable its seemingly marginal place in individual exchanges between people, but which has been unusually resistant to monetisation in a consumer society such as the one in which we live.
Poetry & Money is thus concerned centrally with the role of poetry in life and with evaluation as something that we do all the time, and, most importantly, not only in monetary terms. It concludes with an illustration for this taken from my own working life. Creative writing workshops, however much they require funding to take place, only work (when they work) because they foster values in human interaction on which you cannot put a price. They do this by exchanges of individual spirit that have to be given freely—exemplified by the work one of the group offers for comment—and by the freely given responses of others in the group, whose aim must be to improve it by offering constructive criticism, which, if accepted, and acted upon creatively, may produce virtuous circles of mutual enhancement where everyone’s spirit is not merely paid back in kind, but reinforced and enhanced by collaboration. This process also underlines how value is produced by people working together, and that, as an intermediary, money has down the centuries enabled such exchanges, but it has also impeded or disabled them.
Being an artform that in its minimal form of words remembered or written down requires nearly no money to be practised, poetry is unusually placed to act independently of money’s enabling and disabling tendencies. In one way or another, poems from ‘Chaucer’s Complaint to his Purse’ to ‘Kitchenette Building’ by Gwendolyn Brooks, or ones called ‘Money’ by both Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin, focus such occasions and attempt, in their different ways, to do something about them. It is my hope in turn, then, that this book may contribute its grain of sand to the rebalancing of our idea of economy. Lennon and McCartney were doubtless right to write that ‘money can’t buy me love’, but one key speculation implicit throughout Poetry & Money might be, rather, that it is love which gives value to the spending of money.
For more information on Poetry & Money, visit our website.