Thursday, September 17, 2009

Why Poets Do Well In Any Economy

Poets do well in any economy because no economy has ever been especially good for poets. "The economy is bad?" poets ask. "Well, I'll be darned."

Pick any allegedly extra-active poetic period--the Beat period in the U.S., for example. The economy was riding high after World War II, the Beats were changing poetry, and President Eisenhower was on the golf course. Good times, except for the examples cited in Ginsberg's Howl. Okay, so there were a lot of examples.

By the way, this was back when Republicans behaved as adults; can you imagine the general in charge of D-Day wasting energy and being rude by yelling at someone, a la Rep. Joe Wilson, who is a guest in his professional house? Republicans need to ask themselves, "What would Eisenhower do?" Answer: Pass pragmatic, effective health-care reform, stop going to the well of hate-speech, and not behave like a "jackass," President Obama's term for Kanye West's behavior at one of those awards shows so central to the betterment of humanity. West should have asked what No-Drama Obama would have done (not been at the awards show in the first place).

But back to those Beats. Did they do anything to harm the good economy? No. Did they help? Of course! They filled coffee houses and bars, and they started at least one venerable small business, City Lights Books. When the economy turned sour soon thereafter, you didn't hear poets complaining, partly because they were complaining about other things, such as racism.

At any rate, here is a list of reasons why poets do well in any economy:

1. Poets are used to not getting paid much, if anything, for their poetry. In an odd way, then, they are recession-proof, and they've always had to have a day-job, or a night-job, or two jobs.

2. Poets, unlike many novelists and all pundits, are frugal with words. Poets Know Frugal.

3. Poets tend to be generous with money. If you meet one at a cafe or a bar and buy a copy of his/her chapbook or ask him/her to sign a copy, the poet will be so ecstatic that he or she will buy you several rounds of libations.

4. Poets can smell rotten metaphors right away. So when Reagan's team used "trickle-down economics," all poets knew right away that this wasn't good, especially for those being trickled upon. "The Patriot Act." Poets know the Patriot Act was mis-named and has created not a single patriot. Poets can tip you off to mischievous political speech, regardless of party-affiliation.

5. Almost all poets know enough about what they don't know to stay away from economics, and in a bad economy, the last thing we need is more economists, and in a good economy, we don't need any economists to tell us it's good.

An exception to this rule is Ezra Pound, who, like Ron Paul, got obsessed with the gold-standard and got immersed in especially awful anti-Semitism. He also made radio broadcasts on behalf of Mussolini because he thought fascism had good economic solutions. Because the U.S. was at war with Italy, Pound got arrested and eventually ended up in a mental hospital in Baltimore. After a while, he was allowed to leave and to live out his days in Italy.

A lesson is: Italy is great, but stay away from economics, poets! It is a dismal "science", not a legendary art.

6. Poets often read and write so carefully that they pay attention to syllables, not just words. Note E-CON-o-my. Bernie Madoff and bankers who operated as loan-sharks put the CON in economy, and the regulators did nothing more than say "O, my." Result: Disaster. Poets saw this coming. It was a syllable-thing.

7. You can trust poets at least to do no harm to the economy. True, Wallace Stevens worked in insurance, and James Dickey worked in New York advertising, but neither absconded with funds, ran Ponzi schemes, or cheated shareholders (as far as I know). James Merrill, of the Merrill in Merrill Lynch (by relation), did not get involved in the business and spent a lot of time writing long poems.

8. Poets are highly employable because they're usually socially flexible. Not in every case, but in most cases. There may be times, however, when a manager will notice that a poet is writing a poem on the job (in both senses of that phrase).

9. As Percy Shelley noted, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Most people focus on the "legislators" part of that quotation. Poets focus on the "unacknowledged" part. Unacknowledged is good. I wish Re. Joe Wilson and Senators Baucus and Grassley would go unacknowledged for a while.

10. Almost all poets have consumed their share of coffee, tea, and/or wine--the kind of basic stuff upon which economies have relied for thousands of years. We do our part.
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