What is capitalism? Don’t ask the poets

Poetry is one of my favorite magazines and not just because it gives me the opportunity to demonstrate how very sensitive, cosmopolitan and fascinating I am.

The March issue reveals why the publication exists in its present form. It turns out that the Poetry Foundation was generously funded by Ruth Lilly.

Recently, to my surprise, Christian Wiman, Poetry’s editor turned on Ms. Lilly and her gift. He says,

I felt shocked and thankful that, because of the will of one woman, the great roaring engine of American capitalism had been made to serve the interests of learning, healing and art.

Oh, brother. The artist insists on making a dichotomy where in fact there is a lot of continuity. In this long-standing cultural construction, culture and commerce are made mutually exclusive categories, one ranked high, the other put low.

Between them goes a death valley, through which only the most intrepid undergraduate is prepared to pass. In our culture, thanks to the tyranny of this idea, the undergraduate is obliged to choose: lofty or vulgar, true to our best aspirations, or false and falsifying.

In fact, capitalism is a learning exercise. And I don’t just mean a brute experiment, Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.”  Capitalism creates rich, various and changeable problem set in which nothing is ever still. Learning here takes an order of intelligence and accomplishment that would humble the most gifted poet.

Capitalism is a healing system. Religion, folklore, politics, and even art has made themselves faithful students of orthodoxy, failed imagination, emotional and existential stasis.  Capitalism does doesn’t do orthodoxy.  Not for long anyhow.  It is constantly searching, in Levi-Strauss’ language, “for that other message” and it is prepared to reform thought entirely to get at the code from which the message springs. (That learning thing again.)

Capitalism does healing in another way.  Now to evoke Fernand Braudel, surely it can’t have been merely by coincidence that the societies that let people out of the captivities created by geography, race, age, ethnicity, outlook, religion, subculture and lifestyle are also vibrant marketplaces. 

Finally, capitalism is art, a transformational exercise that turns meaning into value and value back into meaning. Ovid would have been impressed. So were the Elizabethans who read him so avidly.

Take the case of John Wheeler, the author of A Treatise of Commerce published in 1601. In the opening pages, Wheeler observes how much of his world is now part of the marketplace.

For there is nothing in the world so ordinary and natural unto men, as to contract, truck, merchandise, and traffic one with another, so that it is almost unpossible for three persons to converse together two hours, but they will fall into talk of one bargain or another, chopping [i.e., bartering], changing [i.e., exchanging], or some other kind of contract.

Wheeler concludes with an Ovidian observation, “all things,” he says, “come into commerce and pass into traffic.”  Consider the number of conversions a bolt of cloth must undergo to pass into traffic, take on significance (fustian!), find a seller, find a buyer, adorn the wearer, define a household, fashion a self, appoint a community, with the value so created winging its way back into “some other kind of contract.”  I dare say no contemporary poet has tried.  

The thing I like about poets is how sighted they are, seeing things invisible to the rest of us. And I like how nimble they are, running the riggings of our culture pretty much at will. Except here. Where Wheeler sees things changing shape, Wiman is “shocked,” “thankful,” and the captive of orthodoxy.


Braudel, Fernand. 1973. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800. New York: Harper and Row, pp. 235-236.

Carey, John. 2002. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Academy Chicago Publishers.

Wheeler, John. 2004 (1601). A Treatise of Commerce. Clark, New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd.

6 thoughts on “What is capitalism? Don’t ask the poets

  1. Gaspard

    The antagonism to capitalism (in university and grant-funded artistic spheres) and
    suburbia in commercial art forms like film and rock music (which you’ve noted before)
    isn’t totally one-sided, or based on a misunderstanding.

    It is an interesting phenomenon how the ‘diderot unities’ of the businessman, suburbanite
    and artist remain separated by this chasm, some Bobo-ism notwithstanding. Why Russian
    oligarchs put all their money into football clubs or Damien Hirst and not physical theatre.

    What is interesting in that Poetry piece is that he sort of tries to give an answer
    (depression) to the question of why did one billionaire do something like give money
    to a non-flashy cause when the rest of them are content to spend it on helicopters?
    The existence of many commercially and artistically viable cultures doesn’t exclude us
    asking why there aren’t even more. Why are there in fact so few Diderot unities of cultural

    1. Grant Post author

      Gaspard, excellent questions, wish I had an answer, as to the “two solitudes” issue, I think there is a difference. Poets claim all culture as their domain. This makes their provincialism more objectionable than that of the business person, who does not.

  2. srp

    As a factual matter, wealthy Americans give a LOT of money to charitable causes. In my opinion, this is easily comprehended as a form of consumption. Promoting one’s values, associating with those one admires, and seeking social status are all what economists call “normal goods,” meaning that the amount consumed rises with income. Helicopters are not common purchases among the wealthy, except for a small number of adventurous souls who learn to pilot them. Contributions to the arts are almost a cliche form of rich-person consumption, providing an obvious set of benefits including social status, access to other socially prominent people, promotion of “the finer things,” a fair amount of deference from talented and creative people, and possibly improved romantic opportunities.

    The broader Romantic stance of art vs. business has been debunked so thoroughly so often (by Grant among many others) that its persistence is a more interesting subject than its merits. I wonder what Wallace Stevens could have written on the subject.

    1. Grant Post author

      “its persistence is a more interesting subject than its merits” really, I wish you were writing this blog. And yes wouldn’t it be interesting to know what Wallace Stevens would have said. I sometimes think he was a kind of “secret agent,” poet under deep cover. But this might be wrong. I believe he worked for an insurance firm. What can they have thought of him. Maybe that’s me assuming they would found anything odd about having a poet in place. Thanks, Grant

  3. Richard K

    Ask the pompous poet what economic system funds the production and distribution channels that makes poets and poetry possible. Food to feed the poets, housing to house the poets, garments to clothe the poets, medicines that heal the poets, electricity that powers the computer used by the poets, the computers used by the poets, software that makes this website possible, the entire Internet that the poets use as a platform to complain about capitalism, and on and on and on. Not a single items in this almost infinite list was possible without capitalism. Poets are not stupid; why can’t they realize this?

  4. bob

    Sociopaths (non-violent, intelligent) naturally percolate to the top in todays capitalism. We are living in a modern instantiation of feudal society. A few wannabe among us are elevated to serve the masters; they become the management, the public apologists for the system. The rest of us merely toil in today’s version of the fields. And, as Monty Python has observed, we’re all covered in shit.

    Capitalism no longer rewards the innovators. Those who better society for all time (scientists) are left penniless as their leech-like employers require assignment of patent rights. Even when the world does fuundamentally change, such as through electronic distribution of entertainment media, the RIAA and MPAA call in the King’s guard to help them continue to collect their payments. Those in power have jury rigged capitalism to keep them in power. Excepting statistically insignificant outlayers, those of us in the fields need not apply. We’re screwed.

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