Tag Archives: poetry

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.