Statement of Record

Is Poetry a Job, Is a Poem a Product

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Is Poetry a Job, Is a Poem a Product

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By Murat Nemet-Nejat

In plain English, the question of class has to do with money. Who gets paid what for what labor. In that respect, the poet belongs to the bottom of the economic totem pole. Each poet can do his or her tallying. Do you believe that you get a penny an hour for the numbers of hours you spend producing your poems?

In classical Marxism, income (and its consequent power and wealth) is connected to the ownership of the means of production, capital. But most poets own their means of production: a pen, a typewriter, a computer. Here is the excruciating class contradiction of the modern poet: supreme controller of a product which, economically speaking, nobody wants, absolute power fused with a state of absolute worthlessness, weakness.

Can this negative value be turned and exploited as an asset, a source of strength—or should the poet compensate for it by continuously searching for ways for poems to make money? The first alternative, embracing the painful lack of money as zero, tabula rasa space, will lead us to new vistas about the poetic act and identity.

Money is the economic equivalent of language, a social contract—also a sort of voting. Implicit in its payment is the idea that the taker produces something the public wants, which reflects its demand. This representational image of money (corresponding to the representational function of words in daily usage) is a cultural dynamo. As a culture, one can analyze the presence of class in a poem, apart from the poet’s class origin, in terms of who pays for it. No one. One must then analyze the class status of the poet as a phantom wage earner.

If a poet is a phantom wage earner, a poem is a phantom product, this quality of phantomness altering its place in the productive cycle. The poem ceases to be the end product, but becomes the process. And the poet becomes a consumer, consuming time in the writing of the poem. Culture is this process, a bizarro version of the cycle of production.

The poem is its writing—the poet writes to feel good, to experience the sense of discovery and power by converting a mental sound into physical sound. The moment that occurs, the poem dies for the poet—as a climax dies—and one moves on to the next one. What happens to the poem afterwards is, essentially, meaningless.

In short, embracing the gash money’s absence digs in every poem leads to a re-definition entailing a series of value reversals. Creation becomes consumption, not production. Money—the medium of accumulation—is the pervasive unindicted villain. With a touch of thrill, meaninglessness, functionlessness, interiority become ideal values. 

This absence of payment gives the poem back to the poet, the client. 

The poet is an addictive consumer. Poetry is not leisure. A worker rests to become a better worker. With no limits, the poet keeps stealing time, undermining work to write his or her poems. Poem as process is profoundly disruptive to labor. American poetry reflects that reality. 

Failure—or its vertiginous potential—is an aura in the American poem. The way the nouveau riche flaunt their wealth, the poem’s addiction strives towards failure by creating gaps between the public—that is, communicative—usage of words and itself. The American poet has a unique relation to language in the culture. He or she fetishizes language as object in excess of its use as a means of exchange, beyond what the culture wants of it; he or she sexualizes it into uselessness (the way a fur glove loses its usefulness to keep warm). This economically—capitalistically—perverse relation gives the poem its consumptive aura.    

A poet’s addiction is to words. This is in fact the poet’s class definition. As a misfit form, the poem process embodies, constantly acts out this class status in itself, indirectly also becoming an abstract mold for other spiritual states of disaffection. The obsessive theme of every American poet worth his or her salt, it seems to me, is converting dispossession, nothingness, vulnerability into power by asserting, weaving out an idiosyncratic, non-productive tongue, which destroys and recreates the associations around words through the solitary freedom of the poet.

Like fellow addicts, i.e. of cocaine or sex, the poet believes words have the magical power to change the world, that language—gaining failure, stripped of function—can be pitted against money. 

As closet addict Emily Dickinson says, “I play at Riches—to appease/ The Clamoring for Gold—the baroque convolutions of the rest of #80—driven by an opaque inner necessity—attempt to pit a phantom gold standard into language as play, consumption. Simple words, “Sin,” “Thing,” “Exploring Hands,” become blank spaces sucking in the reader’s disoriented associations. This poem, as in various guises more than one third of the rest of her work, this conversion is a class act.

For, to whom does the poet write? If not for money, doesn’t he or she still write for friends, for future, for eternity, etc.? The poet writes for the bedrock part of the self, the spirit, the core which escapes the productive cycle. American poems, to me, are landscapes of the spirit. Each poem process invents the ideal audience to which the rearranged language is transparent, blindingly clear. The moment this vision of clarity, equaling power, is experienced by the poet, the poem as process ends. Then the poem becomes a product, and the language on poetry as product—movements, the ins and the outs, etc.—radically belies it as process. 

Every poet hopes that the mental and public audiences will join. But, as Hume said of the rise of the sun the next day, there is no logical necessity for it—in fact, any overlap between the functionless and the public is a damn miracle. An illogical, happy coincidence. 

Not believing in the future—inviting the spirit to enter the space vacated by money—is what gives the poetic process totally back to the poet. Makes the poet his or her own boss.

A few years ago, I conducted a poetry workshop. The participants essentially had to follow two rules. They were not permitted to write any poems and had to keep a daily journal in which they could only write what interested them. No sentence could be there for brilliance or beauty. 

The perverseness of this method makes better sense to me now in light of this essay. The poet must discover the nature of his or her necessities, yoke them to language. If his or her relation to language is addictive, the rest will take care of itself. Craft only teaches one to write the poem already written. The poet must learn to unlearn (as Heidegger said, the shape of the spirit is circular), reinvent the wheel writing each poem, that is to say, get hooked to an activity which is the epitome of non-productive labor. 

October 2020.

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With minor changes, this essay is the text of a talk I gave at The Poetry Project in New York City in 2000 during a symposium on “Poetry and Class.” The Soviet Union had recently collapsed and global capitalism was in its infancy (a species getting ready to take total control of the habitat after the removal of its main antagonist). American poets were already struggling with the sting of “uselessness.” Twenty years later, to different degrees, poets in the rest of the world have become familiar with this malady. In that respect, the essay is prescient and relevant. It offers a vision of an alternative—a convex mirror where the cycle of production is reflected as its opposite, a space of roving spirit and criticism.  

About the author

Essayist, translator of Turkish poetry, and editor of Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry (Talisman), Murat Nemet-Nejat’s recent collections include Animals of Dawn (Talisman) and Io’s Song (Chax Press). He is currently working on the new poems Camels & Weasels, as well as translations for a collection of Sami Baydar’s poetry.

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