The culture of money - poetry?

By Henry Sutton

Whose advice do you really listen to before making that investment, whether it’s corporate or private? Ultimately of course it always comes down to your own. However in this information heavy, digital age it’s either impossible, or arguably unwise to completely ignore a certain amount of chatter (however informed or amateur).

In fact one of the great ironies of our times is that despite the fact everyone is having their say publicly, we’re not always the better off for it. Let’s not talk about being deliberately misled, but just whom the hell do we really trust – whether it comes to buying a bottle of wine or a chain of off-licences?

The chances are that not many people will have thought about poetry, and looking to the poets for great financial, indeed investment advice. Poetry and money do not make, on paper anyway, exactly comfortable bedfellows. There’s certainly no money in poetry – a very pale sub-genre of the literary world, which across the board is struggling with ever-dwindling sales and ever crippling margins. Who needs high culture, when we’ve got all the popular culture we could ask for, and more?

Besides poets are invariably bearded fellows operating in their own stuffy (let’s not dwell on that for too long) bubble, for their own peculiar enlightenment. No?

Well, yes and no. Weirdly, surprisingly, there are closer connections (not to mention wry entertainment) than one might ever have presumed. Look hard enough, I suppose, and you’ll always see what you want (just spend long enough trawling through TripAdvisor). But poetry and money do go together, indeed can be uttered under the same (beardy) breath, with umph and relish.

For sure, many, many novelists have brought the world of high finance and privilege alive. Think F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Wolfe, Don DeLillo, Sebastian Faulks. In many ways it’s what all great novels are about – money, either having it or not. But, and that conjugation does keep cropping up, where does poetry fit in? (Hurry up, you bearded hippy – I can hear the yells).

A contemporary American novelist with a fine hipster prose style, recently produced a very funny novel, about the sub-prime crash (from an American suburban stance) called – here we go – The Financial Lives of the Poets. The author Jess Walter (who doesn’t have a beard, but his hair is slightly on the long, scruffy side), depicted in visceral form, the suddenly pressing concerns of Matt Prior, a former business journalist who once had, what he thought was the brainwave of grabbing a slice of the dotcom sector with a site called . The idea of this platform was to impart business and investment news and advice partly in verse.

Of course it was completely bonkers, and instigated Matt’s downfall. Not to ruin the plot, Matt does fall upon another wheeze in the nick of time to secure the family home. However, Walter’s argument, or rather Matt’s argument for linking poetry with financial analysis, was not wholly stupid. He simply thought it would add a little entertainment, a little colour to investors’ lives. The novel also got me thinking about the heritage of that connection (between poetry and money), and of course who should spring to mind, but T. S. Eliot, the greatest poet of the 20th Century.

Certainly no fool, Eliot realised he could never make a decent living from poetry, and until he secured a position running the publishing house Faber and Faber, worked for Lloyds in London, managing foreign accounts. Indeed Eliot, it seems, predicted the sub-prime crash, well over half a century before the event. From Four Quartets (1944):

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise, houses fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

And let us also not forget Alexander Pope, who a couple of centuries earlier still, penned the lines (which will serve as my last for this month):

Sir, I admit your general rule.
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

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