Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers
“The fatal problem with poetry: poems,” says Ben Lerner (32). What he means by this is that each actually existing poem stands a monument to the unrealizability of the utopian hope that we call “poetry.”
Lerner has some interesting things to say about poetry and its relationship to work, the desire and the worry that writing poetry not be work. Poetry is utopian insofar as it seems to offer an alternative to “getting and spending,” an order of work that is also seamlessly a way of leaning and loafing at one’s ease; hence the defenses. That very utopian possibility also seems a monstrous indifference to the brutalities of being constrained to sell one’s labor in order to live; hence the denunciations.
In his essay “Unfree Verse,” Joshua Clover is more pointed. Even if poems are the fallen material object that can never quite realize the ideal of poetry, it’s poetry and not poems, he argues, that has value for capitalism: “I think that more people get paid for poetry than get paid for poems.” The utopian hope that Lerner sees invested in poetry (and destroyed over and over by the failure embodied by poems) creates an appearance of autonomy that is essential for capitalism’s functioning.
Poetry can stand for freedom so intensely that people start to worry there is too much freedom. This hovers in the air when Robert Frost says that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Seriously fuck you Bob. There is a net. Poetry is bound up in this net and the net is the social system in which poetry is required to appear as free even as poets are constrained by ambient discipline in every moment.
I find both of these positions quite compelling. Lerner would (in a loving way) call Clover a poetry-hater of the avant-gardist variety, frustrated that the poem is “a bomb that never goes off” (57). Clover goes beyond this and shows what the unexploded bomb does for capital besides not destroy it. Okay, okay.
But we know all too well that this category, “work,” is not what it seems.
Work is gendered, of course. As I discussed in the first installment of this commentary, the sense of feminine irritation of “I, too, dislike it” seems to accompany a female textual labor that is closer to editing, or even word-processing, than to authorship.
Moreover, work is gendered in ways that play out via sexuality: not for nothing does Melville sharply gender his portraits of celibate life in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (1855). The “quiet, unmarried, literary man”—Dr. Johnson (a “nominal Benedick and widower but virtual bachelor”) or Charles Lamb, for example—can acquire a spot in this paradise of bachelors, but the world of maidens is a Tartarus of grinding, repetitive, unrewarding labor in a paper factory, turning out “only blank paper; no printing of any sort.” And yet it is only as a “maid” that, for many years, American women could be workers, or rather, paid workers retaining the legal status of feme sole (Kahan 14). For women, celibacy, in the minimal sense of not being married, is historically the way to remain a (paid) worker. In Melville’s story: “For our factory here, we will not have married women; they are apt to be off-and-on too much. We want none but steady workers: twelve hours to the day, day after day, through the three hundred and sixty-five days, excepting Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Fast-days.”
And why would you want to be a worker? Isn’t it to be resisted? Who the Tartarus wants to work in a paper factory? “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” Hasn’t women’s entry into the paid workforce, usually at lower pay, only hastened the degradation of working conditions, the erosion of real pay, the demise of the single-income family? Haven’t more recent management techniques for devolving risk onto the worker—“flexible” working hours, “flexible” contracts, telecommuting, “teams,” therapeutic “wellness” initiatives—so often entered under the guise of efforts to create a “woman-friendly” workplace?
And yet: there are reasons; of course there are. Does not the utopian hope of a world outside commerce that, for Lerner, poetry represents eerily resemble hopes otherwise invested in domesticity, a gift economy of labors, only, of love?
Is not that alleged domestic gift economy, rather famously, a trap?
There’s the context, if you like, for the celibate, irritated feminine gesture of word-work in “I, too, dislike it.” Lerner reads in Moore’s “perfect contempt” a universal figuration of the utopia that poems cannot offer, and to be sure Lerner is clever to read the haters and lovers of poetry as inevitably on the same side. But what if utopia was long ago debunked; what if “Marriage” is to you “the spiked hand/ that has an affection for you/ and proves it to the bone”?
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.
“It moves us not”: can you imagine that same line, resituated in a Marianne Moore poem, retaining its pathos? I’m being a little unfair, counterposing the modernist against the Romantic, but not very, I think. Being unmoved in Moore’s poetics is a deliberate refusal—funny, petty, a little bit scary, not at all something to be mourned but something akin to a victory.
And so Miller again on the plenitude of Austen Style:
A failed, or refused, but in any case shameful relation to the conjugal imperative....Like the Unheterosexual, the Spinster too resorts to Style, the utopia of those with almost no place to go. (29)
Almost no place to go in a literal sense, no home; famously, for Austen, no room of one’s own. Style is the utopia of those exiled, or escaped, from an imagined domestic utopia of uncounted labor, those inhabiting, more likely, a Tartarus of maids.
No dialectic between the ideal and the real, in other words; there’s no ideal at all; or to use The Atlantic’s baby-in-a-briefcase cliché, it’s Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. The home isn’t a space of utopian labors of love; it’s a second shift; the workplace isn’t a liberation from coverture; it’s the Tartarus of maids. The ideological power of Poetry, the thing you get paid for instead of for poems, is weaker in this scenario, which is pretty much a scenario in which your labor and life are being stolen, one way or another.
“I, too, dislike it”: that “too” is a killer, no? Because the truth is, you-the-reader may be like me, and then again, you may not.
Clover, Joshua. “Unfree Verse.” Harriet: A Poetry Blog. Poetry Foundation. 15 April 2016.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell, with Anne Machung. The Seond Shift. 1989; New York: Penguin, 2003.
Kahan, Benjamin. Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.
Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. London: Fitzcarraldo, 2016.
Miller, D. A. Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
- Ben Lerner
- Benjamin Kahan
- D. A. Miller
- Herman Melville
- Jane Austen
- Joshua Clover
- Marianne Moore
- Virginia Woolf
- William Wordsworth
The poetics of irritation