Borrow ≠ Poetry

Weston Cutter
February 8, 2012
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1)            It happens with some regularity: somewhere I’ll read someone pontificating about some aspect of modern poetry and, in doing so, will note that poetry comes from an oral tradition. This phrase most often seems to be deployed as a charge against contemporary stuff, work which doesn’t, ahem, quite adhere to the oral tradition poetry’s so wonderfully descended from.

2)             This is another attempt to smuggle in a review and consideration of a book about finance on a venue with a literary arts bent. The specific book in this instance is Borrow by Louis Hyman, which was released at January’s end (worth-reading Salon interview with Hyman here) and which is the sort of mind-blower of a book it’ll likely force you to rethink and reconsider how you see things for a bit.

3)            The sham involved with the oral-tradition argument regarding poetry is that it’s wholly unimportant. Orality’s not a virtue, which is what these arguments are hoping we’ll overlook of take on faith. Two seconds of thought clears this right up: would someone with alcoholism in one’s family be expected to drink because that person came from an alcoholic tradition? This is a crude comparison, sure, but let’s be clear: poetry was sung and spoken before because that was the technology of that moment. The oral tradition is just that: tradition.

4)            Here’s a fine place to head for a dunked-head’s worth of info on consumer credit and borrowing, though you’re likely eyes-glazedly bored and tired of info on that subject. Maybe you’re not. I don’t know if I’m bored or tired of that sort of info; it’s been part of the air for so long I’m no longer sure I even notice it.

What’s missed, though, in 70-pt headlines and hyper-sound-bit, five second news stories, is the shift our finances have gone through in the last generation, and a valuation of that. Is it, for instance, bad or unprecedented that US citizens at present carry as much debt as we do? And how did this stuff happen—surely we all didn’t just wake up and do this stuff that’s so commonly foisted on the American public as moral failures or worse. Or is that it? Are we really that bad?

5)             I certainly have a personal beef with halcyon claims regarding poetry’s oral tradition simply because I’ve read Jorie Graham, and Oppen, and Duncan, and Zukofsky, and Charles Wright, to say nothing of cummings or Jenny Boully or whoever else. Meaning: there’s a world of magic that’s attainable exclusively on the page, in the same way there’s a world of magic that’s attainable exclusively in the studio, for musicians (one reason Sgt Pepper is so loved: it blew open notions of what was possible on tape).

This, though, too, is not a valuation of any sort, and it’d be as unfair to fault the new Todd Boss collection Pitch (which is fantastic) because it’s not involved with on-the-page fireworkery as it’d be unfair to get up in arms about someone ultimately trying to work poetry magic through lineation and the fracturing of the language that’s mostly/best pull-offable on the page.

The better question, of course, is: well, what other than The Oral Tradition plays when we talk about poetry? What about the on-the-page tradition? How about the literary journal tradition?

6)             As I’m sure you can now guess: the history of US consumer debt is riveting and far more complicated than one can even imagine (or, at least, more complicated than I could’ve imagined). Here’s a simple thing: do you know why South Dakota and Delaware became such hotspots for credit cards to originate from? Were you even aware Delaware and SD were credit card hotspots? The reason: a Supreme Court ruling (Marquette) in the 70s “unintentionally dismantled all the usury laws of the United States” (the decision allowed customers—who were aready able to cross state lines to borrow money—to just go ahead and get credit cards from the other states, a practice which till then hadn’t even been tried).

The significance of the above only matters once you consider and realize the way borrowing has changed in the 20th century for the American consumer. Hyman’s hugely compelling book will ultimately hip you to the fact that the scare-tactic stories about debt and everything else are infinitely, infinitely more complicated than we typically consider. Here’s an example: Jack Welch was considered this genius CEO, led GE in all sorts of amazing ways, etc. Here’s the thing: GE made way more money through their credit-card arm than through actually making stuff. And of course Welch is a hero to lots of the same politically-minded folks who bemoan and loathe the over-borrowing that Americans have done…yet that exact over-borrowing is what made Welch’s GE such a force. One reads Borrow with a sense of whiplash exactly because of aspects like that.

And there’s a whole underlying narrative to Borrow, which is this: one of the reasons we’re in such a terrible spot, financially, as a country, has to do with how profitable consumer lending’s been for so long. Here’s a sad thought experiment: how many amazing things could GE have built or invented had they put the resources into R+D that they put into lending to us? This, of course, ends up being a sizeably political conversation, one in which issues arise about whether we’re best left alone to borrow money with which to purchase pairs of Jet-Skis we cannot really afford, or whether we’re best left living more modestly, unflooded by cheap borrowing. Still: these are the sorts of things you’ll likely be thinking of and considering on finishing Borrow, maybe the most necessary nonfiction reading at present.

7)            And I’m sure you can now see: there’s no 1:1 trade-off between the last 100 years of consumer borrowing in the US and the last 100 years of poetry in the US. What I’m most interested in lately with regard to poetry—and I’m certainly interested in this because of Hyman’s book—has to do with subtle shifts in traditions. The oral tradition’s a relatively easy one to take apart; what about the more recent harrumphing (hi, Franzen) about paper vs e-readers? Here’s a hugely interesting (to me) trend: this year’s Best New Poets is I believe the first in which the huge majority of the pieces within were not nominated by either a) lit journals or b) MFA programs. This is, of course, a huge inversion of tradition: we may like the notion that poetry’s some purely meritocratic thing, but patronage and mentorships feature heavily in its past. So then the question arises: will there soon be arguments about the mentor tradition? About the annointing process (for lack of a better word)?

I wouldn’t risk an answer for good odds at decent money, but it does seem real seriously worth considering. Whether or not you want to consider any of this stuff in parallel with Hyman’s Borrow‘s entirely up to you, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

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