Poetry and capitalism make a heroic couplet

 
Marc Sidwell
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T.S. ELIOT was a banker, but that hasn’t stopped two poets from refusing to be shortlisted for this year’s prestigious, £15,000 Eliot Prize over a sponsorship deal with Aurum Capital, an investment firm specialising in funds of hedge funds. First Alice Oswald and now John Kinsella have given up their coveted places on the list. Kinsella told The Guardian he was an “anti-capitalist in full-on form”, while Oswald announced that “poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions”.

It’s not entirely clear whether either Oswald or Kinsella feel the children helped by hedge fund charity Ark, also supported by Aurum, should be throwing their schoolbooks in the face of those benefactors as well.

What is clear is where the rebel poets would have liked the money to have come from instead: your taxes. The prize recently had its Arts Council funding cut, a cut that was protested by leading poets, including Carol Ann Duffy, another name on the shortlist. It is apparently preferable for poetry to be funded by forced contributions from taxation (to which the City is a significant contributor) rather than supported by voluntary contributions from a financial services firm.

It’s important at such times to remind ourselves that poetry doesn’t have to be the enemy of a liberal society and its financial institutions. Eliot liked his job at Lloyds, and refused to give it up for a life on the charity of his friends. America’s national poet, Walt Whitman, wrote in an editorial of 1842 that “Every time that congress or a state legislature meddles in matters of finance, they only plunge the interests of the people deeper and deeper into difficulty.” Today, David Buik of BGC Partners still introduces his regular emails with poetic asides, continuing the literate tradition of Benjamin Graham, who opened his classic The Intelligent Investor with an epigraph from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Through chances various, through all vicissitudes, we make our way.”

Perhaps the blend of the poetic and the financial best suited to our own time, however, is found in the first act of the second part of Goethe’s Faust, where the devil Mephistopheles convinces the emperor that debasing the currency by endlessly printing more money will restore wealth to his realm. Goethe had the measure of quantitative easing a century before Keynes.

Mephistopheles observes in an aside, “That merit and success are link’d together,/ This to your fools occurreth never;/ Could they appropriate the wise man’s stone,/ That, not the wise man, they would prize alone.” The wise man’s stone is the philosopher’s stone, which turns base metal into gold. Today’s rebel poets, it seems, are Goethe’s fools: they want to live on money printed from thin air, refuse to value those who can actually turn lead into gold, and reject the idea that capitalism celebrates, that success be linked to merit through a process of voluntary exchange.

The Poetry Book Society, which negotiated the three-year deal with Aurum, is defending its decision, and with another eight names on the list, this show of anti-capitalist principle won’t prevent the announcement of a worthy winner. But given the statements of Oswald and Kinsella, it may be that rather than accepting opprobrium, investment houses should be questioning rather than endorsing such poets.

Marc Sidwell is the business features editor for City A.M.