Wednesday, July 30, 2014

`Well, I Might As Well Get My Pension'

Poets no longer write much about money.  In the sixteenth century, Barnabe Googe could sing, “Give money me, take friendship whoso list,” and readers nodded their heads. Today, to write a poem about making money would be – what? Tacky? Unpoetic?  Ironic, isn’t it, considering that poetry, after agriculture, is the most heavily subsidized of industries. People get paid to write the stuff, regardless of how many other people read it -- a total subversion of market forces. Dr. Johnson, an occasional poet and never a blogger, famously remarked: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Not unexpectedly, Philip Larkin shared a few thoughts on the subject in “Money” (High Windows, 1974), which concludes with these lines: 

 “I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
    From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
    In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.” 

Money, like food and sex, is among the leading causes of insanity and tedious conversation. The key to the poem comes earlier and is written in a voice we might call mock-disingenuous: “Clearly money has something to do with life / —In fact, they’ve a lot in common.” Those of us who had little money when young – not poverty-stricken but necessarily careful – perhaps have it easier than some, being neither misers nor spendthrifts. Larkin sees in money not cause for self-righteousness but sadness and futility, as he does in most things. In his notes to The Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett glosses the final sentence of “Money” with a line by Larkin on Thomas Hardy collected in Required Writing (1983): “his own characteristic intensely sad, intensely penetrating note.” When his Paris Review interviewer asks Larkin, “Do you think economic security an advantage to the writer?” the university librarian replies, in part: 

“On the one hand, you can’t live today by being a `man of letters’ as easily as a hundred or seventy-five years ago, when there were so many magazines and newspapers all having to be filled. Writers’ incomes, as writers, have sunk almost below the subsistence line. On the other hand, you can live by `being a writer,’ or `being a poet,’ if you’re prepared to join the cultural entertainment industry, and take handouts from the Arts Council (not that there are as many of them as there used to be) and be a `poet in residence’ and all that.” 

Chilling thoughts, clearly, to Larkin. Never clubbable, he was too proud and independent to go on the dole for poetry, but a spirit of aggrieved entitlement has produced generations of poets eager to line up at the trough. Larkin continues in the interview: 

“But I was brought up to think you had to have a job, and write in your spare time, like Trollope. Then, when you started earning enough money by writing, you phase the job out. But in fact I was over fifty before I could have `lived by my writing’—and then only because I had edited a big anthology—and by that time you think, Well, I might as well get my pension, since I’ve gone so far.”

1 comment:

George said...

Within the last century it was certainly not uncommon to write about money (commonly its absence): Basil Bunting ("I once was a millionaire/In Germany during the inflation"), Yeats in "The Choice" and elsewhere, Frost's "Provide, Provide". Popular poetry (lyrics and rap) have never gotten away from it.