The Poet’s Participation in the Global Economy

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1870 Baur and Bromme Map of the World

As though he were at once interrogating and acquitting himself, Pablo Neruda concludes his acceptance of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature thusly: “But what would become of me if I, for example, had contributed in some way to the maintenance of the feudal past of the great American continent?” (¿Pero, qué sería de mí si yo, por ejemplo, hubiera contribuido en cualquier forma al pasado feudal del gran continente americano?)

Neruda would pass away in the capital city of his Chilean homeland months after asking himself—and us, who inherit his question—just how, exactly, the poet contributes. Leaving behind an undeniably significant poetic legacy, Neruda also left this world a communist, an accessory to the grave human rights crimes of the early twentieth-century Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

The intersection between poetry and politics, between art and economics, is ineluctable, undeniable, and pressing. Neruda is our evidence; his question is our prerogative. How can and how does the poet contribute to the political, historical, and economic tradition of their society?

This question was similarly emphasized during a 2008 seminar, published under the title “Art and Globalization,” which considered Susan Buck-Morss’s essay “Hegel and Haiti.” The Brazilian aesthetic philosopher Pedro Erber remarked halfway through the conversation, “Bringing it back to the question of globalism in art—maybe, instead of trying to globalize something, it is a matter of realizing and recognizing that art and its history are, in fact, already much more global than what one might have been told by traditional narratives.”

Reflection on our poetic tradition begins in Book X of Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates asks something really fundamental: What exactly is a poet, anyway? Homer had, in Plato’s time, been regarded as the authoritative voice on reality. The cosmic order of the gods, human affairs, necessity and chance, emotions and sentiments, virtue, beauty, and everything distinctly human seemed to be contained within Homer’s universe. But Socrates sought to challenge and perfect the mythological ordering of reality—so elegantly depicted by Homer and the poets—by the exercise of reason in the context of dialogue.

All poetry is a reflection upon poetry. All writing comments upon the act of writing. All art is, in addition to its content, a representation of the work of representing. This has been a stable attribute of poetry from the first line of Homer’s The Odyssey to the last line of Dean Young’s “Romanticism 101.” So, there is the interesting task of deciding whether to ask a poet (or, more appropriately, a poem) What is poetry? or whether to ask a philosopher (or, more appropriately, a philosophy) What is poetry? Both, it is clear, presume to know. Which, however, is the “traditional narrative” that Pedro Erber is after?

For Socrates, poetry is imitation: “a poetic imitator uses words and phrases to paint colored pictures of each of the crafts.” Imitation is of real things, whether of people, professions, ideas, or emotions. Poetry’s task is not to take something unreal, like an idea, and then make it appear real, nor is it to “invent” an otherwise un-invented world. Rather, poetry’s task for Socrates is to make the “real world” of ideas less real—that is, to reduce what is already very real into words and phrases that are only appearances. So, Socrates can’t help defining the poet polemically, since he is concerned unto his death with what is real and not with what is merely apparent. He says,

“Then we shall conclude that all poetic imitators, beginning with Homer, imitate images of virtue and all the other things they write about and have no grasp of the truth? … [The poet] himself knows nothing about [what he imitates], but he imitates … in such a way that others, as ignorant as he, who judge by words, will think he speaks extremely well … [since] he speaks with meter, rhythm, and harmony.”

Beyond the fact that poetry deals in untrustworthy imitations, Socrates’s actual concern is that poetry doesn’t offer good examples for people to live by. Like how when Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye desires to become white and beautiful and no longer black and unlovable in a racist society, she lies awake hoping to magically acquire blue eyes. Obviously, lying awake in bed hoping for blue eyes will not advance racial equality. And this is precisely the point that makes poetry so important. It’s read. It’s regarded. Even Socrates knows that the poet has a raw power to make people at least think and not only to think but also to feel. So, if poetry can be so dangerous as to merit its prohibition in Socrates’s ideal republic, can it also be altered, or at least adapted, to merit its exaltation in our postmodern and economically global society?

The interesting thing about globalization, besides the fact that it is a buzzword with no consensual significance, is that it very accurately describes many human experiences in our current year, 2018. The entire notion of borders, of nations, of territories, of specializations, within economies or within academic disciplines or within artistic genres, is crumbling beneath our feet.

Is this not the exact and central controversy of Donald Trump? When Trump arose during the recent election cycle promoting the abolition of NAFTA along with the concretization of the border wall with Mexico, he was also unapologetically promoting the destruction of globalization.

In economic terms, globalization refers to the proliferation of international trade and economic interdependence. In 1973, hardly more than one year following Neruda’s Nobel Prize in Literature, Chile fell under a totalitarian regime that practiced protectionist policies. By effectively closing its economic borders, prohibiting trade and interdependence, Chile suffered an immense economic decline between 1973 and 1990. The current economic prosperity of Chile is thanks in no small part to a recognition of the value of international trade and interdependence characterized by that phenomenon known as “globalization.” So, globalization is not only a fact and trend of significance today but also integral to the contemporary poet’s consciousness.

Rainer Maria Rilke already demonstrates the intersection of art and globalization in the 1908 locale of his beloved Letters to a Young Poet. The letters frequently communicate a sense of internationality: Rilke responds to Herr Kappus, his failed poetic protégé, in letters postmarked from Italy, France, and Sweden over the course of several months. Take, for example, Rilke’s fifth letter composed upon arrival to Rome: “[T]here is much beauty here, because there is much beauty everywhere.”

Regardless of where he finds himself and which border he happens to be enclosed within, Rilke persistently draws the ultimate border between him and all that is not him. The very word “solitude” appears no less than seven times in his seventh letter, while the pervading theme is that of interiority, “inner happening,” and that which is “into yourself.” Rilke offers a vague propaedeutic to poetry and globalization: the poet contributes to the global economy by the very fact of being solitary. Rilke characterizes poetry as that difficult, necessary, courageous, and solitary act of conveying the state of solitude. The poet is surprisingly exemplified as a solemnly solitary person enclosed within the territory of their own subjectivity. They must, then, embrace this state. Or, for Rilke, the poet must romanticize it.

And Neruda accepts the traditional narrative Rilke bestows, while even championing Rilke’s contemporary Arthur Rimbaud, who also speaks of poetry as a difficult, courageous, and solitary act of conveying solitude. Neruda, writing seventy years after Rilke, adds little to Rilke’s poetics in this regard, for Neruda affirms, “I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself.”

But there is one striking idea that Neruda does add to the conversation. He says, “I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread…. He does his majestic and unpretentious work … as a duty of fellowship.” The duty of fellowship in poetry is absolutely stunning. It is a possibility outside the horizon of Socrates and Rilke. The poet’s duty isn’t truth per se, nor is it beauty, solitude, pretension, appearance, clairvoyance, idealism. The poet is, above all, a friend whose duty is friendship. There is the sense of community here that is redemptive and that perhaps explains the enduring quality of poetry. For how else could poetry survive if not in friendship? And isn’t the duty of friendship exactly what Rilke performed, although unwittingly, when he corresponded with a young poet over several months and in three separate countries on the subject of poetry?

The poet does not have a special claim on reality, nor on subjectivity, nor on language. But the poet does have a special claim on community. I am unequivocally convinced that the sense of community in Neruda was accessible to him only by way of the tragic and regrettable communist ideology for which he is infamous. Neruda’s ideal of poetry as fellowship is grounded, as the reader of “Towards the Splendid City” will observe, on latent Marxist ideologies of “feudalism” and a “vision” for a “better humanity.” But community is evidently realized outside of Marxist idealism, and the evidence is this phenomenon of globalization realized in free markets that modern Chile currently experiences. Indeed, globalization is incomprehensible without a consciousness of fellowship.

There is something so commonplace about poetry, something so necessary, so immediate and innate. Thinking about poetry requires thinking about every other human endeavor, because poetry already is global—it’s just a matter of realizing and recognizing that.