Murat Nemet-Nejat

Is Poetry a Job,
Is a Poem a Product

In plain English, the question of class has to do with money. Who gets paid what for what labor. In that respect, the poet belongs to the bottom of the economic totem pole. Every poet can do his or her tallying. Do you think that you get a penny an hour for the number of hours you spend producing your poems?

In classical Marxism, income (and its consequent power, wealth) are connected to the ownership of the means of production, capital. But most poets own their means of production, a pen, a typewriter, a computer. Here is the painful class contradiction of the American poet: supreme controller of a product which, economically speaking, nobody wants, absolute power fused with a state of absolute weakness, worthlessness.

Can this minus be turned, and exploited as a source of strength — or should we compensate for it by searching, continuously, for ways for poems to make money? The first choice, embracing the lack of money as zero space, will lead us to new questions about poetic identity.

Money, economically, is the equivalent of language, a social contract, a kind of voting. Implicit in its payment is the idea that the taker will produce something the public wants, which reflects it. This representational link is a cultural dynamo. As culture, one can analyze the presence of class in a poem, besides the class origin of the poet, in terms of who pays for it. One must then analyze the class status of the poet as a phantom wage earner.

If a poet is a phantom wage earner, a poem is a phantom product, this quality of phantom altering its place in the productive cycle. The poem ceases to be the end product, but becomes the process. And the poet becomes a consumer, consuming time in the writing of the poem. The culture is this process, a bizarro version of the cycle of production.

The poem is its writing — the poet writes to feel good, to experience the sense of discovery and power by converting a mental sound into physical sound. The moment that occurs the poem dies for the poet — as a climax dies — then to the next one. What happens to the poem afterwards is, essentially, meaningless.

In short, embracing the gash money's absence digs in every poem leads to a key re-definition and a series of value reversals. Creation becomes consumption, not production. Money — the medium of accumulation — is the pervasive unindicted villain. With a touch of thrill, meaninglessness, functionlessness, interiority become ideal values: lack of exchange, lack of production, leading to lack of tradition, continuity. The last two can only apply to the poem as a product.

This analysis of nonpayment gives the poem back to the poet, the client.

The poet is an addictive consumer. Poetry is not leisure. A worker rests to become a better worker. Without limits, the poet keeps stealing time, undermining work to write his or her poems. Poem as process is profoundly disruptive to labor, and American poetry reflects that reality.

Failure — or its vertiginous potential — is an aura in the American poem. The way the nouveau riche flaunt their wealth, the poem's addiction strives towards failures by creating gaps between public — that is, communicative — usage of words and itself. The American poet has a unique relation to language in the culture. He or she fetishizes language in excess of its use as a means of exchange, beyond what the culture wants of it; he or she sexualizes it into uselessness. This economically — capitalistically — perverse relation gives the poem its consumptive aura.

A poet's addiction is to words. This is in fact the class definition of the poet. As misfit form, the poem process embodies, constantly acts out this class status in itself, indirectly also becoming an abstract mold for other spiritual states of disaffection. The obsessive theme of every American poet worth its salt, it seems to me, is converting dispossession, nothingness, vulnerability into power by asserting, weaving out an idiosyncratic, non-productive tongue, which destroys and recreates the meanings, associations around words through the solitary freedom of the poet.

Like fellow cocaine or sex addicts, the poet believes words have the magical power to change the world, that language — gaining failure, stripped of function — can be pitted against money.

As closet addict Emily Dickinson says, "I play at Riches — to appease/ The Clamoring for Gold —" The baroque convolutions of the rest of # 801 — driven by an opaque inner necessity — attempt to pit a phantom gold standard into language as play, consumption. Simple words, "Sin," "Thing," "Exploring Hands," become blank spaces sucking in the reader's disoriented associations. This poem, as in various guises more than 1/3 of the rest of her work, this conversion is a class act.

For, to whom does the poet write? If not for money, doesn't he or she still write for friends, for the future, for eternity, etc? The poet writes for the bedrock part of the self, the spirit, the core which escapes the productive cycle. American poems are landscapes of the spirit. In fact, the class definition of the spirit is to be beyond the productive cycle. Each poem process invents the ideal audience to which the rearranged language is transparent, blindingly clear. The moment this vision of clarity, equaling power, is experienced by the poet, the poem as process ends. Then the poem becomes a product, and the language on poetry as product — movements, the ins and the outs, etc. — radically belies it as process.

Every poet hopes that the mental and public audiences will join. But, as Hume said of the rise of the sun next day, there is no logical necessity for it — in fact, any overlap between the functionless and public is a damn miracle. An illogical, happy coincidence.

Not believing in the future — inviting the spirit to enter the space vacated by money — is what gives the poetic process totally back to the poet. Makes the poet his or her own boss.

A few years ago, I conducted a poetry workshop. The participants essentially had to follow two rules. They were not permitted to write any poems and had to keep a daily journal in which they could only write what interested them. No sentence could be there for brilliance or beauty.

The perversity of this method makes better sense to me now in light of this essay. The poet must discover the nature of his or her interests, yoking them to language. If his or her relation to language is addictive, the rest will take care of itself. Craft only teaches one to write the poem already written. The poet must learn to unlearn (as Heidegger said, the shape of the spirit is circular), reinvent the wheel writing each poem, that is to say, get hooked to an activity which is the epitome of non-productive labor.


Post Script: the Sufism of the American Poem

This essay on class leads to a surprising discovery: fetishizing, sexualizing language into uselessness — the definition of poetic addiction — becomes a path to the spirit; the spirit shining brightest, most hauntingly, when an elusive inner necessity is yoked to an aura of failure.

Ahab floating, striking, sinking on the back of the white whale, his Pequod in smithereens as a commercial enterprise.

The unity between sex and spirit, dying and ecstasy, hurting and being hurt is a Sufi fusion. The Sufi's consuming love of God, destroying the sexual lover into a hermit, and the American poet's obsession with words, making them useless, are strikingly similar. The poem is the most Asian of American art forms, this being, maybe, its most prophetic and radical aspect.

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