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The Capitalistic Quandary of Poetry

How is poetry held captive by capitalistic thinking? Perhaps in more ways than one, but my interest is the question of ownership. Who owns great poetry?
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Photo by Missy, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

"What if access trumped ownership?"

This is the question Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, founders of Airbnb have asked, musing about the possibility of sparking a "sharing economy." Backed by more than 100 million investment dollars, Gebbia and Chesky aren't suggesting a rejection of the capitalist economy that supplies their own livelihoods. But they are looking to change the game. I suppose this is what can happen when you start sharing your bed with perfect strangers: having crossed one vulnerable line in a positive way, you suddenly realize you could cross others and give the world something it truly needs.

Gebbia and Chesky's push-back against the very capitalistic system that supports them has intriguing applications to the world of poetry; it might be time to free the art from its capitalistic moorings, even as we understand that capitalism funds our poetry foundations and multitudinous MFA programs (part of whose function is to assure the production and preservation of excellent poetry).

How is poetry held captive by capitalistic thinking? Perhaps in more ways than one, but my interest is the question of ownership. Who owns great poetry? Who is allowed to handle it, invest it, mint it, spend it without question? I am not asking who has the rights to mediocre poetry. I'm talking about Shakespeare, Shelley, Hamilton, Noyes, Angelou, and more.

This is not a manifesto to make poetry entirely free monetarily; that results in the demise of publishers like Salt, who have had to stop publishing poetry because the buying public is so small. To make poetry entirely dollar-free might also compel once-viable businesses to turn primarily to donor funding, which creates interesting problems of its own once an entity becomes beholden. Rather, this is a call to rethink issues of access and ownership, so excellent poetry can truly be a part of life and not sit cordoned in an ivory tower.

What Would it Take to Free Poetry?

You'd need to come at the dream from multiple angles. It might require partnership, vision, and trust. At minimum, you'd need to involve the education system, home life, workplaces, and public spaces. (What about the prison system? I won't address that here, but it's niggling, too.)

Here are just 5 intriguing, practical ideas for creating more powerful poetry access:

When something lives, it doesn't sit by passively, allowing us to poke and prod it or, as Billy Collins puts it "[beat] it with a hose." It defies classification, labeling, laying out of itself like a "patient etherized upon a table." It might talk back, run away, ask us to return later once it's had its morning coffee. Pardon my metaphors, but this is the bottom-line: we need to stop teaching poetry using grim methodology. We should ask poetry, instead, to turn us on our heads.

As long as "poetry at home" is the occasional greeting card or the back of a clever cereal box, we've got poetry problems. Not that honey-oats ever hurt anyone, but if that's the extent of the average person's proximity to poetry (and not very good poetry at that), what are the chances it will be truly accessible to the mind and heart?

3. Transport it.

As we make our way to work or play, we ride. Buses, subways, or inside personal vehicles. Poetry can come along. Radio programs, placards, posters. And if we've begun to value poetry because it's also accompanying us in more lively ways starting in school and at home, we might be more inclined to pay attention.

4. Paint it in the public square.

That which we value and seek to preserve and communicate, we highlight in our public spaces. Why not paint poetry on buildings (without resorting to a night-time spray can)? For a less citified experience, there is always poetry for the byways.

5. Take it to work.

Celebrations like Poetry at Work Day and Take Your Poet to Work Day, as well as inbox deliveries like Every Day Poems, inspire people to take poetry to work, to make it a meditative experience to help solve conflicts or create focus and innovation, or simply to have fun. Businesses might have their own goals. "'I used to tell my senior staff to get me poets as managers,'" The New York Times reported of Sidney Harman, "founder of Harman Industries, a $3 billion producer of sound systems for luxury cars, theaters and airports."

It's time to free poetry from its capitalistic quandary, but not perhaps in the way one would think. Money should be made, and money will be needed, but greater access must be granted if excellent poetry is to continue to make its way, for the shared economy of human wholeness, life, and love.

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