Why It’s So Hard To Keep A Moral Straight Face In The Waste Land… (Whether Or Not to Compete for the T.S. Eliot Prize)

Decisions.  Decisions.  Hmmm…

What would T.S. Eliot say about the financial crisis of the last few years, if not decades?   And what would he DO about it?   The answers are complicated and filled with dizzying contradictions.  Consider, if you dare, items one through five:


  1.   T. S. Eliot worked in the finance industry.
  2.   In April of 2011, the British Arts Council Arts voted to defund the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry which designates a whopping $23,000 for the winner each year.
  3. Over one hundred British poets protested the resolution.
  4. Aurum Funds, a hedge fund corporation, said that it would be happy to take over the bankrolling of the T.S. Eliot Prize.
  5. Alice Oswald, who won the prestigious prize in 2002, has just recently pulled out of this year’s competition, saying, “I think poetry should be questioning and not endorsing such institutions…”


Indeed.  Perhaps “poetry” should be.


But, should poets be?   Should the actual flesh & blood & sinew creator of verse be…?


The moral imperative of Immanuel Kant would prevail upon us here to be very frank with both the avid readers and non-readers of the craft.   It would remind us in fact that poets ought not to cozy up with private for-profiteers, whether the companies in question are responsible for the financial crisis or not; and that poetry, with all its tools of the trade, would show us, rather than tell us, that to be free of these perverse entanglements is akin to making one’s self available to the muse.


However, let’s play the devil’s advocate and consider how “Satan,” in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, might tackle the dilemma.   Satan, to be precise, is the most interesting character in that political activist’s magnum opus, from the Pandemonium palace to the blessed environs of Eden.  He is much more than the one-dimensional figure of say “The Exorcist” or “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”   No, this fallen figure wants to get even with the Deity and so devises a plan that might infiltrate and plunder the character of human beings.   You see, it’s all very subtle, slant and indirect something that poets might like to consider when receiving direct deposits into their money management accounts.   That is to say, we could assume the role of the provocateur in the corporate garden.  We could, with intact conscience and admittedly flawed consciousness, sneak a Trojan horse into the whole shooting match.

Ooops, wrong epic-narrative.  But what the hell?   Poets are doing this thing all the time.   There’s even a phrase that’s been especially coined for this jarring juxtaposition of allusions or this mixture of metaphors.  It’s none other than Poetic License. And I’m pretty sure that British bards know where to go to sign on the dotted line.   American ones certainly do.One place is On The Amtrak from Boston to New York City, where Sherman Alexie goes through the motions with a fellow traveler and keeps quiet as she admires Walden Pond.   (Evidently, there are lots of licenses to be had there.)  During the course of the poem, the speaker gives us both the interior and exterior view of his persona.   He respects his elders no matter what color.   But he also learns how to handle “the Enemy.”   What’s up with that?  Does the native  poet mean by this expression to perpetuate the ugly chasm between European settlers and the indigenous peoples of North America?   Or does the Seattle artist simply want to toss a disturbing monkey wrench into the gears and measures we have for determining literary and cultural greatness?

doesn't he look like a banker to you?

I think it’s the latter.  I hope its the latter.  And I think, given the right circumstances, the T.S. Eliot Prize can still foster poetry that subverts “the Enemy” of the financial despotism.  The  problem, of course, is that Machiavelli monsters don’t appear in broad daylight.  Ninety-nine percent of the one-percent occupy the highest of moral high ground and will not relinquish it any time soon.  Another way of saying this is that the trickle-down economists of any community hire pawns who operate out of allegiance to the only system they know.  As far as they know, Aurum Funds is doing a good thing when it sponsors and subsidizes the memory of T.S. Eliot.  As far as they know, Alice Oswald is being a party-pooper… which means…?


…Which means that she and others must do what Sharon Olds has said, in so many words, to her parents, and to everybody’s parents really.   “Do what you are going to do and I will tell about it,” she writes in her great work, I Go Back To May, 1937.


I know.  I know.  You suspect that I’m copping out on a great opportunity to take a stand.  You worry that I’m appeasing the establishment because I’m not yet an accomplished and well-rewarded author in my own right.  Go ahead and whisper it or click it out in a comment:  You assume that I’m kissing up to the T.S. Eliot brain trust and that flattery will get me everywhere.


Well, not exactly.

Rather, I’m taking a page out of The Grapes of Wrath, and I’m raging against the following paragraphs of that John Steinbeck novel:


“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.”

“We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.” “Yes, but the bank is only made of men.”

“No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

So, imagine if you will, a poet who infiltrates the banking industry.  He or she might come from Missouri, the heartland of America, pass through Harvard in three years and voila!  (He might even parlez a little francais!)  One day this poet takes a high rollers position with Lloyd’s Bank of London!   It could happen.  Has it happened?   Now, I’m seriously confused.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *