Marc Pietrzykowski

On the Privatization of Poetry

The word "privatization" refers, at our particular cultural moment, to the dominant economic principle underwriting late-era capitalism, and indeed the bulk of this essay is devoted to mining the absurdist parallels between this model and the world of contemporary American poetry. But its place in the essay’s title is also meant as something of a pun, since the writing and appreciative reading of poetry has, for the last several centuries at least, been primarily a private activity, a condition as yet essentially unaltered by growing interest in public readings and events such as the poetry slam. And yet, this pun, like most attempts at humor, glosses another, more painful truth: contemporary poetry is a fringe enterprise, not especially important to most people, and the private nature of its creation and appreciation tends to insulate the dialogue of those who persist in finding it significant from the sort of greater audience more public art forms attract. Nevertheless, every year a slew of new books of poetry get published in the U.S., and if sheer volume were the sole measure of the internal economy of poetry we could say it was flourishing--unfortunately, its profits continue to come at the expense of significant exchange with an audience unfamiliar with the sort of human need poetry satisfies.

The fact that the relative market value of any aesthetic experience is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify, means my application of an economic model to contemporary poetry may ultimately be specious, but the striking parallels that exist between the theories underwriting the corporate monopolization and insulation of dialogue concerning our economic resources, on the one hand, and the manner in which the supposed ‘meritocracy’ of our current system of poetic patronage operates via contests, MFA programs, and the stewardship of academic journals, on the other, demand that the metaphor be explored.

The root theory underpinning the push for increased privatization of public services is the Rational Choice model, which is based on the idea that, all things being equal, individual human beings will perform rational cost/benefit analyses of any and every situation before choosing a plan of action that best satisfies their individual needs. This is a very old idea, of course, and was the guiding principle behind Adam Smith's attempt at describing a science of economics, since, as he asserts “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” Anyone who has taken Economics 101 in the last twenty years has learned the Rational Choice model, and its continued influence on economic theory is due primarily to its simplicity: once human relationships are reduced to a system of exchange, all aspects of culture can appear mathematically explicable. The fact that the Rational Choice model consistently fails to predict human behavior certainly helps explain why its advocates rarely subject its predictions to empirical testing, since its appeal rests primarily on pretension to scientific authority. Nevertheless, proponents of privatization invoke the Rational Choice model whenever possible, most often using a neo-realist style of rhetoric that blends the language of populism with crudely individualistic appeals to a sort of domesticated Darwinism in order to deride any attempt at social engineering as hopelessly utopian, while at the same time disguising the fact that repealing already existent regulatory apparatus in favor of a theoretical model is itself an extreme form of social engineering.

Despite the significant lack of empirical data supporting its thesis, the stark simplicity of the Rational Choice model has allowed it to seduce and infiltrate various other disciplines as well, most notably sociology, law, and Educational Administration. If we apply this model to the world of contemporary poetry, then, we can describe poets as a group of individual producers of a commodity whose normative value is predetermined but flexible, and we can then assume that, in a free market, each of these individuals would have a chance, based on their level of ability, to exchange their particular commodity for things of an equitable value--notoriety, a sense of self-worth, and even, perhaps, a little money. Any increase in the production of poetry would lower its value by glutting the market, and any shortage would increase its value, which in turn would increase production as other producers sought their portion of the profits. Thus would the cycle repeat itself, with the individual producers each trying to maximize their wealth by creating innovative variants of the basic product, and each new variation would succeed according to its relative cost and benefit to the consumer ("cost" here referring to the amount of energy invested in a poem vs. the pleasurable outcome derived). The model certainly seems self-contained and appropriate, and even somehow realistic, or at least quantifiable, and so we can begin to understand how Richard Posner, could claim that "[T]he economic approach to human behavior insists on just the sort of gritty realism that the New Criticism taxed some Romantic poetry with trying to evade [...]the absence of Romantic uplift is precisely what makes economics--the rejection of Romanticism in the sphere of government—so repugnant to the heirs of Romanticism"--and thus we, as poets and lovers of poetry, are allowed to see through the veil of mere pleasure to the harsh economic reality of the world, to the fact that we are really only exchangers of information, and that the value of our information is determined solely by our relative abilities as authors and readers, albeit within whatever framework of cultural norms currently exists.

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