sociology of poetryOverview

A sociological approach to literary fashion, knowledge and Postmodernism. The economic parallels of poetry oversupply.


The arts, being social activities, have naturally attracted sociological analysis. {1} Long ago Max Weber regarded art as a substitute for religion in advanced bourgeois societies, and that claim is often repeated in public funding of theatres, galleries, workshops and the like. Culture, if not art, {2} is a desideratum of western societies, and the boundaries between art, culture and entertainment are not easily drawn. And if art is not justified as a spiritual good, then it should at least improve the quality of life. {3} Money is not only a claim on services, but the final arbiter in free markets, so that even the most talented artist must find a commercial standing in a society not becoming noticeably more egalitarian or intelligent. {4}


And what of fashion? It is idle to deny that even the most demanding of the arts escapes the stockmarket of intellectual fashion, or that what we profess to read does not reflect our education, social aspirations, perhaps even the sort of people we shall eventually become. And since we cannot read more than the smallest fraction on offer, we increasingly rely on reviews, which can be anything but fair or thorough. Indeed, some schools reject the whole notion of quality, seeing it as an elitist straitjacketing by a dominant, white, middle-class society. {5}

What makes something catch on? Post your answers to MGM or HarperCollins. Everyone wants to know. {6} Certain ingredients need to be present, but their mix is uncertain. Films are enormously expensive, and have to score with the public within a few days of release: hence the 30% of budget devoted to publicity. Publishers research the market, but are often surprised by the runaway bestseller which taps into something that has escaped analysis.

Could epidemology help? An enormous amount of public money has been poured into studying the spread of disease and its prevention: {7} {8} {9} could not those findings be applied to the fashion industry in all its forms? Only a few anthrologists seem to think so. {10}

Is there any further point to fashion? That question has often been asked of the clothes industry, which seems increasing to parody the serious arts. By contemporary standards, the sixteenth-century poem is ridiculously overdressed: made of the finest material (deep argument), elaborately and painstakingly finished (craft), the product of a leisured (elitist) education that emphasized the social divide (client-patron). Poetry today is equally functional, but serves a wider spectrum: the decently churchgoing (Patience Strong style), the busy middle-class consumer (journalistic styles), ethnic minorities (rap and performance poetry), the socially committed (agi-prop poetry), the older generation (traditional), the trendier intellectual elite (Postmodernist) and so on, each with subdivisions blurred by continual social change. But note the word "serves". The poetry does not merely reflect sectional interests, but furthers them, gives them representation, allows symbiosis between groupings and their literary representations.

And that may explain the sometimes odd results of poetry festivals, competitions and publications. The Patience Strong school is often versified platitudes, inspiring little homilies that are not untrue but repeat what has been said in church magazines so many times before. The journalistic styles seem often no more than pleasing flippancies, a breezy reassurance that the world is indeed wholly contained in clichés taken from the Sunday supplements. Poetry of the ethnic minorities, though aggressively individual, often descends to a doggerel crude even by Victorian standards. The socially committed poetry has no answer to the world's manifest cruelties and injustices but conspiracies and capitalist caricatures. Traditional poetry aspires to the graces of an Edwardian country house party but sees no need for its verities to earn their living in the harsh contemporary world. Postmodernist poems too often avoid all commonplaces of thought and diction to arrive at the merely vacuous and arbitrary.

What do people find in all this? each school asks of its competitors. But no matter how glaring to outside observers may be the shortcomings, each of the various poetries has its devotees and cheerleaders. Not simply the best, but the only poetry worth the name. Why is this? Why can an audience come away from a poetry reading full of enthusiasm without having understood more than a few phrases? Why are poetry magazines purchased when the work commonly lacks the elementary skills demanded by a local newspaper? Why are large prizes awarded in poetry competitions for offerings that seem not only bad but hardly a poem at all? The general public may shrug their shoulders and say "that's modern poetry for you" but practitioners need answers.

Because these matters have little or nothing to do with literature as such. Poetry schools and movements are communities. They offer companionship, reassurance, common purpose and social identity. Is that so unexpected or reprehensible, or so different from any trade or business convention? The quality of presentations varies, but no one seriously questions their value, or indeed the underlying articles of faith. Participants come to have their beliefs elaborated, extended and strengthened. They do not come to have them questioned by Jeremiahs or doubting Thomases.

Moreover, these events offer material rewards. The purchasers of little books of heartwarming verse can sit down to tea afterwards and discuss ways of mutually assisting in sales of each other's collections. Adjudicators rightly see competitions as the community's seal of approval on their literary standing. Perplexities over Postmodernist poetry are needed for literary theorists to spin their webs of abstruse conjecture. And so on. Promotions may be temporary and unjustified, but staying-power is not an issue, as today's prize in a consumerist society is tomorrow's throwaway. More poets may have a shorter burst of recognition, but the show is always moving on. And since quality is a bourgeois conception, that is indeed how it should be. Live in the moment, enjoy it, and then do something different.

But what precisely determines the direction fashion takes? There have been many theories, none very helpful. Veblen and (much later) Baudrillard saw women's fashion as dysfunctional, pointless, conspicuous waste. Carlyle regarded them as extensions of the primitive's practice of body decoration, to which anthropologists added a progression from ritual to religion to secular seriousness and finally to hedonism. For Roland Barthes fashion was a system of signs devoted to naturalizing the arbitrary. For René König fashion obscured the body's regression into age and ugliness. {11} Naturally, fashion had a sexual element, but that says very little as sex is itself a multifaceted and somewhat cultural phenomenon. Clothes may be sexual fetishes, into which both sexes project magical properties. Or they may be vehicles for creations of more varied kinds, i.e. art, when we return to the initial enquiry. {12}

Given academia's tendency to be over-clever, if not waywardly ingenious, the argument has force. But of course, as with the institutional theory of art as a whole, the art for artists approach doesn't protect us from charlatans, or from a cozy mafia of interested parties. But then neither do the more traditional approaches. Academia has its own careerists and factional infighting. Nor has academia been good at recognizing quality or originality: most writers in its literary canon are safely dead. Perhaps we should simply accept that academia and the arts are different communities, with different approaches, skills and ambitions.

Could we not go further — give up any search for intellectual foundations, and simply study how the relevant communities actually arrive at their judgements? Academia's claim of disinterested enquiry and evaluation may only be the rules by which the game of power and status is played, or at least constrained. Bishop, knight and pawn all have their rules of movement, but no one supposes that correctly moving the pieces is the sole object of chess. Study of scientists at work has indeed shown how research really operates, which is not entirely as claimed or written up in scientific papers. {13}

Art as Knowledge

Does art give us knowledge of the world? Most would emphatically say yes. Not intellectual knowledge, exactly, not knowledge as a construal of relations between abstract entities representing human experience, but something more authentic, immediate and sensory. Art is surely the great peacemaker, moreover, bridging ideological differences and making real our common humanity. When we remember how bitter and bloodstained have been the wars between religions, each claiming knowledge of unknowables, should we not be wary of the whole process of abstraction from experience, of what really constitutes knowledge? Could we not say that logic and argument were human propensities, something essential to us, but not wholly so transcendent that we must follow them regardless of other perceptions and inclinations? And if we look at what arguments must derive from, intellectual foundations, do we not find, even in the most abstract of disciplines — mathematics, philosophy, mathematics, science — eventually only lacunae, paradoxes, matters resolved in working agreements between practitioners? In short, rather than dress up knowledge in high-minded principle and rarefied abstraction, should we not look closely at how the communities creating knowledge do in fact go about their business? Possibly knowledge is not ultimately decided on argument and abstraction, but on the varied operation of many human needs and desires.

No doubt there are problems. Knowledge becomes not only what is found but how it is found: the two become interdependent. Worse still, it may be relativist. Philosophy, which naturally abhors the sociologizing of knowledge, pounces on the difficulties of relativism. If we say that all knowledge is a matter of perspectives, then even this statement is a matter of perspective, and therefore not necessarily true. Relativism undermines itself. {14} But even logic is not free of paradoxes, and there are many underdetermined scientific problems (fluid flow, ac current analysis, etc.) 'solved' by successive approximation. Certainly, if social, religious and political communities differ in what they regard as true — or even what counts as knowledge — the academic communities are also exclusive and partisan, operating like private clubs.

The sociology of knowledge was inspired by the work of Karl Mannheim who tried to reconcile the clash of ideology that was so obvious and distressing a feature of interwar European politics. Subsequent workers have been happy to document the ways knowledge can be perverted or manipulated by social pressures, but Mannheim's central thesis, that knowledge largely is a social phenomenon, has not won acceptance. Doubtless knowledge takes place in discursive contexts with shared intellectual histories. And there may indeed be spheres of reality (religious, professional, everyday life) in which knowledge is shared and a common language helps to crystallize and stabilize subjectivity. {15} But sociologists are also scientists of a sort and generally embrace a realist philosophy — that the outside world exists and its hard, brute facts cannot be explained away or absorbed by our responses to them. Social activities, like language, may mediate in and colour how we see that world, but they do not entirely create it. Some physiological processes are basic to all of us. What we call "red" differs between races — the words and where the boundaries are drawn — but red and blue are not used interchangeably.

But knowledge is still authenticated in and by social practices, so that the point at issue may be how knowledge gained by individuals and communities is conveyed to other individuals and communities. Language is not an inert medium, and many complicated procedures operate in reducing observations to logic and mathematics. Moreover, even observation is never raw, but mediated by training and cultural presuppositions. In short, what needs to be studied is how we translate between spheres of reality, realizing that truth is not the residuum of argument but the totality of experience, a totality of which all languages must be an incomplete expression.

Art as Persuasion

That totality is recognized by art. But since the arts are given different expressions from one society to the next, should we not regard art as a shaper of human response, but deny it any larger claims — i.e. insist that the exterior world and how we respond to it are two distinct entities? Science would be happy with the division, which is also strengthened by the eighteenth century and continuing distinction between the fine and applied arts. The fine arts do not serve any end beyond themselves, and are simply called upon to exhibit beauty, expressive power, organic unity and aesthetic independence. We can enjoy the beauty of The Divine Comedy without accepting the medieval world-view, just as we appreciate Eliot's greatness as a poet without subscribing to his condescending and occasionally anti-Semitic views. {16}

But the division is unreal. What we know of the exterior world is through our responses, inevitably so. Even logic and mathematics may derive from our constitutional inability to accept concepts like something being x and not-x at one and the same time. What the exterior world is really like, beyond our senses and understanding, we cannot know, though quantum physics, chaos theory and cosmology all suggest that the full picture would defeat imagination. And concepts like beauty, consciousness, knowledge seem neither to be wholly "out there", nor wholly subjective. If we wish to see art as a shaper of responses, then we shall have to specify which responses we are talking about.

Those left over after science and mathematics have made their selection is one answer. The responses of science are repeatable observations. The responses of mathematics are cerebral, synthetic a priori, non-sensory. But that, obvious and true to a large extent, overlooks many difficulties. Considerable training is needed for scientific observation, not amounting to indoctrination, but very much more than we remember from our school science days. And mathematics in its higher reaches needs unusual gifts and long, long practice. Are equivalent gifts or training absent from the humanities? Clearly not, but there may still be one crucial difference. Decision procedures in science are much more categorical and straightforward. Experts may initially disagree, but there exist other experiments and understandings that may settle the matter in a way not possible for critics arguing, say, the merits of Henry James's novels. Scientific answers do not finally rest on personal preferences.

But that is only because of gross simplifications, retort the humanities. The larger, more human and significant elements have been ignored. Consider the scientific revolution. Its roots were natural magic, and none of its great originators — Copernicus, Kepler, Newton — entirely banished occult properties from their concepts. What are the fundamental forces of physics but the old sympathies and antipathies of the medieval world view given mathematical expression, marvellously refined and extended, subjected to rigorous testing, but still, however substantiated, however neatly applying in mathematical formulae, entities which remain hidden and without reason for existing? And isn't the quantum view of matter also occult in the extreme, counterintuitive, impossible to conceive outside its mathematics expression, reached by thousands of arduous man-years of investigation and thought? Very well: the basic building blocks of reality may be inert matter, without purpose or reason for existing, but is that not an inheritance from the early days of the Royal Society: {17} a gentlemanly disdain for the simple beliefs of the poorer classes, the adoption of an unadorned, masculine style of exposition which reflects the no-nonsense styles of the up-and-coming merchant classes, one which drives a wedge between facts and emotions, and which is still regarded as objective and selfless, though in fact anything but? The limits of reductive approaches are clear in the new science of complexity, but the aberrations have long been obvious. Rather than regard animals as simpler human beings, science turned evolution on its head. Animals evolved from complex, purposeless assemblies of inert matter that suffered random mistakes in inheritance. Human beings are merely more complicated assemblies.

Consider the effect on poetry. Contemporary schools of literary theory borrow this regressive approach of science, and build language from simple codes, fruitless attempting to find the characteristics of literature in what they have already excluded. As we progress from physics through to biology, psychology, sociology to politics and literature we find an increasing weave of complication, interpretation and social commentary that fulfills our human need for place and understanding, but the two ends of the spectrum are very different. Only a little in science is reflexive. A chemical substance does or does not boil at a certain temperature under certain conditions, and that is a fact which can be unambiguously verified in a way not open to a Marxist or New Criticism reading of a poem. No amount of tampering with evidence, procedures and viewpoint will discount the experimental result. Or, put another way, the amount of tampering required amounts to a complete rewriting of the western intellectual tradition, with nothing obvious to replace it with.

All observations, interpretations and outlooks may be culture-laden, but that culture is not arbitrary or crudely imposed. We arrive at viewpoints by complex routes, and we shift our viewpoints as experience requires. Which comes first, outlook or observation? The chicken and egg dilemma that literary theory makes so much of is a problem which living creatures do not actually face. Nor, biologically, could they. The insistence that the process of literary evaluation be logically transparent, or it be discarded altogether, seems sometimes to border on the either-or outlook of religious fanaticism. To the extent that literature differs from everyday discourse, it is in its larger significance and greater self-knowledge. Both of these ask for a healthy knowledge of how language is actually used in wider departments of life. Deny that, and poetry slides into what it may already be becoming: thin entertainment in dispersed intellectual ghettos.

Wider Issues

Why doesn't poetry come more centre stage? The former queen of the arts is not noticeably bashful. No indeed: like dethroned royalty, poetry is very concerned that the deference be kept up, that the world meet poetry on poetry's terms. That there may be nothing behind the elaborate facade of Postmodernism is of no consequence. But, paradoxically, having disdained to give any proper account of itself, {18} Postmodernist poetry may be sharpening the divide between the intellectually rich and the less endowed. It may be that, with the collapse of communism, the world is being restructured on ideological lines. {19} Why, in the current flood of literary theory, are the obvious needs not being addressed? Why is there little or no justification for the extreme views being adopted — no casework, proper surveys, impartial reviews of the evidence, studies to work out the practical consequences of the ideologies? Not, surely, that the works are essentially pamphleteering. Or that some hard work would be required of their authors. No, but because proper scholarship might open the door to rapprochement, and so weaken the whole Modernist stance of lofty independence. Having been marginalized by unthinking, crass market forces, the arts will narrow discussion still further by rewriting the ground rules of debate.

Business Parallels: Some Practical Advice

Literary standing can seem so arbitrary, so much at the mercy of peripheral and chance events, that the stockmarket is an overused analogy. But the resemblance is worth pursuing. Just as a particular stock can be influenced by movements generally in their market sector, so are sales and an author's standing influenced by world events, celebrity gossip, whimsical reviews, TV programmes, personal attacks and a whole host of irrelevant matters. Moreover, like musicians and painters, writers often achieve prominence when their powers are waning, or when they are safely dead, with only an ignorant and exploitative family left to wrangle over the royalties.

But if writers cannot escape the more mindless aspects of a consumer society, they can use the system more intelligently, learning from those who understand the market. Stockmarkets, after all, can be played as a living (stockbrokers, financial analysts), a lucrative diversion (speculators) and as a steady source of income (prudent investors). The corresponding groups in the literary market might be reviewers and literary agents, the media, and the serious publishing houses. What about the businesses themselves, the writers and poets in this case. Are they too small to matters? Not at all: the one thing all editors complain of is the lack of good copy: articles that are fresh and engaging, written to time and specification. Moreover, to extend the analogy, small companies can be extremely successful in supplying a niche market — provided only they are well-placed and alert, since resources do not allow for mistakes.

Let us return to the stockmarket, and concentrate on the prudent investor, on writing which provides a steady source of satisfaction to authors and to the serious publishing houses. One measure of a share's attractiveness is the Price / Earnings ratio. Dividing the current share price by the most recently published annual earnings per share indicates how many years it would take for earnings to meet the current share price. A low P/E against the average in a particular sector may indicate a good purchase opportunity, or at least some measure of how well a company is performing. In literary terms, the effort needed to write or appreciate a work may correspond to its price, and the satisfaction we derive from reading it correspond to its earnings.

Is that too cynical? We talk about investing time and effort in something, and no one has unlimited reserves of either. The effort/profit ratio also divides literature into the categories that reviewers remember is their first question to ask. Pulp fiction is not literature, but provides adequate entertainment for a small expenditure of effort. Literary novels are more difficult, but provide pleasures and insights of a different order. Poetry is the most demanding, but also provides the most intense and lasting pleasure, which is unmistakable and irreplaceable. But the return is paramount, and we expect guidance in this from critics and reviewers. We should feel cheated if, after giving up long years to learning Persian or Chinese, we found existing translations of late Islamic or Tang poetry were entirely adequate. But they aren't, and we must either invest the effort or be content with pale imitations: fine poems sometimes, but not remotely like their originals.

But we can go further into this P/E ratio — as critics and educationalists, as professional writers and as the general reading public. Types of effort and profit differ very much between such categories, and good writers keep these distinctions in mind. Reflect on the first half of the equation. Effort is not simply the getting to grips with unfamiliar themes and techniques: effort includes the expectations and experiences of life that we bring to reading a work, things which a writer needs to develop if the material is to be given a more engaging, vivid, meaningful and illuminating form. Perhaps too much of contemporary poetry falls at this very hurdle. It makes little call on such experiences, and gives very little back. Very often it is fashionable literary theory which this poetry purports to exemplify, and such literary theory is usually exasperating to professional writers and all but invisible to the general reading public. Even on critics and educationalists there may creep the suspicion that these conjectures are unnecessarily self-serving and abstruse. If writing is to be an understanding with the reader, that understanding must be firmly centred. Literary standing in the community is a matter of winning hearts and minds, of playing fair with expectations, of providing what is not available elsewhere. 

In summary, various stock market indicators exist, and they are by no means coincident. Literary skill is widely recognized in the profession,  but is something that most authors do not wish to go public about, negative advertising helping no one. Critical esteem has different criteria. There is no single measure to follow, but poets, like other writers, must do their sums.

Yet the difficulty of most poets is to get their work listed at all. Magazine editors can be very cavalier in reading new submissions — protestations to the contrary — and no one can assess more than a small fraction of the work that pours off the small presses. How do you catch the editor's eye, and more particularly, the public's?

Again we can compare literary productions to shares, but this time from the speculator's point of view. The lasting quality of the work is unknown — at least to the investor — and is indeed immaterial. All that matters is how your stock will perform at some later but not too distant date. What will the investor gain by reading or publishing your work that can be transferred with some profit to other investment opportunities?

Look at the publisher's needs. Yes, he likes your work, but is going to ask some searching questions. Do you understand your area of the market? Many poets, particularly those starting off, will be incredulous at the very notion of market. They write for diverse reasons — to craft something significant, share emotions, learn what they understand of themselves and the world  — but money hardly comes into it. Nor, to be brutally frank, is financial gain a driving force for the publisher: he has long given up hopes in this direction. But he does ask: is this the sort of work that we feel comfortable supporting?

So the dilemma for the poet. The work has to be distinctive — fresh, striking, original — but not so individual that it falls foul of existing categories. It would be encouraging to think that publishers and editors had an immediate eye for quality, and would publish regardless. But they don't, and often have very limited views. The first maxim for the poet is therefore the advice given to anyone starting up a new business: do what everybody else does, but do it better. In short, the poet must research the market where the work could be placed, and ensure that their appeal, boundaries, clientele and standing are correctly judged.

But the publisher wants to know about you the writer. How serious are you? What writers do you model yourself on? What are your plans for the future, and how realistic are you? Discretely, he will also want to know something about your age, social background, ethnic aspects. Possibly also your politics and social aspirations. If this sounds intrusive, remember that he is building a stable of writers that has to run in harness somewhere.

Let us return to the stock market investor. How does he investigate a company? By reading its annual report. No one suggests you produce a lavish brochure on yourself — you at your desk writing, you in earnest conference with your editor, etc. — but your work should be professionally presented. There should be some personal details, plus brief details of prestigious courses and workshops attended. Work in progress is also important, as of course is any literary work you may do for a day job as journalist, editor, lecturer. Naturally, a continuous string of previous successes inspires confidence, and commissions from public bodies even more so. You are building up a public persona of yourself, and the first place to start is with the prospective publisher.

What more does an annual report contain? A balance sheet and a profit/loss account. Are these relevant? To the serious poet, as an internal audit, they may well be essential. A profit/loss account is simply the record of the past year's trading, and is the first thing a chairman consults in composing his address. How much effort has gone into the writing of the last year's poems, and with what result in a personal sense of achievement and publishing success?  Which poems were easier to write, and found an outlet more readily? What marketing efforts were necessary, and what hours/contacts/letters were employed? Then there is the balance sheet. Though only an assessment of assets against liabilities, a dispassionate view of the year ahead is vital for the professional writer. Has he or she the time to write as intended, to do the research and marketing? And the finished manufactures waiting for publication? What about the huge backlog of poems almost completed but still refusing to come good? They need thought and time, precious resources for a writer.

All this obvious, but is often neglected. Recall also that finding a publisher — not to mention the readings, radio interviews, and promotions that come later — commonly takes longer than actually writing the poetry. Writing poetry is hard work, and finding a market even more so. Planning is part of the job.

How do you, the writer, the chairman of the enterprise, come across? How bullish are you about your writing prospects, that you can continue to turn out quality work in this and similar veins? Enthusiasm is expected and, if tempered with a little realism, certainly more attractive than dealing with writers from whom getting copy is like pulling teeth.

Equally obvious is where do you fit into the current publication or publications. How prepared are you to get the enterprise off the ground? Will you attend to letters and emails promptly, understand the editor's or publisher's point of view, make the amendments necessary with a good grace? Editors are familiar with gifted writers who are also unending trouble.

What trading edge does your work have? Doubtless your work shines in your eyes as having no rivals for freshness, originality and host of other excellences, but have you really checked? The procedure with paintings is to hang them with competitor's work, and this test you need apply to your poems. Visualize them making a collection or joining others in an anthology. Do they stand up well? If you cannot visualize their appearance clearly, then print out a few in similar format on the word processor, and manually insert them into the book or magazine. You are doing what the editor will do in assessing your work, and a little effort now will save time and disappointment later.

Where's the hot money going? Never mind the policy statements: what are the poetry publishing houses actually turning out? Analyses may be time consuming, but they are vital.  Which poets feature in the catalogues, and are they people with whose work you wish to be associated? If not, then it's most unlikely that the publisher will want your work anyway. There is no reason why we should all like the same poetry, and editors are not to be bullied into admiring your deathless productions.

Then there are statements and interviews in the poetry trade press. Some may be vague, ill-considered, altogether wrong-headed, but there run through the publishing industry certain fashions, common policies and ideas whose time has come.  Make it your business to understand the current thinking by reading whatever editorials and interviews come your way: something is always revealed.

Better still are chats with editors at conventions and readings. Professionals don't break ranks, and don't reveal detailed publishing policies, but they are usually happy to talk about their trade in the general terms of any business. Once they realize that another poetry manuscript is not being thrust in their direction, they can be informative and helpful. Just respect the circumstances, and don't ask leading questions about contemporary figures.

What does all this amount to? Perhaps no more than common sense, but writers often seem bereft of this faculty when it comes to submissions. They don't bother get the editor's name right, don't provide the information needed in digestible forms, and very often haven't even read the publication concerned properly or its submission guidelines. No salesman would push his luck in this way, and it seems particularly stupid to take risks with a fragile commodity in a greatly oversupplied market. No one is going to suffer if they can't read your work, and not a few editors heartily wish that poets were restricted to ten new poems a year, provided only, please God, that they were good poems. There isn't the time to read most of what passes for literature today, and no one knows what developments have real or lasting value. Harsh words and unwanted, but to repeat the obvious: amongst the great mass of the indifferent, inarticulate and/or merely worthy, make sure that your poems are shining exceptions, and that they are handled as such.

Economic Parallels: Dealing with Oversupply

Just as writing, and poetry in particular, suffers from overproduction, so one of the besetting problems of advanced capitalism is over-accumulation of capital. {20} Speculative, stateless, financial market money reached $2,000 billion by 1987, and shows no sign of declining. How is it managed?

In three ways. Until recently it has been controlled by planning and cooperation of the sectors involved: Keynesian economics, self-regulation by banks and funding institutions, a common script for business, finance and government. Secondly, much of the capital has been absorbed: by diversification, research and development, investment long-term and overseas. And thirdly, a harsher but necessary approach, capital has simply been devalued: by rising inflation, company liquidations, junking of yesterday's consumerist goods. The 2008 financial crash brought much of this home. {22}

Parallels prove nothing, but the similarities are striking. Until perhaps the sixties there did exist an intelligent reading public for contemporary poetry. Although small, and somewhat elitist, the affair was managed through the cooperation of writers, academia, government funding institutions and reviewing in the better-quality newspapers. Much of that has disappeared. {21} To parallel capital absorption we have a greater awareness of cultural and intellectual matters in poetry. Serious poets are expected to pour time and effort into contemporary enthusiasms. And for those who can't or won't "waste time" like this, how are their productions to be treated? By devaluation. If their poetry doesn't conform to certain criteria, doesn't show allegiance to current preoccupations, doesn't make a decorous bob to cultural gurus, then it's simply written off, despised, downgraded. The filters employed may be narrow, self-serving, altogether false, but they are inevitable, and independent of literary quality. And if, as Marx observed, it is economic conditions that determine intellectual outlook, then the conditions — literary oversupply, book trade difficulties, academic insecurity, a disaffected and marginalized intelligentsia — may need to change if poetry is to become what it once was.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. Chapters 1-4 of John Passmore's Serious Art (1991) and Chapter 7 of Oswald Hanfling's Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (1992).
2. Gilbert Adair's The Post-Modernist Always Rings Twice: Reflections on Culture in the 90s) (1992).
3. Brian Appleyard's The Culture Club: Crisis in the Arts (1984).
4. Charles Reich's Opposing the System (1995) and Melanie Phillips's Illiberal Liberalism in Sarah Dunant's (Ed.) The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate (1994).
5. Dunant 1994.
6. Winslow Farrel's How Hits Happen (1998) suggests an explanation in terms of complexity theory but provides no concrete examples.
7. Epidemiology. Wikepedia article with links.
8. Computers and Epidemiology. Jeffrey O. Kephart, David M. Chess and Steve R. White. May 1993. Introduction, applying to computer viruses.NNA
9. Epidemiology theory and disturbance spread on landscapes. R.V. O’Neill, R.H. Gardner, M.G. Turner and W.H. Romme. 1992.'neil1992LE.pdf. Mathematical approaches, from Landscape Ecology vol. 7 no. 1 pp 19-26 (1992)
10. An epidemiology of Representations: A Talk with Dan Sperber. Jul 2005.
11. Elizabeth Wilson's Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (1985).
12. M.J. Mulkay's Science and the Sociology of Knowledge (1979). and Chapter 8 of Tim Dant's Knowledge, Ideology and Discourse (1991).
13. Introduction of Dunant 1994.
14. Martin Hollis's The Social Destruction of Reality in M. Hollis and S. Kukes (Eds.) Rationality and Relativism (1982).
15. Chapter 3 of Dunant 1994.
16. See Christopher Ricks's T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988) for a defence.
17. Brian Easlea's Witch-hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy: An Introduction to Debates of the Scientific Revolution 1450-1750 (1980).
18. Chapters 1 and 2 of Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature (1990).
19. Jean-Christophe Rufin's L'Empire et les Nouveaux Barbares (1991), and chapter 7 of Susan George and Fabrizio Sabelli's Faith and Credit: The World Bank's Secular Empire (1994).
20. David Harvey's The Condition of Modernity (1990), which has a good bibliography.
21. Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992).
22. United States Economic Forecasts. Ecommerce Digest. October 2013.

Internet Resources

1. Sociology of Art. Sandeep Bhatt. 1997. Thesis proposal summarizing current difficulties.
2. Verstehen: Max Weber's HomePage. Frank W. Elwell.
. Excellent series of notes on this and other sociologists.
3. The Fatal “Theory-Fiction” of Jean Baudrillard. Jason DeBoer. Introduction to Baudrillard's views.
4. Costly Compensations: Postmodern Fashion, Politics, Identity. Vincent B. Leitch. 1996. General article citing Baudrillard.
5. The Fashion System. Roland Barthes. 1967. Summary/exerpt by Michael Hancher: Dec. 1997.
6. The Stock Market. Helpful notes on a commercial site.
7. T.S. Eliot Says "Jew". Jonathan Morse. Review of books by Julius, Asher and Morrison: the case against Eliot.
8. The Poetry of Prejudice. Anthony Julius. features/0,12887,972109,00.html. Guardian article of June 7, 2003: summery of the Julius position.
9. T. S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism. R. F. Fleissner. Dec. 1999. 59136345/p1/article.jhtml. The case for Eliot.
10. The Scientific Revolution: Paradigm Lost. Robert A. Hatch. Feb. 2002. Good series of articles and resources.
11. Death of Literature by Alvin Kernan. 1992. Review by Paul Trout.
12. The Decline and Fall of Literature. Andrew Delbanco. Nov. 1999. NYR article on parlous state of English in US universities.
13. Faith and Credit: The World Bank's Secular Empire by Susan George and Fabrizio Sabelli. Feb. 2000. Review likening World Bank to a secular church.
14. International Monetary Theory. Satya J. Gabriel. 2001. Course note, with references.
15. Globalization and Its Discontents in 2004. Joseph E. Stiglitz. Jan. 2004.
. Unconventional views: more articles on site.
16. Cooling the Hot Money Casino. Judith Achieng. Jun. 2000. Asia Times article.

      C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.