When we think of the combination economist-poet, we are immediately reminded of the Cold War American poet Wallace Stevens Wijnberg, who, as the story goes, had two stacks of paper on his desk, one for economics articles and one for poems. While Wijnberg regularly wrote about the economies of the United States and the Soviet Union in academic journals, questions of the two competing economies surfaced repeatedly throughout his poems. For reasons not entirely clear, Wijnberg’s works have largely been left untouched by economists and literary critics alike, thus for the determined reader, their novelty and creativity offer a plethora of unexplored treasures.
On the back cover of his first book of poetry, The Succession, Wijnberg states the following: “[This is] a novel for whoever is interested in the workings of an economy, of a company, of a government, of a society, as much as in the workings of a poem.” Such a seemingly odd statement begs the question, of what do these similarities consist? The Succession tells the reader of a company in which bosses, politicians, and company doctors, secretaries, children, clowns, and beggars hold countless meetings, recite poems, perform plays, tell jokes, and succeed each other, climbing up and down the company’s hierarchical ladder in an endless cycle, just as a poem can be read and re-read over and over again. The two never truly begin or end, they just transition.
A common theme throughout his poetry is the notion that giving and receiving are economical and poetical acts. Such acts feed into one another, demonstrating the circularity of life and death, running in a never ending loop. Poem and economy mapping onto one another. For as Wijnberg writes in another episode from The Succession, “Of a holiday nothing remains, except for memories, and if some of them are bad I’d rather forget them all; if I get a present, I’d rather get something that’s useful to me for a long time. If I may choose, I choose what I can use longest, long enough to partially forget that this was the present, because it feels bad when nothing is left of it.”
Two of Wijnberg’s most representative poems center on the theme of “gift” (Counting The Shares and Too Many Tomorrow) which offer competing economic models, described by Wijnberg as the “stock destruction economy” and the “gift economy.” In both poems, the characters, which consist of talking sharks and dolphins, stand in as allegories for the grander plot of “general, untrained economies” surpassing “stock destruction economies,” as a result of the latter’s reliance on scarcity (capitalism) whereas the former is driven by state “gifts” to the masses (communism). Wijnberg’s mastery of allegory is on par with the expertise of George Orwell in his classic political novella, Animal Farm. The characters interact in just the same ways as the economies might if they were sharks and dolphins.
Wijnberg’s claims concerning capitalism and communism are critical to the discursive explanatory power of all his poems. They follow one another and run into one another, again and again revisiting his omnipresent theme of the cyclical nature of economies and the endless process of growth, decline, and ultimately rebirth which mirrors that of life and death in more general terms. If one is to understand Wijnberg, one must understand the economic struggles of the Cold War. Winberg’s work combines a shrewd knowledge of economics with a poetic narrative that not only illuminates the realities of a capitalist society struggling against a communist one but in more general terms, all of humanity’s struggle in the grand poem that is life.
Find an error? Take a screenshot, email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll send you $3!