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Visiting poets reveal insights into financial crisis

If current events affect poetry, what can we learn from this intersection in a post-financial crisis world? This question was the focus of "Capital Poetics: Poetry and the Economic Turn," a seminar sponsored by the Society for the Humanities March 4 at the A.D. White House.

Eleven scholars -- three of whom had completed postgraduate work at Cornell -- gathered for the one-day symposium, which included lectures "Crisis of Crisis," "Value Theories," "Specters and Marks" and "Crisis and Inferno." The seminar was organized by Joshua Clover, a fellow at the Society for the Humanities.

"The intellectual paths in the arts and humanities are always taking 'turns' -- the linguistic turn, the ontological turn, the ethical turn and so on," Clover said, "but at the moment these seem trumped by 'the economic turn.' The symposium is an occasion to take up these issues, in some regard radical and Marxist issues, with a renewed seriousness and curiosity, after a period when they have been largely pushed to the margins."

In analyzing an excerpt from the British modernist poet J.H. Prynne's "For the Monogram," Chris Nealon, Ph.D. '97, a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University, commented on the poem's hints of "capacities for revolutionary violence" and measured this against the poet Rob Halpern's desire "for the abolition of conditions that make [his] work readable."

Tatiana Sverjensky, a graduate student in the Department of Comparative Literature, presented Alice Notley's "The Descent of Alette," focusing on "the relation between knowing and acting," Clover said. "She was mulling the problem of what kind of knowledge you need -- or not -- before moving to political action." And Geoffrey Gilbert, an associate professor of comparative literature at the American University of Paris and former postdoctoral fellow at Cornell, explored Arthur Rimbaud's "Sonnet," concluding that "capitalism is always a hypothesis … in crisis of money and commodities, the intensification of work produces disrhythmia in our lives."

Other participants in the symposium analyzed the changing faces of labor and politics. Jasper Bernes, MFA '01, University of California-Berkeley, examined poetry's interpretation of women's increasingly common "double day" of domestic and waged labor, and Tim Kreiner, UC-Davis, evaluated the extent to which conflicts within the world of poetry in the 1970s "were also lively and combative debates about the larger issues of class and race, about who was the true subject of politics in general, and what political organization might look like," Clover said.

Ultimately, said organizers, the seminar's value stretches beyond the world of academia. "Reading poetry … is a powerful and durable way for trying to think about some of the most pressing and subtle political, social and economic problems," Clover said, "to think about the matter, the real material, that shapes and limits our lives but is itself hard to observe without using something like poetry as a lens, or frame, or crystal ball."

Shashwat Samudra '14 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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Blaine Friedlander