Stick in a Thumb and Pull out a Plum: Poetry and Consumption
The Moneypower Continuum – Francis X. Healy Jr.
Rationing Earth – Herb Bentz
Global Social Policy: Themes, Issues and Actors – Kepa Artaraz, Michael Hill
Are we, collectively, any more advanced than Little Jack Horner,[i] the nursery rhyme plum-thumber of the title above? Don’t we see this affect in parliament daily?
We eat to live, we eat the trees and roads and petrol and machines it takes to make the food we eat. And this is only a fraction of what we consume. Writing consumes, clothing consumes, recycling consumes. Once it seemed the solution to decreasing consumption was decreasing the population, but technological innovation solved conceptual poverty, and, presumably, one rich person can consume more than several poor villages. How do we write about this?
For Judith Wright, fire was a potent figure. She writes about fire in a number of poems, and cites Herakleitos, as an epigraph to her book The Two Fires (1955), saying that the world itself is fire. In the title poem, she writes, melodramatically enough, “time has caught on fire”. How then can we consume fire? We might find out through attending to the predominantly metaphorical use of fire in Wright’s poems, such as “Two Fires”, “Flame Tree in a Quarry”, “Wonga Vine”, “Midnight” and others. Wright seems fascinated by fire as a simultaneous signifier of life and death, and its relation to air, or breath. We don’t have to accept Herakleitos, or Wright, of course.
There is a philosophical, and practical, movement known as “voluntary simplicity” which cuts down on consumption through living more simply and sparely. This phrase, of “voluntary simplicity” challenges the usefulness of the term “sustainability” which, in its function as a buzzword, encourages consumption. Many poets live a life of involuntary simplicity, at least relative to their earning peers. But how do we think this through in poetry, poetics? The spare lyric may appeal to some, but do we all want to write like every word that comes out of our world-destroying laptops is precious, and should be scratched on a bone in a field and praised in the New York Times? Fire, for one thing, is more baroque.
There was a maximalist art movement that challenged minimalism: which consumed the most in their production is arguable. Poetry may not save the planet, but we keep reading and writing it because it makes being alive, for us, worthwhile. Bully for those it doesn’t, to borrow from Frank O’Hara.
Consumption is also tied up with aspiration and autonomy. See Bruno Mars’ “What I Like” or Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Woman”. The “simple life” is a bourgeois concept. National consumption is also tied to so-called defence. The use value of a missile vs the support of art practitioners.
I am looking for poems that relate to, consider the above. Not “magical solution” poems (unless they’re actually magical), but (meta)critical, metaphorical, extensive, enjoyable poems. I’d rather read a great shopping poem than a diatribe – or self-portrait posing as a lament. Breathe. Eat.
[i] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46973/little-jack-horner-56d2271c5917a. For a speculative history, see http://www.rhymes.org.uk/little_jack_horner.htm.
Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics