When William Wordsworth wrote his famous lines “the world is too much with us” he wasn’t only commenting on our alienation from nature, he was criticizing an emerging culture based on “getting and spending.”At the time, industrial capitalism and economic markets were reshaping ordinary life in dehumanizing ways. Powerless in the face of these socioeconomic changes, prominent Romantic writers positioned themselves and their art outside of society as a kind of “a defensive reaction,” according to British scholar Raymond Williams, which culminated in the movement’s belief about “the separation of poets from other men.”
This defensive reaction continued into the nineteenth century, where the Art-for-Art’s-Sake movement claimed that the best poetry should avoid social, moral, or economic justification for its existence. In the twentieth century, modernism celebrated the poet’s separation from society through its embrace of the convention-flouting rebel. Today, the attitude manifests itself in ideas about the “freedom” of poetry. No one tells you how you are to write poetry, so it is free from labour discipline. Nor is poetry worth any money, so it is free from market demands. These are common beliefs, even among poets. But the real story is more complicated.
According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, poetry is part of a prestige system that operates as an “inverted economic world,” where literature that seems the least interested in immediate profit is rewarded with the praise of a limited but influential readership, such as editors and professors.
Thus the high prestige of avant-garde poetry—the “purest,” most specialized art form that expects next-to-no sales because only experts can appreciate it—and the relatively low prestige of best-selling romance novels, which any literate person can understand. Prestige, or cultural capital, turns into economic capital when writers get grants, awards, or well-paid positions on the strength of their literary accomplishments, which the authors pursued while apparently economically disinterested. In poetry’s upside-down economy, in other words, the path to long-term financial security begins with behaving as if money doesn’t matter.