Video: The Gift Economy of Poetry
From the inaugural Poets Forum, presented by the Academy of American Poets on October 20, 2007, at Marymount College in New York City. On the second panel of the day, Robert Hass, Galway Kinnell, Nathaniel Mackey, and Ellen Bryant Voigt answered questions about "Aesthetic Lineage and Originality" from critic and founding editor of Parnassus, Herbert Leibowitz.
This is a difficult subject to think about, in a way, and also to think about what would be interesting to you [the audience], to hear from us about it. I had three thoughts. One, a more general one about wanting to be an artist and wanting to write poetry and how you come to it and how you receive it. This is a thought that came to me from a wonderful book by Lewis Hyde called The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.
Basically, what he says in the book is that the world is run on two economies and one of them is a money economy that measures itself in whatever money measures. You can tell in an exchange what's going on by what you give and what you get back, and it's important to count. And basically you are free after the counting is done.
And the other economy, he calls the "gift economy." He talks about the Trobriand Islanders, and the way gifts circulate in a lot of preliterate societies in which you keep it for a while and then you pass it on. The gift creates an obligation which you have to pass on—is the argument. And one of the things he comments on, that the earliest anthropologists to study this, Marcel Mauss, commented on, is that the important thing with the gift was not counting, because if you count then it becomes an economic exchange.
If somebody brings an eleven dollar bottle of Chardonnay to your house on a Friday night, so you bring an eleven dollar bottle of Chardonnay to their house the next Friday night, that's an economic exchange. But if you don't notice, or if when you're buying your wine, because it's payday and you're feeling exuberant and you're not concerned to make it even, then you've entered the gift economy.
Emily Post on 19th-century versions talks about showers as a gift economy and mentions wedding showers and showers for babies, but the third one that was common throughout America in the 19thcentury was showers for new ministers when they arrived in town. Why? Because they belong in the gift economy. They don't belong in the money economy.
There are transformers—like for healers the AMA, or the patent office, or copyright—to put works of art on the market for a while, and then they come out of the market and back into the commons, because the commons is where they came from. And the way they came there is just as anybody here who ever wanted to write, wanted to write because they got gifted.