How poetry helps explain the productivity paradox

by Ben Wright

I lead a double life. One as an Associate Editor and another as a “working poet”—I recently graduated from Hunter College with an MFA in Poetry. I usually get two questions when I tell people this: “Why?” and then, quickly, “What are you going to do with that?” I’m no stranger to questions like these—I did get my undergraduate degree from an art school—but those questions reflect (in this Millennial’s view) an outdated paradigm. So I respond with a question of my own:

“What do you mean by ‘do’?”

The Hatred of Poetry Ben LernerA lot of this befuddlement comes from the inherently self-defeating view on the nature—and value—of poetry. Ben Lerner’s new essay, The Hatred of Poetry, touches on this in depth. Why do people hold poetry in utter contempt? One of the principal reasons, according to Lerner, is that “poetry is supposed to signify an alternative to the kind of value that circulates in the economy as we live it daily, but actual poems can’t realize that alternative.”

Here’s where my two lives—as editor and poet—come together. Just as poetry seeks to create an alternative mode of “value,” economists are having a hard time figuring out just how productive the workforce is these days.

Indeed, there’s a lot of hand-wringing about productivity—the growth numbers are the lowest since 1982; we’re working harder for nothing; what’s the point; we’re all going to be replaced by robots—and so on. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have the academic chops (or the space in this blog post) to fully understand the macro implications of the productivity plateau.

But I do know something about productivity on a micro level. Take me, for example. I have a full-time gig here, and until recently, I was a full-time student as well—and a productive one at that. I ended my MFA with a book-length thesis manuscript—which I have self-published and am selling at a (modest) profit to those who will humor me.

Does that productivity get measured? And, further, in the gig economy, are the freelance jobs so many of my compatriots take on fully reflected in the productivity numbers our economists are sweating over?

I work in an office full of economists, and after a very informal survey, I’m sorry to report that there’s no simple answer. To answer these questions is a Sisyphean task, just like poetry. At last, common ground between economics and art!

According to multi-hyphenate Wallace Stevens (poet-insurance executive), “Poetry is a kind of money.” Lerner elaborates, saying poetry, like money, “mediates between the individual and the collective, dissolves the former into the latter, or lets the former reform out of the latter only to dissolve again”—exactly the kind of mutability that confounds academics and economists alike.

These areas—poetry, money, productivity—are aggravatingly hard to pin down—and still they change at a rapid pace. Lerner posits that the hatred of poetry stems from a pervasive feeling that “our moment’s poems are always already failing us.” So too our definition of productivity; just as we change the parameters to suit the current moment, the moment’s passed.

So what’s a poet or economist to do? We must “strive to perfect our contempt,” says Lerner. We have to understand the limitations of the art or the science; we have to pick up the goalposts yet again in search of the answers. It’s a thankless, unending, nigh-impossible task to be sure, but a necessary one.

Ben Wright supports global research studies for the Thought Leadership group. He has developed and supported projects on subjects including cloud computing, workforce development, risk management, and the future of money.