Poet and financial journalist Emma Simon selects six poems about money
The poet and novelist Robert Graves famously said: “There’s no money in poetry – but then there’s no poetry in money.” Was he right? Most of us can certainly attest to the truth of the first half of his statement. Man (or woman) cannot live on royalties alone, and even the UK’s best-known poets, the ones garlanded with awards and book deals, generally have other careers to ensure the bills get paid. But is there poetry in money? On the face of it, it’s not a promising subject. There’s something prosaic, rather than poetic, about pensions, tax-returns and two-for-one pizza vouchers. You don’t see money saver Martin Lewis reeling off too many sonnets.
Is this fair, though? I’d argue the quotidian nature of money makes it a topic worthy of poetic exploration. And (full disclosure here) to help ensure my bills get paid, my main job is writing about consumer finance issues. Generally this doesn’t spill into the poetry I write, but the more you start thinking about money, the richer a topic it seems (no pun intended). Many of us have complicated feelings towards money, which can be rooted in our upbringing, family and background. It’s a topic where taboos still abound. Most of us feel uncomfortable discussing salaries, for example. Many of us indulge in a sort of ‘magical thinking’ around money. And when you start thinking about money – be it old-style doubloons, or the virtual algorithms of a Bitcoin, the feel of your first pay check in your pocket or a lucky coin thrown into a wishing well – there’s a lot of imagery and symbolism involved that should appeal to poets.
So why aren’t more of us writing about money? To make the case that we should, I’ve picked six poems that use money – the everyday thing that none of us ever seem to have enough of – as a way of exploring ourselves and the world around us.
The Smoking Cabinet
by Caleb Parkin
“There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either.”
The mortgage advisor updates us on familial
bereavements, bemoans the clogged M4.
Deposits the negative equities of his week.
But let’s talk about you.
So we do: our meagre figures, precarious
tax returns, the very notion of a home. Until
finally, a surprisingly optimistic prophecy.
An unseen grid of digits which might
coalesce into a living room. A distant
algorithm which might grow into our own
garden, or send us sashaying back to rent,
to live the televisual dream. To be men among
other men, preserved in the lasers of dancefloors.
It’s then I notice it: on top of the filing cabinet,
a small, dusty wooden box—and within this,
only more dust and one defunct lightbulb
that rests on its side. My grandfather’s, he says,
it was nearly chucked away. From days when
tobacco drawers and brass pipe-brackets were
charms which brought men’s breath together.
But here we are: we three men, in this hazy
world of finance and dust, not smoking.
This is such an atmospheric poem. I love how Parkin conjures up so much from such unlikely beginnings: a mortgage advisor and traffic problems on the M4. I admire the movement in the poem: how it reaches forward into the possible, that “notion of home”, but also stretches back into both an immediate and a more distant past, seen through strobe lights and pipe smoke. This isn’t about money and mortgages but what its “unseen grid of digits” can help create – a sense of safety, belonging, and togetherness. ‘The Smoking Cabinet’ is published in Wasted Rainbow (tall-lighthouse, 2021).
by John McCullough
You tumbled into my palm in a trickle of sterling
bad coin foul queen though I didn’t notice.
I pocketed you conveyed you like your Sedan chair
respectfully slotted you into vending machines that coughed
you out. You winked at me from a change tray
and abruptly I spotted everything about you
was wrong your weight your ill-defined milled edge
your obverse skewed. Not copper zinc nickel but lead
sprayed with gold paint. Too shiny. Queer-cole
they used to say meaning counterfeit or base money
what ends up improperly beside your person tilting
the system forcing each wall mutilating the weather.
Fucking queer a voice in the Watford crowd snarled
as my lips brushed Ryan’s cheek. There I was my mouth
mimicking legit my hoodies cap trackies like a man’s
but on close inspection awry my voice too light
edges blurred. Flickery. I carry this awareness in my blood
how simply I’m revealed as undermining the currency
warping the ceiling. Now coin I keep you squirrelled
in my wallet’s secret section. You are my talisman
return me to what I am no pink pound but queer-cole
rebel head wonky original dangerous minting.
This brilliant poem isn’t about money per se, I know. But I admire the way it uses the coin, and the very language of currency, as a metaphor to explore identity and self, and to show how an understanding of the history and the distinctiveness of one can inform the other. It’s effective and imaginative. But really what I love most about the poem is its startling diction and language, the use of the word “flickery”, for example, and the fine phrase-making of “dangerous minting”. It makes me want to turn over the coins in my own pocket and look at them more closely. ‘Queer-Cole’ is published in Reckless Paper Birds (Penned in the Margins, 2019).
They count on you getting tired, giving up
by Kathy Pimlott
No-one lives here, you’d think, in the city’s glitzy heart
except the agile young wanting to shimmy and shine
before taking a van out to somewhere more… private.
Yet here we are, in infill blocks we made them build
all those years ago, knowing the mums, the kids
since before they had their own, so close we hear
each other sneezes, dying. Upstairs, temporary men
keep Spanish hours that clatter on their wooden floor,
my bedroom ceiling. They’ll go. I know who plays away,
who cooks mackerel, who’s been inside, uses Economy 7,
tunes into Magic Radio. I know we’re on borrowed time.
Where are the old girls of the market, theatres, print?
Gone to Guinnesses in the sky. Money wants no-one
to belong here, just pass through, hold no memories
worth fighting for to temper plans to squeeze the streets,
trick them out in shoddy to look like style, smell like profit.
Silly us. All that time we thought it ours, rallied, witnessed,
held the line, all that grief, just making it nice for Money.
Money isn’t just a metaphor that can be used to explore ideas of self and identity; it can also be an effective way to look at ideas about place. I love the personification of Money here – capital M, of course – and the way it only emerges near the end of the poem but throws us back to the start. We begin to understand, as the narrator does, the brute economic forces driving the changes described. I love the carefully observed details that fuel the anger in this finely tuned lament. ‘They count on you getting tired, giving up’ is from the small manoeuvres (Verve Press, 2022).
by Tony Hoagland
Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison
Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,
And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu
Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels
Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America
I sometimes find myself entertained but also a little bit aghast when reading a Tony Hoagland poem. He has that trick of saying something you don’t agree with, but making you somehow complicit. I find this poem bracing. I think it’s the mix of conversational tone and grandiose sweeping statements. But it travels along at such pace and with such a rapid succession of images that I am quite disorientated at the end, which is perhaps appropriate given its theme. It seems to be a really effective critique of money and rampant consumerism, but one that also acknowledges how seductive it all is. ‘America’ is from What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf Press, 2003)
What the Chairman Told Tom
by Basil Bunting
Poetry? It’s a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.
It’s not work. You don’t sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.
Art, that’s opera; or repertory –
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.
But to ask for twelve pounds a week –
Married, aren’t you? –
you’ve got a nerve.
How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?
The diction might have dated a little, but I think this poem sends up attitudes that are still alive and kicking today – the belief that writing and other creative endeavours are somehow not real work. Perhaps the voice in the poem reflects our own inner bank manager, sabotaging our own efforts, saying poetry is not important because it doesn’t help pay the rent. Sometimes I imagine the ‘Tom’ of the poem is T.S. Eliot and the chairman is the head of the bank he worked for. I may be wrong (and Google isn’t much help here), but I like the fact that Eliot probably got told this too (and proved them wrong, of course). The poem sends up that bumptious, self-important attitude of those that know the price of everything but the value of nothing.
The Space We Share With Friends Becomes Invisible
by Jo Bell
Was that the time we visited Seville?
The night we all lay stoned in dunes at Druridge Bay,
me swearing I could see the Northern Lights?
Or were we on the boat, each bumping round to find a bunk,
excited by the smell of salt?
Perhaps we walked the fields behind my house
to see the hilltop obelisk at dawn,
and soaked our ankles with the dew.
We did that, once. Was that the time?
I cannot say. For every night we’ve spent
is present now in every night we spend.
As like as not, we drank too much.
At any rate, we talked and laughed and spent the time
like hoarded coins: amazed, as usual,
to find each piece increase in value
simply by the keeping.
This is a fantastic poem that clearly isn’t about money at all but uses money as a striking conceit that helps illuminate its real subject – the value of friendship. I don’t think it is any coincidence that we get the repeated phrases “every night we’ve spent”, “every night we spend”, “spent the time” before the image of the hoarded coins. I imagine them throwing their golden light over these recalled night-time scenes. I might never have been to Druridge Bay (or Seville for that matter) but I can recognise everything in this poem. ‘The Space We Share With Friends Becomes Invisible’ is from Navigation (Moormaid Press, 2014).