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The Poet as Job Creator

Editor's Notes

At first glance the title of my editorial in this issue might seem to be satirical. After all, the term job creators has been bandied about for the last twenty years as a way of characterizing what some see as the primary animating force of the American economy. Poets rarely spring to mind in this context. Texas governor and recent presidential hopeful Rick Perry perhaps provided the best example of the proper use of the term in a 2011 interview with syndicated op-ed columnist Cal Thomas: “America is not going to move forward until we remove restrictions of over-taxation, over-regulation, and over-litigation on the job creators and free them so the jobs can be created.”

Before cries of “partisan politics” arise in response to my cherry-picking of the Perry quote, I would simply like to note that the phrase job creators resonates with an implied meaning that is already largely partisan in nature. And, just as the phase implies that there are obvious job creators in America, there are surely the inverse: those entities—be they upper-, lower-, or middle-class—that don’t create jobs, that simply aren’t productive in the sense of the good old American Protestant Work Ethic.

Which brings us to the poet as job creator.

Satire? Perhaps.

After all, W.H. Auden, the beloved British poet and paragon of the profession basically admits to this state of job-creating lassitude in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” his famous homage to Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats: “For poetry makes nothing happen.”

So, by lazy deductive reasoning and an utter lack of critical reflection—two elements that make propagandistic slogans particularly effective—we must believe that the poet is neither capable of nor responsible for creating jobs. But, as it is National Poetry Month, I thought we would take a look at two poets and see if what we learn about them is enough to make a case for the poet as job creator.

To do so, however, we first need to briefly consider the value of work. Americans at times conflate what is valuable with what has value. For better or worse, this is an understandable part of a system where value is equated with money. But this begs the question: Is someone who makes more money of more value to society? Is a poet as valuable as a crane operator or waitress or park ranger? And do these people have any value as job creators? How about an attorney or insurance executive?

Wallace Stevens, one of America’s greatest poets, was an attorney and later an executive at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. When he became vice president of the company in 1934, Stevens had already established himself as a poet of note with Harmonium (1923), a collection of poems that “exhibited an inclination to aesthetic philosophy and a wholly original style and sensibility,” according to the Academy of American Poets. He went on to publish some fourteen critically acclaimed books of poetry as well as two plays and a collection of essays.

More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the transformative power of the imagination. In short, creativity was his bailiwick, and Stevens likely applied creative thinking to his work at Hartford as well. Today the company employs 24,400 people, has a combined revenue of over $21.9 billion dollars, and was named by Ethisphere Institute in 2011 one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for its commitment to ethical practices, environmental stewardship, and community involvement. While Stevens can’t be credited for the entirety of Hartford’s successes, I mention this to illustrate that creativity, financial success, and high ethical standards can indeed flourish within the same garden.

Another poet to consider is Wisconsin Poet Laureate Bruce Dethlefsen. A retired educator and public library director, Dethlefsen has published four chapbooks and his work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac and has received three Pushcart Prize nominations. Though the Wisconsin Poet Laureate is an unpaid position, Dethlefsen dutifully crisscrosses the state on a mission to share poetry with as many communities and people as possible, usually appearing in public schools and libraries.

Does Dethlefsen produce jobs? Not in the sense that he is hiring assistant poets laureate to book his appearances or cheaply manufacturing poems in Indonesia for retail sale in the U.S. Instead, Dethlefsen contributes something much more valuable to our state’s economy: “I give people permission to be a poet and artist,” he says, noting that it is one of the most rewarding elements of his job.

Those who strive to be poets, artists, writers, digital designers, and members of the creative class need that permission—and support. Why? Because the future economy of our state, indeed, of the United States, hinges on companies that harness creativity and explore new ideas for economic development in post-industrial cities and rural communities alike. While America may not be able to compete in a global labor market, creative economy proponents like Richard Florida and recent Academy Evening speaker Jonah Lehrer argue that human creativity is the ultimate economic resource.

Wisconsin can and should take the lead in fostering creativity in America. We can start by supporting job creators like Wisconsin Poet Laureate Bruce Dethlefsen.


From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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