Exploring Debt Through Poetry

Debt and bankruptcy are among the biggest problems faced by American citizens — and their government — today, and those problems will likely be carried with us well into the future. It seems like they’re only getting worse with each new president. Poets have explored the notion of “debt” from a figurative standpoint forever. Here are a couple of our favorites.

The following poet by Paul Laurence Dunbar explores the concept of “debt” and the lack of debt settlement or relief in life. You might interpret to mean the “debts” that accrue one on top of another through bad decisions each day, i.e. the things we regret by the time we go to the grave. Or you might interpret it more literally as a commentary on American materialism and going into debt because we like to buy and buy and buy.

This is the debt I pay

Just for one riotous day,

Years of regret and grief,

Sorrow without relief.

Pay it I will to the end —

Until the grave, my friend,

Gives me a true release —

Gives me the clasp of peace.

Slight was the thing I bought,

Small was the debt I thought,

Poor was the loan at best —

God! but the interest!

This next poem is called “College’ll Wait” by Mark Stellinga — and it was added only this year! It explores debt from a different standpoint. The poem suggests that each of us has a debt to pay because we have a duty to society. College can “wait” because military service and making the world a safer, better place to live is more important. Here’s an excerpt:

She’d be doin’ absolutely everything she could to stop me from enlisting in 

the Army after school.

Trouble was…Dad and Grandpa both had proudly served, and plans ignoring their decisions didn’t feel too cool. 

Pointing at the photographs of my and my Dad’s father, all decked out in uniform, I argued with her, “Mom… 

Lots of other guys I know are joining up this summer, an’ I’d feel like a coward tellin’ Dad and Grandpa Tom…

“Given all the conflicts overseas…that I’m not going!   Plus – having missed the scholarship we all were sure I’d get –

College ’ll wait…and seein’ as Dad has yet to find a job…I don’t wanna add another dime of fam’ly debt.”

“Get in the car,” Mother barked…“it’s best you see – up close – the facet of – 

a conflict -that may help you to decide. 

We’re going to tour Walter Reed, and…by the time we leave…I’m sure you’ll feel the lucky ones are actually – those who died!”

At the end of the poem, the narrator realizes that what his mother showed him only made his desire to serve his country stronger. He’d now seen first-hand what others had sacrificed. It was important that those sacrifices be seen as a debt handed down to each future generation — and paid back one day at a time.