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Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest.
In addressing the issues raised in this forum, I turn to two main sources for clarity: the actual experience of writers from poor or working class families and the writings and experiences of revolutionaries and political prisoners, keeping in mind just how various experience is, no matter how mediated, and how many intersecting fault lines run through it. My highly condensed emphasis on these resources comes from a desire to put experience, despite misgivings one might have about “authenticity” or mediation, back into the discussion.
Regarding diction, in particular, the larger question of “literacy” (both actual reading ability and a certain kind of cultural literacy), is seldom looked at in terms of class allegiance. In The Stamp of Class: Reflections on Poetry & Social Class, one of the few actual studies on the subject, Gary Lenhart writes that, “literacy can alienate you from your loved ones and even yourself.” This fault line runs deep on our continent, given that Native peoples who learned English early on were often considered, or actually were, spies or double-agents, as in King Philip’s War. But this fault line can be seen far and wide: the late Tikva Levi, a working class activist in the Middle East, describes the conundrum of grass roots work in education in her masterpiece “The Purim Sequence,” where it is “only up close” that she can realize “how far away” she is from the sources of her political motivation. In the US context, Lenhart describes the greater facility for referring to the working class in the literature of the 1930s, and the difficulty of doing so following the 1960s, in which a “major obstacle to discussing class and poetry is the lack of a vocabulary.”
Where is this vocabulary to be found? I would suggest, first of all, that it must be found biographically, in the actual experience of poets, as unfashionable as that might seem. When Vincent Ferrini writes, “We were always freezing. That’s the one thing about poverty I’ll never forget, is the cold,” he is reaching back to memory of a prior time, to the scars on his body from the explosion of a stove that killed his sister right next to him.
While Daniel Tiffany emphasizes diction as a class marker “embody[ing] class relations,” this diction varies enormously according to experience, and working class experience does not have a particular diction. The range can run from Kenneth Patchen’s “Orange bears with their coats all stunk up with soft coal,” to Lorine Niedecker’s “condensary”; from the ferocity of Ed Dorn’s lacerating intellect, to the lush beauty of John Wieners; from the unerring clarity of Judy Grahn to the insatiable irony of Ishmael Reed, the fantastical satire of Gilbert Sorrentino, the raw power of Hubert Selby, the liberatory narrative thrust of Michael Rumaker, the steadfastness of Carol Tarlen, the deadpan delivery of Charles Bukowski, the imaginary of Diane Wakoski, the world and street consciousness of Jack Hirschman, the truth that survives in Koon Woon, the border bending permutations of Juan Felipe Herrera, and the rage and elegance of the late Wanda Coleman.
These poets articulate a world tied to the specific allegiance of memory in a hard-won style and diction that is all his or her own.
In every case, these poets articulate a world tied to the specific allegiance of memory—memories of work, of desire and confusion, of family or lack of it, of coming to consciousness—and each does it in a particularly hard-won style and diction that is all his or her own. Even in a work on as grand a scale as Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, the central fault line running through it—though it is “about” many other things—is the example Olson makes of fishing as dangerous work. Olson suggests that work worth doing might entail risk, and makes an example of his father’s activism in the Postal Workers Union, work he believed hastened his father’s death.
Turning to the texts of political prisoners and revolutionaries—whose work implicitly and explicitly contends with class issues—the unfashionable preponderance of experience that I have emphasized is matched by equally unfashionable terms such as “reason,” “truth,” and “beauty.” The late Amiri Baraka, grilled by CNN news anchor Connie Chung about his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” was asked about his responsibility as Poet Laureate of New Jersey, to which he replied: “My responsibility is to truth and beauty. That’s what Keats said, and that’s what DuBois said.”
The Salvadoran revolutionary Roque Dalton, though from a bourgeois family, writes about working from “within the very bowels of bourgeois culture, hastening its collapse and disintegration by confronting it with its insurmountable internal contradictions.” Dalton goes on to write that to do this, “poets must keep faith with poetry, with beauty.” Aimé Césaire, in his landmark Discourse on Colonialism, a text that declares a break with communism over the issue of race, relentlessly interrogates the purported rationality of western discourse by rationally analyzing racist texts and doctrines before finally calling upon Descartes himself to declare that “reason . . . is found whole and entire in each man,” hoisting racism with its own rationalist petard.
Painter, poet, and Puerto Rican nationalist activist Elizam Escobar, who served a nineteen-year prison term in Oklahoma, writes about liberating “art from the nets of political power.” In the present climate, his terms might appear paradoxical, or perhaps counter-intuitive:
The political is found in the least likely places, covered by multiple layers of ideological counterfeiting and acculturation. Our daily lives, our dreams, love, death, and even our bodies are all spheres of invisible yet intense political and human dramas that take place behind the visible political struggle. This inner struggle is more painful and more real. For it is from inside that we must decide our real needs, both material and spiritual. Art of liberation springs from this perspective, recognizing the power of the imagination’s struggle. Throughout history, the imagination’s struggle against prohibitions based on fear and ignorance has been one of the leading political processes that pushes forward the liberation of the human spirit by rescuing and creating new territories of freedom. . . . If art is to become a force for social change, it must take its strength from the politics of art, art’s own way of affecting both the world and the political-direct.
More than paradoxical, the thrust of Escobar’s whole argument appears counter-intuitive: that the struggle is out there and not in here, that imagination would betray materiality, and that politics in the “real world” would trump the internal politics of form and art.
None of this is simple, and exploring the elements involved in the conditions that have determined class structure is far beyond the scope of this piece. A lot has happened to the United States in the past hundred years: America’s entrance into World War I and Wilsonian doctrine, the creation of the Federal Reserve, the Harrison Act, the defeat in Vietnam, the state of perpetual war, the police state, the military/industrial complex, the national security state, and the prison/industrial complex. All of these have had significant impact on U.S. class structure, its mobility and immobility.
An empire still functioning after so much, particularly the defeat in Vietnam and the implications for military imperialism, has had to continually impose all kinds of domestic structural readjustments in order to survive. As Miriam Nichols so astutely points out in Radical Affections: Essays on the Poetics of Outside, the 1971 decision to remove the dollar from the Gold Exchange Standard “facilitated trade in derivative financial products and this in turn contributed to a lifting off of the economy from industrial production,” opening “the door for neoliberal policies that would result in the dismantling of social programs, the accelerated globalization of capital and the intensification of ‘financialization’—the trade in derivative money.” It is in this Banking Hell that we now live, and it is here we might start looking again for terms of class experience, memory, and solidarity, wherever they may be found.
Poet, novelist, translator, critic, and scholar Ammiel Alcalay teaches at Queens College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. His books include After Jews and Arabs, Memories of Our Future, Islanders, and neither wit nor gold: from then. His translations include Sarajevo Blues and Nine Alexandrias by Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinović. A new book of essays, a little history, and a 10th anniversary edition of from the warring factions came out in 2013 from re:public / UpSet. He is the General Editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, a series of student and guest edited archival texts emerging from the New American Poetry.
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