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Whatever Happened to Working Class Poems


"New Labor Journalism and the Poets" By Mark Nowak

"With the drastic growth of the creative writing/MFA industry in the past 50 years, do I know more or less about people, about wealth and poverty, about the true costs of the current economic collapse, about the lives of Dollar General workers, about what it’s like to live at the minimum wage, about what it’s like to be a 45 year old gas station cashier down the road from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to be a 37 year old mother of two working in the kitchen where the guests of the creative writing program at my alma mater (Bowling Green State University) eat lunch with faculty and grad students before their class visits, to be the maybe 55 year old Philadelphia man who emptied out the trash cans in the room before my reading last night at Temple University…"

To read the rest of the post, go here:

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I came across this poem by Richard Hugo that ties in with the topic of poets writing about the working class:

Letter to Levertov from Butte

Dear Denise: Long way from, long time since Boulder. I hope
you and Mitch are doing OK. I get rumors. You're in Moscow,
Montreal. Whatever place I hear, it's always one of glamor.
I'm not anywhere glamorous. I'm in a town where children
get hurt early. Degraded by drab homes. Beaten by drunken
parents, by other children. Mitch might understand. It's kind
of a microscopic Brooklyn, if you can imagine Brooklyn
with open pit mines, and more Irish than Jewish. I've heard
from many of the students we had that summer. Even seen
a dozen or so since then. They remember the conference
fondly. So do I. Heard from Herb Gold twice and read now and then
about Isaac Bashevis Singer who seems an enduring diamond.
The mines here are not diamond. Nothing is. What endures
is sadness and long memories of labor wars in the early
part of the century. This is the town where you choose sides
to die on, company or man, and both are losers. Because
so many people died in mines and fights, early in history
man said screw it and the fun began. More bars and whores
per capita than any town in America. You live only
for today. Let me go symbolic for a minute: great birds
cross over you anyplace, here they grin and dive. Dashiell
Hammett based Red Harvest here though he called it Personville
and "person" he made sure to tell us was "poison" in the slang.
I have ambiguous feelings coming from a place like this
and having clawed my way away, thanks to a few weak gifts
and psychiatry and the luck of living in a country
where enough money floats to the top for the shipwrecked
to hang on. On one hand, no matter what my salary is
or title, I remain a common laborer, stained by the perpetual
dust from loading flour or coal. I stay humble, inadequate
inside. And my way of knowing how people get hurt, make
my (damn this next word) heart go out through the stinking air
into the shacks of Walkerville, to the wife who has turned
forever to the wall, the husband sobbing at the kitchen
table and the unwashed children taking it in and in and in
until they are the wall, the table, even the dog the parents
kill each month when the money's gone. On the other hand,
I know the cruelty of poverty, the embittering ways
love is denied, and food, the mean near-insanity of being
and being deprived, the trivial compensations of each day,
recapturing old years in broadcast tunes you try to recall
in bars, hunched over the beer you can't afford, or bending
to the bad job you're lucky enough to have. How, finally,
hate takes over, hippie, !@#$, Indian, anyone you can lump
like garbage in a pit, including women. And I don't want
to be part of it. I want to be what I am, a writer good enough
to teach with you and Gold and Singer, even if only in
some conference leader's imagination. And I want my life
inside to go on long as I do, though I only populate bare
landscape with surrogate suffering, with lame men
crippled by more than disease, and create finally
a simple grief I can deal with, a pain the indigent can find
acceptable. I do go on. Forgive this raving. Give my best
to Mitch and keep plenty for yourself. Your rich friend, Dick.

In "Letter to Berg from Missoula" Hugo wrote:

". . . Most of the poets in my
generation came from working classes and we grew up to find
ourselves in middle class circumstances. Our fears were basic:
destitution, dispossession, deprivation; and while the younger poets
do not want for suffering, their concerns are different. In some cases,
they are almost the reverse of us, middle-class people who have
rejected that life and search for values in areas we still find
threatening. I think, in the Levertov poem, I got at something basic in
me and in many other poets about my age."
 

Trying to find a few more of Hugo's letter poems I came across "Recovering Richard Hugo: Confessionalism, the Authority of Experience, Trout Fishing, and Politics in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams" by Jonathan Loucks, which begins:

"I’ll admit it—I like confessional poetry. Unfortunately this is taboo these days, with popular poetry journals like Conduit and Jubilat publishing abstract, intuitive verse that can be seen in the vein of, or descendant to, the Language poets. Poet Stephen Burt describes in his 2004 article “Close Calls With Nonsense: How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry” as “sharing a surface difficulty, [they] tease or demand or frustrate; they’re hard or impossible to paraphrase; and they try not to tell stories” (Burt 17). Poets like Mark Levine and C.D. Wright and Karen Volkman; poets Burt defines as belonging to the Elliptical School, and who “seek the authority of the rebellious…[sound] desperately extravagant…or defiantly childish…break up syntax, but then reassemble it…and try to adapt Language Poets’ disruptions for traditional lyric goals (expressing a self and its feelings)” (Burt 20). In other words, poets for whom plot, meaning, and communication are not the point.

          I have a theory as to why Elliptical poems are so popular in contemporary North American literature, and it goes a little something like this—Bill Clinton killed confessional poetry. Well, not Clinton directly, but the economic boom of the Roaring ’90s allowed people of my generation, for the first time, to have the economic stability, societal security, and bourgeoisie luxury to play with words. Who needs poems about human suffering when half the country is dropping Ecstasy and listening to Intelligent Dance Music every other night? Grunge was dead, Kurt Cobain’s suicide a memory we put in a box and hid under the bed, and for a few years life was amazing."

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So, what Silliman, Bernstein and the Langpo folks started, the roaring 90s finished? I wonder what will happen now in the new economic climate of the second decade of the 21st century? Will conceptual poetry reign supreme in a post-flarf, post-don't-mind-the-deficit world? Somehow, I doubt it. Personally, I'm not suggesting we go back to the days of Lowell, Plath, Berryman and Sexton. I like Hugo's letter poems though. I don't know much about the new sincerity movement in poetry, but if it looks something like the old sincerity in these Hugo poems, I think it's preferable to the uncreative, conceptual copy 'n paste school of poetry, especially at this time.


Last edited by Katlin, Apr/17/2011, 12:28 pm
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Re: Whatever Happened to Working Class Poems


Poem read, decided to refresh my memory of Hugo's story. Found this link:

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If nothing else, what Stafford says about Hugo at the very bottom stands out. "He couldn't let a person or place feel alone."

For a second time you've touched on, what?, the relationship of poetry to the working class. I'm curious about your motive or what's inciting you or maybe just what you are after. At the same time your thoughts are forcing me to check in on the mix of my own regarding your theme. And a mix it is. Not exactly sure what I think. I am sure that I reject out of hand all the preciousness on the poetry scene since the Lang Po people established themselves. Lang Po, Elliptical poetry I guess it's called, Conceptual poetry asgain I guess it is called, Flarf poetry, etc. It isn't so much the poetry I reject. It is the head-heaviness, the ideological drive, the incessant need for a constantly new Ism. That I roundly reject as having nothing to do with poetry's instinct. And don't you think it true? That on the gut level poetry is instinctive, even has its own instinct? On the other hand, and to be fair, poetry that self-consciously addresses labor issues and the working class can also end in an Ism. It is called Social Realism.

If I understand what this Mark Nowak is after he is simply wanting the poetry scene to get regrounded in what is real for people on the streets, in their homes, out of the classroom. And I am with him. Mostly. When you think about it this very groundedness characterized many of the poets of Hugo's generation, right? And it was a groundedness crossing so-called party lines. ... Just swivelled in my chair to look at my poetry bookshelf to cite a few names. Then I realized, hell, the American poetry scene has always been grounded in a real way, speaking to real people about real things and issues and dreams and even nightmares going back to Whitman. Ed Dorn wrote about poverty in the coal country of KY. Sandburg wrote his poems to a very real and raw Chicago. The list goes on and on and on. I am jumping around in my brain trying to figure out who I should mention and who not. Ginsburg wrote about real things and addressed real people. Langston Hughes definetely did. And no maven of poetry can persuade me otherwise than that those two arch-Confessionals, Sexton and Plath, touched a livid nerve in real people of all classes. On and on and on it goes. When you think on it, groundedness in American poetry is the norm, not the exception, not until well into the fourth quarter of the 20th C and into the present century. To me this is key. This is perspective.

But maybe I am not understanding exactly what Nowak wants of poetry. Maybe he is wanting something other than real poetry addressed to real, living people. Maybe he is wanting it to address labor issues with a capital L and the working class viewed as an economically defined group of people. If that is what he is after I have to say I simply suspect just one more programmatic diminishment, and, as such, no different than the current programs. To me all head-heavy programs result in a diminishment.

Sorry if I am rambling. Just thinking in a rush I guess. Two anecdotes mentioned before best caption what I think about poetry and its relationship to the working class. Paul Blackburn, a slightly younger contemporary of Hugo's, while mostly based in NYC, spent extended stays in the south of France and in Spain. There he was working in translations. I think it was in Malaga. Stepping out onto his balcony early one morning he noticed a street sweeper working away with a hand broom. All the while this worker, laborer, or peasant was reciting by memory the poetry of Lorca. Lorca. A lawyer by training and the greatest Spanish language poet of the 20th C. And a street sweeper who knows his poetry by heart. Another story. In the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevera and a buddy have just finished medical school. To celebrate they hop on a motorcycle intending to drive up through South America. Bike breaks down at a point. They get picked up on a dirt road by a worker, laborer, farmer, or peasant driving an old beat up truck. The man recites lines of poetry. Che's buddy asks if it is from Lorca. Che correctly answers it is Neruda. Neruda, a sometime diplomat, Nobel prize winner, a communist in his sympathies, at least once exiled from Chile, almost executed by Pinochet's coup. And a peasant who knows his poetry by heart. Both stories capsulate what it means to me to address the working class. To say something so real, so fine, so close that a laborer finds high relief in the poetry. That is my ideal. There is a huge truth in something Goethe said, something I am constantly quoting: "Though most men must suffer dumbly, yet a god / Gave me a tongue to utter all my pain." I swear that is why the likes of street sweeper in Malaga and a peasant in Argentina respond in their gut to a certain kind of poetry. For lack of a better word I'll call it great poetry.

But your post has just now stirred up another hornet's nest of thoughts. I've read somewhere that Neruda tended to be conflicted. His first well received collection of poetry was lyrical in impulse. Love poems mostly. It was immediately a literary success. But, his roots being working class, he never lost a working class consciousness. It was what turned him to communism. So all of his career there was this dialectic, and sometime inner struggle, between the two impulses: to speak from his soul, for lack of a better word, and to speak for the common good. That is the rub, isn't it? At least for any lyrically inclined poet also possessed of a working class consciousness. Maybe that is what Nowak is wrestling with. Maybe you too. I know I do. But I wonder. Which Neruda touched that peasant on a dirt road more closely? I'm inclined to think it was the lyrical Neruda.

So, Katfriend, have I muddied the waters sufficiently?

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Apr/17/2011, 4:50 pm
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Terreson-Katlin,

That poem(s) by Hugo resonate. I grew up in that part of the country. Know a poet teaching in Northern Idaho. Had a crew boss on a fire crew in Northern Washington who was also a history professor, about six four, easy going but intense (if that's possible), who knew the history of the mine troubles really well. The violence. While I was there the violence was actually between the locals in the small mountain towns and the Hispanic crew members (not immigrants, but Hispanics born and raised in the Western states - New Mexico, California, Washington, Colorado, Idaho - some from families here since the 1700's). There's always a new angle to the violence. Bar fights. Some of them exciting. Some not.

Working class poetry. Dave, who occasionally posts here, and often at the other site, writes working class poetry. I do too. Not exclusively but sometimes. Terreson does, too. Good stuff. I have both open on the boards at the other site, and sometimes behind the curtain, engaged people on categories. What your man calls Elliptical Poetry is probably more broadly known as Post-Modernist Poetry. You hit a sensitive nerve once you begin applying names or categories to poetry. I know I have stuck my finger in the socket a time or two. I do it for a simple reason: In college you get a survey course or two in lit. Poets are give a brief space and are generally categorized. I guess this turns off poets who are still alive because they want a century or two before they are classified as either Metaphysical poets or Romantic poets, or what have you. Maybe they're right. But I kind of agree with your comments or postings above that we can already begin to see patterns. My wife tells a story she experience when she was a freshman in an art class. A young girl was grandiosely explaining her paintings and saying that her art was different from everybody's because she saw things different from everybody. To which the teacher, perhaps rudely, replied, "Nonsense, you see things like everybody else."

Maybe that's stretching it. But we're all going to be categorized eventually, if we're lucky enough to be included in some anthology one hundred or two hundred years from now. But people don't like to hear that, and they especially don't like to hear that while they're still alive. Maybe it would be okay to hear it from heaven. Zak

ps -- I've asked this question before, but I forget the answer: Does this site protect posted poems from editors who search your poems when you try to publish? I'm inquiring because I've a mind to maybe send out a poem or two some time during the summer. Would appreciate your help. Thanks
Apr/18/2011, 10:38 am Link to this post Send Email to Zakzzz5   Send PM to Zakzzz5
 
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Hi Zak,

My memory was that anything that is not in one of the two locked forums (Ateliers and In Translation) can be google-searched. To verify that memory, I decided to run a search on "Bottom City Blues," Tere's most recently completed volume of poetry. He posted the entire series in Ateliers and mentioned the collection a few times in other forums. My google search yielded results for "Bottom City Blues" in Field Notes, Salon Chat and Gaia's Gown but not Ateliers.

Ateliers is a members only forum, which means you have to be a member of the board and signed in to read it, and which also apparently means google doesn't pick it up. Anything you post in Ateliers should be protected from potential editors and not disqualified due to "previous online publication." Same goes for anything posted in In Translation. To be on the safe side, you can run your own test if you want to. Post something in Ateliers and then see if you can find it through google or bing or some other search engine.

Last edited by Katlin, Apr/19/2011, 3:44 pm
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Hi Tere & Zak,

I did think of both of you as writing working class poem/vignettes. I had forgotten about Dave, but, yes, he does too.

What was my motive for starting this thread? Well, when I read Nowak's article, it got me to thinking. He mentions Dollar General workers and a mother of two who works in a kitchen, and it made me think of my sisters. One of them works in a dollar store and the other, who has a computer science degree, works as a waitress at a country club. Then, too, I thought of your Jobbing and Waffle House threads, Tere, as well various discussions we've had recently about unions and union songs. Over the weekend, I happened upon Hugo's letter poems and wanted to mention them in the context of Nowak's article. That got me to thinking about other working class poetry I've read, and Philip Levine and Raymond Carver came to mind. My motive for starting this thread wasn't much clearer than that. More of a hunch and a question than anything else.

Both of your posts have given me more food for thought. I was originally thinking in terms of poetry that is about the working class, but thanks to your post, Tere, I am now thinking in terms of poetry that speaks to the working class as well.

I was the oldest in my family and started writing poetry in high school. When they were in high school, my sisters each took a course in which they had to select a poet to read and write about. They both picked my poetry to read and discuss. Because I was their sister, sure, but also I think because my poems spoke to them. After I read your post, I got to wondering if what I write now would have any appeal to them. Would most poetry, in general, that is now being written? I think some of your pieces on restaurant work would speak to my one sister, Tere. I also think some of your poems, Zak, would speak to my other sister, the one who works in a dollar store and whose husband is a potato farmer. But, of course, it isn't just poetry about waitressing and farming that would speak to them. As you say, Tere:

"Both stories capsulate what it means to me to address the working class. To say something so real, so fine, so close that a laborer finds high relief in the poetry. That is my ideal. There is a huge truth in something Goethe said, something I am constantly quoting: "Though most men must suffer dumbly, yet a god / Gave me a tongue to utter all my pain." I swear that is why the likes of street sweeper in Malaga and a peasant in Argentina respond in their gut to a certain kind of poetry. For lack of a better word I'll call it great poetry."

and:

"But, his roots being working class, he never lost a working class consciousness. It was what turned him to communism. So all of his career there was this dialectic, and sometime inner struggle, between the two impulses: to speak from his soul, for lack of a better word, and to speak for the common good. That is the rub, isn't it? At least for any lyrically inclined poet also possessed of a working class consciousness. Maybe that is what Nowak is wrestling with. Maybe you too. I know I do. But I wonder. Which Neruda touched that peasant on a dirt road more closely? I'm inclined to think it was the lyrical Neruda."

You go on to write: "So, Katfriend, have I muddied the waters sufficiently?"

Yes, but what I think appeals to a working class consciousness are real muddy waters, not conceptually muddied ones. Nothing wrong with the latter; they have their place. But I, too, resonated with Hugo's poem as I do with Carver's, for example, and both of yours and Dave's. I don't know Nowak's motives. Another ism/schism we don't need. Nor do I agree with everything Lousk says in his article.

I am reminded of a time on another board when the discussion turned to Campbell and someone dismissed him, saying something like, "He writes for the masses." I said, "I am one of the masses." In this case, I think: I am from a working class/middle class background, the difference between the two now becoming less distinct. Or as Zak's wife's teacher said, "Nonsense, you see things like everybody else." Back when I was writing those old, old poems, I didn't see things my sisters didn't see. The difference was that I was able to say what we all saw in a way they hadn't.

I was thinking this morning before I returned to this thread that it is easy to sentimentalize the working class. Sentimentalize it in the way John Gardner describes it in The Art of Fiction:

Sentimentality, in all its forms, is the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause. (I take it for granted that the reader understands the difference between sentiment, in fiction, that is emotion or feeling, and sentimentality, emotion or feeling that rings false, usually because achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration. Without sentiment, fiction is worthless. Sentimentality, on the other hand, can make mush of the finest characters, actions, and ideas.) (115)

Like the "programmatic diminishment" you mention, Tere, sentimentality is another kind of diminishment and would be at odds with the "groundedness" you also point to. Perhaps both programmatic and sentimental diminishments end up as flights of grandiosity in their own ways.

I read somewhere the other day that William Stafford said of Hugo's letter poems that in them he was forgiving himself, he was forgiving all of us. This may be one of the reasons Hugo's letter poems resonate with me; he wasn't being sentimental I don't think. What he wrote wasn't a cheat. Is Hugo a great poet? Probably not, but he is a good one, at least in the letter poems. Will he be remembered? I don't know. When I read him years ago, his poetry did not resonate with me, so much so, that the one book of his I owned, I gave away. In one of her books, Jane Hirshfield has a poem, "Letter to Hugo from Latter." I remember reading it and wondering about the connection to his work that she had made. Rereading her poem over the weekend, the connection now made sense. Live and learn, mon amis.

          



Last edited by Katlin, Apr/19/2011, 3:11 pm
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First things first. Zak, Kat has answered your question concerning your poetry posted on the board the way I would have. But for the two fora Kat mentions the others are accessible to robotic searches. But you know? There is nothing to stop the board from deleting any original work you've posted, say, in the Poetry Spectrum. With respect to, in my view, the dumb rules some editors have concerning poems posted in online workshops that would make the issue a non-issue. Of course, board policy is that a starting post deleted means the thread's ensueing exchange is removed too. But if you are ready to publish a poem workshopped here, then the workshopping is over. So I wouldn't have a problem with such a request from any member. Solution elegant, n'est pas?

Now to the thread. More thoughts in a jumble. Someone has pointed out, might have been something I read yesterday about Hugo, that many of the poets of his generation were born of the working class. The only thing that got Hugo into college was a stint in the Army Airforce during WW 2, after which he was eligible for the GI Bill. Same is true of many of his contemporaries. But I am not sure some smart grad student would decide his poetry is of the working class when clearly it is, since, he was born into it. Same can be said of John Keats. In his lifetime he was derided by many poetry critics as being of the Cockney school of poets. Then and there that was tantamount to using the N word to deride someone. Zak, you mention TCP Dave as a poet of the working class. Certainly he is. His Dollar Store series is some of the best of his I've read. But I'm pretty confident there ain't no waitress, trucker, construction worker, laundromat queen, or plumber that is going to find those poems accessible to them. But I get that they speak of a working bloke's experience and meditations on the same. Upthread I mention Sandburg's Chicago poem. It doesn't get anymore working class. Sandburg leaves no doubt about who he thinks makes that city run on schedule. Zak and Kat, you both mention that my poetry is working class. Is it? I honestly don't know. I know I am a poet committed to the notion poetry must be grounded in experience. What experience I have is the only experience I can draw from. Almost forgot. The case of Robert Burns, Scotland's greatest and best loved lyric poet a farmer always just this side of crop failure. And, Kat, the story of your early poetry and your two sisters precisely brings to mind the Goethe quote upthread. Could be you voiced what they could not, since, not poets.

Kat, I am resistant to this Nowak thing. It has the smell of a program. On the other hand I think I can get motive and I can almost agree, can certainly sympathize.

Tere
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Terreson,

A clarification: I thought of this shortly after I posted, but hadn't had a chance to change it. What I really meant is that a good percentage of your musings, your non-fiction prose here, short pieces cover the experience of working class people, as Katlin has pointed out. Maybe not so much the poetry, at least not directly.

As for working class people being able to read Dave's poetry, it probably would require a better education than most of them have. But working class people with an education would be able to read them. Waitresses and truck drivers in general don't read poetry, of any kind. Come to think of it, most people, accountants, lawyers, CEO's don't read poetry either. We're not a big tribe, percentage-wise. Zak
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Hi Kat, Tere and Zak,

I keep coming back to Nowak's point regarding what he calls "Elliptical" poems; that they are the byproduct of affluence, the "bourgeoisie luxury to play with words."

That strikes me as a big point. I wonder if starving artists in garrets 'played with words.' Maybe you guys know more about this than I do. Under what circumstances did James Joyce write " Finnegans Wake"? I think Gertrude Stein was pretty comfortably off. But maybe I miss the point, maybe this is more about trends than individuals. I do think it likely that with money tight, college loans bloated and bleak employment prospects, fewer people will be attending MFA programs. Maybe not.

Chris

Last edited by Christine98, Apr/19/2011, 10:45 am
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In May of 1939, Ralph Ellison, who was twenty-six at the time, asked an old man hanging out in Eddie’s Bar, on St. Nicholas Avenue near 147th Street, “Do you like living in New York City?” The man said:


Ahm in New York, but New York ain’t in me. You understand? Ahm in New York, but New York ain’t in me. What do I mean? Listen. I’m from Jacksonville, Florida. Been in New York twenty-five years. I’m a New Yorker! Yuh understand? Naw, naw, yuh don’t get me. What do they do; take Lenox Avenue. Take Seventh Avenue; take Sugar Hill! Pimps. Numbers. Cheating those poor people out a whut they got. Shooting, cutting, backbiting, all them things. Yuh see? Yuh see what Ah mean? I’m in New York, but New York ain’t in me!

Ellison took all that down, on a nice neat form. He was asking because it was his job to ask: he was muddling through the Depression on a paycheck from the Works Progress Administration, which people liked to call the Whistle, Piss, and Argue department but which was something to do, anyway, and better than the dole. At its peak, the [sign in to see URL].’s Federal Writers’ Project employed more than six thousand writers—from newspaper reporters to playwrights, anybody who used to make some kind of living by writing and couldn’t anymore—including Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, and Richard Wright. (At the time, one in four people in publishing was out of work.) It was mired in bureaucracy and inefficiency, you had to take a pauper’s oath to get hired, and the whole thing was axed, four years after it got started, by people in Congress who were convinced it was a Communist front. But, before that, Ellison and all those thousands of other writers chronicled American life by interviewing ordinary people.

They also reinvented the interview and changed American journalism forever. The project’s folklore editor, Benjamin Botkin, had a mad, beautiful vision. He wanted to turn “the streets, the stockyards, and the hiring halls into literature.” From more than ten thousand interviews, the Writers’ Project produced some eight hundred books, including “A Treasury of American Folklore” and, in 1939, a volume called “These Are Our Lives.” That’s not counting the novels, though, which is where a lot of those interviews wound up. In “Invisible Man,” which won the National Book Award when it was published, in 1952, an old woman, up from the South, saves Ellison’s narrator, a newer arrival, after he collapses on Lenox Avenue, telling him, “You have to take care of yourself, son. Don’t let this Harlem git you. I’m in New York, but New York ain’t in me, understand what I mean?”


Read more [sign in to see URL]#ixzz1JyyWxoZA

Just started reading this review of Isabel Wilkerson's book, "The Warmth of Other Suns,"
and thought it was relevant to the discussion.

Chris
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"Zak and Kat, you both mention that my poetry is working class. Is it? I honestly don't know. I know I am a poet committed to the notion poetry must be grounded in experience."

Tere,
Some of your poems fall into that category, many do not; a number of your prose pieces, the field notes and vignettes do.

Chris,
That is an excellent article from the NYer. Very compelling, both in terms of the stories told and the (new to me) facts. For example:

"Before the Great Migration, ninety per cent of all blacks in the United States lived in the South; after it, forty-seven per cent lived someplace else. Today, more African-Americans live in the city of Chicago than in the state of Mississippi."

Some great quotes throughout too. This is a way for history to be taught and remembered, as well as a way for the present to be depicted and shared.

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Re: Whatever Happened to Working Class Poems


Huge compliment coming from you, Kat, synthesizer of information and provider of provocative links that you are. I've seen Isabel Wilkerson interviewed, she's a lovely and earnest person, also wicked smart. The book is on my list of MUST READ.

Chris
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All good thoughts. Good thoughts. First, adding to what Chris shares. A monumental work that came out of the Federal Writers Project of the 30s is called "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Authored by James Agee with photos by Walker Evans. On assignment they were sent down to Alabama to chronicle the lives of sharecroppers. As I recall they followed three such families, all white, and with a side view of a black family. Evans's photos shows the interior of houses, shacks really, wall papered in newspapers, which should be enough to indicate the poverty. It is a great work. I read it in the 70s. I quip sometimes, not entirely facitiously, that it amounts to the Great American Novel. It gets to a certain pathos, a fear of poverty that drove a generation coming out of the Depression. This is my lead in to another thought concerning Nowak's thesis.

It is clear that presently both working and middle classes are hard pressed, if not on the run, and certainly running scared. And that what is virtually the last of the labor unions, involving the public sector, are under serious attack. Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and, as I hear from my friends in the Pacific Northwest, Washington State, these are a few states where unions are fighting back. As clearly both corporations and Wall Street are in comfortable circumstances. I read today that BP just posted a profit of over $5 billion. This in one year following the Macondo spill. Everyone has heard how GE paid no taxes for '10. The discrepancy list between the working class and corporations goes sickeningly on.

My sense is that Nowak, and perhaps you as well, Kat, are responding to the present crisis, certainly a crisis for the working class. Perhaps both of you are wanting, at least wondering if, poetry can step up in defense of the working class & labor movements. I would say it can. Going further I would say it for long has and going back to Lord Percy Shelley who wrote more than a few poems addressed to and in defense of Britain's hard pressed working class of the time. The French poet, Victor Hugo, never had the working and poor classes far from his mind, neither in life or in death. When he died a rich man from his writings he bequeathed all of his wealth to charities for the poor. Fast forward again and there are the union songs of the early 20th C. (poetry) Then I remember the working class songs that came out of both Britain and America in the sixties. (The Animals and Jean Pitney come to mind.) Then again there is the likes of Bruce Springstein. Just a few examples of poetry addressed to and speaking for working folk pathos.

Not sure if I have a point, or, if I do, if it is worth making. Kat, I followed up on some of the Nowak related links you gave us. My sense is that he is a professional poet with labor sympathies, maybe even rooted in the working class. But my sense also is that he finds himself in that pretty precious eschelon of poetry professionals, MFAs, and Poetry Foundation poet types. Finally my sense is that he is not addressing the likes of you, me, Zak, Chris. He is addressing that clique that nervously moves from one trend or another to the next, always looking to be au currant, and that he is speaking in the language which they all seem to speak: the categorical. Maybe he can shake them up, get them to think outside their conceptual boxes. But I am not holding my breath.

Almost forgot. Chris, James Joyce was not only poor, he was tenement house poor. As a child, his father was a low ranking civil servant who lost his job. All that saved young Joyce was his smarts. He got a Jesuit education. When he married he married a serving girl, Nora. By her he had a bunch of children. Finally in Paris they lived shabbily, and all too often he drank what money he had before Nora could get her hands on it for the groceries or rent. Bloody bastard was poor almost all of his life. By the time royalties started coming in he was almost completely blind. Finnegan's Wake was not written by Joyce. It was dictated.

Now there's some fat to chew on. Two of the Moderns' greatest novels, Ulysses and Finnigan's Wake One whose author was poor. The second whose author was poor and blind.

Tere
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"I've seen Isabel Wilkerson interviewed, she's a lovely and earnest person, also wicked smart. The book is on my list of MUST READ."

Chris,

Please give us followup here when you do, okay? I'd like to hear more about her work. Your link reminded me of a special phtography exhibit I once saw at FDR's home on images from the Great Depression.


Tere,

I get what you are saying about Nowak, and now that you've pointed out his target audience, I agree.

"Then I remember the working class songs that came out of both Britain and America in the sixties. (The Animals and Jean Pitney come to mind.) Then again there is the likes of Bruce Springstein. Just a few examples of poetry addressed to and speaking for working folk pathos."

Dylan, too, falls into this category. Some of Billy Joel's songs as well. Also Mellencamp.

If anyone is interested, here is an article about Dylan that asks the perennial question: "How many words must a man write down before you call him a poet?"

[sign in to see URL]

Did you know Dylan wrote a Civil War song, "Cross the Green Mountain," for the movie Gods and Generals? I didn't, but my friend, who is a Civil War aficionado, tells me that the sound track from the movie, including Dylan's contribution, is the best part of the film.
 
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"Waitresses and truck drivers in general don't read poetry, of any kind. Come to think of it, most people, accountants, lawyers, CEO's don't read poetry either. We're not a big tribe, percentage-wise."

Yeah, poets writing for other poets is fine, but what about other people, who aren't poets themselves? Where do they fit in to the equation? David Orr, poetry critic for the NYTimes, has written a book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, and excerpt from the introduction to it is now online. In it Orr writes:

It might therefore help to change our idea of what learning about poetry should be like in the first place. After all, if there's one thing that often unites academic treatments and how-to guides, it's the implicit assumption that relating to poetry is like solving a calculus problem while being zapped with a cattle prod—that is, the dull business of poetic interpretation (" ... and here we have a reference to early Stevens") is coupled uneasily with testimonials announcing poetry's ability to derange the senses, make us lose ourselves in rapture, dance naked under the full moon, and so forth. We seem trapped between a tediously mechanical view of poems and an unjustifiably shamanistic view of poetry itself. If you're a casual reader, then, it's easy to feel that your response to the art is somehow wrong, that you're either insufficiently smart or insufficiently soulful. Any of us may be both those things, of course, but that's an issue that should be resolved after the reader's initial response has been fairly accounted for.

What, then, is that initial response most "like"? When a nonspecialist audience is responding well to a poem, its reaction is a kind of tentative pleasure, a puzzled interest that resembles the affection a traveler bears for a destination that both welcomes and confounds him. For such readers, then, it's not necessarily helpful to talk about poetry as if it were a device to be assembled or a religious experience to be undergone. Rather, it would be useful to talk about poetry as if it were, for example, Belgium.


To read more:

 [sign in to see URL]

Also, Stephen Burt's article, "CLOSE CALLS WITH NONSENSE: HOW TO READ, AND PERHAPS ENJOY, VERY NEW POETRY," which is mentioned upthread, is also online. In it Burt discusses "How To Read Very New Poetry." For example:

The most important precepts are the simplest: look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot. Enjoy double meanings: don’t feel you must choose between them. Ask what the disparate elements have in common—do they stand for one another, or for the same thing? Are they opposites, irreconcilable alternatives? Or do they fit together to represent a world? Look for self-descriptive or for frame-breaking moments, when the poem stops to tell you what it describes. (Classic Ashbery poems tend to end with these: “I will keep to myself. / I will not repeat others’ comments about me.”; “A randomness, a darkness of one’s own.”) Use your own frustration, or the poem’s apparent obliquity, as a tool: many of these poems include attacks on assumptions or pretenses that make ordinary conversational language, and newspaper prose, so smooth.

Again, to read more:

[url][sign in to see URL]

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Re: Whatever Happened to Working Class Poems


Katlin

No doubt "some" people besides academics read poetry. But most don't. I just watched a couple of documentaries, one on Johnny Cash, and one on Chuck Berry. They both came from modest backgrounds, and neither went to college. They were poets before they were famous singers. But they are a small minority. We know that primitive people and the Greeks were heavily dependent on oral traditions, perhaps poetry. Those oral traditions were essential for transmitting knowledge. Today we have paper to write on and computers. When people want poetry, they mostly watch tv, CD player, what have you.

Knowing this won't keep me from writing poetry. Even in the time of John Donne, those who wrote and read the type of poetry with which we are familiar were a small minority, if only because only a small minority of the people could read and write. It was a very small group. I suspect, though, that a lot of the common people were enjoying informal story-telling, perhaps a rough form of poetry, and of course, music, singing. Maybe by that time, the forms of poetry were already bifurcating. More later. These are my cock-eyed theories. Zak

 Katlin wrote:

"Waitresses and truck drivers in general don't read poetry, of any kind. Come to think of it, most people, accountants, lawyers, CEO's don't read poetry either. We're not a big tribe, percentage-wise."

Yeah, poets writing for other poets is fine, but what about other people, who aren't poets themselves? Where do they fit in to the equation?
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More stray thoughts. About the Orr citations. Once again my sense is that the author is speaking to that same precious eschelon of professional poets and MFA types. He is certainly not speaking to me. And, frankly, I find his tone condescending in a patrician sort of way, in the way, say, a well meaning white liberal of the 1950s might address the "colored problem". Or the immigrant problem or the, in those days, Jewish problem when many Jews were barred from joining country clubs in America. Perhaps I am over-reacting but I bristle, not figuratively, at the distinction made between a specialized and nonspecialized audience. I've been at the craft for over 40 years. I am comfortable enough in my poetry comprehensions to enter into any symposium made up of a specialized audience. And I have never thought to make such a distinction. It touches a nerve and I know why. It is quotidian. It leaves out of the equation a rather rare individual, someone who is not often a specialist: the gifted poetry reader, a type I've identified, know is around and in attendance because poetry is something that absolutely matters.

Something else. Take the case of on line poetry boards. How many of us are specialists, professional poets, or MFA types? With the exception of The Poetry Foundation's Harriet's something-or-another, an experiment I gather the Foundation abandoned because unwieldly, how many professional poets get encountered? Take the IBPC consortium of independant boards, for example. How many professional poets found there? A scant two or three. How many poems that pass the tests? At least two out of ten which is a huge number. And where else are any of us likely to find so many gifted poetry readers? Closer to the point, where else are any of us going to find so many people who come to poetry because it is something that matters to them? In my view the on line thing has not only made poetry more accessible, it has democratized it just like it was before the Academy looked to take possession.

I just remembered something William Carlos Williams complained about Eliot. He said that Eliot handed poetry back over to the Academy. Maybe he was right. Maybe that is the origin of the problem that took a few decades to come to full fruition. To me it doesn't much matter anymore. Not so long as I got people for whom poetry matters and I got the gifted poetry reader.

Tere
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"About the Orr citations. Once again my sense is that the author is speaking to that same precious eschelon of professional poets and MFA types."

Tere,

Well, that's not the audience Orr claims to want to address. Here's how he starts his introduction:

This book is about modern poetry. But a book about modern poetry can't be as confidently "about" its subject as a book about, say, college football or soap operas or dog shows or the pastas of Northern Italy. That's because poetry is poetry—it supposedly comes to us wrapped in mystery, veiled in shadow, cloaked in doubt, swaddled in ... well, you get the idea. Consequently, the potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it's a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

His intended audience is the latter group, i.e., the rest of the world. Is he addressing the "rather rare individual, someone who is not often a specialist: the gifted poetry reader, a type I've identified, know is around and in attendance because poetry is something that absolutely matters"? Probably not, but I don't think he is aiming at professional poets, non-professional poets or MFA types either. But that's just my take. I'm wondering how many of those gift-readers you encounter are, in fact, non-professional poets and how many of them never write poetry and never want to?

What you say may apply to the Burt article I also quoted, but frankly I can use a few pointers on how to read some of the "very new poems" I come across. I often find that I am with the rest of the world and am not a particularly gifted reader when it comes to some of them. Even with the reading tips, I may not enjoy them, but at least I'll have an idea of why people who do enjoy them are doing so. But, again, that's just me.

There is often something condescending at the heart of many of these types of discussions, so I don't blame you for having a raw nerve or two when various "experts" take to their podiums.



Last edited by Katlin, Apr/22/2011, 9:32 pm
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Zak,

Johnny Cash is another good example of working class singer/songwriter/poet. My stepfather liked his music, so I grew up listening to some of it. A few years ago the local public radio station ran a Johnny Cash tribute show that I really enjoyed listening too. Yeah, when poetry went from being an oral tradition to a written one, its audience changed. My stepdad never read poetry as far as I know, unless he had to do it for a required college English course, but lyrics and music, he loved.
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Hey Tere,

Coming back to add, you may be right that Orr's audience is professional poets and MFA-types:

In 2011 he published Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, of which Craig Morgan Teicher has written, "David Orr, the New York Times Book Review's poetry columnist as well as a poet, is a guide after my own heart as he seeks not just to initiate the uninitiated in his new book, Beautiful & Pointless, but also to hold a mirror up to the poetry world itself."

 [sign in to see URL](journalist)
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Zak, years ago I wrote a survey of the American poetry scene of the first three quarters of the 20th C. In retrospect a wholly inadequate survey, being strong on ideas and weak on evidence and examples. While walking through all the poets and poetry groups I could think of it seemed to me the sorting amounted to the two same old archetypes of Classical and Romantic. It also seemed to me that in the mid-seventies the Romantic urge in poetry either died off or was murdered. Finally, it seemed to me that this same urge found itself alive and well in the lyric poetry of the music scene. This would be my literary approach to the songs and song making you mention as constituting the oral poetry of the period.

Kat, I could be wrong. Again, I could be over-reacting. I find myself instinctively resistent to the Orr thoughts, but instinct is anything but intellectual. Notice I didn't say it isn't intelligent. We've talked about this stuff many times before. By way of short-hand I'll call it the body talk of poetry. Maybe I am dated, not keeping up with trends and such. But I still insist that poetry's body talk is its first condition. To me the matter is categorical. So if somebody comes along and feels the need to explain, not so much the poem, but the right orientation for approaching the poem, it seems logical that that poem has spoken to my head only, not to my whole body. It has not spoken to me sommaticly which speech is anything but intellectual. I still keep to the Houseman rule also mentioned many times before. Or, in my words, to poetry's shiver, shake, or seizure. Perhaps I am merely ready for the compost heap.

A brief story comes to mind. Dylan Thomas's first publisher I think was E.P. Dutton. This was before Eliot's Faber and Faber took him on. The editor read the submissions, said to Thomas he honestly didn't know if it was poetry, but that it passed the Houseman test. I suspect that editor would qualify as a gifted poetry reader, able to i.d. the thing without being able to define it.

Another small story comes to mind. It might have been around the time of the centennial of Whitman's death, 1992. The year was being commemorated, not only in the poetry world. There was this one journalist, I think it was a woman, who went around interviewing Americans. She mostly kept to average people, working class people many of whom, it turned out, not only knew the poetry of Whitman but knew it well. I think it was in Baltimore. She was in a bar whose clientele were largely longshoremen. She pointed out to these hard men that Whitman was homosexual. One man got angry. It was clear he didn't want the info in his head. He finally said: what difference does it make?

I keep coming up with these examples to illustrate my point(s). But they are examples from the past, which, I suspect is telling. Old examples, past their shelf-life. Just a troglodyte here.

Tere
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Terreson,
Yes, I agree that Classical and Romantic are the two main categories. But there are a lot of other ones, like the Metaphysical, the Beat, etc. It wouldn't take long to find them. Usually they are related to a historical period. I agree that the lyrical has fled to the music industry. John Donne wrote a lot of love poetry. I rarely see love poetry on the other site. Not sure I have ever seen it. It's treated as having run out of energy as a theme, or people don't believe in it as a genuine article. I don't know the reason. Another subject: Johnny Cash's songs make sense, but a lot of Rock 'n Roll or Rock or Pop songs don't make any more sense than do many post-modern poems. Or maybe they do just a bit more. Many highly successful Rock songs make questionable poetry but make very successful songs.

How does Homer fit into this? Was something lost in the translation from the original ancient Greek? I think originally it was read out-loud. There must have been a cadence. A chant of sorts.

Many years ago I read that poets and writers generally hated the critics and the professors. I still get that feeling from conversations on the boards. There is a resentment towards academia, too. How does it work? Phd. candidates write papers, maybe kind of like T.S. Eliot's pieces. Many, many are written. Certain poets and writers are written about. There is a filtering process that happens over 50 or a 100 years or more. Those who continue to be written about, or who are resucitated (such as Eliot bringing John Donne back from the dead) go on to become the important poets. Is this why poets hate academia? I know that the proliferation of MFA programs and the in-breeding that goes on has had something to do with the animosity. Is it a matter of degrees today? That this academic influence is greater than it used to be? I believe both Byron and Shelley came from the previliged classes. Meaning that they were highly educated. Bukowski wasn't. Hemingway's father was a doctor, but Ernest didn't go to college. Still, he was previliged. There must be reams of essays about all of this. No doubt you are more on top of this than I am. Zak

quote:

Terreson wrote:

Zak, years ago I wrote a survey of the American poetry scene of the first three quarters of the 20th C. In retrospect a wholly inadequate survey, being strong on ideas and weak on evidence and examples. While walking through all the poets and poetry groups I could think of it seemed to me the sorting amounted to the two same old archetypes of Classical and Romantic. It also seemed to me that in the mid-seventies the Romantic urge in poetry either died off or was murdered. Finally, it seemed to me that this same urge found itself alive and well in the lyric poetry of the music scene. This would be my literary approach to the songs and song making you mention as constituting the oral poetry of the period.
 
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Good thoughts, Zak. And, no, I don't consider myself on top of this stuff anymore than you or anyone else, for that matter. But a point of clarification in how I use a certain terminology.

I don't view the Classical and Romantic as categories, per se. At the very least I view them as innate tendencies. At the most I view them as archetypes, both of which can be traced down through the ages. One editor has called the 1st BC Roman poet, Sextus Propertius, the world's first Romantic poet. A close contemporary of his, Ovid, I would also include as a Romantic type. By contrast, two more near Roman contemporaries I view as embodying the Classical inclination, Horace and Vergil. So this is how I view the terms. As subsisting archetypes, coming up from under so to speak, and found in all the schools, groups, eras, and periods. When you think on it, the terms Classical and Romantic are just convenience terms, something we've borrowed from a certain time period, late 18th and early 19th centuries, a time when the contrast was so striking, say betweeen Pope and Shelley, there was no denying it. Anyway, that is my approach. And you bet I find both innate urges underlying all the groups and schools of the Modern period. You mention the Beat poets. There is no question in my mind but that they are Romantic types. And so on.

As for the dialectic between poet and professor, poetry and the Academy, I suspect it is a perennial problem. One now muddied by the relatively recent phenomenon of poets gaining an MFA, therefore considered professional, and the none too few poets who support themselves by teaching, and so now members of the Academy themselves. In no other time period has this been the case. Viewed historically it is a peculiar circumstance and maybe an anomaly, perhaps a local anomaly peculiar to America.

As for the conflict, there is what I mentioned above about how William Carlos Williams became furious at Eliot for, in his words, "handing poetry back over to the academy." That is pretty much it in a nutshell. Williams was right. Eliot did hand poetry back over to the academy. But he was not alone in doing so. So did John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Ivor Winters and a bunch of others from that generation of poet/critics. And so the beat goes on is pretty much how I view it.

Speaking personally, I don't hate the academy or professors or even poet/critics. Mostly I find them irrelevant to what I am after. Especially the hyper need as of late to ISMatic poetry through theory and dictum. But I confess the blood is up when someone tries to tell me through definition what makes for good poetry. The old rule in forensic debate I keep in mind: he who defines the terms controls the arguement. That's when I am inclined to raise my hand in challenge.

Increasingly the antidote for me to the academy's definitions and the closed union of poetry professionals in the internet. For all its limitations the one strength it has not found elsewhere among poets and poetry readers is a tendency to democratization. As evidence of which I point to the flourishing of poetry boards and to discussions such as this one. You really think Kat, who started this thread, would have her voice heard in the academy or the closed union? Would yours? Would mine? Would any member of this board's voice get heard, much less attended to? Chances are slim and none. Maybe that is the way around the problem.

Reading up, I see I am touching on the hypocritical by saying I object to defintions that get passed down. The accusation could be: well maybe it is only that you object to everyone else's definitions but your own. And it is true. Everytime I crit a poem here and tryo to say what about the poem does and does no work for me, I am operating in the field of defining. Same is true of all of us. The corrective for me has always been what Whitman said late in life, something I've cited more than once before. "Let me not dare, here or anywhere, for my purposes, or any purposes, to attempt the definition of Poetry, nor answer the question what it is. Like Religion, Love, Nature, while those terms are indispensable, and we all give a sufficiently accurate meaning to them, in my opinion no definition that has ever been made sufficiently encloses the name Poetry; nor can any rule or convention ever so absolutely obtain but some great exception may arise and disregard and overturn it."

Tere
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Kat, I keep coming back to a poem some 3 years old. I know it isn't quite right yet, falling on its own footsteps in at least three places. Your thread brings it to mind most recently. I know it doesn't speak to working class circumstance or pathos, not incidentally. But I remember original motive. I wanted to say what it is like being a little person, a worker, a commoner, an everyman with dreams and wants, and who registers he is invisible in the scheme of things. Of course, I got the idea from Ralph Ellison. Does the poem speak to the working class specifically? No. Does it speak to the sense of being invisible every worker feels? I hope so.

Images of Invisibility

The electric light bulb, free swinging, overhead
that can expose absence of friendly cover in the
nuance and deceptive depth of friendly cover.

The bone’s chill in the pre-dawn hour, no matter
the latitude, and the one certain love who
throws herself from high rise, packed away in
snow pack garden cocaine’s death percolates.

The roadside, wolf hour when sleep keeping on
moonless night’s park bench is all a man has,
when then a vagrant sees he’s shorn of any conceit.

In Central Park too. Then again on Lexington Avenue.

In derelict’s camp I got invisibility of image more than once.
In migrant camp too when prostitutes came through.
In convenience store’s parking lot, brightest light, and
the Gray Fox asking to split apart swamp’s night on our bikes.

Invisibility is midnight exposure on white beach, in
winter December. And the selection quickly comes sweet, to
close your eyes in driftwood moment, to forever’s sleep.

Invisibility can reside in pushing too far.
Going feral, inhuman, counting on coyote pack,
black bear brother, hemlock trim to take me in
deep forest detritus dreams and underseen wishes.

But I think invisibility resides in this the most:
losing a child to your own body’s sins; second most, when
your lover needs your cover from her loneliness.


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Good thoughts, Zak. And, no, I don't consider myself on top of this stuff anymore than you or anyone else, for that matter. But a point of clarification in how I use a certain terminology.

I don't view the Classical and Romantic as categories, per se. At the very least I view them as innate tendencies. At the most I view them as archetypes, both of which can be traced down through the ages. One editor has called the 1st BC Roman poet, Sextus Propertius, the world's first Romantic poet. A close contemporary of his, Ovid, I would also include as a Romantic type. By contrast, two more near Roman contemporaries I view as embodying the Classical inclination, Horace and Vergil. So this is how I view the terms. As subsisting archetypes, coming up from under so to speak, and found in all the schools, groups, eras, and periods. When you think on it, the terms Classical and Romantic are just convenience terms, something we've borrowed from a certain time period, late 18th and early 19th centuries, a time when the contrast was so striking, say betweeen Pope and Shelley, there was no denying it. Anyway, that is my approach. And you bet I find both innate urges underlying all the groups and schools of the Modern period. You mention the Beat poets. There is no question in my mind but that they are Romantic types. And so on.
 
[A dualistic view of literature. Night and day, dark and light, happy and sad. I don’t have any problem with that. As urges, they’ve probably been there all along. I’m not sure how helpful it is, though, when we are talking about particular poets or writers, and their associations. It becomes more convenient, at least as a starting point, to identify their historical period, their perch, so to speak. OTOH, I don't doubt that the current post-modernists exhibit both Classical and Romantic inclinations. One of my lit profs stated that we were still in a Romantic period, overall. Maybe he meant that the modernists and post modernists are more into the organic, the free flow (so to speak) of emotions, ideas and language; and are not particularly concerned with structure. But are the Classicists more concerned with structure?]

As for the dialectic between poet and professor, poetry and the Academy, I suspect it is a perennial problem. One now muddied by the relatively recent phenomenon of poets gaining an MFA, therefore considered professional, and the none too few poets who support themselves by teaching, and so now members of the Academy themselves. In no other time period has this been the case. Viewed historically it is a peculiar circumstance and maybe an anomaly, perhaps a local anomaly peculiar to America.

[You might be right. In the age of Shelley and Byron, most of the “greats” could count on their personal wealth. There were also drudges, people who had to work, such as Blake, and as you mentioned, Keats. I don’t know much about Keats’ personal life, except that he died young. The farther we go back in time, the more likely it was that they could depend on their personal wealth. Not a lot of people could read, so the ones who could were usually the wealthy. Or those who worked in printing of one kind or another.]

As for the conflict, there is what I mentioned above about how William Carlos Williams became furious at Eliot for, in his words, "handing poetry back over to the academy." That is pretty much it in a nutshell. Williams was right. Eliot did hand poetry back over to the academy. But he was not alone in doing so. So did John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Ivor Winters and a bunch of others from that generation of poet/critics. And so the beat goes on is pretty much how I view it.
 
[I don’t understand your comment about WCW and Eliot. Eliot was working on a Phd. But I think he went to work at a bank, so he wouldn’t have to tax his brain (a laugh!!!). We know Bukowski and William are not academicians, but they both write poetry. (Did Bukowski die?) Maybe the key is that the professors form a strong alliance, due to their proximity to each other. They function like some of those artists’ colonies. Except that they are at the universities. I have a friend who is a Phd., teaches literature but is given a lot of time to write poetry. His salary is tied to how often he gets his poetry published in respectable journals. His poetry is more down to earth than many of the poets at the other site with which we are most familiar.]

Speaking personally, I don't hate the academy or professors or even poet/critics. Mostly I find them irrelevant to what I am after. Especially the hyper need as of late to ISMatic poetry through theory and dictum. But I confess the blood is up when someone tries to tell me through definition what makes for good poetry. The old rule in forensic debate I keep in mind: he who defines the terms controls the arguement. That's when I am inclined to raise my hand in challenge.

[I don’t have any argument with your position. I used to be on a Hemingway site. At that place, two people, one representing the Modernist approach to criticism and one representing the new post-modernist approach heavily based language deconstruction, clashed. The post-modernist focused on the deconstruction of even a part of a phrase. On the other hand, the definitions of poetry, and the hierarchies will be developed by those academics. When publishers get ready to print a survey for incoming English freshmen, guess who they go to? They’re not going to come to us, nor are they going to go to TCP.]

Increasingly the antidote for me to the academy's definitions and the closed union of poetry professionals in the internet. For all its limitations the one strength it has not found elsewhere among poets and poetry readers is a tendency to democratization. As evidence of which I point to the flourishing of poetry boards and to discussions such as this one. You really think Kat, who started this thread, would have her voice heard in the academy or the closed union? Would yours? Would mine? Would any member of this board's voice get heard, much less attended to? Chances are slim and none. Maybe that is the way around the problem.

[Well, let’s be optimistic and say that the internet is one potential solution. Yes, our voices are heard. If only by ten or so people. I’ve said it many times, that even really known poets may only be read by a small minority. That is, unless you’re included in one of those surveys. Do they include “live” poets in those college survey courses? I didn’t take enough of them to know. I was reading the small issues I found in downtown L.A. when I went there on a weekend from college. Ginsburg (berg), Ferlenghetti. They were cutting edge back then. Have you thought it through what it was that Ransom, Tate, Winters or T.S. Eliot or other poets had to do to be recognized, published in anthologies and pushed into the future? Were there steps that they took that you and I and Katlin have not taken?]

Reading up, I see I am touching on the hypocritical by saying I object to defintions that get passed down. The accusation could be: well maybe it is only that you object to everyone else's definitions but your own. And it is true. Everytime I crit a poem here and tryo to say what about the poem does and does no work for me, I am operating in the field of defining. Same is true of all of us. The corrective for me has always been what Whitman said late in life, something I've cited more than once before. "Let me not dare, here or anywhere, for my purposes, or any purposes, to attempt the definition of Poetry, nor answer the question what it is. Like Religion, Love, Nature, while those terms are indispensable, and we all give a sufficiently accurate meaning to them, in my opinion no definition that has ever been made sufficiently encloses the name Poetry; nor can any rule or convention ever so absolutely obtain but some great exception may arise and disregard and overturn it."

[Maybe it’s like those particles in physics where you can define one or two aspects, like measuring the velocity but not the direction, etc. Maybe poetry is like that. You can measure or “define” aspects of it but you will never get the full definition because that involves the “definer” himself. Something whacky like that. And naturally, even that definition, you’ll notice, is influenced by the way we have been influenced by the science of our time. It goes both ways. The post-Modernists will likely agree with you that the totality of poetry cannot be made. Their explanation might be, though, that it can’t be made because we quite often end up meaning and saying the opposite of what we intended. Zak]

 

Last edited by Zakzzz5, Apr/25/2011, 12:14 pm
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Re: Whatever Happened to Working Class Poems


Over the weekend I looked up a Yeats poem in the anthology The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, edited by Bly, Hillman and Meade. I reread the introduction, and the editors make the point that in many parts of the world, traditionally and today, poetry is better known and more highly valued:

"To this day in Kazakhstan roomfuls of men sit listenng to a poet chant long narratives. We recall the importance of poetry in the lives of Norse farmers, Icelandic sheepherders, Greek olive growers and fisherman. Their attention cannot be explained in terms of literacy or electricity--that they can't read or watch television. . . . While our European-American tradition questions and argues, and has to teach poetry to sullen students in English classes, other cultures, speaking Spanish, Russian, Arabic, to say nothing of the many tongues of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, grow up inside of poems, drenched through with poetic metaphors and rhythms."

Their observations seem to fit, Tere, with the stories you told upthread about common people reciting Neruda, Lorca, etc. I recall in another thread mentioning how surprised I was to discover, while watching the World at War series, the importance poetry had to the the Russian people. Now, too, I am recalling Shab telling us about her grandfather being buried in the poet's cemetery in Iran and what a high honor that is. One doesn't wish to sentimentalize the importance of poetry to people in other cultures, but it is becoming clear to me that we do poetry and ourselves a disservice by using our own culture as a measuring stick for all things poetic.



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Tere,

Re: your posted poem. I think it speaks of working class consciousness.
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Monday night. Today was a physical day in a beeyard going down into colonies almost my height, 6'2", and honey heavy. Can only spare a few thoughts.

Zak, it is not true that most poets before the Modern era were wealthy. Those who were numbered a handful. For most, support came through patronage, or the Church, or business, or living by their wits and their writing. A few examples.

Archilochus, 6th C Greek, was born to an aristocratic father, but he was illegitimate, had no inheritance. Made his living as a mercenary soldier.

Both Ovid and Propertius lived on their writing and on patronage.

Petrarch, as was common in the Middle Ages, was a priest, less for reasons of conviction, more for economic reasons.

Almost all of the Goliardic poets were employed by one monastary or another as manuscript copyists. They could complain bitterly about the stinginess of one abbot or another.

Francois Villon, France's greatest medieval poet, was a thief, pick pocket, possibly a murderer, who lived by his wits.

Dante, while belonging to Florence's ruling class, could not fall back on family wealth, being exiled from the city early on.

Shakespeare was a business man working in theatrical productions, and a damn shrewd one who knew how to both bring in an audience and invest his earnings.

John Donne turned to both aristocratic patronage and church patronage.

Robert Burns was a farmer less than successful at his tillaging.

Goethe, born to the middle-class, was a lawyer who never once practiced law. He found employment at the court of Weimar as a minister at various posts. The Von in his title was honorific only.

Keats was cockney. Read: second-class citizen.

Baudelaire eked out a living as a journalist and hack writer, mostly putting out art reviews.

Blake you mentioned.

I bring this up because you've mentioned before how the poets of the past were wealthy. In the main they were not. Same was true of all the arts. Patronage, the Church, and by commission is how they made a living. When you think on it, contemporary poets of both the professional class and academia enjoy far more financial security than has ever been the case.

Kat says: "One doesn't wish to sentimentalize the importance of poetry to people in other cultures, but it is becoming clear to me that we do poetry and ourselves a disservice by using our own culture as a measuring stick for all things poetic."

You've just succinctly said what I've been trying to say for years. By years I mean a couple of decades. For long I've found the American poetry scene, maybe even the Anglo-American scene, parochial, anomalous, mostly just a back-water action. The days are long since over when a Pound, an Eliot, a Cummings impacted poetry in the global village sense.

Too bone tired to go on.

Tere
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Well, Kat, what you think? Does it get more personally political for a poet than this?

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Last edited by Terreson, Apr/25/2011, 11:07 pm
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Terreson,
Thanks for taking the time to reply. You really didn't have to reply so soon. We all have other things we have to be doing. I appreciate it though, given your hard work day. I hope you take my comments in the friendly discursive manner they are intended. As you know, I don't usually engage in these longer discussions. This is an experiment for me.

I’ve noted just the first three of the people you mentioned. It’s clear to me that they were either wealthy enough or well-connected. The point I’m trying to make is that the average peasant or slave did not read back then. Even the nobility often couldn’t read. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that the English nobility changed their focus from instruction in war fighting to Latin and Greek. It’s well known that written poetry was passed from hand to hand mostly among the courtiers. That’s not to say that the common people didn’t practice their own oral poetry, maybe some of it plain, and some of it sophisticated, remnants of the Druidic tradition (most were killed).
I think written, sophisticated poetry was principally for the aristocratic line. Yes, the Church came into it, but even there, the poets were expected to create verses of worship. John Donne famously switched from profane love verses to religious verse when he got a position in the High Church. There was a difference.
 
Even today, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and now Rap, provide most of the poetry for most of the people. Written, sophisticated poetry such as sometimes appears on the internet boards and in the New Yorker and in anthologies is read by a small minority. Yes, we are required to read a smattering of poetry in high school. But, seriously, who reads poetry after high school? It’s just a recognition of this that I’m arguing. I love poetry and will be reading and writing it till I die, but I go knowing that most people will mostly be listening to poetry put to music via their Ipads or the radio.
As I said, I looked up the first three guys you mentioned, and put a few notes below. I don’t doubt the pattern would repeat itself for most of the rest of them. Most people just tilled the soil, and carried their own oral poetry in their hearts. Zak

Archilocus: There is no evidence to back isolated reports that his mother was a slave, named Enipo, that he left Paros to escape poverty, or that he became a mercenary soldier — the imputation of a slave background is probably due to a misreading of some verses; archaeology indicates that life on Paros, which he associated with "figs and seafaring", was not impoverished; and though he frequently refers to the rough life of a soldier, warfare was a function of the aristocracy in the archaic period and there is no indication that he fought for pay.

Ovid was born in Sulmo (Sulmona), in an Apennine valley east of Rome, to an important equestrian family,

Propertius: After his father's death, Propertius' mother set him on course for a public career[6]--indicating his family still had some wealth—while the abundance of obscure mythology present in his poetry indicates he received a good education. Frequent mention of friends like Tullus[7]--the nephew of Lucius Volcatius Tullus, consul in 33 BCE—plus the fact that he lived on Rome's Esquiline hill[8] indicate he moved among the children of the rich and politically connected during the early part of the 20's decade. It was during this time that he met Cynthia, the older woman[9] who would inspire him to express his poetic genius.

quote:

Terreson wrote:

Monday night. Today was a physical day in a beeyard going down into colonies almost my height, 6'2", and honey heavy. Can only spare a few thoughts.

Zak, it is not true that most poets before the Modern era were wealthy. Those who were numbered a handful. For most, support came through patronage, or the Church, or business, or living by their wits and their writing. A few examples.

Archilochus, 6th C Greek, was born to an aristocratic father, but he was illegitimate, had no inheritance. Made his living as a mercenary soldier.

Both Ovid and Propertius lived on their writing and on patronage.

Petrarch, as was common in the Middle Ages, was a priest, less for reasons of conviction, more for economic reasons.

Almost all of the Goliardic poets were employed by one monastary or another as manuscript copyists. They could complain bitterly about the stinginess of one abbot or another.

Francois Villon, France's greatest medieval poet, was a thief, pick pocket, possibly a murderer, who lived by his wits.

Dante, while belonging to Florence's ruling class, could not fall back on family wealth, being exiled from the city early on.

Shakespeare was a business man working in theatrical productions, and a damn shrewd one who knew how to both bring in an audience and invest his earnings.

John Donne turned to both aristocratic patronage and church patronage.

Robert Burns was a farmer less than successful at his tillaging.

Goethe, born to the middle-class, was a lawyer who never once practiced law. He found employment at the court of Weimar as a minister at various posts. The Von in his title was honorific only.

Keats was cockney. Read: second-class citizen.

Baudelaire eked out a living as a journalist and hack writer, mostly putting out art reviews.

Blake you mentioned.

I bring this up because you've mentioned before how the poets of the past were wealthy. In the main they were not. Same was true of all the arts. Patronage, the Church, and by commission is how they made a living. When you think on it, contemporary poets of both the professional class and academia enjoy far more financial security than has ever been the case.

Kat says: "One doesn't wish to sentimentalize the importance of poetry to people in other cultures, but it is becoming clear to me that we do poetry and ourselves a disservice by using our own culture as a measuring stick for all things poetic."

You've just succinctly said what I've been trying to say for years. By years I mean a couple of decades. For long I've found the American poetry scene, maybe even the Anglo-American scene, parochial, anomalous, mostly just a back-water action. The days are long since over when a Pound, an Eliot, a Cummings impacted poetry in the global village sense.

Too bone tired to go on.

Tere



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Zak, I nod to your larger point: " Yes, we are required to read a smattering of poetry in high school. But, seriously, who reads poetry after high school? It’s just a recognition of this that I’m arguing. I love poetry and will be reading and writing it till I die, but I go knowing that most people will mostly be listening to poetry put to music via their Ipads or the radio.
As I said, I looked up the first three guys you mentioned, and put a few notes below. I don’t doubt the pattern would repeat itself for most of the rest of them. Most people just tilled the soil, and carried their own oral poetry in their hearts."

While nodding to your larger point I remind myself it wasn't high school English that turned me to poetry, it was, at the age of 16, R n R. This brings me to an ongoing arguement I've maintained for years. Within the strict forms of R n R (and Country Western and Soul and even in pop music going back to Tin Pan Alley days) there is the even stricter forms of lyric poetry. Because it was all popular, de facto, doesn't mean it wasn't high poetry. I maintain otherwise. I maintain it was technically demanding poetry keeping itself to strict rules of composition.

About Archilochus. He was a mercenary soldier all right working at a time when the Greek hoplite was much sought after as an efficient fighting machine. Sought after by Greek city-states, by Asia Minor kingdoms, and by the Persian Empire which, in his day, was the region's super power.

On His Shield

Well, what if some barbaric Thracian glories
in the perfect shield I left under a bush?
I was sorry to leave it - but I saved my skin.
Does it matter? O hell, I'll buy a better one.


In the Greek world of Archilochus's day abandoning your shield was greater dishonor than death on the battle field. Then this poem:

My Kind of General

I don't like a general
who towers over his troops,
lordly with elegant locks
and trim mustachios.
Give me a stumpy soldier
glaring bowlegged,
yet rock firm on his feet,
and in his heart a giant.


As for the cases involving Ovid and Propertius, there is an old saying in the South probably originating in England. The family was land rich and money poor. In Rome to be born to the equestrian class did not automatically translate into wealth and privelige. One more thing. Ovid got exiled from Rome, sent to a Black Sea shore city by Augustus because of his immoral poems.

Things to think about.

Tere
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