Poetry, Politics & Class

Earlier this year in an article about the Clinton
vs Obama primary race I was struck by the following quote:

"You campaign in poetry,
but you govern in prose."
--Hillary Clinton, Nashua, N.H., Jan. 6.

Clinton was suggesting that Obama's discourse is poetry
and her own prose. By setting up this dichotomy--on the
one hand, poetry as that which persuades or stuns or
lure's an audience versus prose which, on the other hand,
is the discourse of logic and policy and the stuff of action--she
constructs their differences but also makes an implicit value
judgement and assessment about the relationship of each
to the social world. Poetry is powerful, seductive (a formulation
as old as Plato's banishment of poets from the polis in The Republic)
while prose is practical. Such a formulation also points out that
each is shaped by and the instrument of ideology.

Clinton was also participating in the construction of
ideologies about both. With this figure, she capitalized
on an existing belief that poetry is the stuff of sentiment
and insufficient for governing, dangerous even. It is
more suited to the passions. While banishing poetry
from a portion of the public sphere, she also assigns it
other powers; its power of otherness. This is all
entangled in a mess of exoticization and contradiction.
And interestingly contains all kinds of reverberations
about who actually gets to participate in the polis.
Who counts.

There's more:

David Orr on The Poetry Foundation web site in an
article entitled Poetry & Politics provides another
example of poetry's appearance in the public sphere
as a way to launch his own examination of poetry's
relationship to politics:

"Shortly before Ohio's Democratic primary, Tom
Buffenbarger, the head of the machinists' union
and a supporter of Hillary Clinton, took to the
stage at a Clinton rally in Youngstown to lay
the wood to Barack Obama. 'Give me a break!' snarled
Buffenbarger, 'I've got news for all the latte-drinking,
Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies
crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a
round against the Republican attack machine.'
And then the union rep delivered his coup de
grace: 'He's a poet, not a fighter!'"

In this quote, the speaker clearly disparages poetry,
associating it with an elitist demographic and
juxtaposing it to the figure of the "fighter."
McCain, near the end of his speech on Thursday
night, invoked over and over this figure of the
fighter, the warrior --get up and fight! According
to such rhetoric (which harkens back to the Romantics
although if we take it back to the troubadours this
becomes problematic as they eventually
came from the "lower classes," and were people
who worked with their hands!),poetry is for
lovers, not fighters.

Interestingly, in this quote too, poetry and Obama
are each figured as other and each gets aligned
with a particular class location: poetry (and Obama)
elitist; prose (and the working class) the language of battle,
and for the speaker above, the language of Hillary Clinton.
Neither Clinton, nor McCain and his seven kitchen tables,
nor even Obama currently qualifies as working class.

Poetry & Natinoalism: If I had time here, it would be
worth thinking through poetry’s relationship to
nationalism. And perhaps the connection between
creative writing programs in primary schools and
democracy as DG Meyers outlines it in The
Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880.
But there isn’t time at the moment!

Poetry, Politics & The San Francisco
Bay Area:
This discussion about poetry
and its relationship to politics at the
present political moment is interesting
to me because I've been at work
writing about the San Francisco Bay
Area poetry in the 70s and 80s. During
this period, poetry's relationship to the
social world is one of the central animating
debates of these decades.

Here are a few quotes to illustrate:

"Writing itself is a form of action."
(Ron Silliman. The New Sentence 4)

"My theme probably has most to do
with a very strong feeling that telling
stories actually has an effect on the
world, and that a relation is achieved
between the one telling those stories
and her or his audience and history"
(Bruce Boone. Century of Clouds 42).

"The political is an ordeal. Or rather,
to undertake politics properly is to
undergo an ordeal. Not poems then,
but poetry and the dialectics of
writing (Ron’s ‘Not this. What then?’):
If the polis could serve as a site for the
appearance of writing, might not writing
serve as preparation for the polis?"
(Lyn Hejinian, The Grand Piano Part 2 75).

In 1988 an article entitled, "Aesthetic Tendency
and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto"
is published in the journal Social Text. Ron Silliman,
Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson,
Bob Perelman, and Barett Watten
co-authored this article and constructed
it as a direct response to the types of
criticism lobbed at this group of writers
frequently identified as Language Writers
though they themselves problematize this
identification (for example in their refusal to
use the term Language writing until the
twelfth page of the article) while valorizing
the group as community. Despite the
problematic nature of group identity,
these authors articulate themselves as a
"community of writers who read each
other’s work"(261). The article states
"we are arguing for the significance of a
group against the canonical individual
of the ‘expressivist’ tendency, itself a
social movement" (273), one that is
naturalized so to appear to "provide
an ideology of no ideology" (264).
The authors provide examples of
the problematic construction of a
transcendent, isolated individual
proffering personal experience in
a variety of poems and assert
that in such cases, "authorial ‘voice’
lapses into melodrama in a social
allegory where the author is precluded
from effective action by his or her very
emotions" (265). It is "this kind of
worked-over accounting of ‘experience,’
we think, [that] is primarily responsible
for the widespread contemporary
reception of poetry as nice but irrelevant" (264).
Such poetry, this article argues, accounts for
the public perception that poetry is
ornamental but irrelevant in the social world.

In his introduction to the magazine Soup in 1981,
editor Steve Abbott offers a brief description
of New Narrative. He writes: "New Narrative is
language conscious but arises out of specific social
and political concerns of specific communities...
It stresses the enabling role of content in determining
form rather than stressing form as independent
or separate from its social origins and goals."

Robert Gl├╝ckwrites:
"Whole areas of my experience, especially
gay experience, were not admitted to
this utopia [of language writing],
partly because the mainstream
reflected a resoundingly coherent
image of myself back to me–an
image so unjust that it amounted
to a tyranny that I could not turn
my back on. We had been
disastrously described by
the mainstream–a naming
whose most extreme (though
not uncommon) expression was
physical violence. Political agency
involved at least a provisionally
stable identity....Bruce [Boone] and
I turned to each other to see if we
could come up with a better
representation–not in order to
satisfy movement pieties or to
be political, but in order to be.
We (eventually we were gay, lesbian
and working-class writers) could not
let narration go ("Long Note on
New Narrative" 26-27).

Class: And then there are issues of class and its
relationship to poetry and the Bay Area
writing community. Dodie Bellamy takes
up the issue of class in a post on her blog.

This excerpt is from my review, forthcoming
in Crayon, of Mike Amnasan’s novel Liar:

"In a recent email exchange about class and
the San Francisco Bay Area writing scene,
Amnasan wrote:
'To talk about class issues was considered
an attempt at one-ups-man-ship, trying
to get special attention through an illegitimate
means that no one was going to take seriously.
A lot of middle class writers felt that if a
working class person learned from the
books and resources that they themselves
had learned from they became middle
class with the same privileges....I think
the basic attitude among a lot of language
writers was that the social class of an
individual had become too hard to
distinguish with all the different kinds
of labor and vocations people now had
so that class was no longer valid as
criteria in regard to individuals and
so it was simply no longer interesting'
(June 16, 2007 email from Mike Amnasan).

So, these are just a few quotes that suggest some
of the contentions around politics, poetry
and social engagement, and class.
Just the tip of the iceberg!

No comments: