I went to hear CD Wright read Tues. night in Kansas City. I had only heard her read once before, with about 20 other people, in a “black-box” theater space in Brooklyn, with a large, young, alcohol-infused crowd. Tues. night it was in a university auditorium, complete with dais, podium, and about 50 chairs, about half of which were filled, half by over-40s. That, and CD’s rather low-key reading style, made it a very different experience – “sedate” maybe. “Well-heeled,” maybe. I know what you’re thinking – that I’m going to say “how can you be a political poet and not wear clothes from thrift stores??” So what. She read some of the prison poems – which are apparently to be re-published, sans photographs – along with more recent war poems. I asked her how her political commitments and social analysis influenced the way that she used language in lyric poems. It was a vaguely-worded question deserving of a very general answer. I was kind of hoping she’d say something about syntax, diction, tone shifts, etc.
“Shouldn’t we feel guilty, about being academics and poets?” a friend asked – meaning, during a Depression, I guess. In the 30s, it would’ve been, “How can you write about birds and love and shit, when people are out of work??” I think that’s maybe a more pointed question, one that could yield more useful answers. We do what we do. A lot of unemployed people would trade places with me in a NY minute. And there’s a very real possibility that I might join them – sooner rather than later. It’s hard to extricate the legitimate critiques of academia from the sour grapes.
Today I went to a talk by Alessandro Portelli, on steel workers in Terni, Italy, his home town. He notices a generational difference between workers who remembered the 1953 strikes there and the younger workers who instigated militant labor actions in early 2004. The older workers had a happy vanguardist narrative – they were on the cutting-edge of a better day for workers (even as they were losing the strike). For the younger workers, it’s all about survival; their slogans come from (sometimes xenophobic) soccer chants. But P. identifies what he calls the “working-class sublime” as a discourse that unites the generations. This is the notion of the industrial means of production’s (in this case, really really big machines) evoking the sublime – with the important difference that the workers see themselves as controlling this sublime – as a collective, not as individuals. He sees the possibility here for a new working-class narrative. The younger workers have the energy and anger, but not the language, that their forebears did.
A self-satisfied poetry or academy would insert triumphalist (proleptic) resolution here. But I work in an industry where the job openings are down (probably) 50% from the year before. This is the service sector – we don’t have a sublime. And then there are the Indians who are doing the jobs the Italians used to do.
I keep thinking of Cloward’s and Piven’s Poor People’s Movements. Their sad conclusion is that, when people finally start breaking things and heads (wherever they do it), they often achieve modest concessions (less than they demand) before their leaders are co-opted and their movement dies.
But even that effort takes faith, moxie, exaltation. Or sheer orneriness. Unlike the left poets of the (early) 30s, we don’t have a Shining Hope – an ideology, party, etc. – that will solve our problems. Maybe a kind of left communitarianism (perhaps preceded by collapsitarianism). Hopefully – tho it’s a hard faith to believe in.
One cannot write lyric poetry after Madoff.
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