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Taking the bait
The question Mark Nowak has raised a couple times concerning the devaluing of politically progressive poetry in comparison with work that appears less socially engaged would take a book, not a blog entry, to fully answer. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the frame of the discussion keeps slipping within and between Mark’s two posts and the numerous reader responses to them. His sets of examples are dissimilar; so, too, are the cultural historians he cites. For instance, in his June 29 post on Linton Kwesi Johnson he wonders whether Johnson’s work might “speak differently and perhaps more powerfully than a poem by, say, [Tom] Raworth or [Bernadette] Mayer or W. S. Merwin.” In his July 15 post, he asks why a poem such as Kenneth Patchen’s “Southern Organizer” has completely disappeared—to the point that even Patchen’s biographer wasn’t aware of it—while James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio” is widely anthologized.
Mark then turns to Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910–1945 for explanation. I’d recommend looking elsewhere. Nelson’s book was the first I read in the field of “proletarian literature,” and it’s oftentimes the one initially cited—and recommended—by other people. But Repression and Recovery isn’t much more than a fleshed-out annotated bibliography, and in that sense is excellent for discovering forgotten poems and poets, but a bit thin on the critical-theoretical side. Moreover, blaming, as Nelson does, “the English profession’s ruling ideology of political indecision lived out in uneasy inner anguish and external inaction” for the loss of interest in proletarian literature wildly misses the larger picture. English departments might not be the hotbeds of radicalism that conservatives imagine them to be, but some of the most politically progressive people I know—including Mark—have academic teaching jobs.
The real problem with relying on Nelson is the way in which it keeps the discussion focused on formal/textual issues. Mark writes, “Why does, to borrow Nelson’s terminology, ‘surface indecision and ambivalence’ trump instrumentality in contemporary poetry and poetry criticism?” Yet according to this view, neither Merwin nor Wright are paragons of modernist and postmodernist experimentation, and normally would be considered poets who have an instrumental approach to poetic language; nevertheless, they’re presented as foils to Johnson and Patchen. For this reason, I much prefer Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (if you have lots of free time for reading) and Walter Kalaidjian’s American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique (if you have less).
Denning writes: “But the meaning of a cultural formation, that union of an artistic form and a social location, is not limited to the books it leaves, the writers who become ‘classics’; that is why the battles over the ‘literary canon’ are finally so abstract” [my italics]. And Kalaidjian: “What signals cultural power in the 1930s is a work’s localized and contentious interpretive productivity, rather than any idealized ‘literary’ merit we may assign to it” [mine again]. In other words, focusing, pro or con, on a text’s formal devices—whether ambivalent or instrumental, experimental or traditional—will in the end only serve to further eradicate the very work Mark wishes to see recovered, revalued, and given equal weight, precisely because it ignores the site-specific, socio-historical, contextual paradigm this work both proposes and relies on.
But even this is to miss the larger larger picture. The poetry Mark mentions is devalued because there was a systematic effort by the ruling powers—political and economic—in U.S. society in the early 1940s to begin dismantling the progressive aesthetics and politics of the 1930s. (The year 1943 saw the end of federally funded art projects through the Works Progress Administration.) It began while Roosevelt was still in office, continued during the Truman administration, and is signaled by Eisenhower’s warning against the “military-industrial complex” (which is only one part of his more imperative cautioning against the privatization of everyday life in the United States). Denning is good on the shift away from New Deal aesthetics, but even this is a tiny element within the quest for sole superpower global dominance by the United States in the wake of World War II. I’ve written about this in relation to the careers of Charles Olson and Philip Guston, because Olson saw it happening literally right under his nose during his time in Washington, DC, working in the Office of War Information for the Roosevelt administration.
To continue to read, evaluate, and judge poetry (however implicitly or inadvertently) in terms of formal complexity is to take the conservative post-Popular Front aesthetic-political bait. More to the point, EVERY text is full of “surface indecision and ambivalence,” just as every cultural product is conceptual. Only a snob would say otherwise. Of course one can use this awareness to turn every text into a political equivocation; or one can turn them into interventions. But these interventions only make sense when coupled with the notion that a poem’s political agency lies less in its formal devices than in its site-specificity—what it speaks to whom. But, then, this is how culture is usually understood by oppositional groups—from striking mineworkers in the ’30s, to civil rights activists in the ’60s, to second-wave feminists in the ’70s, and beyond.