As has probably become more than evident to anyone reading my entries thus far on Harriet, I’m interested simultaneously in both Poetry and poetry—that upper case canonized (MLA-ized, Norton-ized, Super-sized!) beast as well as its lower case comrade which I’ll loosely categorize (with a change of preposition) by June Jordan’s phrase “poetry [by] the people.” And within the latter, of particular interest to me is “poetry” produced within transnational social movements and especially transnational social movement unionism.
So Claudia Jones is my kind of people.

A Trinidadian born in 1915 who came to the United States before the age of ten; a graduate of Wadleigh High School as well as a laundry worker, a factory worker, a millinery worker; on the Executive Committee of the Young Communist League in Harlem; editor, Negro Affairs, Daily Worker; imprisoned on Ellis Island under the 1918 Immigration Act; poet; arrested again and held on Ellis Island (again) under the McCarran Act; arrested again under the Smith Act; imprisoned in Women’s Penitentiary, Alderson, West Virginia; deported (to London); co-founder of the West Indian Workers and Students Association; founder of the West Indian Gazette (later the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News); organizer of the first London Caribbean Carnival (later the Notting Hill Carnival, after the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959, victim of a gang of white youth following the Notting Hill race riots of the previous year); representative of Trinidad and Tobago at the World Congress of Women in the Soviet Union; collaborator with the African National Congress to organize hunger strikes against apartheid and protests outside the South African Embassy in London; poet; friend of George Lamming, Paul and Eslanda Goode Robeson; buried to the left of the grave of Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery, London.
Carole Boyce Davies’ rich new bio-critical study, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones examines how “a female political and intellectual equivalent of C.L.R. James” whose brief resume reads like the paragraph above, has, like so many other Black activists, “been written out of history.”
I found Davies’ book (and Jones’ life) so compelling that I’ve decided to divide this entry up into two parts, covering today the chapter on the poetry Jones’ wrote while imprisoned and returning later with more on Davies’ compelling use of literary analysis in her reading of Jones’ FBI file (and the larger question of what literary/textual analysis can bring to readings of similar documents during both Smith Act and USA Patriot Act eras). This is not to suggest there isn’t a ton more to cover—the chapters on Carnival and Jones’ early journalism I found particularly engaging; but given the caveat that I’m blogging for the Poetry Foundation, I’ll stick as much as I can to, as Tina (almost) sang and as I’ve been commented upon in past posts, “What’s Poetry/poetry got to do, got to do with it?”
Barbed wire fence surrounds me
And the fog rolls slowly in
The elms stand tall and stately
And the maples crowd them in
Claudia Jones, from “The Elms at Morn”
Chapter 3 of Boyce Davies’ study, “Prison Blues: Literary Activism and a Poetry of Resistance,” is a unique and well-researched addition to the growing body of critical studies of incarceration and poetic creativity which includes, recently, Lawson Fusao Inada’s Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience, Sarith Peou’s Corpse Watching, and the Marc Falkoff-edited Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, among others. Fusing frameworks from Barbara Harlow’s Resistance Literature and Angela Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminisms Boyce Davies reads Claudia Jones’ poetic output among “a range of creative acts, which, in their articulation defy an oppressive state’s attempts to silence and contain political actors.”
To give some sense of Boyce Davies’ critical approach to and reading of Jones’ poetry, here is an excerpt from her take on one of the central metaphors of Jones’ poem written to her father shortly after her deportation and while aboard the Queen Elizabeth to exile in London, “Ship’s Log: Paean to the Atlantic”: “In Claudia Jones’s piece about the Atlantic, the implications of deportation and exile are deliberately linked to the creation of diaspora, and then connected to a creativity that is a direct response to state repression. The so-called immigrant figure is targeted by a series of Immigration and Naturalisation Acts, which work only unidirectionally. In my analysis, Claudia Jones’s life work is one of a number of missing gendered black Atlantic texts, missing in Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic” formulation, being one who figures not in terms of his “crisscrossing” model but in a crossing as a deliberate relocation and self-creation in activism.”
It was invigorating to read a political history/radical studies volume that places so much emphasis on poetry and the poetic, that is equally comfortable speaking of Audre Lorde, the Last Poets, Adrienne Rich, and Ken Saro-Wiwa as it is of Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn (whose poems to Claudia Jones are also included in the volume), Stuart Hall, Antonio Gramsci, and W.E.B. DuBois; and it was invigorating as well to read about a poet like Claudia Jones, who “always acted from the principle that economics, politics, and culture were inextricably linked.”
More soon, from left of Karl Marx.

Originally Published: July 9th, 2008

Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants (Coffee House Press, 2000), Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2008), and Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009). His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New...

  1. July 9, 2008

    It's June Jordan's birthday today, so the post is a propos.

  2. July 9, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Mark Nowak said, in his uncategorically enthusiastic post re: Claudia Jones, a leading member of the Communist Party USA:
    >“a female political and intellectual equivalent of C.L.R. James”
    But it might be appropriate to add to your post the caveat that the Stalinist Comintern henchmen to whom Claudia Jones was loyal murdered tens of thousands of Soviet left oppositionists (they did this in Spain and Greece, too, among other places) who shared the same democratic socialist ideals with CLR James, a Trotskyist!
    She defended this line.
    I know the topic is uncomfortable and complicates things, Mark, and I think what you are doing is fabulous and good, don't get me wrong. But I do think a bit of, well, more up front self-awareness regarding left history might help your cause.
    And none of which is to say that it's inappropriate to write a post about Claudia Jones, who did some heroic things. But do you see my point?

  3. July 9, 2008

    Kent said:
    >CLR James, a Trotskyist!
    Well, yes, but by the time James was himself imprisoned on Ellis Island and writing his great book on Melville, he'd already begun to develop a substantial critique of Trotskyism. . .

  4. July 10, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Jasper said:
    >Well, yes, but by the time James was himself imprisoned on Ellis Island and writing his great book on Melville, he'd already begun to develop a substantial critique of Trotskyism. . .
    Well, yes, but he certainly didn't become a Stalinist!

  5. July 13, 2008

    You know, it's okay--it's good--to remember that the American CP was Stalinist and that Stalin was (among other things) a murderous dictator. But it's also good to remember that many people who joined the American Communist Party did so because of what it was doing or trying to do here at home, in civil rights, in unionizing, in opposing American imperialism. It always has seemed curious to me that people who certainly seem to be a force for good in their practical actions--activist-poets like Claudia Jones--get criticized for their ideological associations, while people who *do* nothing at all, or worse, get a free pass.

  6. July 13, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    It was possible to be a member of the American Communist Party without being a Stalinist; several people were, &, as Daisy points out, it was a tremendously important organizational force for social justice -- in the Jim Crow South, among other places. & it's important to keep in mind that, as Noam Chomsky says, "many deeply committed Stalinists . . . didn't really know or . . . care very much what was happening in Russia. They cared about the suffering of oppressed people in the United States & they were going to help them. Some of those people committed themselves to crazy & unbelievable positions with regard to the Soviet Union. But the sphere of their concern was primarily at home, & much of what they did was quite respectable, very admirable in fact, within the sphere of their primary concern. In defense of civil rights for blacks, for example, or in union organizing. We probably wouldn't have the CIO without the courageous efforts of these organizers." (This excerpt, not incidentally, occurs within the context of Chomsky's condemnation of both Stalinism & Trotskyism.)

  7. July 14, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Daisy and Michael,
    I don't disagree with much of what you say here, though see my key point below.
    And note that I readily granted that Claudia Jones was a brave person who did some admirable things.
    But as a leading national official of the CPUSA (and then later member of the British CP), she was also more than just an "innocent, idealistic" member of the Party. In the 1940s, you didn't get to be head honcho of the YCL or a member of the CP National Committee by being naive about what was happening in the USSR and the international left! You had to be hardened and you had to know how to rationalize... And as a leader of the Party she was well aware of--and spoke out loudly and clearly in defense of--Stalin's policies, from the Stalin/Hitler Pact to the murderous purges of so-called "internal agents of Imperialism."
    In other words, poet or not, the intellectual equal of CLR James or not (ahem), she was, yes, a Stalinist.
    I was, Michael and Daisy, a full-time, dues-paying member of a Marxist-Leninist organization for more than a decade, and am not ignorant of the history of the left; so please, while I understand your points, you will have to make less "sentimental" arguments than this.
    In short, just as I (or anyone, I hope!) would expect enthused posts here on, say, Heidegger or Celine to proffer *some kind* of caveat regarding their ideological complicities with anti-Semitism and fascism, I would also expect enthused posts on a Stalinist politician to proffer *some kind* of caveat regarding her ideological complicities with a regime whose crimes are legion.
    It seems like a simple, reasonable point.

  8. July 15, 2008
     Steve Tills

    "It seems like a simple, reasonable point."
    It IS, and well-taken, too.
    Steve :)

  9. July 16, 2008

    Should an American poet accept a laureateship under the Bush Administration? I think probably not, but does it change how I read their poems? Probably not, also. Should we fail to mention that a poet accepted a laureateship under Bush when we talk about that poet? And yet it is almost never mentioned. What about American poets who never said a word about the firebombing of Tokyo? What about Emily Dickinson who failed to notice the existence of slavery?

  10. July 16, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    I'm afraid you completely miss my point, though I honestly don't know how I could make it any clearer...
    I am NOT in any way saying that Claudia Jones's poetry (though apparently no one here except Mark has seen it yet) is unworthy of consideration because of her political affiliations! I love the work of lots of poets who were Stalinists, Right-wingers, Poet-Warriors, Anti-Semites, NRA Members, Sexual Deviants, what have you...
    I am merely saying that in a discussion that centers on working class poetry in the context of Left history and tradition, one cannot sweep certain major issues off the table. If one does that, it desiccates the discussion, robs it of an important part of its historical texture, suggests a sense of naivete at best, and risks, at worst, making it appear that one is ho-hum casual about the obscene crime that was Stalinism--a crime committed, to be sure, *against* the Left and its culture, as well!
    Anyway, I'm honestly beginning to feel a bit confused about the reaction (or no reaction) to the simple point I'm making. Though glad to see that JDJ also brings it up in his excellent long comment under Marx's last...

  11. July 16, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    That's funny: I ended that last comment by saying "under Marx's last."
    I meant under Mark's last!
    I'm sure Mark would be the first to agree he is no Karl Marx!

  12. July 17, 2008

    Kent--Ok, but you miss mine, which isn't surprising as I'm not being very clear. I'm saying lots of writers are ideologically aligned in problematic ways, and I'm wondering why people tend not to talk about it--tend to sweep it off the table, as you say--unless it's a matter of what happened far away. I do think lefties tend to get twitted for their politics more than most, Ezra Pound notwithstanding. Best, Daisy