Poetry News

Richard Owens's No Class Gets Some Due

By Harriet Staff
Price is Right wheel

This week, at Social Text, Lukas Moe reviewed Richard Owens's No Class (Barque Press, 2012). That this piece comes four years post-publication doesn't mean the subject's not evergreen. "Living in semi-rural Maine and having earned his PhD at Buffalo, Owens knows the ravages of deindustrialized and casualized life not just from Theory but from everyday struggle, 'appropriately unhinged,'" writes Moe. More:

The opener of No Class sets the scene of the poet being reproached for his “distasteful obsession with cash and capital” instead of “the determinate force of the cultural.” But both formulations are suspect in a poem that features “a Bruins fan drunk in the stands,” restraining orders, Rohypnol, and self-censoring about “Foolishly getting off on that place where the homes are on wheels / and the cars are on blocks.” A world nonetheless uncannily at home for Owens, who compulsively nods to the totems of class rather than hiding behind their taboo. Precisely because he knows that what sustains (especially American) fantasies of identity is their crass innocence of inequality, the encounters Owens stages between “class” and critique ring true for how ecumenical they are, earning their high-low judo by refusing to abstract or sanitize the speaker’s knowledge of himself.

We took it so high on the fucking hog: celebrity
diets—cashews and booze—a place in the sun
where it all falls so strangely scattered—vertical
integrations never had no room
not for you—no more or less
inappropriate than an unplugged
refrigerator or school in the summertime
and couldn’t you just for once
wash out your fucking undercarriage. (“NO CLASS”)
Owens’ working-class subjects contradict as much as they sustain his first-person and its driving pathos, which, and this will make readers uneasy, is born of their having “no class.” A pathos in touch with bathos, unveiling our desire to avoid the less heroic details of class communities whose political alliance, while important and even necessary to those on the Left, rarely is allowed to sully our political art. Next to the best American agit-poetry today, from the West Coast academic-occupation sensibility of Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover to the laureled protest songs of Claudia Rankine, Owens’ work is downright dirty and salty like the Northeast where it was written...

 Find the full review at Social Text.

Originally Published: October 13th, 2017