The Poetics of Class & How to Write Ourselves Back to Relevancy

1. With the help of essays like “A Question of Class” by Dorothy Allison and “Gender, Class, and Terrorism” by Michael S. Kimmel, my students and I have been thinking about class quite a bit this semester. To borrow a phrase from bell hooks, if anything is true, we are desperately trying to figure out where we stand: the pink slips, the credit card bills, the student loans, the knock-off designer purses. But – I have to ask – what about the poetry?

2. In “Where We Stand: Class Matters” bell hooks argues that, unlike race and gender, we don’t have a vocabulary for class. Most Americans refer to themselves as “middle class” while statistics show that most us aren’t “middle class” by a long shot. The language of class seems to be hyperbolic at best. Sure, we can name what it means to be exorbitantly wealthy or extremely poor, but where are the words to describe the rest of us?

3. If I accept the idea that poetry emphasizes creative and innovative use of language; that poetry allows us to name what, previously, was beyond the grasp of words, how can I not think about class? How can I not think about the potential of poetry to help us feel our way through these uncertain times?

4. As we continue to search for subject matter worth putting into words, perhaps it’s well past time that we, as poets, contributed to the conversation about class in America. It’s not only a matter of writing poems that examine, depict, and voice economic struggle. It’s about mining our libraries for work that already does so. Think of Walt Whitman’s apostrophe to a prostitute. Think of Langston Hughes’s poems about landlords and tenants. Think of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago.

5. Who among us will write poems for Gary, Indiana? Who among us will write poems for Detroit, Michigan? Who among us will write poems for Newark, New Jersey?

6. As we continue to decry the lack of an audience for poetry, the lack of interest in what we do as creative writers, perhaps the poetics of class offers us a responsibility, but also an opportunity to make our work relevant again (whatever THAT means).

7. Praise to all of you already writing these poems. Praise to all of you already reading them.


14 responses to “The Poetics of Class & How to Write Ourselves Back to Relevancy

  1. I’m diggin this whole post. Great questions to keep in mind.

    My favorite: Sure, we can name what it means to be exorbitantly wealthy or extremely poor, but where are the words to describe the rest of us?

    I think Lemon Anderson has one possible answer to this when he states that he feels he didn’t grow up poor, he grew up in poverty. It’s an important distinction when we recognize that our economic present doesn’t negate our cultural past.

  2. I’m so glad you mentioned Lemon Anderson. I’ve been thinking about he’s take on class since I saw his one man show “County of Kings” earlier this week.

  3. Good post. Coming from an immigrant background and reading so much immigrant literature, I see a consistent handling of work and economics, whether it’s Carlos Bulosan’s notable poem, “If you want to know what we are,” or Al Robles’s book Rappin with ten thousand carabao in the dark, Jeff Tagami’s October Light – these 2 books are about the Filipino American migrant workers (who came to the US in ~1920s) on the American West Coast. So there is much discussion about what they have and don’t have, racial violence sprung from scarcity. These days, some themes in the filipino american literary community having to do with economic status deal with transnationalism, overseas contract workers, occupational downgrading which occurs with immigration (MD in the philippines, nruse’s aide in america) etc. I hope this is the kind of work you are thinking of; i don’t mean to detract.

  4. Oscar, your comment reminded me of a friend of mine who used to say “I ain’t poor, I’m broke.”

  5. Hey Saeed,
    these are the questions that I keep asking myself. I just wrote about how many of the students that I went to high school with talked about escaping my hometown, not just because it was outside the city, but many of us did not want to be stuck working retail jobs or just not having a job, period. I grew up poor, and finding my way to middle class mores through education almost amounts to a denial of the struggle to get the education. It means hiding parts of myself, and I know I’ve made people uncomfortable by even discussing it or claiming allegiance with the poor, but I do not even know another way to be. I cannot be a traitor to my past. Even still, I am still struggling with class inequities as an adjunct, an educated person from a poor/working class background, when many of my students can drive to school. I don’t even have words for how ridiculous this is. I probably should have responded to this before I went to see Michael Moore’s movie, but I’m just feeling like the system has to change.

  6. I’m loving this post as well. Really inspiring, as far as making me want to write this kind of a poem. I’m sure I have, to a certain extent. But not with the kind of scrutiny I think it may demand. Thanks for this.

  7. I think that it may be unsettling for those of us with formal educations to side with those of us who do not. Because even though our incomes may be similar, our lifestyles are typically radically different. bell hooks says that class is also performance. So as long as “lower working middle class” perform the roles of upper middle class or upper class, we will continue to have a noticeable division, even though in terms of wealth-building, there really isn’t one.

    I would extend your questions in no. 5 and ask, who will pay the poet who writes about detroit?

  8. How could I note chime in on this wonderful post. I put a response on my blog.

    Can you write me an email? I need to ask something.

  9. All this makes me think about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which would indicate that anyone who had the leisure time to think about and ask these questions has had all their survival-level needs met. I don’t think of class, I think of needs: if your belly is empty, poetry is probably not your most important subject for the day. Ever.

  10. @arthur durkee

    Valid points made. Even knowing what Malsow’s Hierarchy of Needs is, references a class division. Hmm.

  11. It references an educational division, which may or may not be a class division, and may or may not reflect a class division. It’s not only the upper class who go to college and study psychology, although obviously they may find it easier to pay their own way. But even the most expensive colleges, such as the Ivy League, do have scholarships and other forms of financial assistance.

    I take your point about who would know of Maslow, as it echoes my own point. But I don’t think it’s so cut and dried, just as I don’t think that ALL divisions reduce to class divisions. Any mono-argument that reduces ALL issues to one issue is going to be non-viable simply because there will too many exceptions which don’t prove the rule.

  12. You have mined something real and honest here: “perhaps the poetics of class offers us a responsibility, but also an opportunity to make our work relevant again…”

  13. i just want to say that i’m loving your blog. and that i’ve been writing my detroit poems. much of my dissertation manuscript is about the “blackgirlself” in the urban landscape of detroit. and i’m re-conceiving it verse now that i’ve lived away from home since 98.

    i appreciate your questions and your approaches to being the conduit for what needs to be said/heard/seen/made. keep it coming, honey.

  14. The wealthy and the educated think that everybody else wants to be them but can’t cut it. Having decided that the working class and poor are substandard they have no qualms about ignoring our voices: in politics, mainstream media, the arts. So an urgent question becomes, where can we be heard?

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