you asked about “a surge of interest in class (by which some people mean race)” in current poetry and poetics, and our first thought is, yes.
Our second: for this surge of interest in class (by which some people mean race) to be meaningful, it has to be full also of revolutionary imaginings and possibilities.
But it’s worth clarifying how we understand class (by which we don’t mean race; we tend to see these two categories as often overlapping but also circling out on their own trajectories, each magnetized and shaped by the other, each expressing a dynamic neither can encompass). Much of this surge of interest in class has often formulated the categories in ways we don’t quite recognize, from recent and beguiling propositions regarding “the 99%” to more mysterious deployments. Often class is shrouded in ideas of maldistribution — quantitative ideas, for which the master term is inequality.
We prefer those accounts which refer to qualitative characteristics: to the distinctions which divide those who do not have to show up for work to stay alive from those who do, and moreover those who are largely excluded from this dynamic, who find no work even though they lack other resources. This latter category, surplus population, is a miserable validation of Stuart Hall’s adage that “race is the modality through which class is lived.” This population is distinct — the profoundly dispossessed. But it is at the same time joined to those allowed and compelled to work. Both groups are without reserves, the original meaning of proletarian.
We begin with that as a useful simplification. In part because we often find the way poets think about class unusually frustrating. If there has been a surge of interest it may be often at the expense of analytical categories, preferring the concept as vehicle for poets to explore their own sense of personal marginalization. It may all too often be a way to not talk about race. We certainly don’t have a sense that the longstanding debate that has pitted the primacy of the economic against the primacy of identity positions (often reduced to class vs. race, or whether it is capitalism or colonialism that provides a logic for the miserable unfurling of history) is somehow resolved; indeed, it seems revenant.
And yet we don’t want to complain too much. Because we want there to be a surge of poetic interest in this arrangement of the world. We want to be with you. We even see it sometimes. There has been a lovely increase in various militancies, social antagonisms leaning toward the total, across the globe in the last few years. And some poets have found occasion to talk about this in their work. And the result has taken some interesting forms: at moments a poetics against patriarchy, at other moments an unremitting critique of antiblackness. Sometimes these have played at least as great a role as a poetics of class. We will admit that we think the analytical — not necessarily poetical — limit to any of these is a politics of redistribution, a set of demands over reallocation of resources away from X and toward Y. We hope that a politics of inequality and of representation, of the demand for seats at some table of misery, will be found inadequate. In the most salutary moments, and here have been many, these struggles have insisted on their own specificity not as the isolate significance of their identities and a demand for a better position, but as absolute revolutionary demands: that the unmaking of whiteness, or of gender, will necessarily mean as well the end of capital and a total social emancipation. Here the master term is abolition. This is the sort of work that we find exciting.
Some people don’t espouse these politics, and that is to be expected. Some espouse these politics while seeking to police and denature them, to render them kitsch — the academy specializes in this sort of concern-trolling, the sort of thing where class struggle is reduced to questions of authentic (or not) diction and annual salaries, and radical blackness is reduced to vernacularity. Some talk about their own previous deprivations, their working class roots, as authenticating, as a sort of purity of their intentions. Some indulge in accusations of hypocrisy, particularly the trivial reminder that so and so is complicit, so and so likes to drink champagne, so and so grew up in the suburbs, as if that renders hypocritical any sort of revolutionary demand on their part. Some claim that any sort of revolutionary imaginings in poetry is a form of didacticism. Yes yes sure revolution, these complaints suggest, but when the poetry is reduced to positions and the force of commitment, it’s really quite awful, isn’t it?
Here we come to the particular puzzle that animates this note, the tension between political and poetic modes. This is the aesthetico-political cliché that sees a contradiction between absolute political demand and the proper tonalities for poetry. We see that this is the right question — about the relation between revolutionary politics (which we take to demand a cothinking of race and class among other things) and a poetry which threatens certainty, commitment, didacticism.
Among our responses is that some amount of didacticism is going to be necessary. Is that some amount of proceeding as if certain, as if committed, even if our guts quiver round the clock, is going to happen. Is that poetry is a kind of theory and theory is immanent to struggle, so that if we are certain of our antagonism, we expect a poetry that does not falsify this.
But are we not all complicit, none of us pure, all of us benefitting from entanglement with the very thing from which we claim to take absolute distance? No shit. If “class” has any analytical yield, and we think it has quite a bit, it begins with the simple fact that the basic machine by which the class relation reproduces itself is compelled complicity: we have to work for capital to stay alive. We have to buy capital’s bottled water when we are thirsty. When they take out the public fountains we buy Coca-Cola which is delicious and it is capital’s Coca-Cola and we drink you at dusktime we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night. To say we are complicit is to say that we breathe. We often remark on the oddness of the idea that “communist” people and poets must have achieved the askesis of St. Anthony if they are to hold such politics — as if communism was a moralistic position, a practice of self-abnegation, rather than an analytical framework through which much of the world’s odd motion becomes intelligible.
We might note that there is in fact no shortage of gnomic or unaligned or let’s-have-politics-but-not-too-much verse in the world, if that is your cup of tea. In fact, that’s sort of what “lyric” means. We think the idea that a deeply minoritarian revolutionist stance is somehow oppressing the massively majorital default position of liberal open-minded I’m-just-talking-here hey-let’s-go-sing-karaoke-tonight is an odd one to say the least. Also we like karaoke and we would fight to keep our Thursday nights open for it during and after the revolution. But we think we might need to jettison the idea that the problem is the hubris of purportedly Jacobin militants always going too far — rather than, say, the ecocide of capital. We have little use for Burkean reaction, no matter how cloaked in progressive rhetoric.
Okay, that was not one response but one set of responses. We might also just say: Diane Di Prima!
Now a coda. Now a reversal, a turning over of things. Consider that there may be another way altogether to approach this problem of didacticism and vulnerable ambiguity and their supposed opposition.
Consider the pop song.
Poetry is patient, lazy, persistent; it considers things for a really long time. Human character changed in 1910; in 1911, if George Gershwin is to be trusted, the pop song was transformed by “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Everybody’s Doin’ It” and “That Mysterious Rag,” which managed to sneak into “The Waste Land” along with “Harrigan” and “The Cubanola Glide” and a few others. That mysterious rag, the pop song in the poem, remains a feature of poetry’s socialities. But there have been some discussions of late about period style, and this has something to do with the original suggestion you made, Simone, about “a surge of interest in class (by which some people mean race).” Said discussions often locate period style in relation to these questions, noting the tendency to address class and race through a mix of high theory and low vernacular, often carried by fragments of popular culture. In these discussions of period style, there is often a suggestion that the pop song is a kind of easy identification with the working class. They use that term. We don’t really use that term; we are more interested in structural relations than in sociological categories invented by factory inspectors.
But we are also not sure we see the pop song that way. In truth it sounds more true about Eliot; much has changed since then. Here’s our thought: it matters how you see the pop song. We certainly get that, even after the supposed collapse of the hi-lo distinction, turning your nose up at the pop song is still class-marked, a kind of upper-middlebrow Philistinism. Still, it’s a sort of cross-class pleasure, the pop song, isn’t it? A real pleasure. We hope you will not hear irony. We think that a great pop song, and there are a lot of them — Top 40, sing along, solid gold — is sensually thrilling and emotionally powerful. It is one of the finest things (still no irony) that civilization has produced.
But not just any civilization. Its affordances are capitalism itself, its technologies, its circuits of distribution, its reascriptions of race, its microleisures, invention of the world market, the world audience. In this sense the pop song is emblematic of much human making in the last couple-few centuries. We could speak of Hollywood, or Bollywood, or a videochat with a distant friend, or the Hong Kong skyline. Or bicycling out on the path alongside the Bay Bridge and sitting over the water while the birds and porpoises and oily wakes of container ships pass underneath.
This is the thing about even the most resolute rejection of this world. We know also that this world is in many ways an astonishing achievement of human making, with incomparable pleasures, unevenly distributed. This knowledge is always with us, this pleasure and maybe even wonder. It is with us even in the moments when we think of surplus populations in Dhaka and Sao Paulo, when we think of manganese in the Pearl River and Mike Brown’s body moldering in the street in metropolitan St. Louis. And when we say that it has to go, we say that knowing this means forsaking all of these things.
This is a difficult knowledge. But it would be awful not to have it, to encounter the song as purely instrumental, a signification, separate from its being as a negative delight, the delight of the world to be abolished. But we insist on this as we insist on its vanishing. This is ambiguity, and uncertainty, and vulnerability at the level of the world rather than at the level of rhetoric. We are not sure it needs stating over and over. But it is always with us, in every poem that insists that it all has to go. Every poem is built on the awareness of this destruction, the awareness that any gain will entail catastrophic loss, unevenly distributed. We might call this the foundational ambiguity of critique. The foundational doubt, the sorrow of the negative. It has its joys as well.
With comradely spirit, Commune Editions