Friday, October 16, 2009

The Poetics of Class

One of my favorite blogs, for southern boys who consider poetry, recently posted a blog about class in America. Class has always been an interest of mine. I've always believed that while race has been one of America's most persistent problems, it has constantly been used to justify another of our problems: classism. I think that we often have a dangerous amount of things in common with members of our own class, and that racism promotes the fracturing of our numbers so that we rarely remain dangerous to anyone but our own.

This isn't to say that I believe that when racism shows its face that the person behind it is choosing to promote classism, but that ultimately, a racist is helping to ensure that the gap between classes remains firmly set.

But the aforementioned blog notes that while class is a central issue in our politics and our day to day lives, we have very little language to describe those gaps.

Says the blog:

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?

It goes on:

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?

I found myself thinking about that divide, and how here in Northern Kentucky, as blissfully ignorant as I try to remain about social class, and as successful as I largely have been able to be, this sort of thing creeps into even my daily life.

The blog mentions, at one point: "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?" If that's not a call to action, I don't know what is. So following is my response in this conversation about class:

First Day of School, Bus 95

Where do I live? I'd pause a second,
then say Villa Hills, watching their eyes.
Because you can tell by them. If they bristle,
it's more than they'll ever say to my face.

And I'll want to say how in California,
we were robbed during school hours,
our piggybanks shattered, their hearts stolen:
10 dollars, maybe, in quarters.
Say that we only had a single floor,
how there was no sidewalk, no real yard,
that the side of the house was a graveyard
of dirt that would grow no grass, how the pungent
smell of weeds reminds me even now of childhood,
and how I'd watch our neighbor every morning,
walking barefoot back from the liquor store,
with a brown paper bag in her hand.

But my uncle left us this house
to give us a chance. So I say nothing.

Or upon hearing where I live,
the eyes will remain calm
as indoor swimming-pool water,
warm and familiar; they live there too.
We'll become cordial , but won't ask
where the other lives, won't ask why
we've never seen one another,
because unlike Ludlow or Covington--
where kids walk the broken sidewalks,
and play football in the streets,
and in the warm days of summer,
sit in lawn chairs at the stoops--
you can go days looking out the windows
in Villa Hills and see only an occasional
jogger, or a homeowner trimming
their trees or edging their lawns.

It is not yet 8 o’clock, the first day of school,
and I've already sworn to myself
that I will never mention where I'm from
without having been asked, and even then,
however it is that I really feel,
I will never say it with a smile.


  1. "the eyes will remain calm
    as indoor swimming-pool water,"

    That's grade A description!

    You know in poverty, or distress, there is a community that economic comfort does not provide as in Ludlow or Covington. The more economically stable one is, the more isolated they become?

    A brilliant response to Saeed's question.
    On his blog, I extended the question with "who will pay the poet who writes of detroit?"

  2. Thanks! Yes, I've always wondered at how the people with the nicest lawns spend the least time in them, and how those without lawns at all seem to spend so much time outside, looking at what they seem to appreciate much more.

    I'm going to his blog now, to investigate. haha.

  3. I don't know if we need a call to action as much as an insistence that poets take their heads out of the clouds and take a good look at what actually is happening around them. Many of us want to be John Ashbery, but the problem with admiring genius is that the one you admire and strive to be like is most often a singular figure; what they do cannot be emulated without seeming a strained and self concious. Better poets anchor the better portion of their writing in their localities, their cities, and connect imaginative language with the texture of something that is real, tactile. The communities that need to spoken for should find their voices soon enough.

  4. "Better poets anchor the better portion of their writing in their localities, their cities..."

    I agree!

  5. Very good points, Ted. I don't know how I missed these comments... Although I wonder how it is that some communities find their voices, and others don't seem to be able to breach that silence.

  6. Fantastic, Keith. Very powerful. I love what it says, but the techno geek in me also loves the form. The first stanza poses the question, then the second opens up with that powerful rhythm that is sustained and then ends with the finality of "I will never say it with a smile."

    I've always been told that I'm working class. I hate labels, but that describes me better than middle class. Thanks for the link. I'll go check it out now.