Poetry as Documentation

I mentioned before that Cary Nelson argues that poetry has artifactual value, that labor poetry written throughout the 30s teaches us, now, what life was like then.  I’ve heard many agree that working-class poetry indeed has significant social value, but then go on to argue that it isn’t very good, and consequently it doesn’t have significant literary value.  This is why it isn’t widely anthologized or taught as literature.

That, I believe, is changing.  All you need to do is look at the panels being offered at the annual conference of the Working Class Studies Association to realized that scholarship of working-class literature is active and edgy and exciting.  Scholars such as Nelson and Janet Zandy and bell hooks and Michael Denning and John Lowney are doing the necessary critical and recovery work to place working-class literature – not just studies – in university classrooms.







But there is another type of working-class poetry that isn’t artifactual.  It is documentary.  And it links contemporary poets and poetics with the working-class history and culture of our nation.  Working-class poetry, while rooted strongly in the labor movement of the early 20th century, isn’t stuck there.  And it isn’t stuck on labor.  The experiences of disenfranchised populations is diverse, and we can’t talk about the working class or the commons without talking about race and gender, as well.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Working-class literature is going strong, and it is documenting the experience of the commons.

Documentation.  I’m thinking of Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom, Rita Dove’s Thomas & Beulah, B. H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe, Tyhimba Jess’s Leadbelly, Galway Kinnell’s The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World, and Rosa Alcalá’s Undocumentaries.

There are many others – so many.  Their documentary work connects them to literary forebearers such as Lola Ridge and Muriel Rukeyser, who also chose to witness instead of protest (or to witness as their act of protest).  Contemporary poets are privileging the working-class experience not just as a legitimate subject of poetry, but also one that has inherent aesthetic value.  The act of witnessing is different from the act of protesting, and the way the story is told is part of the story.  Consequently, contemporary documentary poems about working-class or disenfranchised experiences are, necessarily, aesthetically interesting and valuable.  And stark and disturbing and beautiful and heart-breaking.  And of the commons.


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