When Working-Class Poetry is not Public

The commons implies the public sphere: public space, public land, public policy, public dialogue and debate.  The commons is politically charged, hedged by ideology and hemmed by opposing ideology.  Poetry of the commons, then, is often perceived as primarily a poetry of public concerns and political change: the labor movement, socio-economic injustice, social activism, protest.

What to do, then, with working-class poems that aren’t about labor or politics or social justice?  What to do with working-class poems that take as their subject the domestic sphere, the sensual (as opposed to laboring) body, the emotional or spiritual life of the individual, love (as opposed to power) relationships, and interpersonal connections that seem not to acknowledge the commons or class or public concerns at all?

The personal is political.  Of course it is.  When Carol Hanisch first proposed this in 1969, I like to think it was a radical assertion.  I like to think that fact that this assertion is accepted a priori is evidence that the feminist movement is making headway, despite the fact that we are once again (holy shit, again!?) arguing that birth control isn’t for sluts and women should be the ones to make decisions regarding their health with information provided to them by doctors who don’t lie.

And politics are personal (see above), so the line dividing the public from the private is permeable at best (but disappearing at worst if Facebook and Twitter and Anthony Weiner have anything to do with it).

And it is this blurred line that keeps me invested as a scholar in working-class poetry.  Because, to tell the truth, hand me a book with a title like Mourning Modernity: Literary Modernism and the Injuries of American Capitalism and first chance I get I’m going to abscond with Working Words and call it a day.   Which is not to say that Seth Moglen’s book isn’t an important work at the top of my to-read list as I consider the direction my research will take me, but my initial connection to working-class poetry – my working-class first love – was never overt political concerns or goals or implications; it was the poem’s compelling depiction of a culture and an experience that moves me.  It is not the poem’s politics, but the poem’s aesthetics that I privilege, and I unabashedly list toward the poems that dwell in the private and domestic realms.

And while I do not think that women can claim dominion over these realms (coming to mind immediately are B. H. Fairchild and Sean Thomas Dougherty and Jim Daniels who writes intensely personal poems), it is true that women’s poetry was often ignored during the labor movement because it more often dwelled in the realm of domestic labor including mothering and housekeeping.  Cary Nelson points out that in working-class poetry, depictions of the laboring body are most often male doing hard physical labor.  The laboring body of the wife and mother isn’t often considered an image of political protest as it isn’t often perceived as socially unjust.

So I guess what I’m saying is that working-class poetry isn’t always overtly political or even public.  And I think the best working-class poems aren’t political or public.  I think the best bring it back to this:

If This is Sex, It Must Be Tuesday” by Jan Beatty



  1. dwlcx said

    My profound critical comment to this (marvelous) piece is “Amen!”
    Thank you.

  2. Christina Pacosz said

    I’ve been writing working class poetry all my life about myriad subjects, not only the tried and true and including the female in many aspects.

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