This review is 2,900 words
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Class war in the rust belt
photo Lisa Arrastia
‘Africa Bambaata and Jam Master Jay taught me to “sample” long before Ezra Pound did’
In Shut Up Shut Down Mark Nowak has produced a sequence of poems that seem to promise a genuinely creative attempt to bridge the often seemingly impossible gap between poetic innovation and bitingly political invective. And what engineers the possibility of this bridging is exactly the manner in which Nowak has put together these poems: polyvocal, polytemporal narratives of union struggle and defeat with both a strong documentary quality and a strategic use of modernist poetic genres.
The book consists of five separate, yet related, sequences of poems, each dealing with recent or less recent aspects of the US labour movement’s struggle against factory closure, strike defeats, unemployment and poverty in the rust belt of Pennsylvania and New York State, from where Nowak comes. His grandfather worked in the Buffalo steel mills and his father at a plant in Westinghouse, also in western New York, so Nowak’s own working class credentials are undeniable, and his knowledge of the region he writes about firmly grounded in personal experience.
Mark Nowak is a revolutionary, a political activist, and a trade union militant. These interests and activities are never divorced from his work as poet, and indeed he clearly sees it as his duty as a poet to put his talents directly in the service of class struggle. What politically motivated artist would not? But that is the point; what Nowak shows in this collection is how it is possible to be politically direct and not become ‘merely’ a propagandist.
Nowak’s solution echoes that of many ‘proletarian’ writers of the Thirties: his aesthetic is not dissimilar to now largely forgotten (and often unjustly so) Marxist critics such as Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox and Alick West. Indeed it could be argued that his poetics is related to even earlier Proletkult solutions such as those of Alec Brown, who advocated the rejection of all ‘bourgeois’ art. Vladimir Mayakovsky’s constructivist poetic, outlined in his How are Verses Made?, also springs to mind, given his stress on the importance of documentary fact in poetry over previous aesthetic assumptions: ‘The value of factual material (and this is why documentary reports from the workers, and peasants, journalists are so interesting) must be marked at a higher price — and under no circumstances at a lower one — than so-called “poetical works”’. Central, therefore, to Nowak’s poetry is the importance he gives to well-researched documented fact, with a relative lack of concern for what may be regarded as a ‘bourgeois’ lyrical aesthetic in the poems’ content.
Yet there is no lack of attention to the formal aspects of poetry in Nowak’s work: his is an almost Bakhtinian insistence on dialogue, both literally within the poems, but also between stanzaic forms, font-type, voices, genres, and very significantly word and image. In two of the sequence, each poem is faced by a photograph depicting scenes of industrial decay: closed factories, empty lots, boarded up doors and windows, gutted interiors, heaps of detritus; and in the first each poem is related to an image in a book of documentary photographs not given. Interestingly none of the photos contain people. This maintains the poems’ argument about the relation of people to the places they work in, the socialised nature of labour and living/ working places (as opposed to spaces); and it mirrors formally the emptiness of unemployment, as a negative human capacity.
It is in this sense that Nowak has perfectly matched form and content in a way that marks his poetry as the genuine article. He recognises that innovation in form is redundant without a concomitant relationship to the content of his poems, which means, in the case of this collection, that the form must actually represent the class struggle (rarely has Bob Creeley’s famous maxim been so thoughtfully manifested). This is a far cry from ‘experimental’ or avantgardist use, which sees the formal aspects of a poem as potentially radicalising in and of themselves; a defect most clearly shown in the empty figures of much of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, where a combination of reductive post-structuralist linguistics and unmotivated formal innovation serves as an empty vessel in which to pour any kind of material depending on the ‘constraints’ of composition, or whatever other whim the poet chooses.
Another way of looking at this problem is to think of the form as an integral aspect of the reality that the poet synthesizes in the poem. Nowak’s poems constitute syntheses of the class struggle as it is manifested in each of the historically and socially concrete situations he picks as his subjects. The sequence $00 / LINE / STEEL / TRAIN, for example, consists of numbered texts each related to photographs in Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Industrial Façades. The texts frame certain viewpoints relating to the demise of the steel industry in Lackawanna, New York.
The use of these various frames: photographs, quoted speech, journalistic and other accounts, relate Nowak’s work directly to Benjamin’s Arcades Project; an attempt to use these diverse materials to set up a dialectical materialist account of the concrete social, historical and cultural conditions in the post-industrial US ‘rust-belt’ at the time of the steel industry’s demise. An interesting feature of this style of writing is the way language starts to take on a function somehow outside of the frame of the poem. In this sequence there is the spectral presence of the photographs from Bernd and Hilla Becher’s book, which we don’t see, literally framing the writing. The linguistic material of the sequence, therefore, somehow leaks out, providing a perfect example of how each such framing can only ever be partial, and consequently partisan. Neither poems nor concepts ever exhaust the things conceived by them.
Once again this use of the partial fragment is not neutral, but an expression of class warfare; which bit of the totality is available, visible, in focus. Whose interests are being served by the framing of social reality in this way? Nowak himself traces his interest in what he thinks of as ‘sampling’ to his love of the Punk and early Hip-Hop music scenes in the late seventies and early eighties: ‘Africa Bambaata and Jam Master Jay taught me to “sample” long before Ezra Pound did’. It was listening to Run D M C, The Clash and Kraftwerk (as opposed to Bruce Springsteen or Bob Seeger) that tuned his ears to the relationships between the reality of working class existence, art, and revolutionary struggle, and this musical inheritance is still very much in evidence in the carefully crafted rhythms, syncopation and enjambments of his rather chaotic seeming ‘stanzaic’ verse forms. It might be useful at this point to quote in its entirety one of the poems from the sequence $00 / LINE / STEEL / TRAIN.
The men knew that they were risking their jobs in the walkout... but
they had got worked up to the point where this didn’t seem so
important... They were tired of never getting promoted, and they
were tired of being treated
Get work. Get (worked) over. Get up, get worked up, get working
Because the photo
stairs [might] mean
the door the next flight up’s
*[except the factory’s long since closed]
A mixture of oral history, sloganeering and teasingly lyrical commentary, with the devastating endnote, lead to a shining clarity of purpose: these are poems for the workers of Longbridge or Dagenham [in Britain] as much as for the café or lecture hall reading, indeed for wage earners everywhere. Nowak’s is genuinely a working class poetry, by temperament, rhythm, form, language, and most importantly by virtue of its insistence on the value and contribution of every working man and woman to the social whole.
It is a combination of these elements of real speech, working class music, and concrete situation that fills the forms that Nowak chooses with such power. The forms are directly related to the attempt to make the dialectical struggle between interrelated yet opposing (or apparently opposing) interests (between boss and worker, black and white employees, the employed and the unemployed) apparent, shedding light on where class interests really lie. This is clearly the case with the sequence June 19, 1982, the main ‘plot’ of which concerns the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American autoworker, by two unemployed white men, who beat him to death with baseball bats under the mistaken notion that he was Japanese.
Throughout the sequence Nowak builds a picture of the mental and social degradation caused by long-term unemployment, and at the same time analyses forms of false-consciousness in the working class, such as racism. Nowak employs an historical etymology of the term ‘unemployed’ in direct relation to apparently quoted passages by long-term unemployed workers explaining how unemployment has shattered their lives, with the resultant use of drink, drugs, prostitution, the whole gamut of social degradation, as far as homicide. As with the other sequences, these poems consist of starkly divided sections, each of which consists of a voice or voices: academic, journalistic, worker, trade unionist, poet, filling the subject with its own language.
This, as much as anything, demonstrates the modernist inheritance in Nowak’s poetry, as the subject of each poem is subjected to fragmentation through spatial, historical, social moderation. However, the poem does not remain an indifferent vehicle for this modernist fragmentation (Dos Passos comes to mind more than anything), but instead assumes the stance of politically motivated realism. Each of the voices speaks on behalf of a class position and the poem does not reach easy consensus, but rather stages a confrontation of interests, starkly opposed world views, dialectical struggle: put simply, class war.
Attempts have been made to include ‘natural language’ or ‘real speech’ in poetry for a very long time. Wordsworth’s might well be a defining moment for modern English-language poetry. Of more immediate reference to Nowak we could cite William Carlos Williams (and indeed Paterson is another possible precursor in the American poetic tradition, with its abrupt changes of register and reliance on quoting various forms of ‘colloquial’ language) or Charles Reznikoff, and indeed Olson or Duncan: we have already quoted Nowak on his Poundian influence. There have also been attempts at more explicit ‘talk’ genres in poetry from David Antin, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman and others, working off the Socratic dialectic as poetics, that arguably feed Nowak’s writing too.
A more politicized source for Nowak is both more theatrical and home-spun. Indeed arguably the central poem in Shut Up Shut Down is the dramatic sequence Francine Michalek Drives Bread, which samples text from Brecht’s The Mother, as well as Mary Ann Landis’s interview with Theresa Pavlocak drawn from Thomas Dublin’s compendium of oral history interviews When the Mines Closed: Stories of the Struggles in Hard Times. The poem is divided into fifteen ‘acts’ describing the life of a working class woman, Francine Michalek, who loses her husband in an industrial accident, and years later barely scratches a living delivering bread for the Taystee Bakery: ‘an occasion, but not an option’.
The writing employs ‘avantgardist’ techniques of disruption, fragmentation, cross-cutting and deliberate alienation, but nevertheless what comes through is a deeply felt human suffering and politically conscious anger, which, far from being rhizomatic, decentred, or partial, is entirely partisan and driven by the social movement that inspires it. The sequence maintains a narrative and dramatic drive that stems not exclusively from its materials, but rather from the concrete situation that they register.
The linguistic heritage of Nowak’s working language is more Voloshinovite than stucturalist (unlike many other contemporary US poets with whom he might otherwise be compared); he quotes utterances drawn from the specific historical struggles of the US proletariat to re-activate the revolutionary potential stored in them, and at the same time recognises that as with language, the poem only ever exists as a specific constellation of linguistic phenomena in a definite social, historical, economic and cultural nexus.
In the sequence Capitalization, Nowak relates Reagan’s breaking of the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, which in many ways played a similar function as Thatcher’s crushing of the miners in 1984–5, to wit the systematic attack on and temporary defeat of organised labour and the trade union movement. Interspersed with details of the strike and the eventual direct presidential sacking and subsequent imprisonment of the strike leaders are accounts of Reagan’s early career as a virulently anti-communist TV and B-movie actor and, ironically, head of the Screen Actors Guild, oral accounts of life during the depressed 1930s from Margaret Stasik, a worker at the Westinghouse Plant in Pittsburgh, together with quotations from Margaret Shertzer’s The Elements of Grammar (published in 1986) on the use of capitalization, replete with Cold War references and ideological underpinning. The poems may seem heavy and cluttered at first sight, but what is most obvious is the change in diction between quoted segments with their attendant ideological colourings. The folksy spirit of Stasik’s remembrances rubs up directly with icy Cold War euphemism and double-speak. The last poem in the sequence ends:
I think it happened
because the left-wing movement
contributed so much
to the strength of the union.
That strength had to be dissipated.
A list of words and expressions
showing their generally accepted capitalization
follows. Note that some words
derived from proper nouns
have developed a special meaning;
these words are no longer capitalized.
Statement No. 2
The phrasing of the first question
was particularly significant:
“Are you now, or have you ever been
a member of PATCO?”
Get rid of it. Get it out of here.
If the left could be isolated
out in the country somewhere,
would there be any reason
The implication that any left-wing or trade union activity is marked by its un-American attitude is quite clear, and while Nowak’s poems have a distinctive propaganda value, any attempt to judge them of less value on this basis is surely mistaken. That is one of the significant triumphs of this collection; the demonstration, in poetic practice, that clear political commentary in poetry of high quality is perfectly feasible so long as the form and content of the work cohere ‘dialectically’: that is, that the synthesis of materials employed by the poet (its content) is revealed by the form of the poem, even through apparent contradiction. In the poem above it is unnecessary for Nowak to make any direct propagandist statement of his own, because the materials themselves are so explicit, poetic force having been achieved through tension between the competing blocks of quotation and lyric.
Nowak’s book is completed with an afterword by veteran activist and poet Amiri Baraka. The musical analogies contained in Nowak’s poems continue with Baraka assuming his habitual syncopated jazzy prose style: ‘to eyeball youngish white anti-imperialist, working-class, left poets is still not usual. The mail reason is that the class socialization & persona of “white people” is generally more magnetized to the pretended facsimile art of the social view that pitches seduction from inside the fake reality of America the Big Dog, so high and mighty that any focus on actuality seems grim and overstated. Or hysterical.’ As with Nowak, Baraka turns his focus from supposedly ‘aesthetic’ considerations to the social background of the writing and its motivation in ‘grim’ US reality. What is important for the poet is perception; the poem sees and hears ‘reality’ as it really is and sends it back ‘sleek with seeing and hearing’. Finally a ‘proletarian’ aesthetic that would not only observe the world ‘in various ways’, but whose ‘point is to change it’. As if to make this point even more certainly Nowak places at the very end of the book the following text and call to action: ‘If you believe that the bookstore worker who ordered this book from the distributor, placed it on the shelf, rang up your order at the cash register, etc., deserves a living wage, affordable health care, and a voice in the workplace, and you’re interested in helping your community’s bookstore workers organize for these workplace rights and benefits, please contact the author via the Union of Radical Workers and Writers (URWW) at <http:/ / www.urww.org>‘.
This is a strangely unnerving yet compelling book: unnerving because of the lack of concession to so many mores of poetry writing both in the mainstream and ‘avant garde’ or modernist traditions; and compelling, because of its suggestion of alternative aesthetic approaches to writing engaged in social and political activism. It is also firmly placed in a third tradition, and one which is even more marginalised now than either of the other two: that is the tradition of ‘working-class literature’, which flourished most obviously in the 1920s and 1930s. While there may be many reasons why ‘working-class’ writing went into decline after the Second World War, Nowak’s book shows that there are equally good reasons why it should not be forgotten, and why there is every reason to suppose that ‘proletarian’ literature is still capable of meaningful innovation and great aesthetic power in the current climate of resurgent class antagonism and anti-war and anti-capitalist militancy.
photo Lisa Arrastia
Mark Nowak is the author of the critically acclaimed debut book of poems Revenants (reviewed in Jacket 18 by Deborah Meadows) the editor of Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics, and the co-editor of Visit Teepee Town: Native Writings After the Detours. He grew up in Buffalo, New York and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he teaches at the College of St. Catherine and is active in the labour movement. He has also recently set up the Union of Radical Workers and Writers (URWW) to collaborate on common trade union issues with bookstore workers, librarians, writers and other workers involved in the book trade.
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