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   Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Ezra Tessler reviews
The Stamp of Class: Reflections on Poetry and Social Class
by Gary Lenhart
152 pp. The University of Michigan Press. Paperback. US$19.95. 0472069179 paper

This review is about 6 printed pages long. It is copyright © Gary Lenhart and Jacket magazine 2007.

Dreams and Disappointments:

American Poetry and the Promise of Democracy


Gary Lenhart’s The Stamp of Class is a deeply personal exploration of the relationship between poetry and class. A refreshingly candid contribution to the growing number of voices examining literature with an eye to questions of social justice, Lenhart’s book eschews the narrow confines of academic prose. In doing so, he blends personal memoir, literary analysis, biography, and historical narrative, pursuing his topic through a series of essays on writers either from working class backgrounds or concerned with class-related issues. Lenhart’s hope is that readers gain a new appreciation of the poems he has selected, poems chosen because they inspire him and because they shed light on ‘the dreams and disappointments’ of poets who hoped for a genuinely democratic society (p. xv).

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The ease with which Lenhart speaks about his subject underlines his modest and admirable goal: as he admits, ‘this is not an exhaustive or definitive study of class effects on poetry, but essays about reading poetry with an awareness of class and class-related themes’ (p. xiii). But how does one begin to discuss class, something that is at once so obstinate and elusive? The difficulty lies in speaking about the effects of class while also appreciating the diverse identities and experiences that intersect with it. Fortunately, Lenhart’s personal and layered approach is well adapted to the challenge, and to the equally important task of understanding the poetry that informs his book.


Central to this project is Lenhart’s experience as a poet from a working-class background. The project is noticeably dear to his heart, and his detailed essays are interspersed with reflections about his own life and about the parallels between the struggles that he and his subjects experienced. Thus, the status of the working class poet takes center stage, and Lenhart considers the difficult relationship that working class writers – and their audiences – often have with their status in society and with their lives as writers.


The opening chapter on eighteenth century working class British poets introduces this theme and sets the stage for its complex thread in American history and society. He discusses Stephen Duck, the author of ‘The Thresher’s Labour’, a pastoral written in a laborer’s simple voice. After Duck gained public attention, the Queen became his patron and he began a life in public service, continuing occasionally to write poetry. But as Duck rose in the ranks of the church, his poetry lost the quality of originality that had inspired it and had made it so compelling to critics.


With this brief narrative, Lenhart introduces a recurring topic in his essays. How should we understand the relationship between a poet’s writing and his or her working class background? Was the positive response to Duck’s early poetry merely a patronizing reward for the quaint efforts of a lowly laborer? Was the negative response to Duck’s later poetry also a form of class-bias, a patronizing scoff at his attempts to buck his station in life? Regardless, Stephen Duck’s later writing shows the traps that working class writers face as they struggle with writing and with the ambivalence of success.


Within this context, Lenhart reflects on the relationship writers maintain with their working class upbringing, often forced to navigate the bumpy road between denying and embracing their backgrounds. By considering these types of questions in his essay on Stephen Duck and his later essays on poets in America – where the ideology of democracy and opportunity add new dynamics – Lenhart shows the complex ways that a writer’s voice and status intersect with issues of identity, authenticity, and commitment, both personal and political.


Yet Lenhart enters into a subtler and more personal realm when examining the issues that confront working class poets. Hinting at DuBois’ language of double-consciousness, Lenhart describes his upbringing in a working class family and the change that was effected in him by his education. As the first person in his family to attend college, then continuing on to graduate school, Lenhart became aware that ‘literacy can alienate you from loved ones and even yourself’ (p. 134). Although poetry is rarely a means for economic mobility, he explains ‘because of my education, I would never again be considered working class at home’ (p. 131).


In a later chapter entitled ‘Literary Men in Blue Jeans’, Lenhart describes a conversation with the contemporary poet Ron Padgett, who articulates the frustration that this double-consciousness entails. Padgett explains (p. 111):


So it’s very interesting to have grown up in a certain class and still feel in many ways that it made you who you are, and yet know that you can never really be a part of it again because of your interest in art and writing. It’s really weird. And one’s writing continues to be influenced by — not only by the origins, but by the knowledge of the distance between you and your origins. So it’s not only the presence of the class, it’s the absence of the class at the same time.


As Padgett expresses, and as Lenhart details in his life and in the lives of the poets he examines, one’s place in a certain class is not always so clean. Class means more than socio-economic status, and the ways that poets struggle with the push and pull of class and its complex refractions are crucial to Lenhart’s narratives.


Lenhart’s book forces us to think about how we define class and the criteria we use to identify ourselves and other people in certain classes, asking: how do we, or how should we, talk about class in America? The impetus to this question is Lenhart’s claim that talking about class is not an easy task in post-WWII America, where candid discussion of the causes and effects of class is rare. He asks, ‘Isn’t that why recent academic studies by Cary Nelson, Constance Coiner, Alan Wald, and others into working-class culture are so weighted toward the decade of the 1930s, when there was some sort of Popular Front and even Hollywood nodded toward class in The Grapes of Wrath?’ (p. 121). Lenhart concludes that in contemporary America, the ‘major obstacle to discussing class and poetry is the lack of vocabulary’ (p. 112).


The dearth of meaningful public attention to the issue of class is indeed troubling, but when Lenhart decries the lack of vocabulary he seems to mean something more like this: it is tricky to speak about class intelligently, particularly given the complex similarities and differences that abound within working class experiences. His discussion sometimes reflects this difficulty, occasionally using a hazy ‘us’ when referring to the working class (p. 114). Writing a book with the intentions and scope of Lenhart’s is difficult without in some way romanticizing his subject matter. And while it is important to recognize the opportunities for class solidarity in society, this task brings with it a host of political dangers considering the diversity of America’s working classes. A less reflective and less nuanced writer than Lenhart might do so more problematically.


Thus, when Lenhart explains the “working class has its own values, preferences, and exclusions, often modified by geography and local tradition” (p. 131), he seems to know to tread lightly. He emphasizes that ‘class is but one of the many intersecting circles that locate us in the Boolean algebra of society’ (p. 123), and he spends much of the book looking at poets whose experience of class closely intersects with questions of geography, gender, race, sexuality, and a host of other sources of identity.


As if to disprove his own point about the lack of vocabulary, Lenhart shows that the best way to speak about class is to do so honestly and without jargon. With this in mind, Lenhart describes his subjects’ lives in context, placing central importance on the close reading of their poetry. For example, in his discussion of William Carlos Williams, Lenhart sets examples of Williams’ early imitative poetry and his later writing side by side, showing how Williams’ maturing voice and progressive political commitments developed in the frenetic social and literary milieu of his time. Lenhart’s commentary is anything but didactic despite his clear sympathies with the simple and bold force of Williams’ later poetry and with the social commitments they embodied.


Similarly, Lenhart’s essay on Melvin Tolson, the African American poet, scholar, teacher, and labor organizer, discusses Tolson’s complicated relationship with his social, political, and literary surroundings while paying close attention to Tolson’s poetry. Lenhart points to the struggles that Tolson faced in his daily life in the South, including dangerous political activities, financial difficulties, and the tensions wrought from his scholarly inclinations and popular aspirations. By comparing Tolson’s early work, which was deeply engaged with the folk-motifs and radical protests of the Harlem Renaissance, with his later work, marked by a dense and obscure turn towards high modernism, Lenhart mines the difficult association between politics and art.


Lenhart asks: how should we understand Tolson’s continued support of radical social causes while also using poetic techniques whose biggest supporters were ardent conservatives? Should we see Tolson’s changing style as abandonment, compromise, or maybe subversion? While Lenhart argues that this change can be understood as a continuation of Tolson’s commitment to artistic experimentation and democratic principles, he is careful not to gloss over the complicated relationship between creative expression and political priorities. Moreover, Lenhart’s discussion of Tolson’s work appreciates the untidy interaction of class and the multitude of other identities that a person engages in his or her lifetime.


Yet Lenhart’s essay on Tolson is most enthralling because it highlights a writer who stubbornly refused simple categories and, for many reasons, remained marginal to the literary canon. It is unclear where exactly Lenhart’s contributions are new, but his essay on Tolson, like those on the poets Diane Wakoski, Eileen Myles, Wilma McDaniels, and others, should serve as a welcome introduction to readers unfamiliar with their work. And while his essays are arranged chronologically in terms of subject matter – telling a loose socio-historical narrative about the intersecting worlds of class and poetry in American history – he makes sure to focus on poets who are frequently overlooked.


Even when speaking of canonical writers like Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, Lenhart explores rarely talked about avenues, and in so doing brings a more direct and personal eye to his subjects’ writing. For example, Lenhart shows that while Whitman famously heralded the working class, his most class-conscious work, ‘The Eighteenth Presidency’, has gone all but unnoticed. The piece provides a particularly fierce example of a poet confronting the tensions between America’s utopian promises and its contradictory realities.


Throughout these narratives, Lenhart has a talent for bringing attention to the spaces and sites where the messy, and most interesting, stuff happens. New York City glimmers as a constant, if unintentional theme, gliding in and out of the various narratives, in the bohemian Bowery bars where Walt Whitman socialized, the Brooklyn tenements where David Schubert languished, or the Lower East Side open-mic spots and cramped apartments where Lenhart himself matured as a writer and as a young man.


And Lenhart is always attentive to the ways that writers wrestle with social, literary, and personal issues on the ground and in their daily lives. In one of the book’s best chapters, Lenhart focuses on the recalcitrant poets David Schubert and Marcia Nardi, detailing how they each struggled with failure, discouragement, personal isolation, and anxiety. Within these narratives there are fascinating exchanges, like the fifteen-year on-again off-again mail correspondence between Nardi and her hesitant mentor William Carlos Williams. Nardi’s often desperate and infatuated pleas and his empathetic but cautious responses show a deeply private and conflicted side of each author.


These particulars serve to show more human and complex dimensions to the writers Lenhart examines. For example, Lenhart’s attention to William Carlos Williams’ financial and literary involvement in the sea of small magazines depicts the poet struggling with the larger ideological battles of the day, trying to ‘reconcile what he considered a progressive, pragmatic poetics with progressive, pragmatic politics’ (p. 38). Lenhart provides the same details here as in his chapter on the poetry anthology battles of the mid twentieth century and the rise of the New American Poets. In these chapters, Lenhart elucidates the grand poetic battle lines by describing the minute realm where careers are built and destroyed and petty personal politics, neuroses, and adolescent resentments collide in the debates about art and politics.


Nonetheless, Lenhart is least engaging when he is least specific, with some later chapters cramming in one too many poets. And there are times when Lenhart’s focus seems less on the poets and the poetry, than on delineating the changing social and literary landscape. His descriptions of how the poetic field opened in the late twentieth century through the activities of identity-based movements can lose their focus until he returns to specific writers and personal experiences. These broader brushstrokes gain flesh and blood once Lenhart explains, for example, how poets like Phil Whalen and Gary Snyder, who worked day jobs and wrote compelling poetry, inspired him in his life pursuits, or in one of the book’s best sections, how Diane Wakoski’s vicious poetic railing against beauty challenged him with its ambivalent class implications.


Ultimately, this personal side to Lenhart’s brief book may demonstrate that the language of class as we used to know it should not be memorialized. The economic and social structures that maintain injustices and inequalities should still concern us, but like the poets he examines, Lenhart shows by his own example that creative and nuanced methods may be more relevant. They may make for less easy political solutions. But they can make for better literature, and probably better politics, as the building blocks of new and dynamic approaches to identity, expression, and forms of solidarity. The Stamp of Class is an enjoyable contribution to this goal.

Ezra Tessler has published on a range of topics within literature, law, and culture, both in the US and . He currently lives in New York and can be reached at ezratessler[ât]yahoo [dot] com

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