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"The Wages of Poetry" by C.D. Wright


The time has come to loot to hew and Eden--Marjorie Milligan

I was born in a warren of no great distinction in the vicinity of the middle hillbilly class. There, with progressive effort (gravity never sleeps), I will possibly grow quite old (the women do in my family), and indisputably shall I die. I am the daughter of an annually retired judge who has lived and worked inside the tawny leather bindings of jurisprudence for well over half a century. For this man words themselves have become palpable, material, and even law. And I am the daughter of a woman whose manipulations of the stenotype machine, crossword puzzle, and telephone have been equally, exhaustively verbal. Both of them are autochthons of the rural Arkansas Ozarks. The paternal side issues from a farming community named Cisco which no longer salaries a postal clerk to raise our country's flag (nor has it since the flag wore forty-nine stars). The distaff side hails from the bluffs of a beautiful swift river in a moribund railroad town whose rock buildings have been mortared back into service by a German manufacturer of work uniforms.

I attended public schools in the Ozarks and state colleges in the Upper South where I readily took on, and even more readily threw over, a raft of low-paying jobs through my teens and twenties. My first job was as a stock clerk, dusting and pricing curios at a roadside tourist attraction. I waited on tables in little bars and cafes. I was a night custodian in the student union. I cleaned houses (at one point I worked as a housekeeper for a couple who lived in a trailer; whose standards of order and hygiene far exceeded my own). I eventually graduated to filing and receiving and typing in alternately overchilled and overheated buildings under increasingly glorified titles. After a wildly irregular course of irrevocable personal blunders, geographic shifts, and job changes, I came to teach in a part of the country for which I admit no particular affinity, at a school which costs more in a semester than my brother and I together siphoned from my parents' bank account for undergradaute and graduate schooling combined.

At reading I excelled from an early age, and at writing I estivated. By the time I resolved to stir and apply myself to the page, I was afraid it was too late. Not that I was a sloth, but I was an ignoramus. I am uncertain about the former but there is remedy for the latter. According to Simone Weil, "One is never got out of the cave, one comes out of it." Like my father and my mother before me, I put every cent of my stock in the word. A few carelessly set mental fires: a house strewn with books, a Mississippi high school history teacher's recitatives of cummings, a self-taught friend's addiction to Irish, English, and American poetry, and a fateful encounter with a poet my age who wrote in a lexicon known to me, lit for me, poetry.

Over the last decade I have found myself more bitten by class consciousness, more grudgingly cognizant of the bonds between class and art. Links between family names and schooling and livelihoods are forged of something like titanium. The links between class and calling--as distinct from class and profession--are made of somewhat weaker stuff. Yet one would show little thought not to notice that an impressive percentage of the most honored poets of the generation now in their sixties are male and white and alumnae of the ivy league. One would show little thought to ignore that So-and-So and So-and-So do not require a wage, and that their writing is very different for it. The links between poetic strategies, tactical maneuvers, including gamemanship, and social stratification clank through time, across channels and oceans to be sure. The poetry of the white shirt does not gladly speak to the poetry of the blue. The audience, the consitutency, or if you will, the allegiance, of the cultural elite belongs to the cultural elite. One would show little thought to expect otherwise.

Nevertheless poets of succeeding generations have periodically formed belligerent subclasses, and entered into the ranks of honorees in extremely limited numbers, usually as sole, acceptable representatives for the entire subclass. Even these ruptures cast the phantasma of quality and value into temporary disarray. If the numbers continue to push at the limits of the established order, further subdivisions might arise at a near invisible remove from the original hierarchy. Only those whose mimicry of the elite is outstanding--though ostensibly oppositional--succeed in gaining a competing footing.

Allowing for collective effort and reliable human error, one can depend upon brief and abrupt breaks in any high security environment. The struggle for legitimacy is as unrelenting as the vigilance required to contain it. But it is usually less systematic. And those who advance with a brilliant methodology do so at the risk of taking on traits of the very breed they would depose. One notices for instance that the charges against the oppositionally-identified "academic poets" are dropping off as the self-identified opponents take up gainful employment therein.

I would be solidary with poets, but that does not mean vertical relationships do not abound in this and every other human enterprise, utopic, heretical or otherwise. Realizing how endlessly divisible one brace of poets is from another--the ones in the white shirts from the ones in the blue from the ones in black--I have nearly ceased thinking of poetry as a public art, but instead as a shrinking arena for a barely viable cultural conflict. Poetic theories and applications line up with pedigree in disturbing yet ever-changing degrees. Be that as it may, poets stand nearly as one against the abjectification of contemporary experience.

We are indispensable to one another. We keep the language machine going. Often in different directions at once. And the behavior of language is such that parallel concerns and sympathies are available to serious practitioners on many levels, at any point in space and time--the formal, the inventive, the revelatory, the message plane itself. I don't accept that language transcends the material, but I do believe it is an imperfect, maybe even rude, instrument for class transgression. The emancipatory function of art keeps central, at least in the mind of the practitioner.

In America money, for its own sake, is an exalted pursuit. Money drains consciousness and courage and leaves in its stead a virtually anal desiccation that can only be treated homeopathically, with more upon more of the same, which is its only essential characteristic. Money holds more sway than blood in America; that is our significant departure from the European class system. The old equation that money is power is not worth disputing. Clearly, not every last member of the monied are consumed by power. Not every last member of the powerful are consumed by money. Some would be poets. That poetry does not overwhelm the effects of money or power is also hardly worth disputing.

Anyone who imagines, and is moved to act upon practices, if not anathema at least belligerent, to money and or power, is a subversive. In America the obvious alternative paths are religion, crime or art. Of the choices revealed to me, crime and art were the only ones with any real sex appeal. As the daughter of a judge and a court reporter, my conditioning was secular. I was protected against violence and warned against shoplifting, peeping and cheating, but art like crime presented a charismatic, transgressive countenance. Out of the trash heap of language, poetry emerges rich and revolutionary, fecund and childless, genuine and artificial, deadly and peaceful. It favors the oxymoron; that too keeps it interesting. Who would not want to be an artist once the choice took shape in the mind, and was given a minimum of encouragement to take hold. Not everyone, understandably, but I maintain that more would if they could.

Opportunity is so bound to choice. The opportunity to fall into the pages of a book and have one's eyes peeled by words; the opportunity to listen, learn, discern; the opportunity to move freely and deeply inside one's subject.... Such options are hardly birthrights for the majority. They barely register as options for the minority of the minority. Those with no shirt--no white, no blue, no black, no uniform--have no say. And into this scene rides many a young outlaw.

My own writing careens along two vectors which do not always parallel, intersect, or coalesce. One projects itself into a provocative space. It would challenge the obnoxious priveleges and prerogatives of power. It would enter that challenge as a vote against greed, apathy, chauvinism and other virulent strains of egotism and predation. That the space is neutral is one of science's fallacies, and more than enough artists attach themselves to the claim. They should have been scientists, these neutral, disinterested ones. That artists are better examples than any other citizen, either in their work or their lives is one of poetry's fallacies. A deplorable share of our kin are skillful at severing the thing-in-the-making from the made thing from the maker in much the same way that scientists have artfully severed the obvious applications of their work from its theoretical development (and from the fiscal sources of encouragement). Yet, I would submit, writing all but involuntarily pertains to consciousness. Consciousness is critical. How could it be otherwise. This is my brief.

Along the other vector, writing for me is a thing delicate as love. And one struggles (the struggle is never separate from the engagement) to be a newborn in love, to be without attributes, like snow nobody has walked on. Prelapsarian. Also to be mutable like the river which cannot be stepped in twice. Thus with one rivery exhalation of words after another, I write. To rise above one's own failures, to wrest hope from the next disappointment, to feel such clarity and happiness, to indulge in one's own fertile mind--the great rush to participate in the odyssey of language, to take up the leaky pen of a long, wended life; to lie down with "our rich friend silt." Writing: bad thoughts, bad feelings slither away one by one. This is my breviary.

Poetry for me is compatibly tendentious and personal. It is both reproachful and irresistible. It thrives on errancy (as well as an excess of pride and piety). Writing is a discretionary activity; it follows that reading is too. Controversies between strains of poetry are useful tools of refinement, perhaps especially to those of us who see ourselves on the sidelines but affected by similar concerns. But literary hegemony, the drive to prevail, seems insupportable, and poisonously reflective of class allegiances. Both the vanguard and the rearguard simulate the dominant hierarchies. Of the vanguard I can say, I admire their procedures, but I think their attitude stinks. Of the rearguard I admit I think their procedures and their attitudes stink. When this discord erupts into an all-or-none competition, the last reader can exit in a body bag. "Writing," as Colette wrote, "leads only to writing." I do not see any end to it.

I entered the tall fields of poetry as a hayseed. When I was a graduate student in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I was convinced that Fayetteville was the capital city of poetry. When I moved to San Francisco, my sense of a center was rudely dislocated. I did not recognize the art I had just begun to exercise in the fray of aging beats, emerging language poets, performing poets, university-employed poets, gender-based poets, poets of color, poets of means and no affiliation, drugged-and-on-the-street poets. I wanted to take cover, but I needed a job, and I learned to pick my way through the action. I was not made very aware of my class credentials or lack thereof on the West coast, but I was made aware of my geographic disorientation. I did come to realize that the urban phenomenon was as thoroughly disassociated from the rural as vice versa, and that the isolation marred the landscapes of both poetries. I realized that American urban intellectuals were more conversant with intellectuals inside the peripherique than they were with art practices inside the borders of their own country. If I had had property, I might have hoisted a bottle tree from a milkcan in protest. At the end of my resources (from selling a printing press, the debt for which had been cancelled by a doting parent), I did find steady work. I managed to hook up with a maverick poetry guide, and I read. I could always read. With less certainty than ever, I would begin to write again. The experience left me "all shook up" but better informed.

The West would not prepare me for the East. In the East there are standards. Somehow it still seems to set the tone for the pedagogical wars that are going on all over the country, Manhattan excepted, which I read as a more chaotic, dis-institutionalized island of discourse. In New York City, a free-for-all of poetries stays open twenty-four hours. Some assemble by night and others by day. Recently a roving monochromatic band of nocturnals charged the offices of The New Yorker in the a.m. demanding to see the poetry editor, with the claim that they were just as bad as the poets she regularly published. Such a mocking confrontation is unthinkable here in New England. Here in New England it helps to come from a really good family whether headed for poetry's cutting edge or the boardroom. As with Californians, Easterners prefer to talk poetry with one another, with like-minded Californians, and with their French betters. Class, ‘the unmentionable five-letter word,’ is to a large degree an inseparable dimension of aesthetic practices--exploratory, traditional, ethnic; also lyric, narrative, epic.

Electronically, geographic borders are dissolving rapidly. The impact upon poetry of this universal-wiring is inestimable to me. Interactive technology does not mean that the hierarchies of craft are becoming more permeable. It will not mediate the grounds for inclusion or exclusion. Who can walk the walk and who can talk the talk will subdue in this dimension the same as in hard copy.

I will always be from Arkansas. I would have a stronger communal relation to poetry, but not be taken in, not be taken down, not be deformed by rivaling orders. I would see the spine of cultural power pulverize in its own bones, but not expect nor want the tensions between tendencies flattened. I would see them re-cast so as to be more vexing of their own composition, and more alert to relational assets. I aim never to be satisfied with my original position, be it social or intellectual, nor to escape it. I aim to intensify my own sense of definition while minimizing the need for distinctions. This may necessitate groping along the cold walls of silence. Lately silence, as a high poetic value, has begun to seep into the marrow. Lately silence, as the formal element I have been missing, has shattered the noise. I long to surprise myself, quietly; to proceed from an increasingly less protected vantage. But never again to assume my class is not legible. I have a terrible accent. I see no reason to lose it.

from Associated Writing Program Chronicle, Sept 1996

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