EP&M Online Essay
Poetry and Class
by Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics
Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.
The Middle Class
(United States, 1967)
The mandarin caste in America is not defined by
its affluence or lack of it, but rather by its political opinions and social
attitudes. Nevertheless, the mandarin caste of every nation tends to
be well-to-do, simply because the combination of influence and status usually
guarantees material comfort anywhere. As I mentioned, left-liberal
mandarins are mostly college-educated professionals, so one would expect
them to be fairly prosperous.
Yet I cannot emphasize enough that wealth alone won't get you into the mandarin
caste. For example, an activist social worker earning a small
civil-service salary might well be considered a mandarin, while a policeman
whose income is double that amount is definitely not. Similarly, a
left-liberal Harvard sociologist living in Brookline, Massachusetts
who is making $90,000 per annum is pure mandarin, while a conservative oilman
in Dallas making millions would not be. Money talks, but it doesn't
talk you into the mandarin caste.
What gets you in is your ability to make the appropriate gestures and
poses. You have to show that you are a good little progressive with
the proper ideas and attitudes. There are certain things you
have to say, and not say. There are established occasions when you
are required to be outraged. There are a few hot-button issues (abortion,
gay rights, affirmative action, feminism, hatred for Republicans) where your
loyalty has to be as uncompromisingly explicit as the Soldateneid
to Hitler. Above all else, you have to have a humorless earnestness
about it all, showing that you don't tolerate even the slightest levity on
the question of The Morally Correct Thing To Do.
Now let's consider the middle class. The bourgeoisie is the class of
upwardly striving social climbers. As Tolstoy said of them, all their
effort goes into trying to appear more like the class directly above them.
They are also desperate to avoid any taint from the class directly
below them. These twin impulses--the urge to get ahead, and the terror of
falling backwards -- dominate middle-class thinking.
For the middle class, every little aspect of their public existence is an
occasion for anxiety. Who knows? They might inadvertently say or do something
that will endanger their social status. Middle-class life is one of unending
worry over trivia, which is why they are obsessed with manicuring their lawns,
spraying their roses, vacuuming their broadlooms, dusting their chotchkes,
and making sure that their drapes are color coordinated.
For the bourgeoisie life has to be perfect, like a Martha Stewart table arrangement.
Therefore they are constantly worried about making a mistake. In the
middle class, mistakes are potentially fatal. At work, if you express an
unorthodox opinion it might cost you a promotion, or even your job.
On the street where you live, your choice of an unusual house paint
might make the neighbors laugh. In your immediate family, any unconventional
behavior might render you an object of contempt, or even land you in
divorce court. Among friends, a failure to be enthusiastic about their tedious
bridge parties, barbecues, and church socials will earn you a reputation
for peculiarity. Among relatives and in-laws, you will be despised if your
salary isn't at a certain approved level; and you will be alternately hated
and toadied to if it goes beyond that same level. It is a stifling,
soul-crushing sort of life, despite the material comforts.
The prospect of being in the mandarin caste, with its unshakable prestige,
is like catnip to the bourgeoisie. And they realize that joining is
easy. All it takes is the proper posturing, which the middle class
is very good at. Maybe you didn't go to Columbia, but you can burble
forth the same idiotic left-liberal parrot talk that a Columbia Ph.D. burbles
forth. You can be a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, environmentalist anti-Republican
without the slightest expenditure of energy or cash--all you have to do is
watch what you say. And again, watching what you say is an inveterate
How does this affect poetry? Simple--when middle-class types write
poetry their bourgeois need for approval and for being accepted by their
"betters" immediately kicks in. They automatically limit both their
subject matter and their stylistic approach. Their poetry stays safe
and unthreatening and edgeless. It also tends to be "pretty," like
a landscaped suburban garden. I'm not talking about the aesthetic qualities
of skillful use of diction, meter, and trope. I'm talking about a kind
of prissiness and neo-Victorian niceness that makes poems seem like
those pious needlework Scriptural quotes that used to hang in respectable
All this would be bad enough, but the bourgeois aspiration to mandarin caste
status has even more malign consequences. Middle-class types also strive
to make their poems "socially responsible"--a cant phrase used in America
to refer to that which is consciously uplifting, redeeming, middle-of-the-road,
hopeful, optimistic, morally unimpeachable, and safe for family viewing.
Concretely, this means no bad language, no cynicism, no shocking images,
no cruelty, no violence, no meanspiritedness, no unromanticized sex, and
no substance abuse. In fact, these middle-class poets seem to
have a kind of V-chip in the brain that immediately blocks any verbal
expression that might get them kicked out of a PTA meeting. It's all
so unutterably maddening that one wants to scream. And yet our poetry
journals, both free verse and formal, are filled with this saccharine drivel.
Just count how many poems there are to pet cats, azaleas, grandchildren,
and lighthouses, all written in an insufferable tone of "uplift."
There is a real problem here, and no one seems willing to talk about it.
The vast majority of poets in America are from prissy middle-class
backgrounds, and they still largely live in suburban communities in backwater
states. Like the Scottish highlands, these are some of the last bastions
of nineteenth-century earnestness and uptightness. And goddammit, this has
an effect on poetry! It makes for conformism, and failure of
perception, and lack of sympathy. It makes for timorousness and an
aversion to risks. It makes for a dread of being "offensive"
in the slightest way. It makes for (despite all the ritual hosannahs
to diversity and multiculturalism) an Orwellian terror of saying the
wrong thing or being different. In short, it makes for an anemic and
Look at all those on-line workshops for mutual critique. What does
it boil down to, in the end? Just this: How can I make my
poem acceptable to other people? This is a soul-killing thing to have
to ask, and no poet worth his salt ever asks it. It's on the same level as
asking "How can I pull strings to get my kid into Andover?" or "How can I
snag a promotion at work?" or "How can I impress the neighbors at our
next barbecue?" But the middle class is used to asking questions of
this sort, which is why they flock like migrating geese to poetry workshops.
The ratification of others is their only basis for self-esteem. I.'m
not attacking criticism and revision. Everyone can benefit at times from
the suggestions of others. But group critique is peculiarly
prone to become an exercise in censorship and aesthetic police work. In group
critique all the rough edges of a poem are filed off, not just the metrical
glitches. A poem becomes bland, inoffensive, and polite--and thereby perfectly
suited for a prize in some State Poetry Society competition. Middle-class
poets focus on a poem's reception, not on a poem's intrinsic merits, which
is why their poetry tends to be soporific.
Alright then--we see how middle-class social climbing meshes with mandarin-caste
liberalism to produce poems that are both "nice" and "socially responsible."
It's an easy enough equation: the left-liberal mandarins demand allegiance
to a particular sociopolitical ideology, and the bourgeoisie is desperate
for approval and acceptance. The result is a very safe and conformist
kind of poetry that maintains the suburban proprieties, while also passing
what Jean-Francois Revel calls "the ideological customs-check of the Left."
Poems of this sort are pretty, and never threaten bland liberal orthodoxy.
This explains much, but it doesn't fully account for another phenomenon:
contemporary poetry's almost complete amnesia about the working class and
working-class concerns. When one hears left-liberals go on about how
much they support the oppressed and downtrodden, one is left wondering:
why doesn't mainstream, approved poetry show the slightest interest in working-class
life or issues?
For the middle class, there is a simple answer. They've always loathed
and feared the class from which they have risen, and to which they might
fall back. They want nothing to do with the remembrance of blue-collar life.
So naturally their poetry has no mention of it, except on a few occasions
when it can be alluded to in a safely distanced and romanticized way.
For left-liberal mandarins, the answer is more complicated. Here we
come upon an unlanced abscess in American life, a sick thing that no one
wants to-discuss, but which is as palpable as an elephant in the drawing
room. And that is the mandarin caste's venomous contempt for the working
Where does it come from? What fuels it? The brief historical
analysis that follows will provide the outline of an answer. Limitations
of space prevent me from going too far afield, so I will try to be
The working class has never had an easy time of it. In the ancient
world, manual labor of any sort was considered degrading. As I tell my classics
students, those icons of enlightened intellect, Plato and Aristotle, wouldn't
have been caught dead washing a floor, or weeding a garden, or plastering
a crack. That sort of thing was for slaves, artisans, and other riffraff
from the demos. This snobbery survives today, but in a much
more virulent form, among those who are supposedly "liberal" in their
views. A constellation of very deep cultural, political, and religious
differences underlies it.
The fact is that the left, in all of its myriad forms, has never really
been comfortable with the idea of a truly prosperous working class.
The idea scares and offends them. Imagine a working man who owns
his own home and car, buys luxuries, sends his children to university, and
has discretionary income for vacations and entertainment. Deep
down the left knows that such a man has two political flaws.
First, he is no longer susceptible to revolutionary exhortation, since
he has a comfortable stake in society as it is constituted; and second, he
is independent, both financially and intellectually, and can't be bullied
into thinking or acting in ways contrary to his own interests.
The left has always hated a settled and self-sufficient peasantry.
Look at what the Soviets did to the kulaks, and what the Sandinistas did
to independent Nicaraguan farmers. In the liberal West this hatred
continues, but it is currently directed at the descendants of the old peasantry,
who are now mostly blue-collar workers. There are cogent
historical reasons behind this hatred.
Let me give an example. A proletarian in 1905, earning starvation wages
in a factory, was prime material for leftist propaganda. He had nothing
to lose but his chains, as Marx said. The left could manipulate
him into making sacrifices and efforts for goals that might not serve
his own immediate interests. You could convince him to go out
on strike, demonstrate, raise money for the cause, help strangers who
were ideologically akin, and toe the Party Line. In short, he
was a "Comrade" who could be trusted to take orders from the cadre
of self-important middle-class intellectuals who are the real social base
of the left.
By 1970 this was no longer possible. The proletarian's grandson--if
he were still working in a blue-collar job--was not available to be
propagandized. He had a house, a car, maybe even a summer place in
the country. His children were in college. He had a savings account,
a pension plan, perhaps a small stock portfolio as well. You
weren't going to get him to attend one of those rallies for
the Chicago Seven.
More important, you weren't going to control his thinking. You couldn't
give him orders or directives in the name of some "higher cause."
He was his own man, and he didn't give a damn what some posturing middle-class
Marxist thought was best for the world.
This shift in the historical situation put leftists and their liberal friends
into a state of baffled rage. The working classes were no longer under
their supervision and control! Even more infuriating, the working
class was voting en masse for Richard Nixon. This was a sea-change
that no one could have foreseen in 1905, and it is why contemporary left-liberals
(unlike their counterparts of a century ago) nurture a deep-seated hatred
of the working class. This hatred is far-reaching, intense, and
implacable. You don't notice it? Well, as black people say about
racism, if you don't notice it you're probably part of it.
You can trace the development of this new attitude within the confines of
living memory. After the First World War, the revolutions of Fascism,
Nazism, and their various offshoots scared the bejeezus out of progressives
of every stripe. These mass movements showed that the working classes
were not necessarily repositories of virtue and political wisdom in
the approved left-liberal sense. (And by the way, if you persist
in thinking these mass movements weren't genuinely popular, you're
still in denial.) It's hard to understand today what a devastating
cultural shock all this was to old-fashioned ameliorists of the Gladstonian
and Benthamite type, who had an essentially optimistic view of human
If you're interested in having an early example of this shift in liberal
attitudes, read Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, a novel
from the 1930s that expresses powerful hatred of ordinary people and their
political potential for wrecking progressivist dreams. This was
only one of a number of books and films that denigrate the working
class for its political atavism. The theme is quite explicit in Bud
Schulberg's 1957 film A Face In The Crowd.
It got even worse, from the left's point of view, after World War II. The
working class provided the impetus for postwar anti-communism, while the
"best" (i.e. mandarin caste) people were supporting that lying traitor Alger
Hiss, and those convicted spies the Rosenbergs. It was working-class
pressure that got the leftist scum out of government and the visual media,
and kept us on course throughout the Cold War. And it was the working
class that elected Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who together smashed
the last illusions the left had. In the light of these phenomena, it's
very easy to understand the visceral loathing a liberal academic experiences
when he sees Joe Sixpacl in a baseball cap with a "Semper Fi" bumper sticker.
Since 1945, Joe Sixpack has totally rearranged the political landscape, and
rendered liberalism and cocktail-party Marxism irrelevant.
It also explains why mandarins defend with ferocity their little academic
fiefdoms, their citadels in the tax-free foundations and governmental
agencies, their propaganda outlets in the big mainstream newspapers and magazines,
their unionized control of the public schools, their stranglehold on
credentialling procedures in the teaching professions and the social services.
For left-liberals, these are their last fortresses, similar to the Alpine
redoubts that hardcore Nazis were planning in 1945. They've lost the
courts and much of the legislature. But like Japanese soldiers chained
to their machine guns, the mandarin caste plans on fighting to the
bitter end, no matter what the working class electorate says at the ballot
Religion is another ingredient in this witches' brew of social conflict.
The working classes are still langely devout in a traditional way.
They attend services, contribute funds, and remain heavily influenced by
inherited religious mores and attitudes. It's no secret that
the combined political clout of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and
fundamentalist Protestants has been a bulwark against the grosser forms of
liberal idiocy in America. Feminists, gay activists, and secularists
of every stripe know this and resent it, which is why hostility towards these
three religious groups is a significant marker of high-caste mandarin
When liberals are religious at all, they gravitate towards the vague, nebulous,
and non-dogmatic sects like Unitarianism, the Society of Friends, Reform
Judaism, or even totally contentless faiths like "Ethical Culture."
I'm not attacking these groups. A number of my own relatives are adherents
to Ethical Culture, and a close friend is studying to be a Unitarian minister.
I’m merely pointing out how persons of a certain sociopolitical type, are
drawn to them, rather than to strict dogmatic faiths like Catholicism, Lutheranism,
and Orthodox Judaism. The larger point is this: religious differences
in America are now just as politically charged as they are in Northern Ireland.
They reinforce larger cultural and caste differences.
To sum up then: the visceral loathing that high-caste mandarins feel for
the working class, together with the reflexive middle-class need to emulate
their betters and to keep clear of working-class taint, produces one of the
most potent engines of social hate in contemporary America. Liberals
don’t talk about it because they are complicit in it, and want it to continue.
All this generates many political and cultural ramifications, but right now
we are only concerned with how it plays out in poetry. So let's examine some
texts, for illustration.
(To be continued)
Joseph S. Salemi