EP&M Online Essay

Poetry and Class
(Part II)
by Dr.  Joseph S.  Salemi
Department of Classics
Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.  
The Middle Class 1967
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 middle-class habit. 

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 bedrooms.

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 moribund poetry.

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 class. 

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 concise. 

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 nature. 

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 box. 

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 status. 

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