Ignorance of working-class poetry is ignorance of the working-class body. Like the proliferation of only a certain (narrow) range of body types in mass media, canonical poetry has historically shifted its eyes from the bodies of millions of people. The rough hands of laborers, cuts and scars, bruises, head injuries, muscularity, flat feet, hangnails, frown-lines, broken bones, black lungs, missing teeth, dark skin, amputations, and I could go on. I guess a logical question might be, why does poetry resist training its gaze on this segment of the population? That question seems unproductive though. There are a hundred reasons why and knowing those doesn’t make it any less a travesty to dismiss working-class literature.
But wait, you say. You’ve forgotten about Walt Whitman! He wrote about the working-classes. And my response to you would be, “No I haven’t!” It’s contemporary poetry that has forgotten, not him as a writer, but him as a working-class writer. We’re all about the sexy man-love sections of his poetry, but rarely are the other, more labor and working-class themes talked about with so much interest. I’m also not talking about writing that’s just about the working-classes, I’m talking about the writers themselves. The ones a bit rough around the edges, the ones that didn’t know it was rude to cuss at the dinner table, the ones that never read Beowulf (okay, that has nothing to do with being work-class, but for the love of Gaia, give me a break! It can’t be that good). I’m talking about the writers who can’t necessarily hold the working-class body at arm’s length to examine it as a representation of American stoicism or as some kind of metaphor for capitalism, but for the writers who live in those bodies.
One wonderful characteristic of working-class poetry is that it is often transparent about the dependent relationship of the private and public; this is one of its strengths. As so many working-class people know, all aspects of life – even the most concrete and mundane – crash endlessly against itself. An injury on a job can irrevocably change a person’s life. I am all too aware of the permanent damage caused with my own father’s factory injury. Two weeks before shipping off to army boot camp (which he excitedly signed up for) his left arm got caught in the long, steel, crisscrossing teeth of an industrial tomato crusher at the cannery where he worked. In one accident that severed all the muscles, ligaments, and nerve-endings in his left arm and hand, the life he had imagined for himself (first the military, then police academy) was lost. Had the men working at the plant, his coworkers and friends, not found him when they did and immediately taken him to the closest hospital, my father would have lost much more than his dream career.
Poems like: Gary Soto’s “Mission Tire Factory, 1969,” Philip Levine’s “Every Blessed Day” (or the whole collection What Work Is), Dorianne Laux’s “Waitress,” Jim Daniel’s “May’s Poem” (or the series of Digger poems), Jan Beatty’s “The Waitress Angels Speak to Me in a Vision,” Allison Hedge Coke’s “The Change” (I could go on) focus on bodies that remind us that capitalism has a cost. It is a system that breaks and maims, forces bodies to sacrifice. There is no food in the grocery store, no shirt on a department store rack that wasn’t made available through the work of strangers’ bodies. But more than that, working class poems teach us how to love those bodies, how to run our finger tips over calluses and enjoy their protective texture. How to hug through sweat, how to take advantage of stolen moments between rows of grapes, in a restaurant’s walk-in. They remind us that there are thousands of versions of beautiful if you just slow down to look.
Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking published by Dancing Girl Press (2014). She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Luna Luna Magazine, So to Speak: Feminist Journal of Language and Art, among others. Her manuscript, This, Like So Much, was an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Contest. A selection from her chapbook manuscript All Day, Talking won the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship in 2013. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.