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Notes toward an Anti-Capitalist Poetics

ISSUE:  Spring 2006

Few US poets invoke (and critique) the nature and role of capitalism in contemporary poetic practice more consistently and vehemently than Adrienne Rich. In her recent critical collections, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (Norton, 1993) and Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (Norton, 2001)—as well as in introductions she’s penned to a range of recent books, including James Scully’s Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice (Curbstone, 2005), Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Copper Canyon, 2005), and Manifesto: Three Classic Essays on How to Change the World (Ocean Press, 2005)—Rich has embarked upon scaffolding an anticapitalist poetics that is not averse in the early twenty-first century to invoking words like Marx, the market, and “an invisible collectivity.” Instead, as she insists in “Arts of the Possible,” “I’m a writer in a country where native-born fascistic tendencies, allied to the practices of ‘free’ marketing, have been trying to eviscerate language of meaning.” Later in the same essay, Rich asserts that “[w]e need to begin changing the questions. To become less afraid to ask the still-unanswered questions posed by Marxism, socialism and communism.”

Rich’s insistent critique of capital as it relates to issues of language, nationhood (and personhood), collective action, and American empire links her critical stance to a compelling wave of recent publications outside the world of official US verse culture (to borrow a term and characterization from Charles Bernstein). Samir Amin’s The Liberal Virus: Permanent War and the Americanization of the World (Monthly Review Press, 2004), for example, deftly assigns the link between capital accumulation and social pauperization (i.e., the growing disparity between the super wealthy and the poor) to the American pursuit of a liberal market agenda. Amin, an Egyptian-born economist and director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal, critiques American socialization practices—and the incumbent “low intensity democracy”—that function exclusively through (and for) “liberal” market forces. He argues that

[r]eally-existing globalized liberalism can produce nothing other than an intensification of the inequalities between peoples (an intensified global polarization) and within populations (of the global South and North). This pauperization, an integral part of capital accumulation, in turn makes democracy impossible, eliminating its imaginative potential in the developed centers . . . and reducing to farcical status the possible adoption of apparently democratic political forms in the peripheries.

Recent volumes such as David Harvey’s The New Imperialism (Oxford UP, 2003) and Tariq Ali’s The Dictatorship of Capital (Verso, 2006) articulate trajectories of critique that parallel in significant ways those employed by Rich—a trajectory through which, as she writes in her introduction to Raya Dunayevskaya’s Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, “Capitalism doesn’t mean progress; the civilized are also the damaged.” She makes an analogous critique in “Arts of the Possible”: “Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital.”

But what about publications within North American poetry’s purview? In the limited space that remains, I’d like to briefly examine examples of what could be dubbed anticapitalist poetries from three distinct historical moments: the mid-1930s, 1968, and the post–September 11 poetic landscape.

Tillie Olsen employed nearly postmodern techniques of narrative sampling (your English teacher might call it “plagiarism,” but send him or her to Google Negativland and DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album!) to produce an early feminist antisweatshop poem. “I Want You Women Up North to Know” (1934) borrows nearly verbatim from Felipe Ibarro’s letter to the editors of New Masses. Olsen’s poem depicts the working lives of “Catalina Rodriguez, 24 / body shriveled to a child’s at twelve”; it tells the story of Maria Vasquez, Catalina Torres, Ambrosa Espinoza, and women like them, their fingers pushing needles through cloth for “Three dollars a week, / two fifty-five, / seventy cents a week.” “I Want You Women Up North to Know” impels us in global North to forge a new language and syntax to address (and, eventually, overturn) the consistent historical reproduction of deplorable conditions in the textile industry—documented as early as Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and continuing through Kathy Lee Gifford and conditions in today’s textile factories in China, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere across the globe.

In the Mecca, Gwendolyn Brooks’s masterpiece on the socioeconomic crisis and the increasingly racialized discourse of urban decline experienced by inner-city blacks in the United States in the years leading up to 1968, similarly engages an anticapitalist poetics. Brooks critiques the deindustrializing landscape of the urban North and explicates a community that has come to be perceived (by the “white” public) as human detritus amongst closed factories and shuttered futures in poems such as the remarkable “Boy Breaking Glass,” a landscape “Whose broken window is a cry of art.” Brooks depicts the boy as decidedly on one side of Samir Amin’s scale of capital accumulation and social pauperization (which “in turn makes democracy impossible”). The boy “has not Congress, lobster, love, luau, / the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty.” Yet through the landscape of broken windows and economic decline, the urge to make art in response to the conditions of his life still surges forward: “I shall create! If not a note, a hole. / If not an overture, a desecration.” Few outshine Brooks in accounting the cost of the everyday life in late capitalism.

Today, amidst “the familiar sameness—the well-written, capable mediocrity of American middle-ground status-quo poetry” (Rich, “Poetry and the Public Sphere”), it’s embarrassingly difficult to locate poetry (much less a poetics) in US-based literary journals that addresses, engages, and critiques the policies and practices of American empire, neoliberalism, and globalization. North of the border, however, Vancouver-based poet Jeff Derksen constructs just such an anti-American-empire poetics in his recent volume Transnational Muscle Cars (Talonbooks, 2003). The brief excerpt below, from “Canada Party Haus,” demonstrates how issues of government trade policies, North American consumerism, and the politics and poetics of public art-making in contemporary society can be addressed via the vehicle of the poem:

                … The GAP
just across the tracks
shows how the forces
of NATO and NAFTA have made
it easy to look good casually.
Is this personism
in a world-class city [only Regina
exempts itself] or canon reformation
suitable for public transit? Did I
mention the Arts? The society of the
ever-deepening who-
dunnit. The lush life is ripe
on the corner. Martha
Stewart Productivist dream
realized through Zellars (dented
by insider trading).
Gardening is the opiate
of the bourgeoisie! Belated Canadian modernism
is pressure-molded plastic! Sure it’s easy
to be critical, but try
looking good doing it! Mussolini
wore khakis. George C. Scott as Patton
wore khakis. The lack of a unified address
[“Tansy buttons, tansy / for my city . . .” etc.]
makes me a symptom . . .

Derksen’s work, extending and expanding the tradition of Olsen and Brooks, posits an alternative, agitational imagination to the hegemonic forces of Hollywood and the Mall of America. Like Olsen, Derksen asks what ideologies are invoked through our Gap-purchased trousers, a style formerly worn by an Italian fascist who imprisoned Antonio Gramsci and a World War II general in a Franklin J. Schaffner–directed film, pants that are today sewn by women in Malaysia and Macao for the equivalent of “seventy cents a week.” What, the poem simultaneously questions, is poetry’s role in addressing this? And, more importantly, what is the poem’s role in bringing about change?

As I write these words, 42 workers remain trapped in the flooded Sigou coal mine in the central province of Henan, China (last week, a blast killed 169 miners in Heilongjiang province); upwards of 60,000 South Korean temporary workers defy a government ban and launch a proposed nine-day strike over working conditions; Aerolineas Argentinas pilots and mechanics end a successful nine-day strike that grounded over 80,000 domestic and international travelers; an unlimited general strike action unfolds in French Polynesia; sixty workers from a Guyanese power company continue their walkout; thousands of teachers in Jakarta refuse to return to work over compulsory pay cuts and close more than 400 schools; the Kenyan Petroleum Oil Workers Union issues a twenty-one-day strike notice; 600 workers at Trinidad-based Nu-Iron Unlimited protest the treatment of a coworker through a temporary wildcat strike action; tens of thousands of trade unionists, antiglobalization activists, civic groups, and ordinary citizens march through the streets of Hong Kong demanding a more transparent and fully democratic global political system.

Where are the poems in dialogue with these global people’s movements? Where are the poems bridging and building transnational social and aesthetic networks of alternative and agitational modes of grammar and syntax, revolutionary poetic critiques of corporate culture (the contemporary complement to Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead)? Where are the poems (as the Zapatistas described their post-NAFTA encuentro) “for humanity and against neoliberalism”? I also want to be able to imagine a future for poetry, as Rich says in “Defying the Space That Separates,” “not drawn from the headlines but able to resist the headlines.”

For myself and for other emerging practitioners of an anticapitalist poetics of/upon American empire, Rich’s recent critical work continues to pose indispensable questions for the revitalization of a political poetry of the Americas within the United States (because, to those of us watching, a vibrant political poetry is already in play elsewhere across the Western hemisphere). The questions poets need to be asking today are vital to us all: What is the relationship between a US-controlled agenda for globalization (with Bush crony Paul Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank) and the future of language and the imagination amidst ubiquitous privatization? Can the free market forces of the US publishing industry (including the massive, almost exclusively non-unionized chain bookstores) and the vastly expanding US model of creative writing production within the MFA industry produce anything other than neoliberal writers and neoliberal tracts? As the U.S. economy transitions from a modernist manufacturing economy to late capitalism’s service economy, what would a service economy poetry and poetics look like, and who among us is prepared to step forward and imagine it? To these and many other related lines of inquiry, Adrienne Rich has served, and will continue to serve, as progenitor, guide, and, as she says of Marx himself in the foreword to Arts of the Possible, “a great geographer of the human condition.”


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