Mark Nowak | Social Poetics (An Introduction)

László Moholy-Nagy | Typographic Collage, 1922



Langston Hughes, no doubt reflecting on his own wide-ranging political activities in and beyond Jim Crow America during the first half of the twentieth century, once described what he felt to be a central difference between the “social poet” and those poets who were more exclusively concerned with aesthetics and craft: “I have never known the police of any country to show an interest in lyric poetry as such. But when poems stop talking about the moon and begin to mention poverty, trade unions, color lines, and colonies, somebody tells the police.” Hughes’s crucial essay, published in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Phylon magazine in 1947, is titled “My Adventures as a Social Poet.” Hughes describes his early poems as “social poems” because “they were about people’s problems—whole groups of people’s problems—rather than my own personal difficulties.” And, as he reminds his readers in this essay, “The moon belongs to everybody, but not this American earth of ours. That is perhaps why poems about the moon perturb no one, but poems about color and poverty do perturb many citizens. Social forces pull backwards or forwards, right or left, and social poems get caught in the pulling and hauling. Sometimes the poet himself gets pulled and hauled—even hauled off to jail.”

Social poetics —my shorthand for a new formation within both literary practice and socialist political practice—borrows much from Langston Hughes. Just as he immersed himself in political organizations like the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and engaged with similar socialist and communist organizations in his travels across the United States, Russia, the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and elsewhere, social poetics similarly immerses the practice of poetry and poetics in a continuum of organizations including global working-class trade unions and worker centers, immigrant- and women-led social movements, protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter, and more.  In an era when many communities of poetry continue to embed themselves deeper and deeper into elite institutions (private colleges and elite universities, costly academic conferences and writers retreats, black-tie book award ceremonies, and the like), social poetics remains a radically public poetics, a poetics for and by the working-class people who read it, analyze it, and produce it within their struggles to transform twenty-first-century capitalism into a more equitable, equal, and socialist system of relations.

Langston Hughes was, of course, far from the only poet to invoke “the social” in the context of twentieth-century poetry. Many might be surprised, for example, that one of the cornerstones of the U.S. poetry magazine world, the Chicago-based journal Poetry , published an issue on the social in the turbulent 1930s. While many academic scholars are no doubt aware of the celebrated “objectivist” issue of Poetry —the February 1931 volume, edited by Louis Zukofsky, that included work by Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and others—few readers are familiar with an issue that appeared five years later, the May 1936 issue edited by Horace Gregory and titled the “Social Poets Number.” The social poets gathered in this issue—Edwin Rolfe, Kenneth Fearing, Josephine Miles, Muriel Rukeyser, and others—are poets who have been, except for the recent resurgence of interest in Rukeyser, largely ignored or erased from various lineages of and conversations about contemporary poetry and poetic practice. The long- and well-established literary tradition of erasing social poets and social poetics from literary traditions and canons is one of the many practices that will concern me here.

The 1930s, overall, were a watershed decade for social poetics. As Michael Denning writes in The Cultural Front , the “communisms of the depression triggered a deep and lasting transformation” that he calls “the laboring of American culture.” The working class, or proletariat in the terminology of the day, became pervasive in the rhetoric of the times as many working-class Americans began to be influenced by and participate in culture and the arts. Denning points to the growing unionization in the field of culture as writers, cartoonists, actors, musicians, and others sought to organize and unionize their workplaces. Work itself became a central subject of U.S. culture as working-class artists flooded cultural spaces previously occupied only by elites.

Writers such as Meridel Le Sueur, for example, made bold steps in the 1930s to open spaces of creative culture to working-class artists. In addition to her own novels and short stories based on working-class and communist themes, Le Sueur developed a pamphlet for the Minnesota Works Progress Administration ( WPA ) in 1939 to help “the people’s writer, the true historian” create “a true history of the future.” Early in the pamphlet, Le Sueur implores working people, “Don’t tell yourself that it is not up to you to write the true history. Who is to write it if not you? You live it. You write it.” She invokes the social early in her opening section, writing that language and the word are among the most “social” of tools. She further avows that “the word as a tool is going back to the people.” She urges her working-class readers to become working-class writers by getting a notebook, keeping a diary, and creating a day-by-day chronicle of their experiences. I had the title and contents of Le Sueur’s pamphlet Worker Writers at the front of my mind when I created two unique working-class organizations, the Union of Radical Workers and Writers (URWW) and the Worker Writers School (WWS), groups that I’ll discuss in much greater detail in later chapters.

Among poets from more recent decades, Amiri Baraka, one of my personal mentors and likewise an inspiration for my own social poetics, invokes the social in myriad forms. In the mid-1960s, the term served as the subtitle of his collection Home: Social Essays as well as the fulcrum of his thinking in one of the volume’s central essays, “Expressive Language.” As Baraka writes in this essay, “ Social also means economic , as any reader of nineteenth-century European philosophy will understand. The economic is part of the social—and in our time much more so than what we have known as the spiritual or metaphysical, because the most valuable canons of power have either been reduced or traduced into stricter economic laws.”

In addition to insisting we not separate the social and the economic from the cultural, Baraka’s essay uses his broader sense of the social in a variety of unique frameworks. He speaks of “social hegemony” and “social hierarchy,” “social accord” and “social strength.” For Baraka, the social becomes a more fully encompassing term that comprises, simultaneously, the cultural, the economic, the spiritual, and the aesthetic; it becomes an umbrella for our (re-)imagination of “the outskirts of the old city of Aesthetics. A solemn ghost town.” In an interview published thirty years after Home: Social Essays , Baraka reflected on the erasure of social poetics from literary history and, echoing Langston Hughes, the price paid by those who remain social poets: “When I was saying, ‘White people, go to hell,’ I never had trouble finding a publisher. But when I was saying, ‘Black and white, unite and fight, destroy capitalism,’ then you suddenly get to be unreasonable.”

Since the 1960s, and especially during the 1970s and 1980s, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has consistently engaged in the practices of social poetics as I am defining them here. For example, shortly after his release from Kenya’s Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison in 1978, Ngũgĩ compiled his prison notes into a memoir, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary . Ngũgĩ reflects not only on his time in prison but also on his community-based creative projects with workers and peasants that resulted in his imprisonment. Three years after his release from Kamĩtĩ, Ngũgĩ published Writers in Politics (1981), a volume of essays that includes some of his most eviscerating critiques of the neocolonial project as well as his criticisms of the state of contemporary literature. In this collection he emphasizes the struggles between people’s movements and the repressive ruling classes: “Literature cannot escape from the class power structures that shape our everyday life. Here a writer has no choice. Whether or not he is aware of it, his words reflect one or more aspects of the intense economic, political, cultural, and ideological struggles in a society. What he can choose is one or the other side in the battle field: the side of the people, or the side of those social forces and classes that try to keep the people down.” Writers in Politics contains a wide range of Ngũgĩ’s ideas about social poetics, including a pair of essays on the suppression of the people’s theater in Kenya (“Kenyan Culture: The National Struggle for Survival” and “‘Handcuffs’ for a Play”). The volume also includes two essays critical of the neocolonial struggles in South Korea (“Repression in South Korea” and “The South Korean People’s Struggle Is the Struggle of All Oppressed People”). Ngũgĩ’s nonfiction during this period stridently confronts the colonial, neocolonial, and postcolonial crises at home and abroad.

Social poetics also comes decisively to the fore in Ngũgĩ’s Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya, a book in which he examines the forced labor and “slave conditions” of the new working class that was born in the “coffee, tea, sisal, sugar cane and wheat plantations, the agricultural proletariat, and its counterpart in towns, born of the new commerce and industry, the industrial proletariat.” In Barrel of a Pen, and in all his writings, Ngũgĩ consistently speaks to the necessity for “the unity of workers and peasants” and “Kenyan workers … struggling against repressive labor conditions.” He consistently engages workers and peasants against “regimes which nervously reach out for the pistol at the mention of the phrase people’s culture.” In one of the book’s most trenchant essays, “Freedom of the Artist: People’s Artists Versus People’s Rulers,” he asks a series of important questions about the practice of social poetics:

Is [the artist] operating within an inhibiting social structure of all social systems? In other words, even if an artist has adopted a world view that allows him to see all, and he had the democratic rights to say it how he will without fear of certain death or prison, is he free in a class structured society where a few give orders and the majority obey, where a million toil and only a few reap? … Here we are talking of much more than the freedom of the artist: we are talking about the freedom of all the toiling masses as the very condition of a true creative freedom!

Ngũgĩ places us at the intersection of the artist and those who, since the Occupy Wall Street movement, we’ve begun calling the 99%. What were the repercussions of being a “people’s artist” in Kenya in the late 1970s and the 1980s? Echoing both Hughes and Baraka, Ngũgĩ elucidates, “When I myself used to write plays and novels that were only critical of the racism in the colonial system, I was praised. I was awarded prizes, and my novels were in the syllabus. But when toward the seventies I started writing in a language understood by peasants, and in an idiom understood by them and I started questioning the very foundations of imperialism and of foreign domination of Kenya economy and culture, I was sent to Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison.”

In Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature , his most well-known critical book, Ngũgĩ writes about this coming together of cultural, economic, and political struggles: “The classes fighting against imperialism, even in its neo-colonial stage and form, have to confront this threat with the higher and more creative culture of resolute struggle.” He believes that these classes “have to wield even more firmly the weapons of the struggle contained in their cultures. They have to speak the united language of struggle contained in each of their languages.” Echoing the vocabulary of protest marches today, Ngũgĩ concludes that the people “must discover their various tongues to sing the song: ‘A people united can never be defeated.’” From the diary of his imprisonment in the late 1970s through his profound engagements as a central figure in the cultural struggles of the mid-1980s, Ngũgĩ has created an indelible affirmation of social poetics. And he enjoins all who might write to join him:

Our pens should be used to increase the anxieties of all oppressive regimes. At the very least the pen should be used to “murder their sleep” by constantly reminding them of their crimes against the people, and making them know that they are being seen. The pen may not always be mightier than the sword, but used in the service of truth, it can be a mighty force. It’s for the writers themselves to choose whether they will use their art in the service of the exploiting oppressing classes and nations articulating their world view or in the service of the masses engaged in a fierce struggle against human degradation and oppression. But I have indicated my preference: Let our pens be the voices of the people.

The foundations of social poetics, as conceived in this book, coalesce around the formation of new relationships, new empathies, new narrators, new cultures, and new organizational formations. C. L. R. James and his work with various small Marxist organizations—but especially with Facing Reality, the group he formed after his split first from the Socialist Worker Party and later from Raya Dunayevskaya and the Johnson–Forest Tendency—were an early influence on my conception of social poetics, especially as I was forming and organizing the URWW with workers who were attempting to unionize a big-box Borders bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the late 1950s, James published an influential study, Facing Reality, coauthored with Grace Lee [Boggs] and Cornelius Castoriadis, on workers’ councils in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. One quote from the introduction to that volume has shaped my thinking about my own projects and about social poetics for the past two decades: “People all over the world, and particularly ordinary working people in factories, mines, fields, and offices, are rebelling every day in ways of their own invention. Sometimes their struggles are on a small personal scale. More effectively, they are the actions of groups, formal or informal, but always unofficial, organized around their work and their place of work. Always the aim is to regain control over their own conditions of life and their relations with one another. Their strivings, their struggles, their methods have few chroniclers.” It’s interesting to me that both Le Sueur and James (and the latter’s collaborators) refer to the role of the working-class “chronicler.” Creating new spaces and new organizations for new chroniclers and new narrators is one of the fundamental objectives of social poetics.

Social poetics takes as its influences the adventures of Hughes, Baraka, the socialist chroniclers of Facing Reality, and others. It also advances from some of the practices of writers’ and artists’ gatherings of the John Reed Clubs of the CPUSA in the first half of the twentieth century; Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry workshops with the Blackstone Rangers in the late 1960s; Raúl Salinas’s work with various prison writing groups at Soledad, Leavenworth, and other prisons from the 1950s through the 1970s; Toni Cade Bambara’s 1970s Pamoja workshops and Pamoja Writers’ Collective at her house on Simpson Street in Atlanta, where, as Nikky Finney tells us, the workshops were filled with “students and nurses and bus drivers, anyone who wanted to know more about writing and storytelling”; the long-running and well-archived Fed Project in the United Kingdom that also began in the 1970s;  Fay Chiang and the Basement Workshop; the prison, school, and community workshops run by Piri Thomas and others affiliated with the Harlem Writers Guild and the similar workshops and community spaces opened by Miguel Algarín and others at the Nuyorican Poets Café; and many, many others too numerous to detail here. That is, social poetics emerges and has been emerging from a long, yet almost utterly unchronicled, people’s history of community-based creative writing workshops, a “history from below” that regularly emerges in tandem with social rebellions across the United States and across the globe.

Social poetics is a term I use here for my ongoing engagement with one of the central methodologies of contemporary creative writing—the poetry workshop—in dialogue, collaboration, and collective struggle with worker centers, trade unions, and social movements in the United States, the European Union, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. Social poetics, I believe, must activate more than a collection of metaphors of militancy, refrains of rebellion, and rhymes of resistance in poems of the current neoliberal era. Social poetics seeks the transition of the pen or the laptop from the “committed” author (be they journalist, academic poet, novelist, playwright, or other writing professional) to working people themselves in a new conjunction of aesthetic practice and political action. Social poetics, in its current conception here as a space and practice of political and cultural as well as aesthetic action, is composed of, but not limited to, a wide array of tactics that I borrow from, mash up into, remix with, and create (or recreate) out of resistance practices in contemporary global social movements. This new way of understanding creative writing praxis also engages uncommon ways of thinking about the terminologies of grammar and linguistics, traditional literary criticism, and twentieth-century revolutions in the writing of history from below, as well as more recent theories from labor history and social movement theory. Many of these new areas within the practice I call a social poetics will be discussed in detail in subsequent chapters of this book. In summary, social poetics seeks to locate in the poetry workshop—that often degraded and disdained centerpiece of the neoliberal writing culture—a largely untapped radical potential for social transformation.

But before I end this introduction, I will invoke one additional theory of the social that permeates this writing at almost every turn: social reproduction theory. In many historical examples of working-class literature, including a few of the poems discussed in this book, the engagement of the social by writers and critics has far too often been confined to economic sites of production—the factory, the picket line, the coal mine, the strike, the steel mill shutdown, and the like. Yet, as Silvia Federici argues in Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, “Obviously, if our kitchens are outside of capital, our struggle to destroy them will never succeed in causing capital to fall.” In spaces where work that has traditionally been assigned to women has been done, our Marxist analysis has historically failed. Yet scholars such as Angela Davis and Lise Vogel, and, more recently, Susan Ferguson, Tithi Bhattacharya, Nancy Fraser, and others, have been expanding our understanding of social reproduction theory as a distinctive and dynamic Marxist-feminist approach to our struggles against neoliberalism and racial capitalism. Social reproduction theory, according to Ferguson, “insists that our understanding of capitalism is incomplete if we treat it as simply an economic system involving workers and owners, and fail to examine the ways in which wider social production of the system—that is the daily and generational reproductive labor that occurs in households, schools, hospitals, prisons, and so on—sustains the drive for accumulation.”

Instead of a working-class literature and a working-class poetry that solely address the economic point of production (factories, strikes, picket lines, etc.), social poetics borrows from social reproduction theory a focus on the significantly expanding spaces where workers reproduce their lives: homes, schools, day care centers, health-care facilities, prisons, and related sites. This deviates from earlier generations of working-class history, working-class literature, and especially working-class poetry by making sites of social reproduction central to our critiques of neoliberalism, racial capitalism, and the prison-industrial complex as well as our ongoing struggles against these abject systems. As Fraser asks,

Is it any wonder that struggles over social reproduction have exploded over recent years? Northern feminists often describe their focus as “the balance between family and work.” But struggles over social reproduction encompass much more—including grassroots community movements for housing, health care, food security, and an unconditional basic income; struggles for the rights of migrants, domestic workers, and public employees; campaigns to unionize those who perform social service work in for-profit nursing homes, hospitals, and child-care centers; struggles for public services such as daycare and eldercare, for a shorter work week, and for generous paid maternity and parental leave. Taken together, these claims are tantamount to the demand for a massive reorganization of the relation between production and reproduction: for social arrangements that could enable people of every class, gender, sexuality, and color to combine social reproductive activities with safe, interesting, and well-numerated work.

Social poetics, as will be seen in the chapters that follow, emerges from precisely these kinds of relationships and these kinds of struggles.

As a book, Social Poetics is not an academic monograph, not an autobiography, not a detailed account of my thirty-year history teaching poetry workshops in the community, in prisons, in schools, and in worker centers and trade union halls—though it is, in part, all these things, too. The timbre and trajectory of this book, to me, echo the final entry in one of Mikhail Bakhtin’s last published writings, “From Notes Made in 1970–71”:

The unity of the emerging (developing) idea. Hence a certain internal open-endedness of many of my ideas. But I do not wish to turn shortcomings into virtues: in these works there is much external open-endedness, that is, an open-endedness not of thought itself but of its expression and exposition. Sometimes it is difficult to separate one open-endedness from another. It cannot be assigned to a particular trend…. My love for variations and for a diversity of terms for a single phenomenon. The multiplicity of focuses. Bringing distant things closer without indicating the indeterminate links.

Between Bakhtin’s Russian and the English translation, and in Bakhtin’s thought itself, meanings are lost, rediscovered, recreated, erased, dehistoricized, remixed, retranslated, torn apart, glued together, rewritten, edited, discarded, remembered, preserved, reused. It feels to me, in part, as if Bakhtin were speaking about a writing and analytical practice that Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a professor of sociology at the University of Coimbra (Portugal), would describe decades later as “a theoretical bricolage stuck to the needs of the moment.” Somewhere inside the translation of Bakhtin’s very final ruminations at the end of his life, between his “ internal open-endedness” and de Sousa Santos’s “theoretical bricolage ,” I feel the edges of my own thinking.

Social Poetics is my attempt to think through my relationship with the practices of poetry in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries; it is my attempt to create a connection, a new conjunction between certain pervasive practices central to twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry (namely, the poetry workshop) and the new century’s expanding social struggles and social movements. Yet this volume remains, in the end, just a single social poet’s documentary and theoretical travelogue of engagements between the poetry workshop, worker centers, and social movements across the globe at the beginning of this new millennium. If, as the Zapatistas say, we make the world by walking, this book is ultimately an account of my personal and theoretical ambulations with fellow social movement travelers and worker writers whom I’ve come to know, admire, and love. This, this social poetics, is my way of thinking through our stories together—between lives, between languages, between poetry and social action. Without these collectives, these families—these connections of hearts and bodies and words in resistance—social poetics would cease to exist.




One Comment

  1. […] Source: Mark Nowak | Social Poetics (An Introduction) – BLACKOUT ((poetry & politics)) […]


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