Note: Part III of a four-part series called Break(ing) Down: Isolation and the State of American Poetry.
Politics is a big ego-scene…it’s the art of words, which means nothing. ~Jimi Hendrix
Mark Nowak’s book of poems, Shut Up, Shut Down, has received critical acclaim as “polyvocal, polytemporal [whatever that means] narratives of union struggle and defeat with both a strong documentary quality and a strategic use of modernist poetic genres.” The review from which this excerpt came was published in Jacket, an on-line literary magazine started by John Tranter, one of the official clearing houses for the hierarchical promotion of poetry today, and it reads like a favor to a friend. In a Publisher’s Weekly review posted on Amazon, the reviewer finds, “the result is a provocative narrative of disenfranchisement. The five serial poems are a mix of prose, short compressed lyrics and photos; their artfulness is often located in the spaces between and combinations of different registers… .” Such reviews are typical of the reception of modern poetry. What does it mean when the “artfulness” of such poetry is “located in the spaces between…different registers”? Doesn’t it suggest that the poetic energy of Nowak’s poems is not located in the words themselves? Then what is the point of such poetry?
When asked how he formed his poetry, Nowak had this to say: “Fred Wah got me very interested in the haibun, and so my new book, Shut Up Shut Down, includes experiments with the possibilities of that form in relationship to photo-documentary, labor history, etc. In one of these serial pieces, “Hoyt Lakes/Shut Down,” I wanted to see if I could find a way to replicate Marxist base/superstructure in poetic form; so I worked at developing haibun structures in which the ideological information at the top of the poem would balance precariously above the direct economic impact as base-represented by the number of taconite miners who lost their jobs in the Iron Range towns in northern Minnesota. I’m also interested in finding ways to get poems out to readers beyond those who come to bookstores and college campuses.
Formatting mine. Having first read Shut up, Shut Down, I must confess my reaction was that of being bored to tears by the presentation of a man and his childhood (glory days), as well as the pretentious verbal shortcuts so often used in modern academia. And then to find this snippet of pro-Nowak marketing on Wiki, my suspicions are confirmed. Marxist? Really? Orwell would have a field day. He would beg Nowak to say it plain, because what Nowak wants to say is so much more complicated than a 150 year old economic theory, no matter how revolutionary it was. There’s a new revolution to be built that can fight a beast that has absorbed and neutralized Marxism, and is so much more dangerous because of advances in technology, especially communication. That’s what needs telling. And it’s what Nowak is missing.
Nowak says he is writing haibun, a novel hybridized Japanese form in which he is merely replicating the form of prose narrative, disrupting the content with computerized formatting, and tacking on a re-formatted haiku to the end. Of course, the purpose of mimicking the narrative form is unclear, since the disruption of the content precludes a straight reading of the narratives embedded in the poems unless one is willing to follow the format from poem to poem, and start over again with other narratives. The employment of haibun is of a collage strategy, along with influences such as electronic sampling and his personal history, including his education.
Nowak comes off as a proto-typical American working class person who has transcended his class, and now feels a kind of lurching sympathy for his childhood while he cultivates disdain for his present, yet enjoys the luxury nonetheless. Nowak is himself a collage, a collection of snippets of the leftover Eastern spirituality and British music invasions of the 1960s, and of cultural misidentifications via popular music emergent in young white American males since the 1980s, an apparent slave to the gadgets of technology, and finally a man subjected to a pedagogy he hates, yet joined anyway (Nowak is a professor at the College of St. Catherine). Spiritually lost but emotionally volatile, his poems suggest a need to fill a void with a collected wisdom that is unsurprisingly shallow, all breadth and no depth, and demonstrative of his privilege. The most telling mark of all is the rejection of his own whiteness and maleness, made explicit in the press release-Wiki, which, from a modern feminist perspective (among others), can be seen as a patriarchal attempt to steal an identity, to exert the white male privilege of laying claim to all experience, including a victimhood that cannot be known by him. Thus Nowak’s isolation is evident in his rejection of so much of himself and his experience, which he has learned (he confesses himself) on various university campuses, and via exposure to similar poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks.
In the first section of the book the poem titles (numbers) refer, according to the short note that introduces the section, to a collection of photos called Industrial Facades, by Bernd and Hilla Becher. None of these pictures are included, so what a reader is supposed to make of the numbering of the poems I’m not really sure. The stanzas themselves, or the poegraphs as I call them, in this section, as in sections that follow, are collages of voices and (in my opinion) bad puns that nevertheless seek to demonstrate a connection between the rules of language and the rules of engagement between multiple cultural factions (sometimes represented as individuals, especially in the cases of workers). How effective is this strategy is a question worth debating, considering that the idea of a connection between language and political manipulation is not a very common one, especially among the working class. Isn’t that the conventional wisdom of academic left? That the working class consistently votes against their own interests because they are unaware of such manipulations? I could name a slew of professors from my own educational experience who would agree with that, and I confess I once agreed with it myself.
Since then I have lived through the 2004 elections and the 2008 elections, and I have been blogging the political scene for nearly a year (following it for much longer); I see clearly that so-called educated people on the left are just as capable of voting against their own self-interest as a result of the manipulation of language as the working class is. I now think the working class, among whom until very recently I could count myself, is aware of language and political manipulations, they are just bored with the “game” of politics, and so they vote for the team that looks and sounds like them (an admittedly lazy strategy). For years that has been the right–Republican and Blue Dog Democrats alike. The working class is tired of the supposed nuance of the hard left, and the constant bitching–Reagan? Really? Who cares? He’s dead!–about the past. On one side, the right, you have a set of plain-spoken, over-confident bullies with questionable motives who spend most of their time strategizing for how to effectively organize to achieve majority status, and on the left you have a set of insecure whiners who spend half their time licking the wounds inflicted by the bullies, and the other half engaging in rhetorical acrobatics that continue to keep them alienated from the mainstream. If those are the rules of the game, which side would you chose? You may wish the game were different, but if you want to play, those are your choices. There’s no other game in town. The political choices of the working class merely reflect the practical values of the working class.
It would seem to me that an audience like that would appreciate a straight-forward presentation that informs them not only of the factors involved in their condition, but how to challenge that condition as well. Yet Nowak’s book of poems seems destined for the novelty freak-show loved by the academic audience, with its unquenchable thirst for exotic cultural experiences and multiplicity of voices. The accolades Nowak receives from such an audience are akin to the unearned promotions young men receive at corporate offices because their aging bosses see something of themselves as young men in them. Such insider clubs are not accessible to the working class Nowak writes about.