Inequality, Labor, and the Rise of Modern American Poetry: A Brief Book Review

Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry

Book Cover
Marsh explores American poetry's political roots

by John Marsh
University of Michigan Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-472-05157-1

For those who know anything about me as a writer know that I most fundamentally believe that poetry (if not all writing) must and does have a social contract with the society that it comes from. Now, that social contract can affect positive and negative effects on the group it comes out of.  Positive in the sense that it actively engages with social issues and negative in that it ignores the world around them. (and often borders on self-indulgent trite – Billy Collins, I’m coming for you) And with much of the “award-winning” poetry that comes out nowadays tends to fall into the negative/ignorant aspect of self-indulgent poetics it is refreshing that any book that comes out looking at modern American poetry roots to plant themselves firmly in the vestiages of this positive social contract.

John Marsh explores the intrinsic links between the early 20th century labor strife in the US with the key poetic figures of T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandberg, and William Carlos Williams. Marsh illustrates the manner in which historical context for the period (most notably the Paterson and other General Strikes) created “spark” moments for these writers as well as their day-to-day interactions with many of America’s poor and underprivileged. These societal inequalities often become for these canonical poets the vehicle by which they explore the shared world between them, their readers, and their fellow citizens.

And none of this is say that all of these poets responded in a socially responsible manner (such could be the argument in T.S. Eliot’s case), but the fact of the matter is that they responded in some way. They understood the connection their privilege as educated men, and as published writers, to craft something that speaks to the human condition. Outside of certain publications (most notably say The Sun, PEN, Grist, and Construction) there is a decided attention played to the trite lines of men (and women) like Billy Collins. (I always tend to think about his piece “Suddenly” here or whatever other generic “I-Look-Out-My-Window-And-Say-Haven’t-You-Noticed-Crap” that he has put out this month or week.

Marsh walks us through the various means by which poets have engaged with their social contracts and have done so to illustrate all that has become great in the American spirit as illustrated by this poetry.  And in doing this he shows us what an insightful piece of poetry can and should do as well as maybe, just maybe, shine a little light on some of society’s contemporary inequality woes.

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