Thomas McGrath has called Dale Jacobson “the best of the young American poets.” But Jacobson is not only a fine poet, he is also a brilliant Marxist critic whose penetrating insights into literature and culture are only beginning to be recognized. In the following interview, which took place on a clear October day in 1988, we see him continually cutting to the heart of every issue: he is a revolutionary who does not compromise or back down. More of Jacobson’s criticism can be read in the current issue of The American Poetry Review.
SA: What is political poetry?
DJ: A poetry that in some way breaks the sound barrier into the world of possibilities. And that means that it has to do more then simply tell us what we’re feeling. I make a distinction between what I call Romantic poetry, protest poetry and revolutionary poetry. Romantic poetry is the standard bourgeois poetry—Eliot and so on. Its primary purpose is to simply say, as far as we can use it, that the feelings of alienation that capitalism gives to us are really legitimate, but that’s as far as we can go with Romantic poetry as being useful to the working class. Protest poetry arrived with the Viet Nam War and earlier wars, but it’s limited to the degree that it doesn’t really want to alter the entire system which creates wars. It does protest on moral grounds specific wars, but morality itself is, in my mind, a bourgeois notion because it hinges on the individual. So my feeling is that protest poetry is a way of trying to maintain the viability of bourgeois poetry without having to make the leap into revolutionary poetry, and, quite simply, revolutionary poetry wants to overturn the system and make the system a socialist system.
SA: How do you utilize myth in political poetry, and what do you see as the function of myth?
DJ: One of the essential functions of myth is to keep us in touch with our past, or conversely, to take us into the future because myths are still being invented as we go along. So I suppose we are involved in some way with the question of consciousness as magic, and poetry obviously is the expression of consciousness, so poetry has to be involved with myth and magic.
It’s a difficult thing to get at because there’s so much involved but it seems to me that the imagination itself is a pretty magical thing. It’s something that children have to begin with and we can’t really put any denotative value on it. So we’re involved with something here which is clearly very mysterious. Caudwell, if we go back to him, says the distinction between myth and organized religion is simple: organized religion becomes dogma whereas myth remains alive and in flux. And that means that that working class, or those people to whom consciousness is important as a living thing for coping with daily life, have a process of myth still working for them and they can change the old terms of myth to suit their new needs without feeling the contradictions of dogma that, say, St. Thomas Aquinas had to deal with in his famous book Cataloging the Heavens. I’m not quite sure where to go with this, I feel like I’m rambling, but one of the things
is—words themselves have a very ancient sense to them and some words are always going to be new to us even in their ancientness, and they have this mythical quality of taking us back into the past struggles, the past necessities, the things that we can’t escape: the ancient struggles with nature. The working class is still very much aware of those things.
SA: People have a difficulty reconciling myth with materialism. In your poetry that isn’t a problem, one complements the other. How do you accomplish this?
DJ: I think for me, I entered the world of the prairie here, and the prairie is still very much alive with nature, and it was fascinating, it still fascinates me and it’s possible to become very close to the soil out here. In my own poetry it was possible to take those images and use them in a mythical way because the land itself can’t help but be mythical. But how to transfer that into the magic of creating another world—a different world—and that’s not so easy for me to get at except for one thing: all children understand the communal life instinctively and when they enter into the class life that awaits them what happens is they begin to feel a disruption with their own senses. Eventually the disruption becomes alienation, but that old world, that communal world which is their harmony with nature and harmony with family, which they instinctively understood, continues to haunt them. So those images came, for me anyway, back into my life after I escaped the slavery of high school and I was able to use them in a new way to forecast the world that had actually been denied me in childhood—because that world is still very much a necessity in the psychic life, in my emotional needs, and as I later came to understand, in terms of my employment needs as well.
SA: Was the rediscovery of childhood magic a driving force behind Dakota Incantations, especially considering the emphasis on the mythic quality of the landscape in that poem?
DJ: That’s a poem that should be relevant here. That poem was written very early in my life—first long poem I wrote, I think I was only about twenty, very much influenced by Neruda’s “The Heights Of Macchu Picchu.” In Neruda’s poem we go back into the ancient kinds of struggles with nature and so forth—and the communion with nature, also with the commune, is very strong in that poem, the sense of loss is very strong: all those things hit me in a way that I began to look at the ghostly life of my own nation, primarily in terms of the Indian civilizations that we had eradicated. So this older life was in some way haunting my life and calling to me and saying the childhood instincts that I once had for nature, for the family, were very much alive, or, by virtue of being older were more legitimate than the class life that I was compelled to enter into. Turning that around again, I suppose I used the Incantations to invoke all those ghosts much in the same way that the Indians tried to use the ghost dance to bring back the past, but when we look at the ghost dance it wasn’t really to bring back the past, it was to bring back a better future. Now that sounds like a linguistical contradiction, but it was to make the Indian nations whole, to change things, so it was prophecy—well, not prophecy, dream, trying to create a world to fulfill the communal needs of their culture that was being threatened and destroyed.
SA: Earlier you mentioned the Viet Nam war, the protest era and protest poetry. Shouting at Midnight is more than a protest poem, it widens out, using the Viet Nam war as a vehicle to make connections with history. Would you care to elaborate here?
DJ: Well, I think the first section opens up—begins by addressing primarily
natural law as opposed to human struggle within natural law and the harshness of that. Invoking the magic of language is a way of overcoming our fears, a way of transforming nature, a way of inviting nature, knowing its immense power. The poem also invokes language as our own kind of exchange of social light—it uses the metaphor of lightning as language; lightning also creates change, it destroys, but at the same time it brings in the spring season and all that, so it’s a dialectical kind of opening in this sense: both nature and language are dialectical, the union of opposites operates in language as it does in nature. Also included here are the other dialectical laws: the interaction of quantity and quality, the unity and conflict of opposites, and the negation of the negation. So in that sense, the opening section is general, universal, it should be applicable to any nation or people on earth in a certain way, but its clearly focused toward this country. The second section again opens with this kind of contrasting of the human family within the harshness of nature and that section derives from a picture I once saw (I have no idea who the artist was) hanging on the wall in my hometown in which I saw about four or five people huddled together in a family, and it looked as though the vast prairie winds were sweeping and swirling around them like cold inhospitality, and still this family, knowing that it needed each other, had something that was very precious, and inside this holding together they would somehow manage to survive. We’re going back to natural law quite a bit here in the first two sections. Eventually we open up into the frontier, the discovery of the United States and a very primitive kind of confrontation with nature and the previous civilization of the country we promptly proceeded to dominate. But there’s something very primitive in that establishment of the West, but I’m making a leap here quite suddenly into the Viet Nam war because we can’t be roaming around in the past forever. After all, the poem has to look at what has occurred out of this, what we have done with all these struggles, and what we have done in fact is something horrendous—we have manufactured the Viet Nam war. That war has got to be part of the texture of the poem, because it’s part of the history of the nation—it grew out of the Indian wars, it grew out of all the imperialist wars that preceded it. It’s the most horrendous war we’ve been involved with—mass genocide, so there’s no way it can be ignored and it should not be surprising that it comes about. In the meantime, though, what has happened to the settlers and the pioneers and the working class that built up the country? They’re not benefiting from this war at all, and so they become the new Indians, nature is in fact used and turned against them. So while they sacrificed their lives one way or another struggling against nature to build this country, the ruling class takes that struggle and turns it against them and casts them away. From there on the poem shifts into looking for solutions, which have to be revolutionary, and so it’s also a poem in a lot of ways built against the voices of despair in favor of the voices of hope and change and possibility.
SA: Since you do work in a highly imagistic style with elements of surrealism sometimes readers might come up against certain difficulties in the basic understanding of the poem. Perhaps it would be useful for you to continue discussing the work in general, section by section, so we could understand better how it progresses.
DJ: All right. After the Viet Nam war section which relates back to the Indian wars, and also the class wars fought against workers in the cities, after that groundwork is established, after the Viet Nam war is hooked up with our past, then the poem becomes interested in looking at the psyche of the nation, defining in terms of the psyche where we are. And it’s not a
good place, at least in the seventies it wasn’t a good place because it was essentially a very paralyzing place and a depressing place. I think the nation is much more depressed psychologically and economically than it’s willing to admit. So if you’'re going to talk about the images—they come out of the imagination—I like to think of language as very much alive, and it’s talking about a stasis, that is in essence a paralysis, so there’s got to be tension there between the kind of language that’s being used, which is very imaginative, and the subject of the language, which is psychic paralysis. Out of this, I hope to express a kind of internal violence I was feeling, certainly other people and perhaps the nation. And if the Viet Nam war was an external war between various classes in this country, essentially two classes, the war has also got to be internalized, so the language is a way of dealing with this. So we have these old mythical kinds of languages going on here like “The pearl of evening sinks to the bottom of the moon’s lake,” an example of using an ancient language—words with ancient values to them put in a context where we’re paralyzed, and I think there should be a sorrow and rage that derives out of that tension because the language says we should be alive, while the subject says we’re not allowed to be the way we should be. So it investigates that problem for awhile. There’s a section in here written on a trip to Chicago and I find out how deadly language is used there—that talks specifically about paralysis, and then we start moving toward possibilities of creating a nation that addresses our emotional needs, that makes us feel at home and allows us to feel at home, which is what we’ve always wanted throughout history—to find your home and so that’s the possibility that the poem is finally working toward until at the end we come up with actually some sense of destruction of history, because the poem destroys time in a metaphorical sense and we end up with evening, which is the death of the day, through the night—it’s all very simplistic in a structural sense—through the dawn, which is rebirth, and up to noon, which is, in kind of an imaginary sense, a moment when time does not move. It hangs there without being on one side or the other side of the day, and this is the moment when we all can feel at home: a feeling that may not ever quite come historically, but it’s certainly one that we yearn for: there you might look at the use of magic as opposed to what can actually be created realistically.
SA: You work in a very expansive language, but the disturbing trend in the country is toward minimalism in language—you can see it in many of the poetry magazines, regardless of what their political intentions, if any. Why is there the trend toward minimalism in this country and what difficulties have you had—because of the style in which you choose to write—going up against it?
DJ: I use the word reductive: poetry is essentially reductive in the bourgeois Romantic poetry at this stage. We’ve been out of the stage when Blake and Wordsworth were writing long lines—and they actually seemed to be able to justify putting more of the world into their work. What’s occurred in the twentieth century is perhaps difficult to explain, the reductive or minimalist poetry, but in the most general way you can explain it this way: poetry follows the economic stages. We’re in the stage of capitalist decay: poetry, Romantic poetry is following that, it’s in the stage of its own internal decay and it shouldn’t be any surprise to anyone in that sense that the more the economic decay goes forward, so in an equivalent way the more the decay of Romantic poetry goes forward, becoming smaller. And it’s got to get smaller because politics is getting larger. I mean, it’s becoming very difficult to ignore politics: the entire world’s fate in a very real
sense depends on our coming to terms with the political problems, so how does a good Romantic poet, who is essentially by definition apolitical, deal with this? The larger the political world becomes, the smaller his world has to become, otherwise he or she is compelled to become a political poet, and god forbid that would happen—that means you can’t have art for art’s sake anymore, and if you can’t have art for art’s sake, you have to stop talking to yourself and start talking to someone else, and why destroy years and years of practice just over a minor little incident like the A bomb?
So I’m getting a bit ridiculous here, absurd about the whole question, but you know, I was looking at Hugh MacDiarmid the other day. He said that “for grandiose times we should have a grandiose poetry,” and I think we live in a grandiose time, but the lack of having politics in literature is really a recent occurrence, and if we go back to say, Sophocles and the Oedipus and Antigone plays, what do Romantic critics do with the trilogy? What they try to say is that it’s all psychology—you’re watching the psychology of this king, who then becomes an old blind man, and then the psychological reactions of his daughter who also happens to be his sister—but what’s really going on in that play is something much more clear—it’s the ironies of class arbitration. You have a king who is made king purely by fate—by circumstances; he’s fallen purely by fate or circumstance, but these are not circumstances of the gods necessarily, though the play defines it that way: it’s a play really about the arbitrary consequences of a class structure, that really derives from inheritance, so you have the king’s right, the king as inheritor. Behind that is the notion of the old communal family, which in part explains why Antigone is both the sister and the daughter of Oedipus. The matrilineal family preceded the patriarchal family. The patriarchal family was instituted so that we could have clear transference of property from father to son. Sophocles understands very well that in order to have that transference you’re going to have the son knocking off the father somewhere along the line and history is full of that sort of thing, arguments over authority, which is what prompted Oedipus to do in his unknown father. Oedipus happens to be innocent in that regard, but look at what happens to his two sons, they end up killing each other. Oedipus didn't choose his fate, the class structure was established for him, he just fell into it and he represents both sides of that class structure: the king in full wealth and power and the king dispossessed, or, in essence, a peasant who is cast out. There is the irony, and those are the ironies of class structure. So political poetry, as far as I’m concerned, has always been there, and it’s only the Romantic poets, the late Romantic poets, that is, the bourgeois poets, who come along in this century and say we have to have art for art’s sake, which means in essence: I’m talking to myself. How can you have a large poetry talking to yourself? It's not possible. I mean, you have to have something of the wider world in poetry to have a large poetry. How we got away from Whitman is, well, the poets feel they may approve of Whitman now, but they certainly don’t follow his advice. And it’s very clear, if Whitman were to try to publish today, I can’t think of an established magazine in the country that would have anything to do with him, and a lot of English departments don’t want anything to do with him either.
SA: What are your influences? Who are your influences?
DJ: Mostly they’re foreign, so it’s a strange irony that a United States poet is primarily influenced by foreign poets, originally by such people as Pablo Neruda who I believe was introduced into this country after every
other country had already known about him and he entered the country last and was the first to be forgotten here. The Spanish poets, Lorca, Blas de Otero, Vallejo, Yannis Ritsos the Greek poet. There’s any number of foreign poets, and what I’m looking for primarily is language in these people, although I’ll also have to admit that the political consciousness is raised about sixteen levels too: it doesn’t take much when you begin with nothing. Foreign poets tend to be more aware politically, probably because they’re on the receiving end of the United States, receiving in the negative sense. So we’re back to the same question, the kind of poetry whose language is without metaphor, without image, without imagination: the language that arrives supposedly out of the street: the democratic language that is written in the language that people speak. But there’s a fallacy in that argument that poetry should be written out the colloquial language, because poetry is supposed to be an intense concentration of an experience, of even a history in some way, and that language should attempt to do that for us—make us feel that intense concentration, particularly if we’re interested in revolutionary poetry, which is in fact the concentration of forces in history when a revolutionary moment occurs. So I can’t see that I necessarily agree that we should write in the language of the street. There’s another problem in that, and that is that the language of the factory, or the colloquial language, is the language that the oppressors have given the oppressed, it’s the language they've been allowed to have. It was no accident that the slaves in the South were not allowed to read books. After all, if they got some sense of language they might somewhere stumble across the word “freedom,” so I think to write in a flat language on the grounds that we are writing in the language that the working class can comprehend is perpetuating the language of their oppression, of our oppression, and we should, rather than maintain a language that is flat, sterile, barren as far as I’m concerned: full of terrible cliches (what language do workers think in if they only cliche?) we should be expanding language and that’s part of the battle. I was interested in Hugh MacDiarmid’s thought, whose poetry has been accused of being high brow and he responds to that, and I’ve found his response to be very useful to me as some kind of confirmation with things I’d been feeling all along.
Reads) “And it is precisely here that I reinforce my line of argument—it as the parasitical ‘interpreting class’ those who ‘talk down to them’ and insist that the level of utterance should be that of popular understanding, and jeer at what is not expressed in the jargon of the man-in-the-street, who are the enemies of the people, because what their attitude amounts to us ‘keeping the people in their place’, stereotyping their stupidity. The interests of the masses and the real highbrow, the creative artist, are identical, for the function of the latter is the extension of human consciousness. The interests of poetry are diametrically opposed to whatever may be making for any robotization or standardization of humanity or any short-circuiting of human consciousness.” (The Letters of Hugh Macdiarmid, Man Bold: Editor, p. 825)
In some way we’re back to the question of minimalist poetry in all of this. I was talking to another writer some time ago and I happened to ask him, what happened to all the large lines? Why can’t anyone write lines anymore like “And yet this great wink of eternity?” And there’s some sort of notion that we should write the less ambitious poem. I don’t know why that should be the case. It’s like asking a tree to grow so far and then stop. To me that’s entirely contrary to everything that the universe tells us. It may be entirely consistent with everything our country tells us, but after all,
our country is just a flash in evolution anyway, so why go by that? There’s a big universe out there, you can look at that once in a while, look at the stars once in a while or look at the dew once in a while and try to imagine that neither one of these things are called American or have U.S. Steel imprinted in them as a patent someplace—U.S.X. I guess it should be—there’s true minimalism, U.S.X. That’s what the real Romantic poet ultimately wants, to become a U.S.X. patent. Well, I don’t know. . . Someone, I think Donald Hall, now has identified the kind of poem that comes out of workshops as the McPoem, which I guess is something like the McDonald hamburger and this means that we have a mold for poetry now, and if you think of what a mold is—it’s restrictive, and I’ve said that bourgeois poetry is reductive. Well now, it just means the mold is getting smaller. So in some ways the poem is already prefabricated. How can you have any real poetry coming out of prefabrication? Poetry is discovery and discovery is going into unknown frontiers. So it’s all expansion of consciousness, not reduction of consciousness. A lot of this has to do with William Carlos Williams I suppose who thought we should have a very concrete kind of language, but Williams never got into a political arena. He’s got several poems that are proletarian portraits, one I remember where he’s talking about some working class woman hunting a nail in a cheap shoe and this is all described in wondrous detail—the fact that it has been paining her foot and so on but he never asks the question: why can’t she afford a decent pair of shoes? You know, here’s someone who no doubt spends quite a bit of time in her life on her feet, probably running after the McDonald hamburger or the McPoem, and yet she can’t afford a decent pair of shoes. It’s worth mentioning here that within fifteen years of the Russian revolution, the Soviet Union increased shoe production some thirty times what it had been. Under capitalism, no one could get shoes except the rich. Well, this was too big of an economic or political question for William Carlos Williams, the doctor, well-paid, to ask. That’s an issue that’s never been confronted by the Romantic poets. Why is that subject eliminated? And it’s eliminated by consensus, by an invisible conspiracy of some sort—but it’s not so invisible anymore if you look at the critics. Let’s say something else here. So you've got all these grants, these workshops turning out poets who are fitting into the mold, writing academic poetry and you’ve got all this art and all this support for the arts and I end up wondering, where’s the art? We get back to the McDonald poem, where’s the beef? Where’s the art? Where’s the poem? And it's not a new issue because Van Gogh says somewhere along the line:
(Reads) “The officially recognized art, and its training, its management, its organization, are stagnant-minded and moldering, like the religion we see crashing, and it will not last—though there be ever so many exhibitions, studios, schools, etc.” (Vincent, film review by Renee Gibbons, People’s Daily World, 8/9/88)
Well, this is coming from someone who I think sold one water color for less than the price of a McDonald hamburger. I end up thinking that something revolutionary has to happen in poetry. Revolutions cannot happen in a small way. They have to occur in an intense fashion with an intense language—a language that is expansive, that pulls people in. In fact, that’s the entire nature of poetry—to pull in, to include, to invent the communal family, that’s what we’re all about in some way. That’s what children, who use the most concrete language there is, are doing all the time by their comparisons, which is what metaphor is. They’re making comparisons between this and that and pulling it into their scheme of understanding. Certainly we ought to be able to learn something from the most elementary kind of
language there is, which is also basic to the language of poetry. Someone asked me one time at the famous Loft in the Twin Cities: is image of any use to the long poem? Well, it seemed okay for Dante.
I don’t think the image is anything that has been recently discovered—we may use it in new ways, but the fact of the matter is, you can read all kinds of short poems and if you had to stake your life on finding a metaphorical image, you wouldn’t be breathing very long, so I think a long poem allows a lot of the ancient and older tactics of poetry back into it, whereas the kind of minimalist poem that is being written today—simply its whole business is primarily to exclude rather than include.
SA: Why do institutions and magazines set up such an opposition to political poetry?
DJ: The simple answer to that is to get money. If they don’t follow the formula, they won’t get the money they need to exist, but the larger question behind that is, why do poets allow themselves to be dictated to by editors and by a system that in one sense tells them what they can and cannot write? Now we’re back to the original thing of Romantic and protest poetry and occasionally even a Romantic bourgeois poet will write the safe kind of political poem that definitely doesn’t include overthrowing the system, but it’s all in favor of peace and the large abstractions. What is involved here, which I think is to a good degree unconscious on the part of the writer, is that the writer has picked up the scent of what is allowed and not allowed and incorporated that kind of aesthetic into him or herself and is operating out of that now to the exclusion of politics because politics aren't part of that definition of aesthetics. That definition says in essence this: that the writer or the individual is really independent from history, I’m my own boss, so to speak, I guess I have to use a cliche there. I make my own judgments, I feel my own feelings—it’s this whole notion in some way that America perpetuates though Hallmark cards that “I'm special.” Well, the poet doesn’t want to be hindered by any system or actually have to believe that “I’m part of a collective.” But poetry by definition is a social enterprise, so that creates a certain kind of problem here. If the poetry is to be a social enterprise, that means it’s got to go past the individual and in fact recognize the collective, which is a system. So if the individual is going to be his own system, which is in essence what existentialism was or advocated, that’s going to simply create a situation where the poet is living in alienation, or by extension, you might say it’s only going to result in academic poetry: art for art’s sake. So the individual Romantic poet doesn’t want to relinquish what is perceived as freedom of individuality. On the other hand—the other side of the dilemma is—the constant complaint of alienation from an audience. So there you are—you’re involved with that problem. If you recognize the audience, that also means somewhere along the line that you’ve got to recognize the collective, and inherent in that recognition is the recognition of politics as a topic. The Romantic poet absolutely refuses to do that because that’s relinquishing the individuality. So we have individuality which is in essence solitary confinement and you’ve got all these Romantic poets running around promoting solitary confinement as cultural nourishment. The solution to that is, again, simply to look around the world a little bit and walk through the poor neighborhoods, and don’t walk through the poor neighborhoods as though somehow these are there specifically to somehow reflect your own melancholy or depressed feelings because these poor aren’t living in their poverty for the benefit of your poem or your
depression. The fact that you’re depressed simply means that you have some thing in common with them, so investigate that. Look at that a little in a more expansive way, take yourself out of solitary confinement. Whatever direction poetry goes, it’s got to go in that direction, it cannot continue to live in this little world of its self-imposed imprisonment and expect to survive. We know what happens to plants when they’re put in that situation without light—they become pale and they start withering and eventually they sort of crawl back into the earth and disappear, and it's not their fault I suppose because they can’t escape—they can’t pick up their roots and walk, but poets can with their pen, they can walk into the neighborhoods and look at the poor and know they have something in common with the poor because they’re not all that wealthy themselves—at least in consciousness, they haven’t proven that to me yet. So I think that’s something that needs to be done.
SA: Christopher Caudwell has been an enormous influence on your work. Why'?
DJ: Actually I came to Caudwell late. I’d only read him sketchily before I wrote Shouting at Midnight so he wasn’t that much of an influence in that way I think, but later on I read him in a good amount of detail as he should have been read and things began to fall into place. And primarily he’s the great critic, he’s the great Marxist critic showing us the road out of bourgeois literature to proletarian literature, which hasn’t been yet created. He sees literature as it should be seen and that’s from a class perspective, and the purpose of poetry is made very clear through his analysis of it. And no matter how sophisticated it has become, it still has that original purpose, and that is to provide us with the courage to go forward and make our world our world. The world, by the way, never was our world. As soon as we invented language it ceased to be the world that we lived in harmoniously. Language itself said, in effect, the world is here (points) and you are here (points elsewhere) and so we began to use the world and change it and so on. As soon as that began to happen we were separated. That’s, I suppose, the old story of the eviction from the Garden of Eden—the naming of the animals and so on. So we’re cursed from the onset with language—it provides us with the ability to change the world, but the whole task of history is to make the world our home in a conscious way as it already is home for the animals in an unconscious way. So it’s all consciousness, we come back to consciousness and that’s the purpose of poetry. We can’t be satisfied with the consciousness we have because that’s not fulfilling our needs which have been discovered or invented or created or whatever through language itself. So it’s all a dialectical process in that sense too. We wouldn’t have this problem if we didn’t have language. So naturally language has to be used in a fantastic way, or in a fantasy way, so that we can actually envision what situations have to be made to fulfill the very real needs that we presently have to satisfy and those are physical hungers, but not just physical hungers and homes and so on—those are all there, and those are the material things that are necessary, but we also feel very deeply the psychic loss of community which I keep saying children know instinctively from the start and they expect, as they should. They should expect to have communal family and communal society. They don’t expect anything less, and why should they? After all, they’re these bundles of universe—energy wandering around saying, in essence, we’re all the same, and they know that. It’s this process of class history that unlearns that all for us. So language, while it’s used to oppress, must be used to create the fantasy of the future, the dream of the future as McGrath puts it, the dream with the capital D, to create the socialist world. That’s the
job of the artist: to give us that courage, to give us that belief that that world is actually possible. No one in this country at present, especially having lived under a man like Ronald Reagan coming shortly after Nixon, both who are Creon types, you know, from Antigone, no one can have belief in much of anything anymore. You see that in terms of the political parties—people don’t like the choices mainly because they aren’t being given a choice. They don’t have the belief when fifty percent of the population in a so-called democracy doesn’t vote, so that’s part of our job to envision a future and provide the communal energy to get there.
SA: Why is Caudwell being ignored, especially by the left who should actually be embracing his findings?
DJ: Shortsightedness. Confusion. Just because editors have the notion that they want to serve the progressive cause, or the socialist cause, doesn’t mean that they haven’t to some degree bought into the bourgeois or Romantic aesthetic. There may be a sense that they are actually going to reform that aesthetic in some way rather than revolutionize, throw it out and put in place a new one, and they may in fact want in some strange way the approval of the established literati. So these are all theories I suppose, but whatever is the case, the fact remains that Caudwell is neglected when he is still very, very useful. I’ve heard people on the left say that Caudwell is outdated, so I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop on that one and I’m wondering when I’m going to hear that Marx and Engels are outdated, because that’s certainly what the Romantic poets say about Marx and Engels. There’s a confusion here, but it goes back to the fact that somehow editors have the belief, and I think its a condescension and a very patronizing attitude, that workers can only understand simplified language—the simple language of the workplace. That if we provide workers with a metaphor they’re somehow going to retreat from the poem and go to the refrigerator and open their six pack of beer and watch football, or whatever it is that the editors might imagine would be the alternative to poetry. It’s all conjecture, so I can’t really say why that’s happening, except I know that the theory—that workers can understand only simplified language is wrong that has to be wrong because, when you think of language itself, you discover that language changes through the working class, that all the invention of language, unless we’re talking about scientific jargon which is in a class of its own, comes from and up through the working class itself slang is what we call that and it’s the most inventive oral language, and if you look at it closely it’s also very metaphorical. So that’s all nonsense, as far as I’m concerned, that workers can’t understand complicated language. In this case I use myself as an example. I came out of a working class family. My culture is working class right to the bone, and I had no specific training in language when I started reading Neruda, for example, who is very imagistic, and who probably I think had some regard for Caudwell himself. Unless I’m some sort of exception, which I don’t like to believe, this language is perfectly accessible to workers, and I think there’s a hunger for it, for language that breaks out of the mold, that takes workers out of this humdrum language of prosaic speech that they have to go through over and over and over again. Did you get your hamburger? Do you have ten cents? Did you get your proper change? Do you want salt or pepper? There’s got to be deep down in every worker the secret desire to say, would you like a flame thrower with your french fries? Or something completely absurd, something full of imagination. I feel that instinctively anyway, and I’m sure workers must too, so why editors don’t, I don't know. Maybe they’ve lost their instincts. Maybe their intellects have taken over.
I think the denial of Caudwell is very real.
SA: Could you conclude then with some remarks about the tradition from which you are writing and about the future of poetry, especially what role proletarian poetry will play in that future?
DJ: I think a notable misconception on the part of left culture is that we must respond to the existing, often shape-changing, bourgeois culture, allowing that culture to make the definitions, to set the stage. But these protean tactics of bourgeois culture don’t alter its essential Romantic nature. Aristaeus couldn’t win against the god by being on the defensive. Caudwell wants to set the stage In the future, as proletarian needs require. Certainly Romantic culture at the moment is trying to preserve itself, whether it realizes that or not. One of its methods is to appropriate change, to co-opt, by saying that all poetry is political. Perhaps. . . but the politics are different. Romantics are responding to the changing world out of their past. Revolutionary poetry wants to “respond,” if that’s an equal word here, out of the future, which is not Romantic. To use another myth, we must not look back.
I don’t feel that I’m writing out of any bourgeois tradition. I’m dead set against it. There are things in bourgeois tradition that are worth keeping, and that gets into the area of craft and even sensibilities to some degree. We don’t throw out what’s useful anymore than we throw out a good tool just because it was invented under capitalism. But I think the distinctions between Romantic, protest and revolutionary poetry are very clear, and that protest poetry belongs to Romantic poetry. So I see myself writing out of the revolutionary tradition. It’s not the proletarian tradition because we don’t live in a socialist system yet and we can’t know what a proletarian poetry would be. But I can say certain things about what it will entail, what qualities it will have. It will have exactly those qualities that the Romantic poetry is so envious of having, but doesn’t. It’ll have independence, it’ll have freedom. It’ll be the first time when we are free from economic blackmail, so that if we don’t write the way we are told to write we don’t get to have three squares a day, and it’ll be the first time that we are free from censorship because certainly the culture will be expanded in all areas in all directions in a much greater way than it has been under capitalism. As I say, it’ll be the first time that the individual is really free to explore what individuality means. Free from various pressures and various oppressions that come in actually from the outside on the Romantic poet, these externals which that poet is just unwilling to admit do define the psyche. If you look at Romantic poetry, most of it says in one way or another: the battle is with myself. It’s not that there’s an outside force compelling me to act and defining me in a certain way, it’s the battle is with myself—I’m having these psychological traumas in my head—this civil war going on inside my brain, inside my emotions, it’s psychological conflict, and all the argument in poetry is in terms of this system of the individual psychology. If it’s so great, how come it’s so traumatic? If it’s so traumatic it can’t be exactly happy with itself so it can’t have arrived at its destination, so to speak. So the psyche has got to be freed in another way. I think proletarian poetry, which will create classless consciousness, will ultimately be the form of poetry that begins to explore those things, and that’s the hunger the Romantic poet has but can’t fulfill. So revolutionary poetry is a transition between those two forms of poetry. Proletarian poetry will be entirely new.
SOURCE: Subversive Agent Interviews Dale Jacobson, Subversive Agent, no. 2, 1989, pp. 36-46.
Inside the Language Undercover
Review: Christopher Caudwell, Collected Poems
Christopher Caudwell: Selected Bibliography
Marx and Marxism Web Guide
Dale Jacobsons Poetry
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