The Stamp of Class: Reflections on Poetry & Social Class

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The Stamp of Class: Reflections on Poetry & Social Class. Gary Lenhart. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006. xviii + 152 pp. $19.95 (paper).

Poet and critic Gary Lenhart offers an accessible and engaging critical look at poetry and social class in his new book, The Stamp of Class: Reflections on Poetry & Social Class, building upon his earlier pedagogical work in the 1998 The Teachers & Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams. As Lenhart clearly and honestly shows, class in poetry is complicated by education, connection, employment, income, language, form, publication, location, subject, and a myriad of other daily choices such as whether one drinks beer from the bottle or a can. Lenhart socially examines representative poems from what one might call the State of Poetry-what Jed Rasula defines as "the world of poetry" (Lenhart 3) in the American Poetry Wax Museum in 1996 and what Lenhart redefines here as "the poetry scene in the United States" in 2006 (3). Lenhart essentially asks whether or not this poetic State or scene is an equal opportunity reader.

Chapters such as "The 'Uneducated Poets,'" "Caviar and Cabbage," "A Song for Occupations," and "Literary Men in Blue Jeans" expose a cultural tension between class relationships, education, and/or occupation. Lenhart identifies himself as "an experienced reader of poetry who has learned to appreciate the classics of our culture despite the xenophobia, misogyny, racism, and class bias that infect them" (114). His book more than sufficiently backs up this large occupational claim, but Lenhart also stresses, through multifarious examples, just how difficult a claim this is for him, or anyone from a lower-class background, to make, because of cultural issues related to class. As New York City poet Ron Padgett told Lenhart in an interview, "large claims imply a presumption of authority. Lower-class people think that they don't have any authority. Maybe subconsiously they feel that they shouldn't have any authority. . . . If they did, why are they near the bottom of the social ladder?" (106-7). Citing class culture as a prohibiting factor, Lenhart offers a counteractive measure to break this cycle: education.

At first glance, Lenhart's solution seems to veer dangerously close to a maxim toted by politicians across the United States: knowledge is power; education leads to success; no child left behind. Thankfully a scholar and not a politician, Lenhart refuses to accept or offer such easy answers. Education may be freely available to the American and poetic publics, but, as Lenhart's examples attest, acceptance of this offer can carry a high cost. Poets such as Stephen Duck, Mary Leapor, Mary Collier, and Ann Yearsley were initially prized for the novelty of their origins (i.e., milkwoman), their colloquial language usages (i.e., "not worth a straw"), and choices of subject (i.e., manual labor); however, these poets were ultimately discouraged from leaping class categories through education, station, or occupation. They could be successful only as long as their verse retained the markers of a lower economic status. Over the course of his lifetime, Melvin Tolson, an African American poet, too, was criticized: both for being too pedantic and "rural" as well as too "white" in his elitist, high modernist verse. Lenhart uses examples such as these to expose the often contradictory and even hypocritical attitudes of readers within the State of Poetry toward both poetic occupation and education.

Lenhart makes less obvious, and equally valid, connections, however, between distorted versus necessary autobiographical and sociopolitical content in chapters like "Poor Doc, Nobody Wants His Life or His Verses" and "Special Handling," both chapters that hold special interest for readers of William Carlos Williams, particularly for those readers of Paterson. Lenhart's argument here is against New Critical approaches. Lenhart points out the class bias in a reader's refusal to allow a poet's autobiography, particularly when it affects perceptions of his/her social and economic class, to color readings of a work. …