Sunday, April 5, 2009

On Marxism and Reginald Shepherd's Orpheus in the Bronx

Because Reginald Shepherd’s Orpheus in the Bronx helped inspire this blog, I would like to occasionally comment on his work. As in this post, it won't necessarily be affirmative. This is the way Shepherd would have wanted it. True, my only encounters with the man was through his blog; I never once met him. But still. From his written words and my own presumptuous nature, I think that’s how his spirit would want it. Anyone who disagrees hasn’t read Shepherd closely enough. Or at all.

Strangely, one of his most popular essays “The Other’s Other: Against Identity Poetry, for Possibility” creates the most problems for me. For this essay, I’d like to focus on one in particular: his claim that poetry that “is potentially liberating because its uselessness marks out a space not capitalized by or valued by capital.” In the same essay he uses Octavio Paz as a mouth piece for this claim, binding them both together:

..poems have no value: they are not products susceptible to
commercial exchange....As poetry is not a thing that can enter
into the exchange of mercantile good, it is not really of value.

Creative writers often articulate this nonsense argument, and usually the poets who do so are the same ones benefiting from the exchange. They have a nice job. Which equals health insurance. They can make extra money working at low-residences, important conferences. Big readings are also possible--even more money. Grants and fellowships (and who knows what else?) are in their reach.

It’s weird that Shepherd isn’t more cognizant of that fact. He did grown up in the Bronx ghetto. He did rake in some jobs, big monetary awards.

Having grown up within modest means, I can attest to the ways in which college and my creative writing yields economical-social benefits.

Often middle-class people feel attacked when you mention their economic status. As if by bringing it up, you're out to crucify them. This isn't the case. Or at least not the case with me. Their guilt is their guilt.

This is not to say I believe necessarily that Shepherd became middle-class. I didn't have access to bank account. Even if I did, his personal life story does not affect my argument. For this particular interrogation, what matters are the words on the page.

I simply feel that Shepherd fails to bring class to the forefront of his argument. As a critic, I need to complicate what I see to be lacking.

Through student loans, I went to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign where I majored in something called Rhetoric, a major easily translated to Creative Writing. At the time, it wasn’t cool to give a degree that name. It didn’t have the prestige. Which now it does. Everyone is doing it. Everyone is complaining about what they won’t receive. Because everyone knows there is stuff out there. But only the privileged receive it.

We need to stop the poets who claim that their work never rakes in the money. Maybe one poem in and of itself doesn't. But poem after poem after poem legitimizes you. It offers you a possible job. Poem after poem after poem leads to a book. Proof you're worth an even better job. If you have that Ph.D., you have more evidence of your worthiness. A professional degree and publications leads to middle-class wealth. At least that. A way of supporting your family in these cruel economic times. A way of not having to march into work ever day. A way of spending more time with your husband and kids.

To make a long story short, I went to two MFA programs as well as another one offering a Ph.D. Now I have a job, a decent sense of security, and, yes, health insurance.

My poems brought me all that. This isn’t to say in any way they were good poems. But I could trade them in for money as long as I presented myself in an attractive way to predominantly , if not completely, other white, middle-class people.

Poetry can make something happen. It can fund a life.


  1. Inspiring, Steve. i wonder if you feel that poetry escapes or participates in the sort of capitalist pop-culture world that fiction sometimes gets sucked into. I want a life like yours.

  2. Provocative! I've written a response on my blog: a comment, here, would have been too long.

  3. Elizabeth,

    Trust me: you don't want a life like mine. Made too many fatal mistakes along the way.

  4. Eshuneutics,

    Just got back from a professional obligation. I have plenty to say to your post which I'm going to post on your blog.

  5. Indeed. It's only those who are living the life that have the luxury of saying that poems don't have a commodity value.