Richard Owens tells only one joke as such in No Class (Barque Press, 2012). Will you get it?
What sort of bar can we enter as cops and leave as friends? One where capitalism has resolved its issues and the dialectic has run its course: the hedge-funder owns the establishment and the artist who works there and whose claims to autonomy yield only the reflexive punchline, “JK.” Some joke.
Here, but also in more lyrical moments, we find Owens doing the police in different voices. The desire to make art that doesn’t serve capital provokes a droll yet dark whiplash which you, reader of this review of contemporary poetry, surely know. Like the police, poets serve and protect. The question is, for whom? No Class refuses to resolve this question uncomfortably and therefore truthfully in its first-person voice. It both is and isn’t poetry for the people, whether you take this as oxymoron or as credo.
When the choice is between paying a traffic ticket and buying food, then we live in a world where reciprocity really means exchange and the moment lasts forever because it isn’t real. Ideological “commitment” only goes so far against economic “leverage.” Ecstasy and escape–pleasures of lyric in a sane world–are closer to morbid oblivion than to enlightenment. Should you read Rich Owens (or others published by his Punch Press in Blakean designs and inks), bring your most virtuous values with a willingness to see how messy they are. Living in semi-rural Maine and having earned his PhD at Buffalo, Owens knows the ravages of deindustrialized and casualized life not just from Theory but from everyday struggle, “appropriately unhinged.” The opener of No Class sets the scene of the poet being reproached for his “distasteful obsession with cash and capital” instead of “the determinate force of the cultural.” But both formulations are suspect in a poem that features “a Bruins fan drunk in the stands,” restraining orders, Rohypnol, and self-censoring about “Foolishly getting off on that place where the homes are on wheels / and the cars are on blocks.” A world nonetheless uncannily at home for Owens, who compulsively nods to the totems of class rather than hiding behind their taboo. Precisely because he knows that what sustains (especially American) fantasies of identity is their crass innocence of inequality, the encounters Owens stages between “class” and critique ring true for how ecumenical they are, earning their high-low judo by refusing to abstract or sanitize the speaker’s knowledge of himself.
Owens’ working-class subjects contradict as much as they sustain his first-person and its driving pathos, which, and this will make readers uneasy, is born of their having “no class.” A pathos in touch with bathos, unveiling our desire to avoid the less heroic details of class communities whose political alliance, while important and even necessary to those on the Left, rarely is allowed to sully our political art. Next to the best American agit-poetry today, from the West Coast academic-occupation sensibility of Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover to the laureled protest songs of Claudia Rankine, Owens’ work is downright dirty and salty like the Northeast where it was written. Run a Google search for Richard Owens and what you find is predominantly Rick Owens, the au courant fashion designer of draping streetwear for cosmopolites and famous rappers. Monochrome and imposing, the clothes are the siren call of western empire’s death cycle: a commodity fetish whose charismatic spell is seemingly to fly above questions of taste, specifically bourgeois taste, but whose price tag remains aspirational to bourgeois purchasing power. The initiated wrap themselves in layers of black fabric cut at curious angles, like pilgrims who in their knowing style banish the body altogether.
By triangulating the poet Owens through high fashion, I am reminded of how easy it is to misrecognize the problem of a writer’s obscurity for the problem of their class. Working artists have not made a living wage in the United States since at least the end of postwar boom times. Their status in the canon has been even more unlikely. Poets such as Thomas McGrath were forgotten as their politics came to seem like relics of the 1930s Left. Amidst the upheavals of the New Left, the artist class settled down and the MFA became the price of entry. In our own Gilded Age of credentials, it is more about who you know than who reads you. (The internet, while certainly making more reading possible, sustains the same free-market fantasies, with even less money, which publishing already exploits.)
Neither should we necessarily mourn a time when poets like Owens were obscure but at least paid for their services as guardians against the middle brow–a nostalgia that is not just reductive but dim to how the rules of art have changed even for initiates. Cultural capital has itself become a luxury commodity, requiring that most artists live above their means in order to keep playing the game until they can’t. Despite their capacity for what Owens calls “limitless longing,” these ranks of gig laborers stave off the practical demands of the future in order to keep the dream of the past alive. For if there was ever a time where some meaningful number of poets got paid, it was when the postwar university expanded to include women, minorities, and the working class. That refuge too has given way to capitalization, and as the doors of the academy close again, those struggling to imagine another world face a narrower reality than their parents. The very condition of cultural production today is turnover.
The first-person plural past (“We were”) both guarantees and mortgages the first-person singular position of address stuck in reverse and contingently employed, somewhere “between server and client.” Lyric’s two- and three-beat lines break short of the dialectical struggle they promised, and absent any actual leverage on “social fact,” flatten into images of revolution whose “murderous / past” repeats in the syntax of line endings, first as tragedy externalized (“CLR James was always a favorite—I never / died says he”) then as lumpen farce, a game of Grand Theft Auto eternally paused at the threshold of action, “so as to.” The dream of socialism is like an old sitcom recycled for an audience whose consumer reflexes have been introjected to the point that CLR James may become one of them. Much contemporary poetry happily hoes this garden of Frankfurtian delight.
As capitalism would say, Owens has no time for this. And if dialecticians we are, let’s consider that capital certainly waits for no person, shoving the present into a future of cheap on-demand work no matter the wake of bodies and dreams it leaves. Owens’ badly broken, heteroglossic lines are formal attempts to derail the engine long enough to board a different train, its conductor “if / not Lenin then futures written in syndication.” Still, poems entitled “EASY MONEY,” “DAILY SCOPE,” “KEEP THE CHANGE,” and “MOVE ON UP,” like Jenny Holzer on roadside billboards, name ambivalence as the soundtrack of life under late capital (by now a meme unto itself). The difference is, again, one of class. As in Bong Joon Ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer, the subjects of Owens’ poems haven’t had a seat on capital’s train, let alone Lenin’s, for generations. Workers don’t want their place in history to be more authentic, they want it to be somewhat more good. By refusing lip service to class fantasies of our present, Owens points out their deficiency for the future: “If nothing else give us this day—this day—because there are no / others from where we stand” (“DAILY SCOPE”). Pathos this intense works because Owens’ impatience glimpses an optimism that for better or worse hasn’t given up on desire because of how cruel its satisfactions are:
Recalling the Curtis Lee Mayfield hit song and (at least for me) the montage ending season four of The Wire (if it were directed by Robert Altman), Owens rhymes away the disgust and judgment he elsewhere incites. The phantom homophone (bye|buy) and the falsely-advertised fantasy of consumer desire (deluxe apartment) distract us from the predicate (pie) and conspire to mask what is really a social relation of need: people need decent housing; they want a piece of the pie. But meanwhile they need an alibi for the good life in the absence of those basic goods; being on the make requires many defenses, and some of the most ambitious lyric of our time, by Claudia Rankine, Andrea Brady, Rob Halpern, and Keston Sutherland, struggles with how to reconstruct the traumas beneath defense and formally express that. The urgent made-ness of life will be intellectual to cosmopolitan audiences (and again this means most readers of small-press poetry) who in a general way would identify as not on the make, not no-class. As Owens writes, “I hate myself for this indulgence—for never / indulging in the moderate’s privilege of not at all.” The double negatives of how we become acceptable to ourselves wouldn’t be so intriguing if they ever got worked out fully. Contemporary lyric might follow Owens in surmising the same about class.
The other homophone in “MOVE ON UP” haunts the chain of assonance, flowers|Mao|allowed, as the question of how to build “a more qualitative link” between you and me, past and future. In the rush of poetry today about political and other cathexes of desire, Owens perhaps more than anyone understands how class in the US has become a structure of feeling so knotted with shame as to offer up a screen of abjection which even the avant-gardist has qualms appropriating. But in order to ask the refreshing if vague question of how, actually how, to build links between servers and clients, No Class works from the premise that such a “link” has always been a rule of abjection and so we may as well get right into the “toothless joke” (harmless, literally teeth-less). But once inside this joke about the impotency of symptomatic analysis, are we not inside a powerful and dangerous analysis—of how class fantasies relate to class exploitation? Is this a place of insight or depression?
It is hard to know with Owens, whose ambivalence manifests in how No Class drifts formally. “Earnest depositions and disputations were / never enough to satisfy anything,” leaving us to suppose that lyric is what satisfies. It is verse and not prose that loosens up the satire and romantic commitment gripping much of No Class.
It may be starry-eyed to want something more than a millie in mutual funds. But the job of lyric was never to police the diligence of our critiques (our defenses). Neither is it to make us feel safer, but instead to cast about a violent world for life plots that do not enforce a choice between hating ourselves and linking ourselves to others, that are “given to break the little frames / that shine without will to suffer comfort” (“HUNTING WITH DOGS”). One such plot which has become precious to lyric life—Maoism gives way to grad school to bitter nostalgia—is what Rich Owens smashes up in No Class, the shards of its depressive realism suddenly shiny again, as if the struggle were not already over.