Labor into Poetry

Workers and their problems may not be the first thing one thinks of in contemplating the origins of modern American poetry. But perhaps we should, as John Marsh points out in his new book, Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry.

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

Marsh, an assistant professor of English at Penn State, considers in detail the relationship of prominent American poets to the so-called “labor problem” in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In a concluding chapter, he briefly brings that story forward into the turbulent 1930s.

At the heart of Marsh’s book are eight poets who helped form the core of the American poetical canon: T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay.

Some of these writers are known for their working-class themes. Hughes and McKay could plausibly be seen as representing the leftward inclination of the early civil rights movement, Williams wrote about militant labor struggles in Paterson, New Jersey, and Sandburg celebrated the gritty Chicago hog butchers. But others, particularly Eliot, Stevens and Millay, seem less likely. One of the triumphs of this closely argued book is the case Marsh makes for their inclusion. Were labor and poverty truly the starting point for Eliot, Stevens and Millay making “poetry out of the unpoetical,” as Marsh puts it? After reading the book, this reader was convinced that labor is indeed central to the “making of modern American poetry.”

T.S. Eliot is arguably the most improbable case. Eliot famously called himself a “royalist in politics,” and his poems are filled with obscure allusions that hardly make them accessible to most workers (much less most college students). Are we to believe that Eliot got his start as a poet in what Marsh calls the nexus of “anticapitalist romanticism”? Apparently so. Marsh shows how young Eliot’s explorations of the working-class slums adjoining Harvard University led to much of the imagery of his early poems, which led in turn to The Waste Land. In “Morning at the Window,” for example, he wrote of “basement kitchens,” “the damp souls of housemaids,” “twisted faces,” and “a passer-by with muddy skirts.” Marsh argues that this poem “documents how workers intruded, early and often, on the consciousness of modern American poets.”

John Marsh

John Marsh

“Eliot’s career as a poet,” Marsh summarizes, “fairly begins with his discovery of the urban poor and more or less develops as his thinking about them develops.”

What is indeed striking about Eliot’s early poems is the absence of whole people from the urban landscape. He talks of things (“broken blinds and chimney pots”), animals (“a lonely cab horse”), or dissociated parts of bodies (“muddy feet that press to early coffee stands”), but rarely of rounded human beings. This fits in his view of working-class people as “mechanical” and “routinized.”

Perhaps most intriguing in Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys is Marsh’s argument that workers are not just central to modern American poetry, but to modern culture as a whole. As he puts it:

“For poetry to be modern, it must represent figures…who themselves represent modern culture. In short, workers represent modern culture, and modern poetry is represented by workers.”

For decades, the study of American poetry has largely ignored the centrality of labor and its problems, as if these were irrelevant to the nobler way of life represented by poetry. Marsh’s book, however, intends to correct that imbalance and restore the role of labor in the formation of America’s poetical canon.

John Marsh, Ph.D., is assistant professor of English. He is the author of two books, Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Bus Boys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry and Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way out of Inequality. Marsh is also the editor of You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-41, which won the 2007-2008 Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing from the Working-Class Studies Association. He can be reached at jem55@psu.edu.

Last Updated June 13, 2012