POCKETBOOKS AND SAUERKRAUT
I did not know I was a member of the working class until I no longer was. In the dense Italian neighborhood in South Philadelphia where I grew up, there were no class distinctions because we were all one socioeconomic group. The men with skilled trades made out a little better than those like my father whose lack of training qualified them at best for low level general maintenance jobs. The skilled workers might own a bigger TV set or have a taller fir tree in their parlors at Christmas, and the only boy who owned a football was the son of a workingman employed in the mysterious and relatively new field called electronics, clean work, the only kind of work we saw advertised on TV in General Electric commercials. Progress is our most important product, it said. The sense of that slogan meant nothing to me as a child, but the tune the words made, the canter of the pentameter, held in my mind as a beautiful pattern.
My class awareness, such as it was, came packed in words and speech. I still repeat to myself the rhyme we learned as kids:
I made you look, you dirty crook,
I stole your mother's pocketbook.
I turned it in, I turned it out,
I turned it into sauerkraut.
The lines live in the same zone and continuity of my consciousness as passages from Dante, the Sermon on the Mount, "To Autumn," "My Last Duchess," "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," Edgar's speeches in King Lear, and Antony's "Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish." Its words still constitute a mysterium sanctum where meaning lies in wait for initiates, and where language bleeds together conversation, doggerel, and formal elegance into one way of speech. But you can study, make sacrifice, burn incense, and still not be enlightened, for meaning is also sometimes a surprising gift, a sentence whose rhythms spring like a trap and catch you. At that sanctuary Nimrod is the spectral custodian, always there to break sense into incoherence. But it was, is, my true place. Outside, vendors sold hoagies and pizzasteaks and lemonade. L-e-m-o-n-a-d-e had all the sweetness of sound I expected of the thing. Except that it wasn't really lemonade. Only in my teens did I learn that what we called lemonade was really lemon water ice. Lemonade was, for Americans, a drink! I was set straight by a high school pal, a lawyer's son. I made you look, you dirty crook. My real learning was about the executive power of language to reveal, enchant, disguise, and transgress. Who knows what "education" was being buzzed around my head by the sisters in grade school and the priests in high school? Turning someone's mother's pocketbook into sauerkraut was a power as outlandish and severe in its illusions as Harpo's power at the stringboard. Fantastical and sleight-of-hand, words in patterns had a lightness and buoyant canniness that my culture of labor either had no time for or disdained outright. What my culture did give me was a sense„a tactile, mineral sense„of language as the embodiment of contingency. And I think I also absorbed from my culture other qualities that have served me as a poet, a tenacity and a stupefied willfulness to make words answerable to the densities of consciousness.
But language, of course, was not so nicely patterned or cut to satisfying forms. That's not how I experienced it. It was swampy, crazily shadowed, and pied with unintelligible matter. Its flashes and zigzags and curls pulled me in. One of my uncles, answering the door when I knocked (I was twelve), said: "So what can I sue you for?" Why would he want to sue me? How had he become my enemy? Was he joking? Why joke about suing me and taking away everything I owned? My own uncle! Sue you for: force you, sure, or use your four„O Sue, for you! I have never shed that instinct for and anxiety about the incipient babble in sentences. It has made me an unstable and easily confused reader of poetry and a writer of poems whose lines feel as if they are breaking down as soon as they come into a pattern of sense. The anxiety leaked very naturally into my speech as well, so that even now if I'm not attentive to it I will turn into a slur or mumble, and I am terrified to speak ex tempore. The boys in my high school came from different neighborhoods, from Two Street, Grays Ferry, and Ninth and Carpenter, but nearly all came from backgrounds like my own. In college--St. Joseph's, a Jesuit school--I met boys from other backgrounds and places. Some had accents, from the South or Massachusetts or New York, but their speech didn't have the edginess and abrasive candor that sounded so clearly in the tones of Philadelphia working-class boys like myself. I was at ease, and could play the fiction of not speaking with an accent, only when I acted in plays. Otherwise, my bad nerves, uncertainty, and Nimrod anxiety made me too intense. I read with gusto Yeats's remarks in his Autobiographies about mastering the rhetorical arts and overcoming shyness. But my culture was massively different from his, and I had no ambitions as a public person; I only wanted to break words and my own speech clear of their roughly shaped origins in my culture.
It did no good anyway. I was reading Yeats while working long summer hours loading crates with windshields, wheels, doors, and hoods at a Ford Motor Company shipping depot, or else working swing shift at the circuit-breaker factory where by day my mother (widowed several years before) worked on an assembly line. I read Yeats's approval of Axel's remark: "Live? Our servants will do that for us." A society or class that uses servants was, to my nineteen-year-old mind, candyland. To be at ease to do "the real work" of reading and writing! It was foolishness, but I've never quite given up that illusion, though I haven't given in to it, either. Sauerkraut and lemonade. Sour lemons aid the Krauts. For you, Sue, I sure can do. Then one night I met a Yeatsian lady, a Main Line sort of Yeatsian lady. After college I worked a succession of menial jobs for a few years. One summer I worked the parking lot at a bandshell in Fairmount Park. One evening, a middle-aged couple in a luxury car ignored my directions and parked in what I soon learned was their favorite (and therefore privileged) spot under a tree. "You remember where we like to park," he said, "and we'll remember you." Confused because tips and unearned privileges had small meaning to me from previous work experience, I tried to cover my nerves with what I thought were amiable remarks about that evening's Debussy program. The lady, elegantly silent till then, turned to her husband: "What is this person saying? Can you understand him?" I quit the job that night. I was twenty-two and about to leave Philadelphia for good. I knew that Yeats was thinking metaphorically, as was Villiers, but only in part. With their aristocratic ambitions, their cult of symbolist disembodiment, and their enthrallment to residual forms of nobility wherever they might be found, both poets were writing fact. I could not shake off so suddenly what I was reading and absorbing with such hunger--Yeats seemed a poet who could conquer any tone, speak intensely and formally as one person to another, bring over philosophy into the feeling life of poetry, and his Irishness made him seem archaically foreign--but I did know very soon that I did not want servants doing my living for me, in metaphor or in fact, and that I did not want servants of any kind.
In my twenties, I read poetry to broaden my sense of the dimensions of its mystery and ambition. The call to poetry resonated in the prose writers I was reading, Randolph Bourne, Paul Nizan, the Sartre of The Words and Between Existentialism and Marxism, Nietzsche, Ortega, and John Jay Chapman. In them I found the particular value, expressed mostly in political or moral terms, that I was pursuing in poetry: the sensuous shapeliness of form governing and measuring ungovernable passion. I felt words to be in constant semi-solid state, however fixed and articulated their etymologies. They were not vehicles for stating passion, they were themselves the rapid uneven pulse and texture of passion. But somewhere along the way I also became persuaded, I don't know how, that the objects of the world cannot be owned by figures of consciousness. That is probably my deepest political conviction. I believe that there is in the things of the world an essential stilled singularity that cannot be expropriated even by the mastering of forms of the imagination. The enchantments of representation are not true magic. Poetry does not transform the world; it embodies the particular acts and feelings of being in the world. If my ambition thrives on anything, it thrives on the way the things of the world resist words and wordiness. I love and struggle with remoteness. The only contemporary I know who can own pieces of the world in figures of consciousness is James Merrill. (He owns pieces of the other world, too, in The Changing Light at Sandover.) Apart from his prodigious and well-schooled gifts as a craftsman, Merrill also has a power peculiar to the social, economic, and cultural privilege of his origins. The power and will to transform the things of the world into figures is driven by his own hunger to take and taste, as if he were the rich child who, shut away in hermetic rooms filled with images and books under the watchful eye of his nanny, had never done the rude Keatsian thing and pressed his nose to a sweetshop window.
I must have experienced poetry from the beginning--though I recollect it as a feeling only--as an attempt to fuse and discriminate at the same time, in one sentence; to blend into words the unsorted particulars of experience, and to make words not report the conflict but enact it. The figures of consciousness played out in a poem were for me not decorative or idly pleasurable but rhetorical, litigious, Mercutial, sometimes disablingly or obscurely so. (I sometimes think that working-class Roman Catholics feel the nerves of Puritanism more immediately and practically than any Protestant New Englander.) That impatience has carried over into my critical judgments. I don't like poetry with slyly built-in mechanisms of self-justification (Frost is our American master of this: equivocal wisdom born of equivocal humility), and I dislike the sentimentality of all-purpose sorrowing. I'm impatient with anyone who would define me or my work in terms of my origins. Intellectual discourse these days is full of talk about hegemonic structures or principles, and one of these is class. Begin with the determinant factor of class, the argument runs, and all other qualities and structures will follow from that. No poet can afford to think that way because it is the technique of a mind that fears the messy particulars of embodiment and believes temperament to be an accident of language rather than a part of its genetic structure.
However, though class is not determinant, it is certainly formative. When I ran my pocketbook-sauerkraut rhyme through my head or hummed "Better Buy Bird's-Eye" until its sense melted into those rhapsodic swells which Poe believed to be poetry's purest music, when I pored over the tiny reproductions of paintings in our Picture Study books in grade school or read through encyclopedia articles and poems by Poe and Millay and Lindsay at the free library, they were not a richness beyond my poverty (we were not poor, we simply had no money, and there were no books in our house) or a promise of transport beyond my means. They were enchanting forms, mysterious shapes, which had a density of ordered feeling of which life itself seemed a rough sketch or study. My own day-to-day life felt like constant bad weather inside my head, of anger and sullenness, hilarity and melancholy, with no placid middle zones, just as there seemed to be no middle temperaments among the boys I played with, who were either predatory, coarse, manipulative, and crazy, or else quiet, nervous, anxious to please, and in jeopardy. In time, the poetry I aspired to write would be one without middle zones, without a sustained discursive middle range or plain presentational balance. I knew I did not want to sound like Tennyson, sonorous, dignified, and responsible. Browning was closer to what I wanted, capable of the most exquisite lyric effects but also twitchy and volatile and impatient. I am touched by Henry James's description of Browning reading his poems aloud in a way that suggested he hated them, biting and twisting the words, anxious, unsatisfied, inflamed by their very existence. And I still feel an opaque sympathy with the character of Lippo Lippi, a sympathy grounded in my class origins, which sharpened my sense of the otherness of the things of the world and somehow encouraged that sense to become a formal desire. Lippi makes a string of pictures of the world because it is so apart from him and he knows he could be engulfed in the oblivion of that otherness.
People in my neighborhood were scrupulously honest with one another and with local storekeepers, but the men felt little guilt pinching things from their workplace. My first writing materials--it sounds grandiose to call them that--were hot goods. Like many children, I scribbled away at stories and plays. The miserable wage my father earned at Temple University Hospital was offset by the availability of small items from a friend of his in Supplies. Most of my father's co-workers took advantage, too, and like him most had gone to work straight out of grade school or after a year or two of high school. Bolts of colored twine, paper clips, staples, grease pencils, lead pencils, index cards, scratch pads and legal pads and letter files--portable things easily smuggled home but, in a household like ours, almost completely useless. Paper clips to attach what to what? We had no "documents," kept no records, wrote and received no letters, never made shopping lists. The stationery was a strange "bonus," a little windfall that brought no real benefit because it answered no real need. To go with the gleaming Ticonderoga pencils, my father sneaked home a crank sharpener, now attached to one of my bookcases, and a hyena-shaped Swingline stapler that I still use. A few years ago, long after his death, on a visit home I rooted through some boxes in the cellar and found remnants of my childhood stash, and I've put them to use, the lacquered yellow pencils asleep in their slipboxes, the legal pads warped and browned at the edges, and the grease pencils with their beautiful sharp pullstring coils. A fair amount of what I've written over the years has been done on hot stuff, stolen materials that were, in the conscience of my people, worker's compensation.
"Pocketbook and Sauerkraut" is a chapter from SHOOTING THE WORKS: ON POETRY AND PICTURES by W. S. Di Piero (Triquarterly Books, May 1996). All
Reprinted by permission of the author. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
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