English 6923: Working-Class Literature
It seems that the complexity of discerning an author to be working-class would be simplified when the biography boldly states, “The oldest of seven children from a working-class background, Paul L. Mariani was born in New York City in 1940…”(AAP). Rather the complex ideas, definitions, and discussions concerning working-class authors and literature provide a window through which Paul Mariani and his works may be perceived and explored. He attributes his passion for literature and his destiny to become a teacher to the year he spent at the Marianist Preparatory in Beacon, New York. Here, away from the mundane of everyday life, he was exposed to the classics, to literature, to poetry. His budding vocation to the priesthood gave way to a life-long commitment to teaching and literature.
Mariani’s body of work, including five poetry collections, numerous books of prose and commentary, and four biographies, as well as his achievements as a literary scholar and critic, contribute significantly to the ongoing study of working-class literature. He has received several honors including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1968-2000) where he was Distinguished University Professor and currently holds a chair in poetry at Boston College (AAP).
Reading the poetry and prose of accomplished and distinguished author, Paul L. Mariani, provides an interesting, first person perspective of working class. In the article, When Poets Write Prose, Mariani reflects on the power of poetic language that may go unnoticed, liking it to sunlight “shining on the wall of a room in which there is no one present.” Like this sunlight, the lives of the working class may also go unnoticed, except for those who have allowed a glimpse into their world through literature and the arts. Mariani describes poets as those who invite you into their world, who want to “share their moment of grace with you” (America 2001). Mariani is bold in sharing his world: his working-class roots, his parents and family, and his personal struggle of acknowledging, transcending, and embracing his past.
In the preface of God and the Imagination: On Poets, Poetry, and the Ineffable, Mariani identifies four ways the critic “addresses his subject: audience, artist, world, and text.” He characterizes the audience, his students, as primary importance and the text as paramount, more so than “theory.” He underscores the importance of “world” or context when he describes himself “working class, Roman Catholic, Italian, Swedish, Russian/Polish extraction” and in his depiction of the significant moments of his 61 years. He illuminates the interconnectedness of “artist and world” and identifies the poem itself as the connector, one in association with the other: the question and answer of a complex relationship. Mariani describes his attempts to articulate these relationships [within his work as critic and biographer] as “recovering the poet along with the poem” (ix). This also expresses his quest, through the words of the poet [himself] where Mariani encounters his working-class life and culture, his personal journey of struggle and transition from working class, the demons and victories throughout his life, and his irresolute relationship with God. Mariani writes, “I find myself preoccupied with trying to retrieve segments of my past from the cold ash of history” (3).
In the essay, Class, Mariani describes the conflict of duality, being part of, yet transcending the boundaries of one’s family and culture. He wonders if he would have been a writer at all or if he would have anything to say if he had remained in that ‘first world,’ as he names his working-class past. Lauter’s distinction of working-class literature, “the idea that those whose lives are overwhelmingly shaped by work,” resonates throughout Mariani’s depiction of struggle between the dichotomy of the world of ideas and language and his working-class background (9). Even though Mariani has achieved personal goals and received honors and respect within his field, worries and tensions reminiscent of his past consume him. Class provides a vivid account in which Mariani recognizes the forces at play throughout his life, those from which he has struggled to escape. He comes to the stark realization that, just as he feels out of place in his ‘new world’ neither can he cut himself off from his ‘first world’ and may in fact experience rejection there as well.
Ah here’s the rub. No one lives in the magic kingdom of language for long without harking back to the very past that may no longer want either you or your language. And yet, as soon castrate yourself as cut yourself off from that past. To deny those roots, one learns, leads to neurosis, sterility, madness, spiritual death. Better to pay homage to the household gods than to try and seal them off in the basement. (God 20)
He also muses, “those who refuse to examine the past, and the class issues snaking through that past, are doomed to repeat it every waking day of their lives.” “The Lesson” from Mariani’s first book of poetry, Timing Devices: Poems, illustrates Mariani’s reconnection of past and present. This selection evokes the insidious nature of past flowing through present, of surpassing the expectations of one’s working-class roots, yet bound by the experiences and expressions of these same roots. The image of the “jaws working” his own mirroring his father is powerful, symbolizing his struggle of transcendence and surfaces in several of Mariani’s poems. The portrayal of the father’s expectations, childhood antics and fears, and disciplinary actions in this poem exemplify Lauter’s challenge to consider “class-sensibilities” or culture as expressed in language, in imagery, in the detail, in experiences (2). Mariani reflects, “Class seeps into everything. It enters into the subjects one writes of, it enters the lungs and is expelled in one’s language and syntax, in the rhythms one uses. It stains everything. It’s behind almost any subject I talk of. Like any vantage point, it has limits even as it helps one keep to what is important” (God 24).
In the article, "In the Skin of a Worker Or What Makes a Text Working-Class," Janet Zandy discusses the “structures of feeling or experience,” creating a “necessary intimacy” between the reader and the text (156). Mariani’s work captures both this ‘necessary intimacy’ with the reader and the ‘essence’ of the working class. His poetry escorts the reader on a journey through the sights and sounds of his childhood, through the coming-of-age of a young man, the fears, the prejudices, the fights; the “turning on” of his imagination and wonder, the awakening of his spirit. Mariani’s writing affirms working-class culture, and perhaps more importantly, the spirit of the working class. He facilitates the connection of the reader to the individual’s conflicts and struggles, defeats and victories of the spirit, and then raises before us the continuing issues and implications of class within our American culture.
Lauter, Paul. "Under Construction: Working-Class Writing: Is there a Difference?" New Working Class Studies. Ed. John Russo and Sherry Lee Linkon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, forthcoming.
Lauter addresses the nature or essence of working-class culture and how it becomes an "intellectual template" coloring one's perceptions. He reflects on what makes working-class literature distinctive and concludes that there is not concrete definition, rather "centers of gravity", tendencies, directions (2).
Mariani, Paul, Sarnoff, Irving, Sarnoff, Suzanne. "Lovers as an Artistic Team; From Marianist to Professor." Chronicle of Higher Education 49 (2002): B6.
The excerpts presented from the books, Intimate Creativity,: Partner in Love and Art and God and the Imagination: On Poets, Poetry, and the Ineffable, focus on the sources of the authors’ creativity.
Mariani, Paul. God and the Imagination: On Poets, Poetry, and the Ineffable. Athens, Georgia:University of Georgia Press, 2002.
A compilition of 22 essays, Mariani reflects on his experiences, culture, family, and journey from his working-class background to poet. The interconnectedness of the poet, life, and faith is explored through his personal journey.
--. "When Poets Write Prose." America 184 (2001): 23.
Mariani reflects on the merits of poetry despite the poems published within the pages of this magazine probably remain unred. Yet he presents the wonder of the creation and the stirrings which call the unexpected to write poetry.
America: The National Catholic Weekly
As America's poetry editor, Paul Mariani's selects poems that appear in each edition. The periodical also includes his poetry reviews and other articles related to poetry.
American Academy of Poets
The Academy of American Poets is dedicated to American poetry offering support and encouragement to the American poets throughout their careers. Their Web site offers biographies and poetry selections of featured poets, poetry readings, discussion forums, and literary links.
American Studies at the University of Virginia. White Trash: The Construction of an American Scapegoat.
A overview of the role of religion and politics in southern working-class America.