Monday, October 26, 2009

Algren: Slam Poetry and the Ws (Whitman and Williams)

One of the things that struck me as I read Algren was the force and the verbal violence of his work—his prose-poems punch the reader in the teeth. I can’t help but think of it as “explosive” language: spit flying from his mouth as he speaks, cheeks and jowls flapping about. I think of him as a proto-slam poet, up at a podium shouting his love for Chicago. There is so much Life in his language, so much Love.

While reading, I realized that Algren would be a perfect specimen for a rhetoric class: he uses every literary device known to humanity. In particular, he uses alliteration, anaphora, and parataxis with great frequency (suggesting, as was mentioned today in class, Walt Whitman). Unlike Whitman’s long, unwinding lists that plod along slowly at times, Algren’s lists are tighter, more condensed. An example of his work with listing: “Are You a Christian” (pg 23 in my book), starting with “Knowing that Chicago...forever keeps two faces, one for winners and one for losers; one for hustlers and one for squatters...”. The listing of the city’s faces (with “one for...”) continues on for a page. Then the anaphoric phrase starter becomes “For...”, omitting the “one” from before, and carries on for another page. Algren, like Whitman, creates his portrait of the city through snapshots of the people and places that make it up. Just as we feel like we’re strolling along with Whitman on a walking tour of America, so too we feel that we're exploring Chicago with Algren. Only Algren will show us the uglier sights, the two faces (which are thousands of faces, depending on who you are) of the city.

In class today, Luis mentioned William Carlos Williams’ vision for a distinctly American poetic tradition. Algren does seem to comply with Williams’ ideas of an American voice. In his essay, “The Poem as a Field of Action”, Williams outlines his vision for American poetics, which will require some “sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure” (51). He later proclaims that iambic pentameter and the sonnet form are dead, and thus we must rethink the structure of poetry itself and the language we use to construct it. Williams, in essence, wants to overhaul the entire poetic tradition (which he sees as too British), and create an American form of poetry that “will be commensurate with the social, economic world in which we are living as contrasted with the past” (53). Williams wants poetry to encompass the voice of the people and the story of society. Poetry shouldn’t focus on Greek gods and Roman rulers; rather, it should tell the story of the nation as it stands. Williams’ vision is very Whitmanesque, but more so than Whitman (who simply summarized the people), Williams tries to incorporate their voices and their lives into his work. Algren, then, seems a loyal disciple. “Chicago: City on the Make” is the story of the city through the voices of the city. He has found the new poetic form that best enables the telling of the city, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is a fusion of Whitman’s and Williams’ most notable traits: Algren is a lister and a fan of fragmentary phrases. He isn’t interested in “sophisticated” language—he writes in the language of the people he is writing about. He has thrown away traditional syntax and imagery. He tells us and he shows us the city.

To those who see Algren as a sort of ethnographer of Chicago’s underdogs, I would agree that there is something mildly troubling in knowing that Algren doesn’t belong to the hustling class that he writes of. That said, I think he does a better job of capturing them than Whitman did of capturing the lower classes. Whitman didn’t really attempt to take on the language of the poor, whereas Algren is certainly trying to sound “authentic."

[My quotes from Williams come from the book Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Schoerke, and D.C. Stone, published 2004]

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