During his eight years
on the old General Electric Theater,
Reagan enjoyed certain distinct
Hundreds of women worked
at those benches. With prosperity,
more and more were added.
References for authoritative capitalization
of American and British names: Who’s Who,
Who’s Who in America,
Dictionary of National Biography,
Dictionary of American Biography.
But when the market crashed in 1929,
the benches were emptied almost overnight.
While the program’s other performers
were at the mercy of the weekly dramatic material —
it was an anthology series — the star was not.
I don’t know
how many were let go,
but my gosh, it was devastating.
He was no more responsible
for the quality of the shows
than for the quality of GE’s products.
Mark Nowak, from Capitalization (2004)
This is the second poem from union-activist Mark Nowak’s sequence Capitalization. It intersperses material from different sources: a grammar textbook on the use of capital letters, a first-person narrative about the Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh at the time of the crash of 1929, and an account of the way Ronald Reagan combined his work as a host of the TV programme “GE Theater” with
tours of General Electric factories to stop unionisation. Reagan was resisting what he later called “the swiftly rising tide of collectivism that threatens to inundate what remains of our free economy.”
Unlike much contemporary poetry which collates its source material from different contexts in such a way as to hide the joins, this poem makes typographical distinctions to mark a shift from one topic to another. Nowak also presents a list of sources in a bibliography at the end. Nowak wants us to see and know about the interlacing narratives.
Nowak’s poem is a contemporary example of what the German twentieth century philosopher and socialist Theodor Adorno calls “committed art”. It is a poem with a political commitment, as distinct from art for its own sake. Adorno:
“The committed work of art debunks the work that wants nothing but to exist; it considers it a fetish, the idle pastime of those who would be happy to sleep through the deluge that threatens us — an apolitical stance that is in fact highly political.”
This commitment is not “versified politics”, a piece of partisan writing that has simply been chopped up into lines. Nor is it written to support a specific programme, calling for a particular law or measure. Instead, as Adorno puts it, “it works toward an attitude”.
Nowak’s political commitment — as a founder of the Union or Radical Workers and Writers — is embedded in his poetry, but his poem is not a straight poetic expression of his politics. Or to put it another way, the political and poetic merits of the work cannot be separated from one another. (Adorno quoted Sartre approvingly: “Nobody can suppose for a moment that it is possible to write a good novel in praise of anti-Semitism”).
The combination of source material from different contexts draws out both the absurd differences and the somewhat unnerving similarities that exist between them. The poem is both a depiction of the all-permeating effects of capital and an attempt to get to grips with what capital is. The word capital means “of the head”, whether applied to letters printed on the page or to accumulated wealth. The dominance of capital says Nowak cannot simply be ignored. We must restructure from the bottom up, rather than decapitating and seeking to replace “the head”.