WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- Factory Poems (Alma, Mich.: Jack-in-the-Box, 1979).
- On the Line (Bellingham, Wash.: Signpost, 1981).
- Places/Everyone (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).
- The Long Ball (Pittsburgh: Pig-in-a-Poke, 1988).
- Digger's Territory (Easthampton, Mass.: Adastra, 1989).
- Punching Out (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990).
- M-80(Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993).
- Ten Years with the Mill Hunk Herald, edited by Daniels and others (Albuquerque: West End, 1990).
Jim Daniels's rapidly expanding list of credits may well point to a burgeoning collective taste for rapidly moving, plain, and direct poetry such as his, a poetry remarkably clear of the usual tricks of poets. His device may be said to be a lack of device; his voice apes the voicelessness of his beneficiaries, those of the American urban working class, from which Daniels sprang and with whom he aligns himself. Daniels makes his allegiances clear, as he told the interviewer for Contemporary Authors in 1987:
Though I am currently teaching, much of my poetry focuses on the factory life in my native Detroit. My grandfather, brothers, and I have all worked in the auto industry, and that background seeps into nearly all my poems.
I feel that there is little poetry being written about the world that I come from and the people that I care about. I try to give a voice to those who are often shut out of poetry, to explore their lives both in and out of the workplace. If nothing else, I'm trying to say that these people are important, that their lives have value and meaning.
James Raymond Daniels, currently associate professor of English at Carnegie-Mellon University, was born on 6 June 1956 in Detroit to Raymond J. and Mary Rivard Daniels. The family had third-generation roots in the automobile industry, and the poet grew up in a blue-collar suburb of "houses, factories, bowling alleys and bars," according to his autobiographical note for his chapbook On the Line (1981). After graduating from Alma College with his B.A. (with honors) in 1978 and earning his M.F.A. in 1980 from Bowling Green State University, where he served as lecturer for a year, Daniels moved on to Carnegie-Mellon University, beginning as writer in residence in 1981. His writing credits include winning a Devine Fellowship in poetry, selected by Galway Kinnell in 1979; the National Signpost Press chapbook contest for On the Line in 1980; the Wisconsin/Brittingham Prize for Poetry for Places/Everyone (1985), judged by C.K. Williams ; a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in 1985; and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships in Literature in 1987 and 1990. He has read his poems on the National Public Radio program "All Things Considered" and at various schools and libraries.
Factory Poems (1979) and On the Line , his earliest chapbooks, are devoted to factory themes and are of interest primarily in terms of how Daniels's work evolved into the fuller volumes. His first full-length book, Places/Everyone , is a sequence of forty-seven poems in three sections. The first section deals with family and subjects peripherally related to factory life in and around Detroit--the bars, tools, job lines, snowstorms, and general hard times--set against an implied inventory of better days. The second section consists of the "Digger" poems, Digger being Daniels's young auto-worker persona, his poetic and proletarian alternative to John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom. The Digger persona is also featured in the limited-edition chapbook Digger's Territory (1989) and in Punching Out (1990). "Digger" in one poem was once "Daniels," "Digger" being substituted for "Daniels" in an earlier chapbook rendition of "Muscles" (On the Line): the foreman, Santino, shouts, "You Daniels, / carry those housings / over to the water tester"; in Punching Out the lines are rendered, "You, Digger, / carry the fuckin' housings over." The third section of Places/Everyone mixes and extends, somewhat randomly, themes suggested in the earlier two sections.
Places/Everyone attracted the favorable attention of Peter Stitt in the New York Times Book Review (4 May 1986), who found a similarity between the works of Daniels and Philip Levine , but with a significant difference: "whereas Mr. Levine's style is lush, Mr. Daniels's is clean." According to Stitt, Daniels takes Louis Simpson 's middle-class focus for poetry past middle-class Americans to blue-collar workers. Others of course, including Walt Whitman , have looked at the plight of American workers, but few have so completely located their poetry within the dailiness of workers' lives as has Daniels. With a sometimes startling purity, he views the American class structure through hourly workers' eyes.
Julia Stein, reviewing Places/Everyone in the Village Voice (6 January 1987), said Daniels "writes theme songs--like Bruce Springsteen's--for the American working class in the '80s faced with plant closures and layoffs." Stein goes on to say that Daniels "captures, as few contemporary poets do, the sounds of North American city speech," and that his "poetry speaks to the millions of working-class people who have lost their jobs in this decade of plant closures, when whole industries have been wiped out." Daniels speaks, more often than not, in the voice of a young man nostalgic for the "glory days" of adolescence and young adulthood, a life "just wild with speed and noise" (from "Digger Can't Sleep"). The day-dream is often all there is to transform the toxic present: "you think of the fork lifts at work / and their hot gassy breath / grunting up and down the greasy aisles. / You think of your wife's thick white thighs." Daniels robustly avoids any temptation to sentimentalize; rather, he tends at times to push the reader's face into the class-limited experience of blue-collar life in urban-blighted Detroit.
A remarkable aspect of Daniels's poetry is the effectiveness with which he shows the pervasive industry enmeshment that occurs in any single-industry factory town, whether it be Detroit or James Wright 's Martins Ferry, Ohio. Family and friends are bonded to employment and place in ways that highly mobile professionals would not understand. Daniels projects this type of bonding by extending auto-related imagery throughout his poems, even in baseball poems and family poems. The father in "My Father Worked Late" seems so remote that "We could drive toward each other all night / and never cross the distance of those missing years." Similarly, the mother in "My Mother Walks" goes for long nightly walks into an urban-blighted danger zone:
Daniels's plainly styled visual lines give him his most distinctive effects, such as in the three-poem series "Still Lives in Detroit," which photographically presents scenes of the city in hard times, as in "#3, Behind Chatham's Supermarket": "If I could, I would watch until the earth thawed, / took in new shapes, shifted with possibility. / What could be a rat moves through the picture"; and in "#1, Rome Street":
Daniels continues the recurrent automobile imagery that pervades his work in "March 17, 1972": the speaker comes upon a car wreck, sees friends dead and injured, and afterward, a "pint" in his pocket, he walks away. Daniels shifts to second person to address the reader directly--"You've probably / been there"--and then later says:
One of the rare poignant touches in Places/Everyone comes in "Real Dancing," in which a family of losers (among others) dances on the "cement floor" of a bar: "Tonight a broken family sweeps the floor." The son, "the blond kid / with matted hair hanging in his eyes / jumps up and down off the cement floor / celebrating the empty space." But the finest touch comes in the description of the daughter and the difference between how she appears to others and how she seems to herself:
The excellences of Places/Everyone are offset by a few weaknesses, such as in "Anita, A New Hire on the Line": "The first time I saw you / I wondered how you could sweat / and still be so fine." Still, such lapses barely detract from the power that drives the book, for as C.K. Williams says in the foreword, Daniels "has captured and enacted the blind and sad anguish of souls so trapped that they have ceased to know how to speak, even to themselves ...."
Two recent chapbooks, The Long Ball (1988) and Digger's Territory, deal, respectively, with Daniels's love of baseball and with further explorations of the Digger persona. Both works resulted from Daniels's fondness for chapbooks: "You can do things in a chapbook that you can't do in a full-length book. I like their size, I like the small presses that publish them--often the press is one individual who does it for the love of poetry."
Reviewing Punching Out in the Hudson Review (Winter 1991), Robert McDowell observed that "Daniels' compact, terse line speeds down the page with the rapidity and power of a jackhammer, rendering irrelevant the usual speculations on rhythm and meter." These comments could as justly have been said of Places/Everyone. Punching Out, Daniels's second full-length book, is a sequence of sixty-three poems set in the auto industry. The titles of the five sections of the book reveal the tone of the subject matter: "Basic Training," "Factory Stud," "The Village Idiot," "Hard Rock," and "Steel Toed Boots." More narrowly focused on the work world than Places/Everyone, Punching Out presents the auto factory in its truly proletarian, blue-collar roughness, fully drawing the reader into the quotidian, unionized limbo. To McDowell Punching Out is rich in "implied criticism ... reserved for the system itself, a system that codifies human behavior and bludgeons the individual into ever more impossible roles and situations." To be sure, these are not poems that bring the reader gently to a point of cognition. A new guy on the line, along with the reader, has an eye-opening experience in the first poem in Punching Out, "In the Midnight Zone":
Daniels brings with his poetry a strong perspective of class identification to add to the more familiar ones of sexual orientation, ethnicity, and gender. An important distinction is that Daniels writes from his identification rather than simply about it, as an apologist might while sanitizing subject matter for persuasive appeal. Daniels sustains a nonintrospective, limited blue-collar consciousness that is conveyed in a remarkably restricted use of metaphor, simile, and "literary" diction. His are the most nonliterary poems one is likely to read. Their plainness of style is intended to express what one would think or might feel as a worker, an inarticulate one, enmeshed in a daily milieu that shows scant patience with artifice. Consequently the work poems are laced with blue-collar sweat, cursing, sometimes cruel humor, violence, and, more rarely, joy and happiness. Still, there is a way to take all the pressure, poems such as "Timers" say:
Throughout Daniels's poetry there is a dearth of authorial comment or use of words that might reveal what stance Daniels takes toward some of his personae's outrageous peccadilloes. The poetry is pure in this respect, apropos of characters whose cultural sustenance runs mainly to newspapers, popular magazines, rock music, and television. The only novel alluded to is Mario Puzo 's The Godfather (1969), the only literary character Sherlock Holmes, the only magazine Newsweek, which the persona in "Back to the Basics," in a day full of erotic daydreams, is chided for picking up: "That ain't no / pussy book you lookin' at ya know. / I throw it down--who wants to read / about politics anyway." One recognizes these scatological phrases that maintain emotional distances for what they are: cruder but no more cruel than more-practiced white-collar brush-offs.
Daniels's personae generally find antagonism the appropriate response to the mind-numbing monotony and pressure of the assembly line; frustrations are acted out through cruel humor, minor sabotage, malingering, drinking, and taking drugs on the job. The formidable Gracie in "Dishing It Out," who comes to work "chewing a few / choice words to spit at anyone / gets in her way," strikes and cuts a guard with her whiskey-laden lunch box and emerges later to the congratulations of coworkers: "She slaps us high fives / and we feel the sting." The speaker in the prose poem "But" says, "It seems like that's the only way to make a / dent--to goof things up." The robotic machine with two "idiot buttons" to punch speeds up production but deprives the worker of any sense of personal pride, other than the kind displayed by Spooner in "Factory Cool," who paints footprints on the floor and choreographs his movements so as not to get himself dirty. All this stands in stark contrast to remembrances from earlier generations, including the grandfather in the family-background poems ("My Grandfather's Tools") in Places/Everyone:
Daniels seems to achieve his best effects in the distancing made possible by such third-person treatments, and when the speaker is able to be alone, as in "After Work" (also in Places/Everyone):
At their best, Daniels's poems put the reader almost shockingly close to experience. They live up to the epigraph from Celine at the beginning of Punching Out: "The greatest defeat, in anything, is to forget, and above all to forget what it is that has smashed you, and to let yourself be smashed without ever realizing how thoroughly devilish men can be." Daniels gives a poetic voice to auto workers, just that segment of society that would seem at the farthest remove from being themselves consumers of his poetry. Such laborers do not typically find themselves so favored by representatives of the liberating and humanizing arts, as H.L. Mencken early illustrated, speaking in Notes on Democracy (1926) on the eve of the Great Depression about "man on the nether levels ... the pet and glory of democratic states": he has only "brute labor" to offer, and "even that he tries to evade." Even worse, Mencken goes on, "What is worth knowing he doesn't know and doesn't want to know; what he knows is not true." How Daniels might reply to Mencken's invective is not certain, for the class "theme song" he sings is by no means an idealizing one, including mentions of workers who wager over the size of their after-lunch defecations ("Big Shit," in Punching Out) and men such as the title character in "Paul Pakowski Was Here," ( Punching Out), whose second-language ethos of thirty-eight years has distilled itself to twin phrases: "Fuck foreman / Go slow." But if one has only "brute labor" to offer, even that may seem to its possessor quite a lot and may be withheld in just those ways Mencken wrote about. And Daniels's characters do withhold it, at times even breaking their machines to avoid it. They are often obscene, but with an obscenity only qualitatively removed from that of club cars, closed-door board rooms, and university English departments.
Daniels refuses abstractions. He stays within the virulent anomie of factory row, showing how it is coped with daily, and he extracts a sometimes paltry meaningfulness from generally unappealing experience. This energetic, authentic poetry is drawn from truly raw materials.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- Robert McDowell, "The Wilderness Surrounds the Word," Hudson Review (Winter 1991): 669-677.