‘You know all them things’: Nostalgia, Idealization, and Speech in Working-Class Poems by Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton

  • William Fogarty
Keywords: Working-class literature, poetry and poetics, twentieth-century poetry, linguistics


This essay examines nostalgia, idealization, and speech in poems from the latter half of the twentieth century in the US and the UK that convey working-class experience, identifying nostalgia as a binding feature of such poems and tracing it to the 18th -century ‘nostalgia poem.’ I will first establish briefly how nostalgia in poems by Philip Levine, James Wright, and Robert Hayden results in idealizations that resist sentimentality and then demonstrate that the various forms of local speech employed in some other post1945 poems about working-class life by Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton act as a stay against such idealization, effectively transforming them into more explicitly anticlassist –and, in the case of Brooks and Clifton, antiracist and antisexist –forms of social critique and defiance. Their poems interrupt and complicate the idealization of the familiar working-class surroundings they seek to reenter, familiar and familial realms that are not just temporal and spatial but linguistic. They honor their characters’ fortitude in the face of working-class encumbrances not by idealizing them but by concentrating on their working-class characters’ linguistic origins. Manifestations of local speech in these nostalgic poems amount to a poetic resource that disrupts idealizations of working-class experience, critiquing, in that process, classism and, in Brooks and Clifton, revealing classism’s intersections with racism and sexism. These poems don’t just desire to go back to earlier worlds but do go back linguistically to working-class, nonstandard languages – their particular forms of original local speech–that refuse the conditions that would subordinate those languages and the people who speak them.