Dave's stories, on the other hand, were porn for middle-class teachers. He knew it very well. We who'd never had the guts to do anything to upset our teachers would goggle at his stories, and he would strut telling them, emphasizing his bravery until you began to wish he'd go away. The next time he told me the story about his father and the pellet gun, my views had changed: I was wishing his pansy-ass dad had done it right -- with a .44. Just to shut the bastard up.
November came. Time to send your law-school application. There was a box you could fill out, something like "special circumstances," if you wanted to claim hardship. It was especially important if you were white and still wanted to claim handicap. Dave ticked that box with an X so big it almost ripped the paper. LaDonna refused to tick it at all.
It had been so long since I'd seen anyone do something truly noble that I thought it had to be a trick; she must be going for a different box, something for being black or something. But that wasn't it. She just wasn't going to tick any of those boxes or claim any handicap. I actually begged her to do it; she got mad. I didn't see why then. I see now: because when you do a brave thing, everybody begs you to change your mind.
And you fail; you pay a terrible price. That's what makes it brave. You know how I know that LaDonna's refusal was a brave thing, a morally good thing? Because LaDonna didn't get into law school -- any of them. Dave got into a decent one.
And now here was Jim Daniels, getting his own conference on the strength of his self-promotion as the bard of the working class. I hoped against hope that his promo material wouldn't use that old Phil Levine phrase, "voice of the voiceless." But it did! You can't be shy if you wanna be a big vulture! You can't afford to eschew even the cheapest self-congratulatory oxymorons!
So the very first thing I saw on Daniel was a fan informing me that he -- yes indeed -- gave voice to the voiceless. It's odd; nobody seems to think that the voiceless are voiceless. When they "give voice," they leave the category of the "the voiceless." The only question is whether they ever belonged to it at all.
In Daniel's case, the answer is clearly: no. Daniel's claim to hardship is so stunningly simple a cliche that I didn't believe it for a while: it's the old Irish-Catholic taught-by-nuns-who-were-sexually-repressed story. This stuff was old in 1943. How do you get away with it in 2002?
Well, you do it as "poetry." What's "poetry" in contemporary American culture? In formal terms, the question has no answer; poetry is chopped prose, usually less than 1,000 words long...and that's about it. It has linebreaks and is drip-fed, line by line, to the VERY SLOW. That's the key: Jim Daniel is essentially Garrison Keillor for the VERY SLOW. You may say that Keillor himself doesn't exactly write for the quick-witted. Maybe; but he has a bit of comic talent. And that disqualifies him as poet. Daniel is not only very slow but very, very pious. And that makes him a poet, because poetry is secular sacrament for the slowest Quakers this side of Lowell's ancestors under the headstones.
Here, see for yourself. Here's a sample of Daniel's working-class poetry:
Sometimes I think calmness is love.
Peace, the small caresses and no words.
Uh, didn't I hear that on SNL's Deep Thoughts a few years ago? You might suspect me of quoting a particularly weak couplet, so here are some more samples of Daniel's work:
I can pile up the facts.
My father was never home.
They were both forty.
She cried. They went nowhere.
You hear that first line, "I can pile up the facts"? Clever! You give the list of handicaps by way of refusing to give it, dismissing it but hoping it'll stay in the reader's head, give you extra credit. Not a new technique (Stevens did it 800 times, far more beautifully), but workable. After all, you have to remember this is slowed-down Prairie Home Companion, karaoke for the blind and deaf.