I came across the poetry of Mark Pawlak because he was a student of Denise Levertov, whose work I discovered some six or seven months ago. (In such a way the threads of my life unroll themselves in entirely new directions, kinking and twisting the pattern into something different, perhaps more beautiful and more exciting). Somehow I found The Buffalo Sequence and fell into the rediscovered language of Pawlak's working-class Polish roots, of his upbringing in the Buffalo projects, that language which he found had "been educated out of [him]."
I remember some years ago reading in a fashion magazine about the teenage progeny of rock stars, how the daughter of a Texan mother and a middle-class British father sounded like neither, but had the cultured upper-class British accent of her friends and classmates, because, as the writer noted, you don't sound like your parents, you sound like your peers. It reminded me of how my own background left me more or less bilingual, but without the accent that has clung to both my parents after more than thirty years of American citizenship. (You don't have an accent, L. told me, years ago, but you don't sound American, either).
It was not until Pawlak was a college student on scholarship at MIT that he understood that his background was strictly working-class (I am reminded of a Steinbeck short story where a father does not realize that he is poor and that he should be ashamed of being poor until his young son began going to school); you don't really see yourself clearly until you have moved out of the comfort zone of your upbringing. I was in college before I could see how privileged my own upbringing had been; at my private high school I thought I had been firmly at the midpoint between students who were incredibly wealthy and students who were on financial aid.
The voice that comes out clearly in The Buffalo Sequence is the voice that Pawlak had to find again, the one that had been taken away by education. In his afterward essay he writes about the American oral tradition, the language born of your ancestors filtered by your parents, language inflected by the other language of your family's home country, which American education considers it is obliged to root out and replace with book language...'to make it' means to have unlearned American speech and to have replaced it with educated speech...To be a 'successful' American is to be without one's American language heritage.
To that end the poet's role is to hold on to that speech [they] grew up with and to its oral heritage, if there is to be an American literature...[they] must write in the language people actually speak if [their] poetry is to have meaning to other people. It is then back to the language of his childhood Pawlak returns for his poetry, his "ballads" for the American people, his Buffalo childhood in the housing projects of that American city.
Pawlak, Mark. The Buffalo Sequence. Copper Canyon Press, 1977. pp 60-61.