Poetry of the Colorado miners: 1903-1906.

Author:Tannacito, Dan
 
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The poetry published in the Miners Magazine during the first decade of this century provides us with an illuminating case study of the characteristics and development of working-class literature in the United States. The creation of poetry by nonferrous metal miners in Colorado and surrounding areas illustrates the need for expression, affirmation, and communication on the part of the workers themselves and their allies during times of struggle.

The magazine, of which the poetry was a small part, was a vital tool in the organized resistance of the working class at the beginning of western industrialization. It was published weekly for the members of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and circulated on subscription to their friends as well as to other unions and union members. Responses to poems and contributions of poems from across the nation suggest that the miner poets stimulated feelings of readers who identified closely with the miners' cause.

The culture of the working class in the United States, which the miner poetry illustrates, forms an important part of the total reality of American history and literature, yet a comprehensive view of that cultural reality is nearly absent from our educational institutions. The popularization of traditional working-class culture depends to a considerable extent on socially and historically conscious teachers of literature. (1) Among others, young writers in working-class situations can benefit from the history and literature of this tradition. (2) Quite possibly, when the traditional culture of the working class has been brought out of the darkness in which it has been shrouded, it may provide a useful, although not exclusive, basis for a new literature in the United States.

The poetry of the Miners Magazine was not the first such expression by the working class during the rise of industrialism in the United States. But the fact that the poetry was both reflective of and instrumental in conscious working-class struggle does indicate a relatively new phenomenon for the time. Upton Sinclair, a celebrated contemporary of the miner poets, indicated some of the difficulty any writer of working-class life encounters when he remarked that:

It is a kind of anguish that poets have not dealt with; its very words are not admitted into the vocabulary of poets--The details of it cannot be told in polite society at all. How, for instance, could anyone expect to excite sympathy among lovers of good literature by telling how a family found their home alive with vermin, and of all the suffering and inconvenience and humiliation they were put to, and the hard-earned money they spent, in efforts to get rid of them? (3) Yet unlike Sinclair's work, which spread beyond its initial proletarian audience, the literature of most working-class poets--and specifically that of the Colorado miners--has never been republished since its original appearance in the Miners Magazine. Because of the systematic exclusion of working-class poetry from the mechanisms (the popular magazines, scholarly journals, textbooks, and school curricula) by means of which the received culture reproduces itself, the tradition of American poetry as well as the history of working-class culture in the United States has been seriously distorted for generations of young people. Until very recently, scholars--especially in the literary profession--have done little to rectify this. At best, working-class poetry has been treated as documentary evidence by historians and literary critics. At worst, the literature is regarded as "mere propaganda." (4) Perhaps the most common attitude is reflected in the remark: "Workers don't write poetry; poets write poetry." Of course, this response is drawn from the myth that characterizes workers as mute creatures shoveling ore, while another, articulate class thinks and feels for society as a whole. But the historical reality is that workers, like the Colorado miners, wrote poetry in order to share and express their feelings about their experiences as a class. They were creators of their culture as well as creators of the wealth of their society. Yet neither the labor of their mining nor the labor of their poetry has received due recognition.

The exclusion of working-class poetry from the reproduction of American culture has its virtues as well. For the poems by the Colorado miners were not objects written for the market from which the writers derived their livelihood. Hence, they avoided the customary fate of artistic productions under capitalism: the transformation of poetry into commodities. Written neither for the market nor for posterity, the poetry was active in forming the culture of the working class at the beginning of the twentieth century. The real value of the miners' poetry was the immediate use made of it by its local audience of miners and sympathizers. By means of these poems the worker poets formed an intensified relationship with their worker audience that is not characteristic of twentieth-century poetry in the received canon. The miners shared an unalienated social poetry; that is, a poetry of commitment, communication, and concreteness.

The poetry of the Colorado miners contributed to the mining community's definition of its common life, work, and goals. All the poems were written during one of the most violent and significant episodes in United States labor history. "In Colorado between 1893 and 1897," Melvyn Dubofsky writes, "3,057 new mining corporations were organized, each capitalized at over $1 million. New Yorkers and Chicagoans, Englishmen and Scotsmen poured their funds into the American West." (5) As a consequence, within a decade Cripple Creek grew from a virtual frontier town to a "modern productive center." (6) The strikes of 1893 provided the impetus for the organization of the mines. Moreover, the strength of a rapidly expanding and increasingly concentrated industry created such an intense situation that WFM President Charles Moyer felt that, "We are being attacked on all sides by the Mill Trust and Mine Owners' Association." (7) Labor militance was the response to the situation. "The union grew in members and power," Emma F. Langdon (one of the labor writers at Cripple Creek) reported in 1903, until "the organization embrace[d] between 150,000 to 200,000 with a substantial treasury." (8)

The bitter Cripple Creek strike of 1903-04 was precipitated by the implacable opposition of the mill owners to the WFM's attempt to organize the Portland, Telluride, and Standard processing mills. The WFM had stopped the supply of ore to the mills from the mines which had already been organized. The employers decided to muster all their economic and political strength to break the union. They used scabs, provocateurs, agents; they deported and "vagged" workers; they organized so-called "Citizen Alliances" of local businessmen and petty officials. Not satisfied with this repertoire of strikebreaking tactics, the owners enlisted Governor James Peabody, one of the most anti-labor governors of the decade. Peabody declared martial law and sent Colorado's militia to the region. As historian Vernon Jensen tells us, "The military leaders were from the first in the closest sympathy with the mine owners, and the efforts of the troops were devoted not so much to the simple preservation of order, as to crushing the activity of the unions. General Bell expressed himself very simply on this point. 'I came,' he said, 'to do up this damned anarchistic federation.'" (9) After a long and bitter struggle in the hills of Colorado, the combined might of the owners' wealth and the state's legal and military coercion proved too powerful for the organization of the miners at that time.

The response, and in particular the poetic response, of the miners to this situation was remarkable. They articulated class values in their themes, imagery, and genres which possess a traditional character that enhanced the links between authors and community. Paul Lauter finds a similar phenomenon in other examples of working-class art:

In many ways, therefore, working-class art like other elements of working-class life is highly traditional, even in a sense "conservative"; certainly innovative form is not a primary consideration. Similarly working-class poetry and song, especially, but also tales and the like, are often built around repeated elements--refrains, formulae, commonly accepted assumptions about characters. Language, too, is often simpler, even commonplace, less "heightened" than that of "high culture" verse. (10) The combination of tradition and innovation is especially important in the formulation of genres or types of poems written by the miners and other working-class writers. (11) The emotional scope in the poetic genres of the miners is varied, ranging from job-oriented chanting to poetic renditions of community storytelling to more traditional forms of expressing complaint, joy, and vituperation. They developed as a response to the differing tasks of the social group.

Work Poems are one of the most significant categories. The work poem arises from acute observation and intense feeling while participating in labor; it communicates the social experience shared by all members of the group. For example, Joe R. Lazure's "A Colorado Miner's Fourth" depicts the common experience of miners rescuing fellow workers in the aftermath of a mine disaster. (12) In stark contrast to non-working-class poetry, which tends to create individualized, esoteric and imaginary experiences, this type of poem strives to elicit shared emotions about real-life experiences among...

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