Magazine article Radical Teacher

Poetry of the Colorado Miners: 1903-1906

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Poetry of the Colorado Miners: 1903-1906

Article excerpt

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. …

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