by Lonnie Nelson
Presented at the Third Pacific Northwest Workers' Heritage Festival
How can we write to reflect the truth of the vast majority of our people
who are workers, unemployed and employed, we who do not own the mines, the
plants, the banks, the insurance companies and the mills? Reminding ourselves
some worker on a production line made our pencil, our pen or typewriter?
Fort Worden, Washington -- 6 April 1991
How can we write to reflect those who create the technical means of rural
life: the paper, radio, cinema equipment and the machines for printing
books, newspapers and magazines, the halls and the theaters?
So you see brother
we learned to talk quietly and plainly ...
This is what we want
because we sing not to set ourselves apart
Brother, we sing to become one with the people.
Dignity, word of honor, modesty, generosity and gratitude are principles
dearer than bread itself to working people. The culture of the individual
view of history is reflected in workers who go it alone, who are belligerent
and abusive to their fellow workers.
The boss and the media direct us to see our life as the result of our
own work, our own period, each separate from each other. The need for
each other to support, to protect and to have dignity as workers contradicts
this individual view of history. The more human we are the more we need
each other -- we who are workers. Each of us has a boulder side to climb,
each has small pleasures that are best when shared.
How did our grandmothers, our fathers some to think as they did? What
happened to them and what were their times? Where are the monuments to
our people -- slave, native, indentured and immigrant -- whose labor made
the riches for the rich to give away? How did their accumulated experience
affect our own direction?
We will have to write the record
of jokes that lift our feet,
and old timers know-how
easing our days.
We know the generations
of work-tired voices
looking after each other,
dreaming of a little more
and hungry for respect. 2
The School of Modern Art and Poetry separates the artist from other workers
and weakens both. It convinces artists of their own specialness and tries
to place them above ordinary workers. It convinces workers of the uselessness
of art and artists -- something extra -- not a necessity of life. We have
been taught that only a select few can know the sound and meaning of art.
If we write just for ourselves, poetry will not be a necessity of life
in order to unite and to be stronger. When only the select few have the
meaning and the sound, poetry becomes external to our life, something
we can do without.
As one retired logger put it: "I'd respect poetry more if it respected
me more." 3 Workers ofthen shrug poetry aside as romantinc,
vague or gross. They pass by the culture of the garbage realism of defeat,
the oatmeal mush of sentimentality and the deep wells of introspection.
Heartsick, bitter stanzas sometimes read in lonely taverns or cemeteries
in want of a sympathetic audience are not meant to be useful to anyone
but the writer. They mean nothing to the worker at the steel hearth about
to be shut down or to the waitress or orderly at the end of their shift.
Poetry, at the same time it is universal, as language must be written
to be understood by those who read it. The early literature of all people
was almost entirely poetical. Oral literature, folk sayings, the chants
of early hunters and gatherers -- all poetical in form. Poetic or heightened
language almost always went together with music. It was with the development
of society, or classes, that there began the continually different division
of labor, music, novel, poems and so on. 4
Modern Poetry is often printed by the commercial press to sell items,
ideas to make profits. It is the mystique of writing for one's self well
enough to be printed and to become the property of the few who are in
control of the presses. Poetry that goes beyond the constraints of this
is labeled "political" and consistently rejected.
We need writers who:
Give hope for our children
growing up with destruction
etched upon their eyelids.
Show why we must be
sleepless, looking for
work in our dreams. 5
The stories of workers' lives are waiting to be told:
Drivers reaching out
as the air whistles
between shiny metal jobs...
Truckers moving wheat
across this country
tied together by radio
and their work. 6
There is the machinist sitting on his front porch, telling how his heart
aches to know that none of his children will be able to won a home. Families
are moving in with Grandma. A African-American woman minister says, "Justice
is an eight-lane highway -- pick you lane, there's room for everybody
and let's move together!"
In a poem, "One Eighth of a Country" I wrote about:
Earth darkened with the blood of our people,
where we worked with the short hoe,
laid tracks, dug tunnels and built bridges,
defended by the miners at Ludlow.
Hovenweep masonry built a thousand years ago,
the aspen, columbine and the pasqueflower,
all could be baought with corporate dollars
and the Golden Arches pay fifty cents an hour.
While the oil pumps in Central America go
up and down for the "Classic Coke" dollar. 8
Edna St. Vincent Millay's picture in words of the pyramids brings us
closer to the workers of that day and age:
See where Capella with her golden kids
grazes the slope between the east and the north?
Thus when the builders of the pyramids
flung down their tools at nightfall and poured
homeward to supper and a poor man's bed,
shortening the road with friendly jest and slur...
Our children's children must know the story of our multi-national, multi-racial
people's lives. they must see in art and literature the voices of Natve-American's
fight for their land and culture; the struggle by African-Americans against
slavery and for equality; the escape of immigrants from monarchy and feudalism;
and the real lives of all working people uniting to make a better life
for their children.
Waake I know my pain is small
but asleep is when the cuts get to me,
when all the dividers and ghosts
sneak into my bedroom
without my asking.
All the little lonelies and fears
dig fingernail slashes inside me...
My fellow workers turn the
damper down on the monster's fire
when they hang tough on the picket line...
they puch against me to hold me up...
While we organize workers to develop their creative skills, we need to
fight for bills in Congress to put our people back to work. Transferring
one percent of the military budget can provide funding for jobs, housing,
public art, build more libraries and teach everyone to read and write.
We must demand funds for the writing and recording of the history of the
90 percent of us who sell our labor. We need to re-establish labor schools
for workers to polish their skills and bring out their works from storage.
Worker poets -- all the arts -- culture can help our labor movement
win back what we have lost
demand what we never had,
justice and dignity for all our children, for all our peoples.
1 Ritsos, Yannis, The Blackened
Pot (1949) in The
Fourth Dimension. Translated by Rae Dalven. p.15, Boston:
David R. Godine, 1977
2 Lonnie Nelson, "Work Writers,"
3 From a conversation with Gordon
"Brick" Moir, Seattle, Washington. 1980's.
4 See the discussion of this concept
Cauldwell, Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources
of Poetry (New York: International Publishers 1937) pp. 13-15
5 Nelson, "Brave Poets," San
Fernando Poetry Journal 7 (1) (1984) pp. 37-38
6 Nelson, "Westbound and Down,"
in What Keeps Us Going On, Juana Mangaoang, ed. (Seattle,
Washington: Lonnie Nelson, 1983) p. 93
7 Nelson, "One Eights of a Century,"
Roots and Circumstances, Juanagrafica Publishers (Seattle,
1986) p. 2
8 Ibid. p. 2
9 St. Vincent Millay,
Edna, "Epitaph for the Race of Man," in Wine
from These Grapes (New York: Harper & Brothers 1934)
10 Nelson, "Mylanta Unemployment
Dreams," in What Keeps Us Going, pp. 62-63
Essay: Poetry & Life
When only the select few have the meaning and the sound, poetry
becomes external to our life, something we can do without.
In what ways does poetry connect with your life? Quote from poems by others
or by yourself that you feel relate to more than the "artistic elite". Can
you identify poets or poems that do convey the attitude Lonnie describes
as "The School of Modern Art and Poetry"? Can you identify specific differences
between the two sets of poems?
Rewrite it Right
Is there a poem that is supposed to be about one of your own jobs or groups
or experiences, that put your teeth on edge, or just missed the reality?
Write what you wanted it to say. Please include both poems in your post,
Guidelines for Critique:
Does the second poem give you a sense of reality?
Does it give you more of a sense of reality than the first poem?
If you do not share the same experiences as the poet: did you also feel
the first poem was "unreal"?
If you do not share the same experiences as the poet: did the second poem give you a feeling of empathy?
Essay: Audience Need?
Heartsick, bitter stanzas sometimes read in lonely taverns or cemeteries
in want of a sympathetic audience are not meant to be useful to anyone but
In what ways do you agree, or disagree?
Write a poem "to be useful" to a group or cause you care about.
Guidelines for Critique
Does this work as a poem?
Does it accomplish its purpose, without sounding "polemical"?
Does it make you care? Motivate you to an action?