April 20, 2014

Joseph Kalar: Sketch

Joseph Kalar: Sketch

In 1927-1935, Joseph Kalar, described as "a kind of north woods Rimbaud," began to write in poetry and short form prose called "proletarian sketches."  This depression era poet was from Biwabik, Minnesota--the Iron Range. In the introduction to the small volume of poems edited by Ted Genoways, an interesting biography and literary critique explains: "…the sketch allowed writers like Kalar to address proletarian issues without without either the aesthetic distance implied by poetry or the plot demands of a traditionally constructed piece of fiction. Genoways borrows a description from writer Douglas Wixson, "The plotless nature, the personal-narrative quality of the sketch, preserving accents and idioms, was a form suited to the needs of the nonprofessional writer."

In Papermill, there are several vivid sketches by Kalar.  Because I grew up near Biwabik, I was particularly intrigued by his writing. "Dust of Iron Ore" describes the mining location of Merritt (near Biwabik) and an area called "Chicken Town" where he lived as a boy with his family. His father worked in the underground iron mine.  
The miners, emerging like bats from shafts leading deep into the earth, were stained red and yellow with it, their clothes streaked and hardened with the dust, from which emanated a peculiar stink of dampness, sweat, and iron ore.
He continues the story describing the thousands of rats that swarmed the dump and the discovered of a man dead of suicide (by shotgun blast) on the dump. In "Mesaba Impressions" Kalar writes:

A man we all knew well and who was damned good to us kids got killed one day. The papers called it an unfortunate accident. It just happened that the shaft caved in. He sure was hurt some. I guess he only lived long enough to taste the iron ore in his mouth. Anyway his neck was all twisted to hell, his legs were broken, and his bloody guts hung over the top of his trousers.
Kalar captured the Iron Range's dialect and idiom. He used racial and ethnic slurs of the era and foul language that echoes the brutal work and life in a mining town.  The work was arduous and dangerous. The dust got into the lungs. Men suffered falls and crush wounds. They suffered from accidents with dynamite.  Before the unions forced a change, men were paid by the amount of ore that they took out of the mine.  They were not paid for the time they spent setting timbers in the deep shafts. Kalar used words like Bohunk (for Slovenian) and Wops (for Italians) and many other derogatory words to describe the many immigrants. He was not being derogatory, I believe because he saw these men as fellow-workers. In his poem, "Flagwaver:"

When I get patriotic, I go on a big drunk.
Let me tell you--
patriotism is a shot of now, a whiff of opium,
a mouthful of rotgut strong enough
to eat the brass pants off a monkey.
Let me tell you--
when the flag waves in redwhiteblue frenzy,
what fat men stand on platforms with them hooked
Napolean-wise in lapels of their coats
expounding landofffreemen,
telling me American is my sweetheart,
I get patriotic as hell,
I go on the big drunk.

The culture of the Iron Range continued to have these elements, the blue-collar, radical politics and drunken swagger. There were a lot of men like this. Biwabik, now a small town of about 1200 people used to have eleven mines.  At the beginning of the mining operations 1870-1910, the accident rates and deaths were alarming. The labor strikes and violence between union men and company guards are well documented.  The mining continued, when the rich iron ore was depleted, the underground mines were converted to open pit mines.  Iron ore mines became taconite plants. Still remaining is Kalar's derisive humor and spit of survival. Because of his poetry and sketches, we now have the images and insights of a proletariat poet.

For many years, Biwabik was held a giant Fourth of July celebration, the Calithumpian Parade. When I was growing up, it was the annual "big drunk." The crowds numbered in the thousands. Clown bands played their drums and horns. Men dressed up as women to entertain the crowd. It was outrageous, and political, and funny. An interesting detail about the British origin of the word Callithump: perhaps originated from "gallithump" to refer to a boisterous heckler or someone who disturbed the order at Parliamentary elections. This detail is from the "Weird Word" section of World Wide Words, and the definition references Biwabik, Minnesota.

In the context of Callithumpian, this poet was a boisterous disturber of the order, a proletarian writer. Unfortunately, he had difficulty making a living as a writer. During the depression, he travelled across the country, and then he came back to Minnesota to work in the lumbermill in International Falls. Slowly, his writing diminished. He married and had children. He made a run for office that was not successful. He climbed in rank at the lumbermill and his work demanded a lot of his energy. Kalar's work was nearly forgotten before the publication the University of Illinois Press brought out his work. One of my favorite poems is "Invocation to the Wind."  Here is an excerpt:

blow, blow into dusty corners,
reach cool fingers beyond cobwebs
festooning this dark room where
throats are choked with dust and
beauty shrivels like mushrooms
in dry cellar--blow, blow, blow
into factories with windows of dust
and a shuffling of feet tired
in silk stockings, and fingers
red at the tips--blow, blow into
jail, come like a draught of spring
water of faces hunkering against
steel bars--blow, blow into slums…

I pay homage to this poet. While I was growing up on the Iron Range, attending school in Biwabik, spending my teenage years trying to find a place that I fit--not at keg parties in gravel pits or on mine dumps--I wish I would have heard this voice. It offers a socio-political and artistic path for writers of the working class.

Work Cited

Kalar, Joseph. Papermill: Poems, 1927-35. Edited by Ted Genoways. University of Illinois Press. 2006. Print

Kalaidjian, Walter.  "About Joseph Kalar."  Modern American PoetryFrom American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press. Retrieved 20 April 2014. Web.  http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/kalar/about.htm

Other notes: (http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-cal1.htm)

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