I’ve spent more than a decade researching the global extractive industries, in part for a project on the I.W.W.-led 1916 Mesabi Miners’ Strike in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range; in part for a new collaborative book (with Beijing-based photographer Ian Teh) forthcoming early next year from Coffee House Press—Coal Mountain Elementary—on coal mine disasters in Sago, West Virginia, and across China in the early years of this new millennium; and in part simply for the nascent pleasure of the (labor) historian in me. I once even went so far as to develop an entire syllabus for an English Department class on the poetry and cultural poetics of the global mining industry and its culture and the wide array of historical and contemporary works in poetry, music, anthropology, photography, and film that uniquely represent and critique it. Then I realized that maybe not everyone shares my passion for this particular stratum of, well, Notes from Underground.
In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Make out of that?
Working in the
The practice of reading and analyzing poetry as isolated or segregated from the policies and praxes of social movements and labor (i.e., the women, the men, and too often still today the children engaged in those jobs) doesn’t interest me much these days. Instead, what always draws me close has been the placement in conversation of poetry—and in this particular case poems like Hughes’ “Johannesburg Mines” or Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” or my own “Hoyt Lakes/Shut Down”—with works in divergent fields that make parallel (and antithetical) critiques, analyses, and representations. And, within my poetics practice, these conversations must take place in the classroom as well as in working class communities and public forums.
What conversations might occur, for example, if we were to read Hughes’ poem from 1928 together with Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela (Coal Train)”
and/or the recent works of anthropologist James Ferguson (Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt) or Zygmunt Bauman, such as this passage from Bauman’s Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts (which could also be read together with Pound’s dictum, “Make it new,” as well as the contemporary practice of mountaintop removal mining):
“Mining on the other hand is an epitome of rupture and discontinuity. The new cannot be born unless something is discarded, thrown away or destroyed. The new is created in the course of meticulous and merciless dissociation between the target product and everything else that stands in the way of its arrival… Mining denies that death carries in its womb a new birth. Instead, mining proceeds on the assumption that the birth of the new requires the death of the old. And if so, then each new creation is bound to share sooner or later in the lot of that which has been left behind to rot and decompose to pave the way for a yet newer creation. Each point through the mining process is a point of no return. Mining is a one-way movement, irreversible and irrevocable. The chronicle of mining is a graveyard of used up, repudiated and abandoned lodes and shafts. Mining is inconceivable without waste.”
What if we were to rescale our thinking of poetry and poetics from the geographically confined horizontal (for example,“[US]American poetry since 1900”) to the transnational vertical? What if we were to read, as I tried in my aborted syllabus, a particular sector of the economic (say, in this case, mining) transnationally across works in the humanities, social sciences, and the arts (plus maybe geology, economics, and a few others…)?
Let’s say we begin with the Ludlow Massacre (1914). For the historical we read Howard Zinn’s “The Ludlow Massacre” (Chapter 5 in The Politics of History); for poetry we might read David Mason’s Ludlow: Casebound; we listen to Woody Guthrie’s Ludlow; we read Zeese Papanikolas, Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre to fill in some gaps. I’ll skip 1916 and the I.W.W. strike in Minnesota (too much self-reference) and instead jump one year ahead to 1917 and the murder of I.W.W. organizer Frank Little. For poetry, maybe we read phenomenal playwright Naomi Wallace’s poem “Death of a Wobbly in Montana, 1917,” in Massachusetts Review 40:1 (Spring 1999); we then watch Travis Wilkerson’s stunning film An Injury to One (from which I’ve learned more, as a poet, than a good percentage of the poetry books I read); and to flush out the Wobbly history we read Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman’s graphic novel, Wobblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World and/or Joyce Kornbluh, Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology and/or the late great Utah Phillips, Archie Green, David Roediger, and Franklin Rosemont, eds. The Big Red Songbook and/or Philip Foner’s History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 4: The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917.
Of course we read Hughes’ “Johannesburg Mines” (1928) with some of the works I reference above. We read Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” along with the excellent criticism that’s grown around it (Kaladjian, Dayton, Davidson, etc)—and, hearkening back to my previous posts on Claudia Jones, we can read Rukeyser’s FBI file here. For the devastating Canadian mine disasters at Springhill, Nova Scotia in 1956 and 1958 we visit the exceptional CBC digital archives and start our discussions of lyrics as poetry (or continue those we began around Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow”) when we listen to (or watch) and compare a version of Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl’s “The Ballad of Springhill” by U2 with the version by Luke Kelly and the Dubliners.
[Note: Maybe we bring in some other lyrics here on mining and mine disasters—everything from the Smithsonian collections including George Davis’ When Kentucky Had No Union Men and The Songs and Stories of Aunt Molly Jackson to the Library of Congress collections Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners and Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Miners to comparative analyses of particular (pop) songs such as “Working in a Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey and Devo].
And yet we do more. We read David Harvey’s “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction” while watching Jeremey Deller’s Battle of Orgreave and reading Ken Smith’s “The 1984 Tour of Britian” and Bill Griffiths’ “In the Coral Year.” And speaking of poets operating with the intricacies of language in the public sphere, what better book to read than Griffiths’ Pitmatic: The Talk of the North East Coalfield, where you’ll find out how “[t]he mining population [functioned] as a sort of filter, and through them the main features of the dialect—its lexis, grammar, intonation and not least its humour—were developed over recent centuries, to the ultimate gain of all…” as well as where you’ll get to read gems like this:
At nearly aal things i’ maw time,
Aw think Aw’ve had a try,
Frae what they craft aboot the shaft,
Aw’ve worked upon the engine way,
Aw’ve even worn the blue;
But O! these things ar’ past maw day,
Aw’m a poor aud shifter* noo.
Ay, man, these things ar’ past maw day,
Aw’m a poor aud shifter noo.
Moreover, it’s been quite astonishing to see the number of recent works in popular, independent, and non-USAmerican film that have addressed the plight miners, mining communities, and the global mining industry. In addition to the recent works of Wilkerson and Deller mentioned above, the Hollywood take on northern Minnesota (North Country), Li Yang’s Blind Shaft, Kief Davidson’s The Devil’s Miner, and Catherine Pancake’s documentary on mountaintop removal (Black Diamonds) give a hint at how the global extractive industries have attracted film-makers across the world in just the past five years.
“Johannesburg Mines” is Hughes at perhaps his interrogative, imperative, future-foreshadowing best. And if we read Hughes today in conjunction with works like James Ferguson’s Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order, we might more deeply understand the poem’s continuing interrogative and imperative impetus. It is simultaneously past and present and future—that quasi-(anti-)-montage-temporality that poems somehow so powerfully and so often produce, especially when we put Hughes’ 1928 poem together with recent analyses like Ferguson’s articulation of the past and present and future Africa as viewed through “extractive neoliberalism”:
“Indeed, it is worth asking whether Africa’s combination of privately secured mineral-extraction enclaves and weakly governed humanitarian hinterlands might constitute not a lamentably immature form of globalization, but a quite ‘advanced’ and sophisticated mutation of it… The global, as seen from Africa, is not a seamless, shiny, round, and all-encompassing totality (as the word seems to imply). Nor is it a higher level of planetary unity, interconnection, and communication. Rather, the ‘global’ we see in recent studies of Africa has sharp, jagged edges; rich and dangerous traffic amid zones of generalized abjection; razor-wired enclaves next to abandoned hinterlands. It features entire countries with estimated life expectancies in the mid-thirties and dropping; warfare seemingly without end; and the steepest economic inequalities seen in human history to date. It is a global where capital flows and markets are at once lightning fast and patchy and incomplete; where the globally networked enclave sits right beside the ungovernable humanitarian disaster zone. It is a global not of planetary communion, but of disconnection, segmentation, and segregation—not a seamless world without borders, but a patchwork of discontinuous and hierarchically ranked spaces, whose edges are carefully delimited, guarded, and enforced.”
What kind of poem
Make out of that?
Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants, Shut Up Shut Down (afterword by Amiri Baraka), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), all from Coffee House Press. His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan...