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.
“Johannesburg Mines”
Langston Hughes
In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make out of that?
240,000 natives
Working in the
Johannesburg mines.

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.
*shifter=part-time worker
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
Would you
Make out of that?

Originally Published: July 13th, 2008

Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants (Coffee House Press, 2000), Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2008), and Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009). His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New...

  1. July 13, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    Just FYI, Mark, for poetry there is also Eleanor Swanson's fine sequence on the Ludlow Massacre, Trembling in the Bones:

  2. July 13, 2008

    Stunning post, Mark. Wish I could sign up for that course. I can't think of a more revelatory way to look at the intersections of culture, economics, race, class, production, environment, . . .
    Thanks for pulling together this rich sampling of works.

  3. July 14, 2008
     Jennifer S. Flescher

    Thank you so much for this deep, wide post!
    I am working on a project about oil -- and came across your post just after writing, again, about Nigeria -- one of the most painful stories about the cost -- financial and human -- of oil.
    Thought I'd share this poem by
    Aj Dagga Tolar, a poet from Lagos.
    He writes, in an excerpt from the title poem of his book, "This Country is Not a Poem:"
    This country is a poem
    Is only for the heart to lie
    To make Art no die
    This country, no be place
    For human faces
    To live to love this country
    Na just like space
    For all of us to dey die
    My heart no go greee mek Art dey lie
    This country is not a poem
    The way they make poetry
    To make this country
    Sound good to the ear
    But here who cares
    The death of a dirty lie on the lips
    Before the words dried out to die
    This country
    Who cares
    For the poetry of our existence
    The way they care for poetry
    Leaving us every moment with metaphors
    To feel not at all the failing of poetry
    This country
    Dare you to ask
    "Have you seen dead bodies before?"
    Answer with another ask
    "Are there not dead bodies everywhere?"
    Stuff enough to make more poems
    Who cares to hear
    Lagos is a poem, not a place
    Ajegunle is a poem, not a place
    Cannot sit to hear this poem
    SUNG in Yoruba:
    Kile ni wa gbo
    Kile ni wa wo
    Ara mo ri ri
    Kilo oju ori leko ri
    Kile ni wa gbo
    Kile ni wa wo
    For a people mugged down in mud
    Every breath a struggle to keep
    The breath like that of animals
    Humans lost all Hannibal
    Desecrate the place unfit for Villa and Zapata
    Hang the statue in the square
    This is the sad end of Saddam's story
    Still alive savouring life on
    Like Bush the liar unable to Blair
    The people not to see their land
    Their oil still flowing into wrong pockets
    Guns boomed, they die to be able to kill
    My heart is pained say no be dem
    But the innocent young ones of mothers
    Like our own mothers
    Cut down to weep dry tears
    For lost sons
    This is the common end of hope
    Stringed on the guns of another
    From across the borderline
    Who also like them heed only onto profit
    From our dying
    If then we free to fight
    This country into a poem
    Art first must be rid of lies
    For only then can hearts crave to die
    For the people
    For a new poem
    For a new country
    Not this stiff old song of profit
    Making this country is not a poem
    This country is a poem
    Is only for the heart to lie
    To make Art no die
    This country, no be place
    For human faces
    To live to love This country
    Na just like space
    For all of us to dey die
    My heart no go greee make Art dey lie
    This country is not a poem

  4. July 14, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Wonderful, impressive project, Mark.
    I wonder if you've found any Flarf miner poets in your research, yet?

  5. July 14, 2008

    I've really appreciated your voice here.
    Here's a story about your work that, perhaps, you'll appreciate: I've been teaching a creative writing course for high school students this summer--through a program that takes place in the dorms at UC Berkeley, but is run by an independent company (ASA)--and on Friday of last week we read the first section of Shut Up, Shut Down. Coincidentally, the super-exploited service workers of AFSCME 3299 are going to shut down/shut up the entire University of California today and all this week, from San Diego to San Francisco, despite the UC's legal chicanery and intimidation techniques.
    Because I'm not working for UC, and thus not protected by the Academic Student Employee's union at UC, the UAW, I can't really sympathy strike this week without jeopardizing my job/pay. In truth, it's been a tough decision, and I'm not really sure what I should do/should have done. . .
    But what I've decided is that I'll move my classes out of the dorms, i.e. outside the picket, take my students down to the strike and have them interview workers and write a poem. They will have your fine work as a model. And I'll print out this post and give it to them to read tonight. . .
    P.S. Kent: I taught poems from Kasey's Breathalyzer next to Mark's book, as I wanted to show them different ways of working with social materials. So there!

  6. July 14, 2008
     Mark Nowak

    Thanks, all, for the wonderful comments, the story, the poems, and references.
    And Jasper, someone from UC-Santa Cruz called me over the weekend to discuss the AFSCME situation and poetry exercises to use--glad to hear you are using some, too! Fyi, the work of Carol Tarlen (1943-2004), AFSCME 3218 member and clerical worker at U.C.-San Francisco, might be useful during these times. Here's a link to a few of her poems & brief bio: