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Radical Poetry

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"Radical Poetry"

from Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935), eds. Granville Hicks, Mike Gold, Joseph North, et al.


Edwin Rolfe, “Poem for May First

Not Christmas nor the new year white with snow
and cold with dying names emasculate
marks for our lives the new year. Only spring
arrived at its fulfillment, at the peak
or verdurous blossoming
connotes the quick
deep breath of hope
again - - the sharp release
of man grown tense with winter, now set free
to soar again (this day when our grasp,
grown powerful, foretells
its final fusion with our scope), to surge
in multitude toward greatness.
On this day
the small deeds of the year, infinitesimal,
unnoticed in the smoke of skirmish, cleave
fiercely together. The edifice grows huge,
becomes unvanquishable mass: the voice
and eyes and ears of us who have grown strong
on bitter bread, dry root.

And now we march!

The brain will not deny
the days that come with verdure nor the eye
ignore the splendor of the changing year
invested with surprise: bells clanging in the ear
with sound that drowns the singing of the birds
and voices rich with prophecy - - the words
fraught with great deeds.

Down countless avenues
the senses feel impending change: the clues
that guide our burdened hearts, heavy with pain,
awakening class-memories - -

they burn again!

O comrades of my dawns and my days and nights
O you who live with me
you at my side in battle
and at midnight talk
after the fruitful day
learning to meet the challenge of tomorrow’s foe - -
welcome this spring!
this burning first of May
this ever-recurring day pregnant with history
born in this land which witnessed our birth - -
this land will be our own!

Remember now - -
delve backward through the years’ accumulated dust:
Haymarket - - Spies, George Engel, Albert Parsons - -
the noose drawn tightly
- - gasping “I have nothing,
nothing, not even now, that I regret. . . “
Fisher and Lingg, their shadows cast by a setting sun
westward to California, east to Hatteras
where embattled workers sought an added hour of day.

Mark their names well: their death

and now recall
the spring that came the next year and the years that followed
and the wars that bled us and the war that bore
shining through the mud and mangled limbs the dawn,
life for the men of Russia
and for us
victory in sight, a star grown clear in the skies!

Mark their names well: now feel the memory
that coursed in action through your father’s veins,
given to you at birth, to a million others:
the dereliction of our youth, the sordid
childhood ripening to bitterness,
the aimless wandering from place to place
seeking – what? You did not know, nor I.
But scattered images remained, grew sharp
and deep, indelible: Wisconsin farmhouse,
barn wall sagging inward into emptiness,
Chicago midnights on the lakeshore, beauty
trampled on by hunger, no rest, no rest - -
icy roads across the Alleghenies,
the clear bright brittle air of winter
and at night we hugged the walls of public buildings
but could not sleep.
Back to New York again:
there was warmth there was food there was time to think,
to merge the broken images, to synthesize
Mendota’s midnight beauty and New York by day - -
Haymarket and Union Square in 1933 . . .

Nothing has been lost. The photographic plates
grow clear in solution - -the worlds at war - -
unforgettable - -
the image looms and casts
a huger image on the growing screen,
projection of our lives and struggles.
here is my hand! Here’s all of me, my friends,
brothers in arms and fellow builders! We
together through the long transition marching
will notch the trees along the way.

This May
has deeper meaning now than ever.
Close your ranks,
touch shoulders - - ready?
There’s our signal - -

Horace Gregory, “Dempsey, Dempsey”

Everybody give the big boy a hand,
a big hand for the big boy, Dempsey.
failure king of the U.S.A.

Maybe the big boy’s coming back,
there’s a million boys that want to come back
with hell in their eyes and a terrible sock
that almost connects.
They’ve got to come back, out of the street,
out of some lowdown, lousy job
or take a count with Dempsey.

When he’s on his knees for a count
a million dollars cold,
a million boys go down with him
Hit him again, Dempsey,
kill him for me Dempsey,
Christ’ sake Dempsey,
my god they’re killing Dempsey,
it’s Dempsey down, Dempsey, Dempsey.

The million men and a million boys,
come out of hell and crawling back,
maybe they don’t know what they’re saying,
maybe they don’t dare
but they know what they mean:

Knock down the big boss,
o, my little Dempsey,
my beautiful Dempsey
with that God in heaven smile
and quick, god’s body leaping,
not afraid, leaping, rising - -
hit him again, he cut my pay check Dempsey.
My God, Dempsey’s down - -
he cut my pay check - -
Dempsey’s down, down,
the bastards are killing Dempsey.
Listen, they made me go to war
and somebody did something wrong to my wife
while I was gone.
hit him again Dempsey, don’t be a quitter
like I am Dempsey,
o, for Jesus Christ, I’m out.
I can’t get up, I’m dead, my legs
are dead, see, I’m no good,
they got me and I’m out,
down for the count.
I’ve quite, quit again,
only God save Dempsey, make him get up again,
Dempsey, Dempsey.

Langston Hughes, “Ballad of Lenin”

Comrade Lenin of Russia,
High in a marble tomb,
Move over, Comrade Lenin,
And give me room.

I am Ivan, the peasant
Boots all muddy with soil.
I fought with you Comrade Lenin.
Now I’ve finished my toil.

Comrade Lenin of Russia,
Alive in a marble tomb,
Move over, Comrade Lenin,
And give me room.
I am Chico, the Negro
Cutting cane in the sun.
I lived for you, Comrade Lenin.
Now my work is done.

Comrade Lenin of Russia,
Honored in a marble tomb,
Move over, Comrade Lenin,
And give me room.

I am Chang from the foundries
On strike in the streets of Shanghai.
For the sake of the Revolution
I fight, I starve, I die.

Comrade Lenin of Russia
Rises in the marble tomb:
On guard with the fighters forever - -

The world is our room!

Mike Gold, “Examples of Worker Correspondence”

Indianapolis, Ind.
We held a red funeral for a child who died of hunger.
We marched in thousands to her grave.
Red roses came from the Communist Party
A wreath of lilies from the Unemployed Councils.
Our banners flashed in the sun
But our hearts were dark with anger.
When at the grave like red soldiers
We swore to end the world’s poverty
Brave comrades were seen to weep
Fathers and mothers of hungry children.

Ashtabula, O.
I am resigning from the American Legion
It reminds me of a dog I used to have
That picked up toads in her mouth
And was sick of the yellow acid in their glands
But did it again and again, the dumb fool
And the more misery and famine and bunk
The more the Legion seems to like it.
But I am not a dog and can understand
That now is the time to end capitalism.

Kenneth Fearing, “Dirge

1-2-3 was the number he played but today the number came 3-2-1;
bought his Carbide at 30 and it went to 29; had the favorite at
Bowie but the track was slow - -
O, executive type, would you like to drive a floating-power, knee-
action, silkuphostered six? Wed a Hollywood star? Shoot
the course in 58? Draw to the ace, king, jack?
O, fellow with a will who won’t take no, watch out for three
cigarettes on the same, single match; O, democratic voter
born in August under Mars, beware liquidated rails - -
Denoument to denoument, he took a personal pride in the certain,
certain way he lived his own private life,
but nevertheless, they shut off his gas; nevertheless, the bank
foreclosed; nevertheless, the landlord called; nevertheless,
the radio broke;
And twelve o’clock arrived just once to often,
just the same he wore on grey tweed suit, bought one straw hat,
drank one straight Scotch, walked one short step, took one
long look, drew one deep breath,
just one too many,
And wow he died as wow he lived,
going whoop to the office, and blooie home to sleep, and biff got
married, and bam had children, and oof got fired,
zowie did he live and zowie did he die,
With who the hell are you at the corner of his casket, and where the
hell we going on the right-hand sliver knob, and who the hell
cares walking second from the end with an American beauty
wreath from why the hell not,
very much missed by the circulation staff of the New York Evening
Post; deeply mounred by theB.M.T.,
Wham, Mr. Roosevelt; pow, Sears Roebuck; awk, big dipper; bop, summer rain;
bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.

Muriel Rukeyser, “City of Monuments”

Be proud you people of these graves
these chiseled words this precedent
From these blind ruins shines our monument.

Dead navies of the brain will sail
stone celebrate its final choice
when the air shakes a single voice
a strong voice able to prevail:

Entrust no hope to stone although the stone
shelter the root - - see too-great burdens placed
with nothing certain but the risk
set on the infirm column of
the high memorial obelisk
erect in accusation sprung against
a barren sky taut over Anacostia:
Give over Gettysburg! a word will shake your glory- -
blood of the starved fell thin upon this plain,
this battle is not buried with its slain.

Gravestone and battlefield retire,
the whole green South is shadowed dark,
the slick white domes are cast in night.
But uneclipsed above this park
the veteran of the Civil War
sees havoc in the tended graves
the midnight bugles blow to free
still unemancipated slaves.

Blinded by chromium or transfiguration
we watch, as through a microscope, decay:
down the broad streets the limousines
advance in passions of display.
Air glints with diamonds, and these clavicles
emerge through orchids by whose trailing spoor
the sensitive cannot mistake
the implicit anguish of the poor.

The throats incline, the marble men rejoice
careless of torrents of despair.

Split by a tendril of revolt
stone cedes to blossom everywhere.

Don West, “Southern Lullaby”
(For Lillian)

Suck, little baby, suck long,
Body mustn’t be frail.
Muscles growing firm and strong - -
Daddy’s in Fulton Jail.

Laugh, little baby, laugh light,
Two little eyes of blue
Kindle a blaze to fight - -
Daddy is waiting for you.

Sleep, little baby, sleep sound,
Under the southern stars.
Body growing hard and round
To break the prison bars.

Eat, little baby, eat well,
A Bolshevik you’ll be,
And hate this bosses’ hell - -
Sucking it in from me . . .

Hate, little baby, hate deep,
You mustn’t know my fears.
Mother is watching your sleep,
But you don’t see her tears.

Death House Blues
(from L. Gellert’s collection of Negro Songs of Protest)

Paper come out
Strewed de news
Seben po’ niggers
Moanin’ death house blues

Seben nappy heads
Wit’ big shiny eye
All boun’ in jail
An’ framed to die

Messin’ white woman
Snake lyin’ tale
Dat hang an’ burn
An’ jail wit’ no bail

Worse ol’ crime
In dis damn lan’
Black skin’ acoverin’
Po’ working’ man

Jerge an’ Jury
All in de stan’
Lawd biggity name
Fo’ same lynchin’ han’

White folks asettin’
In great Court House
Lak cat down cellar
Wit’ no-hole mouse

Seben nappy heads
Wit’ big shiny eye
All boun’ in jail
An’ framed to die.