An Essay about Triangle Fire Poetry--by Janet Zandy
"The lesson of the hour is that while property is good, life is better, that while possessions are valuable, life is priceless. The meaning of the hour is that the life of the lowliest worker in the nation is sacred and inviolable. . . ." Rabbi Stephen S. Wise
"I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies if I were to come here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public--and we have found you wanting." Rose Schneiderman1
on the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of March 25, 1911 2
It was March 25, 1911, a late Saturday afternoon, and nearly spring. One short block from Washington Square Park in New Yorks Greenwich Village a fire raged on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. A passerby along busy Washington Place and Green Street noticed a "bale of dark dress goods" come out of a top floor window. He thought that someone was trying to save expensive cloth. But then another bale came down, and another. One caught the wind and opened. It was not a bale of goods; it was a young woman.3
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took the lives of 146 workers, 20 men and 126 women; the average age was nineteen. Most of the workers were Italian and Jewish immigrant women whose families depended on their wages. Many were involved in the famous shirtwaist workers strike of 1909-1910. They died because their working conditions were unsafe.
That this event is part of the usable past of some Americans, forgotten by others, and absent from the historical consciousness of most, is indicative of the contested and suppressed labor history of this country. 4 It is not listed in E.D. Hirsch's best selling, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, nor, for that matter, is it included in Multi-Cultural Literacy, the Graywolf Annual alternative list.
However, for many working people, especially garment workers, and for many contemporary working-class women poets, the Triangle Fire is not forgotten. In 1991 David Melman, then assistant to the President of the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union), said that he gets twenty to thirty phone calls about the fire a year and that the fire "hits a psychic cord in people."5 The Triangle Fire has evoked a range of cultural responses: paintings, photographs, plays, dances, songs, novels, and a full length television movie.
Perhaps because of the injustices it embodies, the Triangle fire, as historical location and as symbol, has not yet been appropriated as a commodity for popular consumption. It exists in the present as a site of subjugated historical memory, as a source of inspiration, and as a symbolic link to the tragedies of lives lost and stunted because of unsafe working conditions and economic oppression. The use of the Triangle fire as a subject for literary expression is an example of a nearly lost understanding of popular culture, what Gramsci recognized as culture produced within and out of the circumstances of lived experience, rather than what is imposed on from sites of power and cultural production.6
United States working-class literature is often labor and site specific; Colorado miners' poetry, the Lowell mill girls' Offering, and the automobile assembly line poetry coming out of Detroit are but a few examples.7 Poetry about the Triangle Fire presents a different vein of working-class literature, one that, although located in a specific historical place and time, involves writers who are from varying regions of the country, are of different races and ethnicities, and do not necessarily come from a family background of garment workers. What these poets have in common is a sense of kinship with the women who lost their young lives and a sense of outrage over the injustice done to them. In researching and collecting writing by working-class women for my anthology Calling Home: Working-Class Womens Writings, I received or found at least a half dozen different poems about the fire.8 As one poet put it in a letter to me, "everyone writes about the fire; here's my version." I realized that I was not unique or alone in my private interest in this fire. Others have taken it personally too. Others have been compelled to read the old newspaper accounts, look at the photographs, and stand at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, shut out the hubbub of NYU, and--reconstructing the event in imagination and historical memory--hear the screams and see the falling bodies.
How do working-class people generate their own literature? That is the larger question behind this examination of the "fire poems." For working-class writers, literary antecedents often come from material existence and what I call "the texts of trouble" which document worker oppression rather than canonized texts. I am suggesting that the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of March 25, 1911 and the newspaper accounts, photographs, and narratives contemporaneous with the fire, tap a collective memory of class oppression and injustice--especially for women.
This fire poetry is not an expression of individualistic angst; nor is it an effort to make it new. Rather, it evolves in response to the enormity and palpability of the violence done to workers. It is a history and consciousness reclaimed. These writers compose out of familiar working-class values of thrift and repair, of salvaging and restoring, and of abhorring waste--especially here, the deprivation and waste of all those young lives. This poetry is more than a tribute to dead sisters and workers across time. In writing about the fire, and struggling against an aphasia imposed by privileged class domination of culture, these contemporary poets--Chris Llewellyn, Mary Fell, Carol Tarlen, Julia Stein, Safiya Henderson-Holmes--and who knows how many others?--are engaging in a reciprocal cultural practice and joining a larger conversation about class oppression. In drawing from this collective tragedy and witnessing for the dead, these "fire poets" release their own poetic voices.
This interplay of historical reality, public language, and cultural expression is the subject of this essay.
I will begin by detailing the circumstances of the fire and reviewing newspaper and literary responses contemporaneous with the fire. Then I will turn to contemporary "fire" poetry and offer some theoretical perspectives on this writing by working-class women. But first, some remarks about approach and perspective.
In describing the Triangle fire and presenting reportage, poetry, and narratives contemporaneous with the fire, I am endeavoring to trace the process of cultural production for working-class writers from event to text to audience, (and from text to event for readers?) and to call attention to this set of antecedents--literary and historical--as providing a different cultural context and self-critical stance for working-class poets. The fire poems are not commodities to be consumed by readers who can then feel satisfied that "class oppression" has been "covered." The context of creation and historical antecedents are as crucial to a proper reading of these poems as the Old Testament is to reading Milton or decoding metaphysical conceits is to parsing a Donne sonnet.
Although these contemporary fire poets are not self-referential, their individual selves are not displaced or lost, either. The self of the poet is expanded because of dialogue with and kinship for the fallen workers. While it is not requisite to know every detail of the Triangle fire to read these contemporary poems--all are historically centered and, to some degree, narrative--it is necessary to recognize that a strictly autotelic reading of them is inappropriate--and perhaps impossible. Ultimately, and collectively, these poems lead back to the event rather than to the poet or other texts.
It is not news to say that American literature, as it has been academically shaped for generations of students, allies itself with a white, Anglo-Saxon male--and class-privileged-- paradigm. The scholarship on gender, race, and ethnicity has disrupted the old canon to a degree. But class is another matter. Class is often evoked as essential to this new critical formulation, but, in actual practice, the gritty, difficult differences of class relations are often suppressed and subjugated in the study of cultural productions and representation. We need hybrid theoretical models which take into account the circumstances of class differences not only in the creation of literature, but in the critical act as well.9 While many canonical writers have noticed workers, for example, Robert Frost in"Two Tramps in Mudtime," or Hawthorne in "Ethan Brand," the critical interpretative emphasis is not on workers. Rather, it derives from a cultural context where manual work is at a distance--perhaps literally unnoticed and invisible--and an incubated intellectuality of abstractions and structure is privileged. When it comes to labor and literature, critics and theorists generally do not want to get their hands dirty.10
The "uprising of the 20,000" of 1909-1910, a general strike lead by thousands of immigrant women garment workers, began at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The Triangle Company resisted the five month strike with violence, lock outs, and scabs, and was the exception to a general victory by the shirtwaist makers. The Triangle workers won a small pay raise and a slight decrease in their work week, but they lost the strike on the big issues: the right to organize their own union, not a company union, an end to the exploitative subcontracting system involving two layers of bosses and no fixed rates, and improved sanitary and safety conditions. News accounts of the fire note the ironic coincidence that the same police who had arrested and clubbed striking waistmakers the previous winter were now piling their bodies into city coffins.
Rose Safran, one of the Triangle strikers, said, "If the union had won we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors from the factories to the street. But the bosses defeated us and we didn't get the open doors or the better fire escapes. So our friends are dead" (qtd in Stein 168).
By every account it was a horrific fire. The contemporary poet Chris Llewellyn describes it as the "day it rained children." It was not caused by an act of God or Nature; it was caused by the privileging of products over people. The clarity of opposing interests---the greed of the owners and the victimization of the workers---the swiftness of the deaths---young women having to choose between succumbing to the flames or plunging from ninth floor windows---the series of ironic details and the great weight of the tragedy on hundreds of immigrant families attest to what is the underside of the American economic success story, that is, the expendability of workers.
Leon Stein's The Triangle Fire, originally published in 1962 and reprinted in 1985, is the definitive account of the fire as well as a compelling narrative. Stein interviewed survivors, combed newspaper and journal accounts, and studied court records. Each chapter of The Triangle Fire is headed with an epigraph from Dante's Inferno and Dante's lowest circle becomes in the real events of the fire the ninth floor inferno of trapped workers.
Stein begins his book with an observation of the season: "The first touch of spring warmed the air" (11). It was almost spring, almost Passover and Easter. Holidays, with their promise of special foods, maybe a new hat, a celebration with relatives, are important occasions for working people because they are color in the gray of daily lives focused on survival and burdened by human concerns. Fifteen minutes made all the difference. The workers had their Saturday paychecks. In fifteen minutes they would have vacated the building. From the first fire alarm to the last body falling it took fifteen minutes. Sixty-seven people plunged; all perished.
The circumstances and details of the fire are tragically ironic: the 10 story Asch Building, located at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, was technically considered "fireproof"; the firefighting equipment available at that location was "state of the art"; the builder met every detail of the "letter" of the law. Indeed, the building, with its steel structure, an emblem of the new urban landscape, survived--and today is part of the New York University campus--but 146 workers died. Workers died because they were trapped on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Triangle Company and fire hoses could reach only up to the seventh floor. There were no fire drills, no sprinkler system. Heavy metal doors opened inward rather than outward; one was kept locked so that management could "keep track of the girls"; the one inside narrow fire escape reached only to the second floor, and collapsed under the weight of the escaping workers, dumping its human load to the concrete backyard with its spiked fence. (The New York Call, 28 March 1911)
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was the largest manufacturer of women's shirtwaists. Produced by the thousands, in imitation of Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibsons' Girls," these sheer blouses were signs, representations, of a freer, more independent--and, of course, class privileged--American woman. They were also clever contradictions. Topped at the neck by a mannish collar, they blossomed like peonies tapered to fitted waist stems by tailored darts and pleats. They were lovely deceptions, simultaneously concealing and enhancing the female figure, presenting a "clean" look with a fabric "more combustible than paper" (Stein 160). They are ironic metaphors for the traps and deceptions of waistmakers' work.
The New York factory law required 250 cubic feet of air for each worker. Since the loft ceilings were higher than the old tenement or railroad flats the owners could "get away" with crowding more workers into less space (Stein 161). The company employed subcontractors who hired immigrant women to sew separate pieces of the garment. The rate was fixed between the owners and the contractors; the women never knew how much their work was worth. The payroll listed only the contractors; the company never knew exactly how many workers it employed (Stein 161). In that way, the women who produced the shirtwaists were both figuratively and literally invisible to the owners who profited from them.
Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, the owners of Triangle, escaped the fire. Socialist lawyer Morris Hillquit noted how they didn't go down with their workers, "what a tremendous difference between the captains of ships and the captains of industry!" (qtd. in Stein 140). Harris and Blanck had seven previous fires before the Triangle disaster. Backed by a powerful brokerage firm, not only had they no difficulty maintaining coverage or acquiring new policies, but at the time of the fire they carried the greatest amount of fire insurance (Stein 173). Leon Stein notes that that "the proprietors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company collected in indemnity $64,925 in excess of any claim for which they could furnish legal or convincing proof of loss...." They "cleared" $445 for each dead Triangle worker (Stein 176). They were indicted on charges of first and second degree manslaughter and acquitted by a jury of their peers.
The material effect on the families of the victims and the survivors presents a very different attitude about the value of money in relation to kinship and community. There was no question that economic need was great and that families counted on the Triangle wages to survive. The Red Cross raised substantial emergency funds for immediate distribution on the Monday after the fire. But, as Leon Stein reports, no one came to claim the aid. The workers who died were from recent Italian and Jewish immigrant families accustomed to surviving by the collective struggle of the family, not by government or organizational handouts. Rose Schneiderman with colleagues from the Women's Trade Union League and volunteers from the Red Cross went into the tenements on the lower East Side and found the victims' families "who in this moment of great sorrow had become oblivious to their own [economic] needs" (qtd. in Stein 124).
Elizabeth Dutcher, a member of the joint Red Cross and union relief committee, speaks of the "searching investigations" made by the relief committee and the subsequent reports that were issued. By detailing the family circumstances, the number of dependents, and the income of the victims, these reports show how necessary their wages were to the support of victims families, and debunk middle class stereotypes of "working girls" holding jobs merely for fun or furs.12
The Language of the Fire
The trial of Harris and Blanck presents a telling case study of the interpenetration of power and language. According to Bertha Rembaugh, a Lawyer for the Women's Trade Union League of New York, Judge Crain's charge to the jury was worded in such a way as to assure acquittal. The women who managed to survive the fire were defeated by language in court. The defense lawyer Max D. Steuer came from the Lower East Side and used this subjugated knowledge against his own people. What Gramsci might consider a functionary rather than an organic intellectual. The witnesses for the prosecution were young women dressed in their best clothes, struggling with a language not their own and the trappings of officaldom. When Celia Walker described how she escaped by jumping from machine table to machine table, Steur asked, "Was your skirt as tight as the skirt you've got on now?" In cross-examining sixteen-year-old Ethel Monick, Steuer commented, "You do like to argue some, don't you, little girl?" (qtd in Stein 180). The perceptions of the representative of the people, Assistant District attorney Charles S. Bostwick, hardly served the victims better: he described the witnesses as "of tender years--most of them not able to speak the language, not of great intelligence...working at their machines, working and working with no time to look up" (qtd in Stein 181). Steuer tried to discredit testimony by survivors by suggesting to the jury that it was coached and contrived. Writing in Life and Labor about a year after the fire, Bertha Rembaugh says of the girls who testified: "while they were confused occasionally, their statements were not substantially broken...."
One of the jurors who acquitted Harris and Blanck was a shirt manufacturer, another was an importer, both felt there was no one responsible for the fire, one claiming that "the girls who worked there were not as intelligent as those in other walks of life and were therefore the more susceptible to panic" (qtd. in Stein199). Protection of owner's property, demonstrated by the staged presentation of a large women's handbag big enough to hold four waists, was a language the jurors could understand. Never mind that the value of the goods pilfered from Triangle never exceeded $25, the door was locked and the workers were trapped (Stein 203). A young worker describes the frisking of workers: "When leaving work they have men at the Greene Street door searching all the girls. We were made to open our pocketbooks, and when a girl didn't do it she was made to come up two or three flights and show that she didn't have a piece of lace or anything else. A girl could not carry a waist in her pocketbook, and all one could steal was a piece of lace or embroidery worth two or three cents. Leaving work we were treated worse than criminals."13
Emma Goldman in her predictably blunt style wrote in Mother Earth "the acquittal of Harris and Blank [sic] signifies the legalization, the justification, of industrial murder as an established economic fact" (vol 6 #11, 325).
Writing about the fire for the International Socialist Review, Louis Duchez raises questions about truth and reality that should interest contemporary theorists who may be convinced that reality waits for those who construct it. He begins, "Truth is indeed, stranger than fiction. As I write this story of the bold, brutal and cold-blooded murder of one hundred and twenty-five girls [sic] averaging nineteen years of age, and twenty men, here in New York, I wonder if what I have seen and heard and felt is real." Duchez does not spare the squeamish reader as he piles detail on detail of dismembered bodies and shredded, blackened flesh. He concludes by blaming organizing labor for "the Triangle slaughter" for not striking "as one man when the girls struggled so desperately in 1910 against the Triangle" and chides the unions for not calling a general strike the Monday after the fire ("The Murder of the Shirt Waist Makers in New York" ISR.V. II:666-673).
Inherent to the struggle for economic justice is the struggle for language dominance--for the circulation of meaning and judgment in the public forum. Harris and Blanck invested in an advertising campaign on their own behalf in the New York City newspapers. The socialist newspaper The New York Call, whose masthead proclaimed: "Devoted to the Interests of the Working People", photographed their check and returned it, printing the whole transaction in its next editions (Stein 159). The Call grouped individual portraits and the names of dead workers. The outrage and anguish of the workers were visualized on the front pages of New York daily newspapers in editorial cartoons by Crosby, Tad, Boardman Robinson and John Sloan. The triangle became a symbol of avarice and slaughter. The language of the news accounts, particularly in the Call is figurative, laden with literary tropes. Neither bloodless abstraction nor exaggerated sentiment, this is figurative language as appropriate tool to express intensity of emotion. For example, the news stories incorporate simile and metaphor, a "spider's web fire escape," and irony, "every care was taken to insure death of girls" piled deep behind "iron door of profit" to create visual images worthy of the gravity of the event.
Literary discourse does and did not construct this event; the tragedy of the fire evoked poetic response--and still does. Notice the chiaroscuro effect in this front page report by Carrie W. Allen in The Call which might be subtitled "tenderness for the dead, brutality for the living." I have determined the poetic line and made minor omissions from the news account, but my 'poem' is essentially the text of the front page article:
A hideous little bundle
from a ninth floor window
swirled and flapped
in the wind
as it made
its lone journey
to the street.
Hugh search lights
cast their white rays
into every nook and corner
of the desolated building.
The Triangle blazed forth
in shinning letters
above the three-sided
of the waist company.
One by one
started their journey
to the street
as they swirled
and traveled slowly
One--a very little one--
made its way
falteringly and reluctantly
clinging to each ledge
as the feet tarried
the specter face would turn
as if to seek
to the tragedy
in the cold black sky.
Then limply falling away
and spinning round and round
it kept up a goblin dance
as it went down, down
and lay in eternal quiet
upon the ground.
Early Fire Poetry
The first published Triangle Fire poem appeared four days after the fire on the front page of the Jewish Daily Forward. It was composed by the Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld, the "poet laureate of the slum and the sweatshop" (notes Irving Howe and Leon Stein). It is a formal threnody, a five part dirge, in which the poet takes the persona of bard or spokesman for the inarticulate and outraged workers. In elevated language, Rosenfeld strains to convey the weight of the event. He locates the sorrow of the city not with "battle nor fiendish pogrom, nor with natural forces--earthquakes or lightning--but with the unnaturalness of greed personified as "Mammon" devouring "our sons and daughters" like a capitalistic Minotaur.
The elevated tone is sustained in the next stanza even though the poet speaks more directly of "my sorrow," as he urges the reader to look and "see where the dead are hidden in dark corners." The poet's task is to illuminate, make visible, the horrible and to vent the collective anger: "Damned be the rich!/Damned be the system!/Damned be the world!" Rosenfeld's approach is sweeping and generalized--unlike the particularization of names we see in contemporary women's poetry. He "weep[s] for them all." His penultimate stanza is highly evocative as the dead women metaphorically become "beautiful, beautiful flowers destroyed," and foreshadows the particularized flower imagery we will see in Safiya Henderson/Holmes contemporary poem, "The Rites of Spring." Rosenfeld turns from the epic to the ordinary as he encloses his audience in the familiar Jewish ritual, "let us light the holy candles/ And mark the sorrow." This invitation of connection with his audience/reader enables the poem to become itself a ritual, a recitation of history and an incantation of memory. We will see this evocation of ritual again in the writing of contemporary fire poets. Mary Fell's "Havdallah" acknowledges ritual, but urges "strike" for justice. Rosenfeld concludes his poem with a threatening reminder --"There will come a time"--when the guilty will face the oblivion of death. In the meantime the guilty will be cursed with the memory "until time erases you," of "daughters in flame" and "this red avalanche" that will destroy their sleep and mar their joyous celebrations with their own children. Avalanche here is powerfully connotative of the trapped and falling bodies, of the gushing, futile hoses, and of the guilty remembrance that cannot be stopped.
In examining journals, newspapers, labor periodicals, poetry collections both contemporaneous with the fire and on anniversaries of the fire, I was looking for a continuous line of literary expression, particularly poetry, about the fire. My findings indicate a fragmentary poetry line beginning with Rosenfeld and including poems by women in labor journals shortly after the fire. And then eclipsed by two world wars and a global depression, very little about the fire until after the publication (1962) and republication (1985) of Stein's book and the commemorative events he helped organize. Stein's research and the resurgent scholarship on women's literature and history converge to provide an impetus and context for contemporary fire poetry.
Before turning to these contemporary fire poets I want to briefly examine literary reactions to the fire written shortly after the event. Alice Henry in her essay "The Way Out" (Life and Labor April 1912:120-121), dramatizes how the system of justice works for the powerful as compared to the poor by using puns, tropes, and literary allusions to deconstruct criminality. She prefaces her polemic with an excerpt from the Norse poem "The Edda" where Thor is challenged to lift a certain Gray Cat. Thor can barely move the Gray Cat, and succeeds in lifting only one paw under which is "Midgrard," the serpent whose tail and mouth gird the world. Henry contrasts the simple morality of right and wrong of ordinary people as situated within a hidden, powerful new "lawless" business and industrial world "so complex and so complicated...that we had no time to grow the corresponding moral code to fit its conditions." Until this shadowy world of power is evident to the sensibilities of the bourgeois, there will be "no strong public opinion to move the Gray Cat." She concludes by urging working people to organize themselves to press for new laws and their enforcements, safer working conditions, adequate fire escapes, and a genuine "Way Out."
Appearing in the same issue of Life and Labor is a two part poem by Violet Pike, "New World Lessons for Old World Peoples." Didactic and dialectical, this straightforward poem contrasts the theory of lesson 7 "Factory Laws" with the reality of lesson 8 "Fire." The immediate lesson to the reader of the poem is not to assume, naively, that laws, even adequate ones, are enough. They can be "obeyed" the day the inspector visits, and ignored the rest of the time. Immigrants learn quickly that for them the "new world" is no more safe than the "old world." The poem concludes with the question: "Who can...make the bosses keep the law?" The answer lies not in despair, but in the context of the poem, that is, unionization and solidarity across class and ethnic lines.
This same call for solidarity--"Each for all be our call,/Without class, without caste, without clan"--is in the quietly rousing poem "The Future" by Constance Lounsberry (Life and Labor May 1911:142). She alludes to The Triangle fire ("like a beast at the feast/They have stricken the least"), but hope rather than tragedy is her focus. Published two months after the fire, this simple anthem is a call for the dignity of good, safe work ("And let no man be idle and vain,/And let no one be crippled with toil;") She calls for a future where divisions between manual and intellectual labor ("For the head shall not war with the hand,") and between sexes ("Nor the women do battle with man;") shall disappear so that everyone can claim a "birthright of joy." "And the word of the world shall be work" and "our work be in joy, not in pain."
Contemporary Fire Poetry
The fire poetry of Chris Llewellyn, Mary Fell, Safiya Henderson-Holmes, Julia Stein, and Carol Tarlen is a genuine vein of contemporary working-class women's literature. This poetry offers an opportunity to study class differences in the writing of women's poetry and an occasion to test theoretical practices. I want to begin not with theory, but with the words of the poets themselves in response to my question: "why write about the Triangle fire?"14
Mary Fell says, "It dealt with both women and the working class, so it met my hunger to affirm my joint identities. At the time I wrote "Triangle Fire" I didn't know any one else had written about it. I felt I'd recreated it. For me, the experience was completely satisfying. It allowed me to reclaim and disseminate some of my own history, and to blend both my own and other's voices....It allowed me to express both love and loyalty to my history and anger at its attempted destruction [and] eradication."
"I always say this subject chose me rather than I chose 'it'," says Chris Llewellyn. "Being so moved by these real-life stories, I needed to retell the Triangle Fire in my own way as a poet, not as an historian or scholar. I aspired toward the emotional truth in this retelling of the stories of the victims, witnesses, and survivors. It has been a privilege to share this work with reading and listening audiences around the country."
The West coast poet Julia Stein says, "I wrote about the Triangle Fire twice. A few years before I wrote the first poem, I had a bad burn where my nightgown caught on fire, and about 1/4 of my body was burned--my hands and back. ...I was discovering Yiddish poets at the time, and wrote my poem "The Flame" about the Triangle Fire. In a way, my first Triangle poem was a female answer to Rosenfield's poem. I wrote the second Triangle poem, "The Triangle Fire," [because] there seemed to be parts of the story that demanded to be told. The event still seemed to be invisible, not recognized. I was struck by how most writers on the fire always stressed the women's victimization, but never talked about the organizing afterward. At first the second poem had a sorrowful ending; when I read it to a trade union audience, I realized that the poem needed a different ending. The trade union audience taught me what the ending was--not in a catalogue of suffering but in the victory of the safety legislation. When I read this version, it seemed right. I guess that the second poem had a new look at the Triangle fire that demanded to be told."
Carol Tarlen, also from California, say, "despite the tragedy, [the Triangle fire] represents solidarity and resistance. I am also moved by the youth and courage of the women. I wanted to emphasize [in my poem] sisterhood, courage and solidarity, and in a personal non academic way. ....I have always been moved by the fact that the women embraced each other and jumped together. Some people find this too much a celebration of death (not me) and others think I am too Luddite about the sewing machines that the women worked on. I don't find these contradictions. I guess because I am not Jewish or Italian, I get nervous that some women will think I am stealing their heritage, but I think the fire belongs to all women's histories." And, as an afterthought, Tarlen writes, "my handwriting is terrible because I suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. No wonder I respond to that fire. Work maims and kills."
Safiya Henderson-Holmes, Julia Stein, and Carol Tarlen are all published writers who have written individual poems about the fire; Mary Fell's chap-book "Triangle Fire" is republished in her collection The Persistence of Memory, and Chris Llewellyns book of poems Fragments from the Fire, winner of the Walt Whitman poetry prize, is a collection of poems about the Triangle fire.15
How do these fire poems speak?
First, they are written out of affiliation rather than just filiation.16 That is, each poet moves beyond her personal identity of race and ethnicity, her own geography, and her own employment, to embrace--metaphorically--the women of the Triangle fire. This embrace is both imaginative, (a sense of kinship with the fallen workers), and historical, (a willingness to research and grasp the historic evidence). These poets are symbolically "orphaned" by the fire. Their poems offer shifting and different perspectives, not so much fragmented, dangling and disconnected selves, but a multivocality and a complex perspectivity. There is no apology for anger in these poems. There is rage rather than quiet weeping. These poets write not just for themselves, but in solidarity with the women who died. What is at stake is a common struggle for economic justice. In the language of strikes and unions, these poets "hold the [picket] line." Some of these writers are activists and have literally placed their bodies on picket lines, but here I refer to poetic lines, those demarcations of language, that engage in resistance to class oppression.
Situated at the intersection of class and gender, this poetry is intentionally oppositional; there is no phony claim to neutrality or objectivity. They are not ambiguous; they ask, "whose side are you on?" and invite the reader to choose. For the critic to assume that these poems are merely propagandistic, and hence dismissible, is to reveal a privileged condition where sides have been chosen but not acknowledged.
This fire poetry is not protest or victim poetry. James Scully in Line Break offers this distinction between protest and dissident poetry that is useful in perceiving the collective and dialogic nature of this poetry. Scully writes, "the telltale characteristic of protest poetry is that it seldom speaks the active rage or resolution of [oppressed and exploited] people on the receiving end....The real subject is the poet's own tender sensibilities, not what is actually systemically going on. Dissident poetry, however, does not respect boundaries between private and public, self and other...it breaks silences: speaking for, or at best with, the silenced; opening poetry up, putting it in the middle of life rather than shunting it off into a corner. It is poetry that talks back, that would act as part of the world, not simply a mirror of it" (5).
This sense of talking back, of dialogism, and reciprocity is characteristic of this poetry and distinct from Alicia Ostriker's categorization in Stealing the Language of [white middle class] women's poetry as concerned with "autonomous self definition" (10). All of these contemporary fire poets are common readers. They have all returned to the same "texts of trouble": historical documents, newspapers and journals, photograph, earlier poetry, Leon Stein's book, The Triangle Fire, women's labor history, even the small plaque on the Asch building commemorating the fire. They engage intertextually with these materials, transforming newspaper articles, courtroom testimony, investigators' reports, religious liturgy, testimonials, speeches, eye witness accounts, police reports, even articles of clothing, the charred contents of handbags, remnants of jewelry, hair combs--all into poetry. In other words, these materials are both the stuff of the writing and the means to the writing--subject and agency to new poetic subjectivities.
Chris Llewellyn's collection, Fragments from the Fire, is a multivocal conversation. Entering her text, the reader joins the poet on a historical journey of the fire--beginning with the historical memory of the Asch building in March, 1911--and ending with the poet standing at the same site (what is now called NYU's Brown Building), in the pouring rain ("Soaked to skin")--eye through the lens of her camera, looking at "Eighth, Ninth, Tenth. So this/ is where they worked." Llewellyn's fire poetry is particularly crowded with voices: Police Captain Henry, Fire Battalian Chief Worth, cafe owner Lena Goldman, a derelict, the lost poet Sonya, New York Governor Dix, the 'heroic elevator man,' even the police captain's horse, Yale, give poetic testimony to the event. Llewellyns collection builds text on text, conversations within conversations. In "Sear" she speaks of process and poetic responsibility: "I plant direct quotations on the page,/ arranging line-breaks, versification....To write about them/ yet not interfere,... The "searing" pun is earned; the event is burnished into the consciousness of the poet whose task is to see rightly, to use her poet's eye as window into the Triangle.
And almost always in the fire poetry, there are the conversations with dead sisters across time, naming their names, reconstituting their faces, and voices. The emphasis is not a polemic solidarity, but on human relationships describe in terms of imagined physicality. In Carol Tarlen's "Sisters in the Flames" the poet becomes another sister worker, "together we sewed/fine linen shirtwaists/for fine ladies." Tarlen takes the hand of her sister with "hair a mess of red curls" and holds her "in the cradle/of my billowing skirt" and together now fly/the sky is an unlocked door/and the machines are burning."
Julia Stein's poem "The Triangle Fire" has a broader sweep, including naming the union organizer, Rose Schniederman, and the fire commission member Frances Perkins who led the investigation into "canneries where five-year olds snipped beans," and factories where machinery "scalped women."
Safiya Henderson-Holmes's "Rituals of Spring" becomes a tragic spring dance, a rite commemorating the spring that was denied to "hundreds of flowering girls tucking spring into sleeves,/ tucking and tugging at spring to stay alive." And as if to control the rush and beauty of her own language, to warn herself and her reader, she says, "and the girls/were girls not angels jumping, not goddesses flying or hovering/they smashed, they broke into/large pieces, smell them in the rain."
As daughters in working-class families, as workers themselves, these fire poets share a common economic epistemology and a knowledge of bodies at risk because of the work that they do. It is more than textual knowledge; it is body knowledge. The poets also know the risks of cultural production, how as working-class women poets their subjects and their voices are so easily dismissed as Llewellyn says, as "schmaltz, soap-opera-/Sentiment" or unacknowledged, tossed away, unfashionable. They also know the risks of appropriation--of, as Rose Schneiderman put it, "becoming a traitor to these burned bodies" by speaking "good fellowship" to those responsible for economic oppression. These poets are conscious of the possibility of betrayal, of their responsibility not to dishonor the dead. They are not voyeurs. To plunge into the details of the fire is to plunge into hell. In writing about the fire, they assume the responsibility of the survivor to be a voice, a mediator, a conduit, for the silenced many. But the relationship is mutual and reciprocal: what is received back from the giving of testimony for these dead workers, is a release of public, poetic language. The fire becomes the means for claiming working- class subjectivity at a historical moment that is even more hostile to class consciousness than 1911 because class knowledge is suppressed and unnamed. I will return to the process of reciprocity in relation to ritual shortly.
Contemporary interpretations of women's poetry tend to emphasize sites of domestic and ideological enclosure. As we have already learned, the doors were locked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and for these women workers entrapment was not metaphoric. In terms of the class conscious poetry that has evolved out of the fire, the theme of entrapment is more than a literary trope; it takes on a heightened, historical meaning. When survival is the subject, separations between the intellectual and the physical dissolve. "The sweatshop is a state of mind as well as a physical fact," Leon Stein reminds us (Out of the Sweatshop xv).17 Contemporary fire poetry by working-class women is neither exclusively private nor public, neither exclusively about work nor about home, but, rather, is situated in the fragmented, double work lives of women workers, in the cross-currents of work and home, as Safiya Henderson-Holmes writes, in: crowded, hard, fast, too fast, closed windows,
locked doors, smell of piss, of sweat,
of wishes being cut to bits,
needle stabs, electric shocks, miscarriages over silk,
fading paisley, fading magenta,
falling in love with get you fired, forever old,
never fast enough, buying flowers is wasteful
so hurry, hurry grind your teeth and soul
six dollars a week send to grandfather,
four dollars a week send to aunt ruth, sleep over the
machine and you're done for, way before you open your
eyes man'm, madam, miss, mrs. mother girlie ("Rituals of Spring")
Elaine Hedges notes the problem of using the "tropology of women's textile work [as] a useful language for critical discourse," (340) emphasizing how, historically, the relationship between woman and needle and text was more often negative and adversarial.18 The negativity stems from the "invasive reality of sewing," prior to the mass production of clothing. Consuming needle work usurped time that might have been spent on literary expression. While the Industrial Revolution and the availability of mass produced clothing freed some women from laborious tasks, it presented new conditions of entrapped labor for other women. The sewing at Triangle was not privatized; rather it is apt example of a shift in the conditions of women's concrete labor practices to an abstracted labor system of exploitation of the many for the profit of the few. Sweatshop women sewers lost both leisure time and control over their own labor. The possibility of women's needle work as a means to liberation, celebrated, for example, in Alice Walker's The Color Purple is valid, but it should not be assumed that it is universally representative of women's work. Those textile tropes that emerge, perhaps too conveniently, out of the study of women's texts by white middle class feminist critics need to be tested against the realities of the sweatshop and the lives of the women who produce the clothing we can so cheaply and readily buy.
These contemporary fire poems offer critics an opportunity to examine class differences and (unintentional?) bias in delineating metaphors of women's lives. By insisting on relationality rather than autonomy, complexity rather than essentialism, one can see how machines which liberate some from tedious work enslave others.
Out of the darkness of the sweatshop these poems exist. Although spirituality and workers consciousness are not often juxtaposed, I want to recognize the interplay of secular and religious literary tropes as evidence of a secular spirituality calling for economic justice. Consider the element of ritual in these poems. This fire poetry calls to the reader as the events called to the writers to engage in a ceremony of mourning, remembrance and continued struggle. I imagine these poets--however diasporically situated--as conveying a women's minyan--individual voices coming together to engage in a ceremony of definition.19 Each poem is a kind of midrash on the event, a commentary on and dialogue with other voices across time. These poets do not attempt to compensate for the fire, or replicate the event. They take on the burden of mourning and memory, and the poems become a kind of Kaddish, a secular prayer evoked out of class and gender memory, and of shared knowledge of the dangers of unprivileged work. The poems are a symbolic action and a public utterance by the survivors, all the symbolic daughters of the Triangle workers. Their poetry is not a praisesong to death or to God, but a way to use language (replete with religious allusions) as a force against historical oblivion. Mary Fell begins her beautiful nine part fire poem with: "Havdallah"
This is the great divide
by which God split
on the sabbath side
he granted rest,
on the workday side.
But even one
revolution of the world
is an empty promise
where bills to pay
respect no heavenly bargains.
Until each day is ours
let us pour
darkness in a dish
and set it on fire,
bless those who labor
as we pray, praise God
his holy name,
strike for the rest.
The language of Jewish ritual is useful to describe the ceremony quality of this poetry. But, like any good ritual the action is not linear; it is reciprocal. There is call and response. The Triangle Fire becomes an occasion for communal writing and communal experience in a political context that prizes individual achievement. In this writing, the dead make claims on the living, but also the living make claims on the dead. The fire poetry is one answer to my own earlier question of how working-class writers generate their own literature. The event--because it is a profound tragedy inflicted on common people--becomes the catalyst for breaking silence. The restoration of the event in the poets consciousness and in the poem is an antidote to the aphasia caused by class hegemony over culture.
As I read and reread these fire poems, I hear an urgency in the writing, a clarity about the difference between "texts" and human lives and a desire for language honed so well that it might snap these bodies back to life.
1. Remarks made by Rabbi Wise and Rose Schneiderman at the memorial service held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911 for the fallen Triangle workers. Reprinted in Leon Stein, ed., Out of This Sweatshop (New York: Quadrangle/The New Times Book Co., 1977).
2. I appreciate the assistance of the staff of the Tamiment Institute Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University in my research of documents, poetry and images. Also, I appreciate a Faculty Research Grant from Rochester Institute of Technology, College of Liberal Arts for partial funding for travel to Tamiment.
3. The phrase "bale of goods" is taken from Leon Steins The Triangle Fire; it is one of those recurring phrases in newspaper and journalistic accounts of the fire.
4. In lectures to high school AP history classes and to college audiences, I always ask if anyone knew about the fire prior to the lecture. Invariably, almost no one raises a hand. For the concept "usable past" see Casey Nelson Blake, The Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1990). Blake asserts that for these intellectuals the past was "indispensible" to an understanding of American culture and to "full citizenship" in a democratic community (296). I want to suggest that knowledge about the Triangle fire is crucial to a full citizenship in a democratic state and in an intellectual community unbiased by class differences. For an analysis that couples gender and a usable past see Ava Baron, ed., Work Engendered (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991).
5. Phone conversation, February, 1991. Founded in 1900, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union merged in 1995 with Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form a new organization called UNITE, Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
6. See Evan Watkins "use of Gramsci" in WorkTime: English Department and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989, p.68) and David Forgacs, ed., An Antonio Gramsci Reader (New York: Schocken Books, 1989).
7. See Benita Eisler, ed., The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women 1840-1845 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), Dan Tannacito, "Poetry of the Colorado Miners 1903-1906" Radical Teacher #15, December 979, and Jim Daniels, On The Line (Bellingham, Washington: The Signpost Press, 1981).
8. Janet Zandy, ed. Calling Home: Working-Class Womens Writings (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990).
9. Evan Watkins critical approach was particularly useful in "conversing" with this poetry. See The Critical Act: Criticism and Community (New Haven: Yale UP, 1978).
10. Perhaps it is appropriate to name my own perspective/position here. My parents were blue-collars workers; my father worked in a chemical plant prior to the safety regulations of OSHA. My father was injured on the job.
11. The Triangle fire was not the first nor the last industrial fire. On March 19, 1958, five city blocks away from the site of the Triangle fire, another textile factory fire occurred. The building had one worthless fire escape, no sprinklers, and the workers had no fire drills. Twenty-four died that day. On September 3, 1991, at the Imperial Food Products chicken processing plant in Hamlet, N.C., 25 workers, mostly African-American women, perished under conditions similar to those at Triangle. In that fire there was no sprinkler system, no fire drills, and no inspection for 11 years. Like the Triangle, the doors were locked to prevent theft---in this case, the stealing of a few chicken parts instead of thread. In Bangkok, Thailand, in May 1993, an estimated 240 workers died in a doll factory. The workers were locked in to control theft and had only one exit on each floor when the fire started. Workers were forced to jump from windows when they couldnt open the locked exists. In November 1993, 81 Chinese workers, mostly women who were making Christmas toys for Western markets, died in a Hong Kong-owned factory. In all of these incidents, the cause of death was not an unforeseen natural catastrophe, but rather unsafe working conditions where profits took precedence over human lives.
12. "Budgets of the Triangle Fire Victims," Life and Labor. (Sept. 1912:265- 269).
The women of the Triangle did not fit the socially constructed, Victorian, definition of womanhood. By the very nature of their labor, they were not "ladies," nor were they "angels in the house." They were frequently viewed by bourgeois society as morally deficient because they labored, and often cross-class concerns were expressed in moralistic terms rather than those of economics and justice. See Laura Hapkes Tales of the Working Girl: Wage-Earning Women in American Literature, 1890-1925, (New York: Twayne, 1992). Hapke claims that "widespread condemnation of the single woman as worker, and the corollary tendency to blame the sweatshop victim for her plight, had certainly abated by the mid-1920s" (14). See also Anita Levy, Other Women: The Writing of Class, Race, and Gender, 1832-1898 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991).
13. Qtd. in Martha Bensley Bruere, "The Triangle Fire," Life and Labor (May1911: 137-38).
14. These are the poets that I am focusing on for this study. They are not the only poets who have written about the fire. I have limited my study of contemporary poets to those whose work is in print and with whom I have had some conversation and correspondence. All the quotations are from private letters from the individual poets to Janet Zandy.
15. Carol Tarlens "Sisters in the Flames" is published in "Working-Class Studies," Womens Studies Quarterly, edited by Janet Zandy (New York: The Feminist Press: Spring/Summer, 1995). Julia Steins "Downtown Women" is included in the anthology Calling Home: Working-Class Womens Writings, Zandy editor. Safiya Henderson-Holmes "Rituals of Spring" is included in her collection, Madness and a Bit of Hope (New York: Harlem River Press, 1990). Mary Fells seven-part "The Triangle Fire" is included in her poetry collection, The Persistence of Memory (New York: Random House, 1984), and Chris Llewellyns book length collection on the fire is Fragments from the Fire" the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911 (New York: Penguin, 1987).
16. The process of cultural production as evidenced in this poetry suggests ways in which readings of working-class poetry can open and democratize/secularize critical practices. Particularly useful are Edward Saids insights about the social and political transformative possibilities of moving from a genealogy of "filiation" based on ties of kinship, ethnicity, race, or religion to an "affiliative" social habitat aspiring toward economic justice. In other words, an appropriate critical perception of working-class cultural production would not and should not collapse into identity politics (often vulgarly expressed with the query, "is she working-class enough?"). See Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). Also, we need to expand the affiliation of worker/poets transnationally and explore, for example, how these fire poems related to the migration of textile work onto the global assembly line and how resistance literature is generated out of the material existence of those who have been denied access to their own (labor and political) histories. See Barbara Harlow Resistance Literature (New York: Methuen, 1987).
17. Stein continues, "Its [the sweatshop] work day is of no fixed length; it links pace of work to endurance. It demeans the spirit by denying to workers any part in determining the conditions of or pay for their work. Stein, ed., Out of the Sweatshop (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1977).
18. This is the conclusion pf Elaine Hedges essay, "The Needle or the Pen: The Literary Rediscovery of Womens Textile Work," in Florence Howe, ed., Tradition and the Talents of Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).
19. See Barbara Myerhoffs use of "definitional ceremonies" in Number Our Days (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980).
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