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About Joseph Kalar


Walter Kalaidjian

The grim setting of a factory closing, as Joseph Kalar describes it in his widely published poem "Papermill" was "Not to believed hardly, this clammy silence":

Where once feet stamped over the oily floor,
Dinnerpails clattered, voices rose and fell
In laughter, curses, and songs. Now the guts
Of this mill have ceased their rumbling, now
The fires are banked and red changes to black,
Steam is cold water, silence is rust, and quiet
Spells hunger. Look at these men, now,
Standing before the iron gates, mumbling,
"Who could believe it? Who could believe it?"

One of the few proletarian poets of the depression era who actually earned his living as a mill worker, Kalar was isolated on the iron range of northern Minnesota throughout his lifetime. Nevertheless, he published worldwide in Red Flag (official organ of the German CP), Literature of the World Revolution (Moscow), and International Literature, as well as in such domestic venues as Anvil, The Daily Worker, Left, Morada, New Masses, and The Rebel Poet. In fact, it was only through the literary network which little magazines kept alive that talents like Kalar's survived on the outskirts of provincial America. "New Masses," he wrote in 1932, "kept me on the road, in this period, when the hallucinative fog of egotism . . . would ebb and I would write. Through New Masses I became acquainted with a number of fine fellows, Jack Conroy, H. H. Lewis, Walt Carmon, and others." In introducing Kalar to a left audience in the 1933 anthology We Gather Strength, Mike Gold valorized him as "a young lumber worker and paper-mill mechanic of Minnesota":

There is power in him that has not yet found words; but nobody can miss the ardor, the fierce proletarian groping for a due to the world, the painful cheated sense of beauty.... He is a mystic, and he works in a papermill, sweating and starving. This is the contradiction, and this is the secret of his communism.

From Gold's proletcult perspective, Kalar's strength lay in his everyday familiarity with working-class existence coupled with an understanding of Marxism and the Soviet Revolution. His proletarian credentials made him a native son of the American left, one who seemed to embody Gold's Soviet ideal of the worker correspondent.

In a review for The Rebel Poet of the 1931 Unrest anthology, Kalar warned against aestheticizing industrial processes. Kalar cautioned, in his critique of Sherwood Anderson's "Machine Song," that "it is not enough to chant the beauties of machinery without taking into account the realities of the 'new life' bred by the machine under capitalism." In the course of his review, Kalar drew a keen distinction between a poem's representation of industrial design vs. the social processes entailed in the new industrial forces of production. He thus resisted any aestheticization of technology that would divorce machinery from its social contexts.

Kalar's realistic style has the virtue of reflecting with exacting verisimilitude the barbarous side of capitalist production, as in, say, "Warm Day in Papermill Town," where

                                    sulfur dioxide
bums the nose and wreathes the mind
with thoughts of beaters to be filled,
pumping jordans, swish swish of hot rolls,
paper to be made, the crash of spruce,
furred branches stabbing here and there,
the arm caught pulpy in the rolls,
the finger, lost; faces young, floating in steam,
shouting, cursing, seen now,
haggard in the sun, remembering flowers.

Echoing the "apparition" of faces in Pound's "In a Station of the Metro," Kalar's "faces young, floating in steam" lends a political inflection to modern imagist poetics. Beyond Pound's more cosmopolitan setting, the pastoral expectations set up in the poem's title are ironically undercut with graphic scenes of abusive child-labor practices and industrial mutilation.

In addition to such disturbing portraits, Kalar also composed in the agitprop manner, employing slogans, journalistic lampoon, and topical parodies to critique American jingoism, red baiting, racism, and xenophobia, as in the "patriotic" mask of the "Flagwaver":

When I get patriotic, I go on the big drunk.
I cut Wesley Everest, I hang that black Injun
Frank Little from a bridge, I put Joe Hill
Against a wall and fill the lousy bastard
With hot jets of lead,
I break the foreign heads of strikers,
Them yella slackers, them chickenlivered
Bastards.

Responding to the often violent scenes of depression era unrest, Kalar artfully captures, in his grotesque personae, the reactionary vernacular of the American midwest.

From American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique. Copyright 1993 by Columbia University Press.


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