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 the B.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.