Joseph Kalar's poems re-emerge from the Depression

Joseph Kalar
Joseph Kalar lived and worked on the Iron Range during the Great Depression. In spare moments between his 10-hour shifts in a papermill, he wrote poems about the experience. Now, 30 years after his death, his work is being published in a new collection.
Image courtesy of Kalar family

Joseph Kalar was born on the Iron Range in 1906. His parents were Slovenian immigrants. His father worked in the iron mines and then at a paper mill in International Falls. Kalar went to Bemidji Teachers College, and taught in a one-room school. Then he bummed around the country for awhile.

When he was 23, his father died, and Joseph had to come home and support his younger brothers and sisters.

He worked at the papermill -- 10 hours a day, six days a week. He wrote poetry when he could, and it was published in magazines with names like "New Masses," "The Rebel Poet," and "The Anvil."

One of his poems, "Papermill," described the feelings of loss and anger when a papermill closed.

A few years ago poet Ted Genoways came across "Papermill" in an anthology, and he wanted to find out more about the man who wrote it. He learned that Joseph Kalar's son had kept the magazines where his dad's poems had appeared, and had gathered together his dad's many letters to publishers and other writers.

"It wouldn't capture the period if... they were sad poems of defeat."

It gave Genoways enough material to publish a collection of Kalar's poems, with an introduction that describes his life, and how his poetry fits in to the larger world.

Genoways says what he likes about Kalar is his defiance in the face of a very difficult life.

"He's foul-mouthed, he's occasionally rude, and to me all of this seems appropriate to his circumstances. This is his anger coming through," says Genoways. "And in some ways I think it wouldn't capture the period if the poems were merely elegiac poems, if they were sad poems of defeat."

That angry energy also speaks to Duluth's Poet Laureate, Bart Sutter. Sutter says he feels like he's discovered a long-lost grandfather. For one thing, Kalar experimented with prose poems. He called them "sketches."

"They had been invented in France in the previous century, but they hadn't really appeared in the United States," Sutter says. "And as far as I can tell, he was making them up for himself."

Kalar was also a pioneer in free verse, which was brand new at the time.

He wanted his poems to speak to a wide audience, and to make a difference. In fact, he wanted to change the world -- quite an expectation for a poet. Sutter says it wasn't so strange in those days.

"I think there was a long tradition of people putting on plays in small towns, of people coming through and reciting, of lyceums and chautauquas, politicians' speeches," Sutter says. "I think that his work comes out of that tradition, and he had high hopes for it, as many leftists did in that period."

But Kalar eventually became disillusioned and quit writing poetry. He also quit trying to organize unions. He became a labor relations expert, and tried to make better conditions for workers from the management side.

The last poem in the collection was written when Kalar was still young, but it's about his death. Bart Sutter says it's proof that in spite of a tough life, Kalar had no self-pity.


Let there be no weeping, friends,

when I return to the ground,

just the sound of church bells calling

and the thud of hard clods falling

on my wooden box, scented and sound.

Let there be no weeping, friends.

The book is called "Papermill, Poems by Joseph Kalar, 1927 to 1935." It's edited by Ted Genoways, published by University of Illinois Press.