A Violent Moment in American Labor History, Captured in Verse

April 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Colorado poet David Mason shares a look at a dramatic moment in American labor history through his poem about a 1913 mine strike that ended in violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: looking at a dramatic moment in American labor history through poetry.

David Mason is the author of “Ludlow,” a book-length poem that tells the story of a violent strike in 1913 by Colorado miners, most of them immigrants.

DAVID MASON, author, “Ludlow”: My name is Dave Mason.

I am a poet who grew up in Washington State, but I had family roots here in southern Colorado. And when I came back to Colorado in the late 1990s, I decided it was very important for me to try to write about Colorado.

When I wrote this verse novel, “Ludlow,” one of the things I was trying to do was not only to root myself in this area, but also to create a sense of the evasiveness of identity in America.

“What does it mean, nation of immigrants? What are the accents, fables, voices of roads, the tall tales told by the smallest desert plants? Even the wind in the barbed wire goads me into making lines, fencing my vagrant thought.

“A story is the language of desire. A journey home is never what it ought to be. A land of broken glass. Of gunfire.”

To use all this language, all this history, all this knowledge about versification and put it all together in what I hope is a very compelling story about a very serious moment in American history that’s still with us, because we still are a nation of immigrants. We still are a nation that struggles with issues of corporate power, corporate greed, the rights of individual people.

We still are a nation of many people who are sometimes given the impression that they don’t have the right to exist. And “Ludlow” is a story about people who were being told they didn’t have the right to be here. And it’s a story about people who fought for their existence here in this bleak, empty part of Colorado. And they lost.

The big strike that erupted here erupted in the fall of 1913. There was a great deal of animosity between the company and the miners who worked for the company. A Democratic governor named Ammons decided he had better bring out the National Guard.

And, so, while reports on what happened on April 20 differ, it does appear that an explosion happened somewhere over there. That signaled the troops to begin to open fire. The miners had dug pits underneath a number of the tents. And, as it happened, one of the pits was right over here. It’s now called the Death Pit. Thirteen women and children were in that pit when the National Guard came into the camp and probably set the tents on fire.

The oxygen was sucked out of one of these pits right over here. And these women and children were suffocated.

“Too few remembered now. The wars had blotted out the past, except old men, like Christie MacIntosh, who had gone to work to feed his family after the whole turmoil, after the killings and the failures, after the union sold John Lawson out, after the long, disgraceful struggle came to naught.

“He had shoveled coke into the furnaces of Pueblo’s mill until they made him lead a crew, then moved him to the office where tallied loads of coal until retirement, three decades passing like a dust bowl cloud, a long train wailing through the arid night, freighted with lives he would never see again. That long train hauled the grief mined from the mesas by the immigrants into a silence like forgetfulness.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Mason is now at work with a composer to turn his “Ludlow” book of verse into an opera.