Revolutionary Poetry for International Worker’s Day

Complied by Chris McKinnon

“Start now. Start where you are. Start with fear.

Start with pain. Start with doubt. Start with hands shaking.

Start with voice trembling but start. Start and don’t stop.

Start where you are, with what you have. Just… start.”    

~ Ijeoma Umebinyuo

To celebrate May Day, we present a selection of inspiring poems to arm the spirit. There is, as the French philosopher Alain Badiou* says, an “essential link between poetry and communism in the twentieth century, through the common good of language, [it] gives reason to both the writing and reading of poetry in a time of revolution.”  “[T]he poem gives its inventions to language and as language is given to all, the material world and the world of thought must be given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.” So, we begin with perhaps the most luminous example of that poetic tradition with the words of Bertolt Brecht…                                                     

Questions from a Worker Reads

by Bertolt Brecht, 1898–1956

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?

The books are filled with names of kings.

Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?

And Babylon, so many times destroyed.

Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,

That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?

In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished

Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome

Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom

Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.

Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend

The night the seas rushed in,

The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.

He alone?

Caesar beat the Gauls.

Was there not even a cook in his army?

Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet

was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?

Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.

Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory

At whose expense the victory ball?

Every ten years a great man,

Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.

So many questions.

*** ***

Bertolt Brecht was one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century. He wrote a wide variety of poetry, including occasional poems, poems he set to music and performed, songs and poems for his plays, personal poems recording anecdotes and thoughts, and political poems. Bertolt Brecht died in 1956. He is buried in Berlin.  Questions from a Worker Reads was written in 1935.

March Comrades

Louis Zukofsky, 1904-1978

Workers and farmers unite

You have nothing, to lose

But your chains

The world is to win

This is May Day! May!

Your armies are veining the earth!

Railways and highways have tied

Blood of farmland and town

And the chains

Speed wheat to machine

This is May Day! May!

The poor’s armies veining the earth!

Hirers once fed by the harried

Cannot feed them their hire

Nor can chains

Hold the hungry in

This is May Day! May!

The poor are veining the earth!

Light lights in air blossoms red

Like nothing on earth

Now the chains

Drag graves to lie in

This is May Day! May!

The poor’s armies are veining the earth!

March comrades in revolution

From hirer unchained

Till your gain

Be the freedom of all

The World’s May Day! May!

May of the Freed of All the Earth!

*** ***

Louis Zukofsky, an influential American poet, was a founder and theorist of the Objectivist poetry movement. In his early years, he was a committed Marxist.  “March Comrades” first appeared in New Masses, May 3, 1938

On Surplus-Value, Or From Each Worker the Boss Robs Two

by Roque Dalton, 1935-1975

Housework by the woman

Creates time for the man

To do socially necessary work

For which he isn’t fully paid (the greater part of its value

the capitalist robs)

But only enough so he can live

And go on working,

Pay with which

The man returns to the house

And says to the woman

          Ay, see what you can do

To stretch it out

Enough to cover all the expenses

Of the house work

*** ***

Roque Antonio García was a Salvadoran poet, essayist, journalist, and communist activist. He is considered one of Latin America’s most captivating poets. He wrote emotionally strong, sometimes sarcastic, and image-loaded works dealing with life, death, love, and politics. He famously said, I believe the world is beautiful, and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” Roque Dalton was falsely accused of complicity with the CIA and assassinated by his fellow comrades of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP).

The Eight Hour Day is Not Enough

by “Mr. Toad”

The eight hour day is not enough;

We are thinking of more and better stuff.

So here is our prayer and here is our plan,

We want what we want and we’ll take what we can.

Down with wars both small and large,

Except for the ones where we’re in charge:

Those are the wars of class against class,

Where we get a chance to kick some ass..

For air to breathe and water to drink,

And no more poison from the kitchen sink.

For land that’s green and life that’s saved

And less and less of the earth that’s paved.

No more women who are less than free,

Or men who cannot learn to see

Their power steals their humanity

And makes us all less than we can be.

For teachers who learn and students who teach

And schools that are kept beyond the reach

Of provosts and deans and chancellors and such

And Xerox and Kodak and Shell, Royal Dutch.

An end to shops that are dark and dingy,

An end to Bosses whether good or stingy,

An end to work that produces junk,

An end to junk that produces work,

And an end to all in charge – the jerks.

For all who dance and sing, loud cheers,

To the prophets of doom we send some jeers,

To our friends and lovers we give free beers,

And to all who are here, a day without fears.

So, on this first of May we all should say

That we will either make it or break it.

Or, to put this thought another way,

Let’s take it easy, but let’s take it.

*** ***

 Legend has it that “Mr. Toad” was a former Buick automaker from Detroit. He penned this poem on May 1st, 1980.

The Low Road

by Marge Piercy, 1936-

What can they do

to you? Whatever they want.

They can set you up, they can

bust you, they can break

your fingers, they can

burn your brain with electricity,

blur you with drugs till you

can’t walk, can’t remember, they can

take your child, wall up

your lover. They can do anything

you can’t stop them

from doing. How can you stop

them? Alone, you can fight,

you can refuse, you can

take what revenge you can

but they roll over you.

But two people fighting

back to back can cut through

a mob, a snake-dancing file

can break a cordon, an army

can meet an army.

Two people can keep each other

sane, can give support, conviction,

love, massage, hope, sex.

Three people are a delegation,

a committee, a wedge. With four

you can play bridge and start

an organization. With six

you can rent a whole house,

eat pie for dinner with no

seconds, and hold a fund raising party.

A dozen make a demonstration.

A hundred fill a hall.

A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;

ten thousand, power and your own paper;

a hundred thousand, your own media;

ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,

it starts when you care

to act, it starts when you do

it again and they said no,

it starts when you say We

and know you who you mean, and each

day you mean one more.

*** ***

Marge Piercy is a committed activist and writer. Her work is rooted in her communist social and political activism, feminist ideals, and Jewish heritage. The “Low Road” appears in The Moon is Always Female, her wide-ranging, seventh volume of poetry.

The Red Flag

By Billy Bragg, 1957-

The people’s flag is deepest red

It shrouded oft our martyred dead

And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold

Their hearts’ blood dyed in every fold

Then raise the scarlet standard high

Beneath its folds we’ll live and die

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer

We’ll keep the red flag flying here

It waved above our infant might

When all ahead seemed dark as night

It witnessed many a deed and vow

We mustn’t change it’s color now

Raise the scarlet standard high

Beneath its folds we’ll live and die

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer

We’ll keep the red flag flying here

It well recalls the triumphs past

It gives the hope of peace at last

The banner bright, the symbol plain

Of human right and human gain

Raise the scarlet standard high

Beneath its folds we’ll live and die

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer

We’ll keep the red flag flying here

It suits today the meek and base

Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place

To cringe beneath the rich man’s frown

And haul that sacred emblem down

Raise the scarlet standard high

Beneath its folds we’ll live and die

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer

We’ll keep the red flag flying here

With heads uncovered swear we all

To bare it onward ’til we fall

Come dungeons dark or gallows grim

This song shall be our parting hymn

Raise the scarlet standard high

Beneath its folds we’ll live and die

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer

We’ll keep the red flag flying here

*** ***

Billy Bragg, is an English socialist singer-songwriter-activist and author. His unrelenting optimism, provokes his audiences to dream that reality could be different. He is highly regarded as an egalitarian songsmith who sings for the working class. He is best known in America for the Mermaid Avenue recordings, two albums of previously unheard lyrics written by American folk legend Woody Guthrie, put to music written and performed by Bragg and the American band Wilco. “The Red Flag,” originally released on Bragg’s short-lived record label, Utility Records, is on the consciously political album, the Internationale, a collection of left-wing protest songs.

Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989

by Martin Espada, 1957-

No one asks

where I am from,

I must be

from the country of janitors,

I have always mopped this floor.

Honduras, you are a squatter’s camp

outside the city

of their understanding.

No one can speak

my name,

I host the fiesta

of the bathroom,

stirring the toilet

like a punchbowl.

The Spanish music of my name

is lost

when the guests complain

about toilet paper.

What they say

must be true:

I am smart,

but I have a bad attitude.

No one knows

that I quit tonight,

maybe the mop

will push on without me,

sniffing along the floor

like a crazy squid

with stringy gray tentacles.

They will call it Jorge.

*** ***

Martin Espada is an award-winning recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “Jorge the Church Janitor Quits” creates delightful images, humorous images, “I host the fiesta of the bathroom,” but it is a serious poem. Jorge is an “invisible man,” ignored and deeply alienated for the community he serves but cannot enter. He is freed in the poem by his own words, overcoming the absence of recognition and persistent condescension and disrespect he endures. In his resignation he is redeemed, his dignity restored.

To Change The World Enough

by Alice Walker, 1944-

To change the world enough

you must cease to be afraid

of the poor.

We experience your fear as the least pardonable of

humiliations; in the past

it has sent us scurrying off

daunted and ashamed

into the shadows.

Now,

the world ending

the only one all of us have known

we seek the same

fresh light

you do:

the same high place

and ample table.

The poor always believe

there is room enough

for all of us;

the very rich never seem to have heard

of this.

In us there is wisdom of how to share

loaves and fishes

however few;

we do this everyday.

Learn from us,

we ask you.

We enter now

the dreaded location

of Earth’s reckoning;

no longer far

off

or hidden in books

that claim to disclose

revelations;

it is here.

We must walk together without fear.

There is no path without us

*** ***

Alice Walker, a globally renowned writer, poet and activist, was born in Georgia to sharecropper parents. Her poetic vision is rooted in the racial terror, economic misery, and traditions of African American culture in the rural South.

Blues for the Old Revolutionary Woman

by Thomas McGrath, 1916-1990     

for Mother Bloor, Mother Jones, & Meridel Le Sueur

A tick of time that stones the heads of kings

And drops its pennies on a thousand eyes

Unreels the gaudy shroud of history

And transmutes all statistics into pain.

What is simple virtue can never be denied,

Explained, or cancelled. Still, it is not

Enough to love a world that must be changed.

This was the earliest thing they learned.

Neither Weehawken Ferry nor a flower,

The world was love and work — we could become

Human. Across the cruel geography

Of strike and struggle, hitch-hiking, riding freights

They sought the boundaries of that possible world

Where statistical death can never cancel dream

And history is humanized. Their blazoning voyage

Points toward the Indies of our mortal wish.

*** ***

“McGrath’s poetry will be remembered in one hundred years when many more fashionable voices have been forgotten,” predicted the late historian E.P.Thompson. “Here is a poet addressing not poets only but speaking in a public voice to a public which has not yet learned to listen to him.” Adding that the achievement of McGrath’s art “has matched the achievement of his integrity,” Thompson suggested that the poet exhibited “an implacable alienation from all that has had anything fashionable going for it in the past four decades of American culture—and from a good deal of what has been offered as counterculture also.”

I Look at the World

by Langston Hughes, 1901-1967

I look at the world

From awakening eyes in a black face—

And this is what I see:

This fenced-off narrow space

Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls

Through dark eyes in a dark face—

And this is what I know:

That all these walls oppression builds

Will have to go!

I look at my own body

With eyes no longer blind—

And I see that my own hands can make

The world that’s in my mind.

Then let us hurry, comrades,

The road to find.

*** ***

Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. One of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance His primary influences included Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman. He is known not only for his perceptive portrayals of Black life in America but for his novels, short stories, plays, and poetry, and his commitment to the world of jazz. His life and work had considerable impact on the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the left opposition in the UK from 2015 to 2020, quoted the poem “I Look at the World,” in his first leadership speech at the 2016 Labour Party conference.

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Sources:

Brecht, B., Kuhn, T., Constantine, D., & Ryland, C. (2019). The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Zukovsky, L. (1938) New Masses. Davidman, J., & Weekly Masses Co. (1938). 

Dalton, R., Hirschman, J., Paschke, B., & Weaver, E. (1990). Poemas clandestinos / Clandestine poems.

“Mr. Toad.” In Linebaugh, P. (2016). The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day.

Bragg, B., & Pattersons. (2006). Internationale. London: Cooking Vinyl. (music cd)

Piercy, M., & Griffith, E.V. (1980). The Moon is Always Female: Poems. Eureka, Calif: E.V. Griffith.

Espada, M. (2004). Now the Dead Will Dance the Mambo: The Poems of Martin Espada. Wellfleet, MA: Leapfrog Press.

Walker, A. (2014). The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness Into Flowers (new poems).

McGrath, T., & Hamill, S. (1988). Selected Poems, 1938-1988. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.

Hughes, Langston. (2009) Poetry Magazine, Volume 193, Number 4. / Christian Wiman, editor; Poetry Foundation.

*The Age of the Poets: Poetry and Communism            

https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2871-the-age-of-the-poets-poetry-and-communism