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Joseph Kalar: Words of the Workingman

Richard Kalar knew his father had labored in an International Falls' paper mill during the Depression. And he knew his father had published a few poems in his youth.

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Richard Kalar knew his father had labored in an International Falls' paper mill during the Depression. And he knew his father had published a few poems in his youth.

After his father died in 1972, Kalar went through his papers and discovered many more poems, published and unpublished. He didn't realize they were some of the finest protest poetry of the Depression era.

Thirty-five years after his death, Joseph Kalar has been rediscovered, in part because of Richard's research.

Barton Sutter, Duluth's poet laureate, calls Joseph Kalar among the best, if not the best, of Minnesota's early poets.

"The quality is remarkably high for the time," Sutter said.

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Gritty, searing and yet humane, the poems Kalar wrote between 1927 and 1935 tell of social injustice and of life working in northern Minnesota's mills and mines. They describe desolation and desperation, weary bodies and men down on their luck.

Protest poetry written by Kalar and others in the 1920s and 1930s often was published in radical, left-wing magazines such as "The Front," "New Masses" and "The Left."

"What separates Kalar is that he was living the life he was writing about," said Ted Genoways, who edited the first collection of Kalar's work available to the public. "So many protest poets are well-meaning, but are from more affluent backgrounds. They often didn't understand fully the people and culture they were writing about. But Kalar did. It's where he came from.''

HARDSCRABBLE ROOTS

Kalar was one of 10 children born to Slovenian immigrants. His family lived in a tarpaper shack in Merritt, a mining location near Biwabik, before moving to International Falls in 1914. His father, who had worked in the mines, got a job at the paper mill. So would Kalar, despite attending Bemidji State College and teaching for a year. He also traveled around the country for a time.

Kalar escaped the confines of northern Minnesota by reading extensively, writing poetry and prose and corresponding with leftist writers around the country. He developed a fiercely rebellious spirit and a drive to improve the plight of workers.

"I don't think he wrote just for the sake of writing stories," said his son, Richard Kalar of Shoreview, Minn. "I think he had a message that he felt was important to get out."

Joseph Kalar believed the best way to persuade people was not through rhetoric but by showing conditions in which people lived and suffered, Genoways said. His poem, "Papermill," was printed in several anthologies and gained him some notoriety. In the poem, workers stand in disbelief outside the gates of a shutdown factory.

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Genoways described "Papermill" as one of the finest protest poems of the Depression era and named his compilation after it.

"There is great anguish in that poem, but it's all conveyed in the diction and his knowledge of the place," Genoways said.

Anger and bitterness can be found in many of Kalar's poems, which were written when he was in his 20s.

"To me, it's bitterness of someone who had lived that life, not someone looking at it from the outside," Genoways said.

Sutter was excited when he recently read Kalar's work for the first time.

"It's hair-raising; it's well-crafted art," said Sutter, noting the poetry's grit and details of working-class life. "He captures the spirit of those Depression years as well or better than any poet I can think of. These are workers' poems from the inside. He knows what paper mills are like, what they smell like, the living conditions. He has all the details, the lingo. His voice is absolutely authentic. You don't doubt for a minute that this guy was there."

Kalar's work also sheds light on those times in northern Minnesota and the rebellious spirit of some writers during the Depression, Genoways said.

"These poems aren't merely great snapshots of Minnesota history," he said. "They're just outstanding poems."

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In form and style, Kalar was breaking ground, experimenting with free verse and a prose approach to poetry long before it was commonly done.

While the tendency then was to write sentimental verse in meter and rhyme, Kalar chose the opposite direction with word choices that were neither archaic nor old-fashioned and wrote in forms that were on the cutting edge, Sutter said.

"He is definitely a modernist poet," Sutter said, noting that a poet is judged on content and form. "He succeeds in both."

Unlike poetry written by the more affluent with the time and energy to write, Kalar was among worker poets who would scratch out what they could, when they could. When working 10-hour shifts, six days a week left Kalar too tired and without time to craft his poems, the millworker turned to what he called "prose sketches," a forerunner of today's prose poems.

"He could sit down, grab hold of some experience,' Genoways said. "That was something he could do with the time and energy he had."

SHARING THE WORKS

Kalar chose obscurity by publishing only in leftist magazines. He chose not to publish a book of his poems, even when asked by a publisher in the 1930s.

Genoways said the poet was extremely critical of his work: "He said there wasn't enough there to make even a thin book."

Kalar's son proved him wrong. After his death in 1972, Richard Kalar and his mother pored through his father's papers, poems and shortstories. Years of correspondence with other writers provided intimate glimpses ofhis father's life, thoughts and the times.

In 1985, Richard published a 340-page book and printed 100 copies for family, friends and a few others. In part, he wanted his two sons to know the grandfather who had died before they were born.

"Other than those few poems I knew about, I was seeing it all for the first time," Richard said. "I wish I had shown more interest when he was alive or that he had brought up more of that information when we were together. Now I have a million questions."

In the end, Richard came to know his father better and in ways he had never known him while he was alive. It was an emotional and wonderful journey, he says, adding, "I'm obviously very proud of him."

A few years ago, while he was book editor for the Minnesota Historical Society, Genoways came across one of Kalar's poems in an anthology. Surprised that no book of Kalar's poems had been published, he wondered if there were enough for a collection. That led him to Richard, whose work provided the groundwork for Genoways' collection.

"It's incredible what Dick did," said Genoways, now editor of Virginia Quarterly Review. "He was smart to recognize the value of this stuff. He had kept it organized, gotten letters in order. Without Dick, there would not have been an easy way to track down all these materials."

LIFE OTHER THAN WRITING

By the time Joseph Kalar was 30, he had grown disillusioned and stopped writing poetry.

"He became discouraged by his own limitations," Genoways said. "He talked about himself as a failed poet. I think what he meant was he had failed to change the world. He thought if people just knew what was going on, that they would do something about it. ... As he got older he became less optimistic."

Kalar married Elvena Caple in 1935 and the couple had three sons. The onetime union president at the paper mill took a job in the personnel office. By 1940, he was head of the labor relations department, negotiating union contracts. He held the position for 15 years before transferring to the company's Minneapolis office.

Genoways says Kalar was successful in improving workers' conditions.

"By working within the managerial system and doing what he could to improve conditions in the mill, I think he found what he was looking for," Genoways said. "The change he wanted came on a smaller scale but through tangible means."

CANDACE RENALLS can be reached at (218) 723-5329 or by e-mail at crenalls@duluthnews.com .

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