- The Motive for Story
History and poetry grew up in the same family, but what a strange, dysfunctional brood they have become in our era of academic specialization. In our time every pursuit becomes a “field” weeded and watched over by professionals. Our claims for authority appear to be very different from those of Homer or Herodotus. Yet while the means of publication and the available evidence for our stories have changed, I doubt we are more sophisticated than the ancients. It helps to remember the Muses as Hesiod met them on Mt. Helicon—all nine of them daughters of Memory, or Mnemosyne:
And when the time came, as the months passed away and the seasons turned about, and the long table of days was completed, she bore nine daughters—all of one mind, their care-free hearts set on song—not far from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There they have their dancing-places and their mansions; and the Graces and Desire dwell beside them, in feasting. Lovely is the sound they produce from their mouths as they sing and celebrate the ordinances and the good ways of all the immortals, making delightful utterance. (Hesiod 4)
Clio, the muse of history, makes “delightful utterance” as much as Calliope or Erato, epic or lyric poetry, and all three are the sisters of music and dance. The story is instructive. We moderns have too often insisted on separating the sisters. We become Gradgrinds, clinging to our facts, when we ought to remember that stories can sing.
If histories can strive to make harmonious sounds, poets can remember historical events. We harvest the same field, memory, after all. We think of the epic as a poem of history, though here, as in Herodotus, history and mythology are hard to tell apart. Ezra Pound thought of his Cantos as a vast synthesis of historical themes, while Robert Lowell wrote sequences of sonnets on history. Both of these modern poets left more muddle than they had hoped. “History has to live with what was here,” Lowell wrote, “clutching and close to fumbling all we had . . .” (Lowell 24). His poems make diverting reading as adjuncts to autobiography but wouldn’t satisfy anyone seeking other kinds of information.
My own effort to write an epic, a modern historical poem, deliberately mixes fact and fiction as Shakespeare did in his history plays, Tolstoy in War and Peace. I called Ludlow a verse novel, a more modest-sounding term than epic, but more than a decade after the book was first published, I can see how oddly it sits in generic terms. Later in this essay I will discuss my motives and methods for this story, which differ from those of an historian. As these fields and approaches have evolved, our motives as storytellers have diverged. The historian, like the good journalist, wishes to establish facts, while the poet might say, as I do in Ludlow, “These are the facts, but facts are not the story” (Mason 78).1
Such distinctions are not easily made, which is why it remains important to remember Hesiod and the family of Muses. In his Poetics, Aristotle tried to give the disciplines their separate roles:
It will be clear from what I have said that it is not the poet’s function to describe what has actually happened, but the kind of thing that might happen, that is, that could happen because they are, in the circumstances, either probable or necessary. The difference between the historian and the poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse; the work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and in this material form it would be no less a kind of history than it is without metre. The difference is that one tells of what has happened, the other of the kinds of things that might happen. For this reason, poetry is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history; for poetry speaks more of universals, history of particulars. (Murray and Dorsch 68-9)
Saying that Aristotle gets an ‘A’ for effort here seems comical, but his genre distinctions don’t quite do the job, at least when we look at particular examples. Sometimes poetry is more interested in particulars, history in universals, and both deserve “serious attention.” They also deserve unserious attention for the pleasure they can give us.
This desire to place the genres on a hierarchical scale smacks of poetry’s origins in religious ritual. The first known epic poem, Gilgamesh was inscribed on tablets and buried in the city walls, as if the poem, which was also a story, were the foundation of civic life:
The story of him who knew the most of all men know;
who made the journey; heartbroken; reconciled;
who knew the way things were before the Flood,
the secret things, the mystery; who went
to the end of the earth, and over; who returned,
and wrote the story on a tablet of stone.
He built Uruk. He built the keeping place
of Anu and Ishtar. The outer wall
shines in the sun like brightest copper; the inner
wall is beyond the imagining of kings. (Ferry 3)
Talk about unspecialized! Gilgamesh is both hero and poet here, and also the king and builder of the city. The story is enshrined in all its ambiguity. In the beginning was the word.
For most of human history, both story and poetry together have led the dance (which arguably puts music in a primary position). Only in the age of specialization and academic functionality has history appeared to take precedence over poetry, partly for its usefulness to the brokers of power. This sibling rivalry might have begun in the Renaissance, when Sir Philip Sidney felt compelled to defend his “unelected vocation” (Sidney 3), treating everyone else with delectable disdain:
The Historian scarsely gives leisure to the Moralist to say so much, but that he loaden with old Mouse-eaten Records, authorizing himselfe for the most part upon other Histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of Heresay, having much ado to accord differing writers, & to pick truth out of partiality: better acquainted with a 1000 years ago, than with the present age . . . . (12)
Sidney’s Defence of Poesie salts the intellectual earth with erudition, and waters it only where poetry is concerned:
The natural Philosopher thereon hath his name, and the morall Philosopher standeth upon the natural vertues, vices, or passions of man: and follow nature saith he therein, and thou shalt not erre. The Lawier saith, what men have determined. The Historian, what men have done. The Grammarian, speaketh onley of the rules of speech, and the Rhetorician and Logitian, considering what in nature wil soonest prove, and perswade thereon, give aritificiall rules, which still are compassed within the circle of a question, according to the proposed matter. . . . Onely the Poet disdaining to be tied to any such subjectiõ, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect into an other nature: in making things either better than nature bringeth foorth, or quite a new, forms such as never were in nature: as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chymeras, Furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the Zodiack of his owne wit. (7-8)
This better nature exemplified by poetry sounds suspiciously like story, more particularly mythology, where subterranean meanings and connections thrive almost microbially.
For Sidney, poetry is “the first light giver to ignorance and first nurse whose milke litle & litle enabled them to feed afterwards on tougher knowledges” (4). It’s the thinking man’s spoonful of sugar. But Sidney also reminds us that disciplines like history cannot thrive without it:
So Herodotus entituled his Historie, by the name of the nine Muses, and both he and all the rest that followed him, either stale, or usurped of Poetrie, their passionate describing of passions, the many particularities of battels which no man could affirme, or if that be denied me, long orations put in the mouths of great Kings and Captains, which it is certain they never pronounced. So that truly neither Philosopher nor Historiographer, could at the first have entered into the gates of popular judgements, if they had not taken a great passport of Poetrie, which in all nations at this day where learning flourisheth not, is plaine to be seene: in all which, they have some feeling of Poetry. (5)
We’re a long way from the establishment of facts here, while invention prospers. Still, it is worth remembering memory, mother of them all—fickle, persistent, vivid and rife with meanings we are left to interpret as best we can.
Herodotus has been called both the “Father of History” and the “Father of Lies” (Herodotus xix, xxi), but his motives were not unlike those of any modern historian:
Herodotus, from Halicarnassus, here displays his enquiries, that human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and that everything great and astounding, and all the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians alike to such effect, be kept alive—and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason they went to war. (Herodotus 3)
Tom Holland’s translation, published in 2013, uses the word “enquiries” for the Greek historiai. In modern Greek, istoríes can simply mean stories, but most scholars agree that Herodotus meant something like investigations or researches. Evidence was important to him. Paul Cartledge’s introduction to the Hollander translation puts it this way:
All historiography is dependent ultimately on sources, and Herodotus carefully distinguished between different types of source material on grounds of their intrinsic reliability: first, eyewitness testimony or autopsy (opsis, 2.29), then hearsay evidence (akoê, 2.99), finally ‘tradition’, or in his own phrase ta legomena (7.152), although that elides the fact that he has to a greater or lesser extent shaped the telling of it. (xx)
Cartledge reminds us that Aristotle had called Herodotus “the muthopoios or ‘storyteller’, though Herodotus had himself only used the word muthos only twice (2.23, 45) and on both occasions to mean an unbelievable story” (xx). I’m rather fond of the fact that the modern Greek word for a novel, mythistórima, blends both myth and history, and also that early English novels had titles like The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. All storytellers seek enough authority to hold their listeners or readers, whether they are selling us fact or fiction or both.
We know Herodotus is a great storyteller because he gets right to the sex. The story of Candaules and Gyges reads like something right out of Boccaccio, with scenes of scopophilia and murder explaining how the servant Gyges eventually became king. Explanation is the historian’s motive, just as Herodotus says he wants to understand the causes of war, but it doesn’t hurt that the unnamed queen has her own idiopathic character—canny and ruthless about her uxorious husband. Herodotus cites no source for the story other than tradition. Hearsay becomes directly involved in his explanation of how a destroyed temple to Athena came to be rebuilt. The Delphic oracle had been consulted by the Lydians of Asia Minor; sins were to be expiated. Herodotus writes, “Now I know for a fact that this is what happened, because I heard it directly from the Delphians themselves” (10). As for the Spartan quest to uncover Orestes’ bones, only tradition could have been consulted, including the detail that the bones were those of a giant. Yet Herodotus was also interested in psychology and anthropology. He seeks to understand motives, such as the reason Croesus invaded Cappadocia, and he ponders the similarities and differences of such people as the Greeks and the Persians.
Herodotus says he will display these things to us. He will show and tell, via the new-fangled miracle of reading and writing. Cartledge writes, “The two main Greek words for ‘to read’ meant literally ‘to hear’ (akroasthia) and ‘to recognize again’ (anagignôskein), the latter implying a process of recognizing visually in writing what had first been received aurally” (xvii). The charm of early history arises with the charms of early poetry. Both Clio and Calliope can sing.
- The Example of Shakespeare
The poet’s motives differ from those of the historian, even as they can be inspired by some of the same sources. If Sidney had lived long enough, he might have been amazed to see how brilliantly Shakespeare reconfigured history and gave it a singing voice. Shakespeare took something of the epic and put it on stage with all the spectacle and intimacy of Homer, his poetry galvanizing English national identity as much as Homer’s Greek did for Hellenes everywhere. And of course, there is the universalizing aspect important to both poetry and history, the way they can give words to human psychology and conflict, sorrow and pity, reason and unreason.
Shakespeare had no qualms about stealing his stories from any available source, and because available sources were relatively few, we know where he got them. The greatness of Shakespeare comes not because his goods were stolen, but because of how far he took them, how like Herodotus and even more than Herodotus he gave them shape. It’s possible to dislike Prince Hal for the warring prig he became following his early education with Falstaff, but one can’t argue that Shakespeare hasn’t given his story a bloody good spin. The muse called upon in the opening of The Life of King Henry the Fifth is one we have not encountered before. This polygamous muse must marry both history and the stage:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention;
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt? (I. i. 1-14)
The speech is ingenious, from its first apostrophe, “O for a Muse of fire,” to the wooden O of the theatre itself, little more than a pit for cockfighting. Simultaneously we have the meagre means of poetry and drama and the exalted spectacle they produce. We also have the grim, non-idealized aspect of war and the purported glory of its purposes. This is a prince who will senselessly order the killing of French prisoners at Agincourt, and the same man who will inspire England with his lofty rhetoric, his charity and mercy, his willingness to be one of the people:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother. Be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (IV. iii. 60-67)
We actually witness the motive for war being trumped up in Act I, young Henry seizing it as much as a way to prove his manhood and his kingship as anything else. The play’s marriage of cynicism and idealism resembles the motives of heroes in Homer, and it might have given its Elizabethan audience a shot in the arm.
In his recent Prefaces to Shakespeare Tony Tanner places Shakespeare’s histories in the context of his times:
The Tudors themselves initiated a new historiography, which can be said to begin in 1501 when Henry VII commissioned an Italian scholar, Polydore Vergil, to write a history of England—a history which would establish the right of the Tudors to the throne. So, according to Vergil, the Tudor dynasty emerged of necessity, with God punishing the various crimes of the Lancastrians and Yorkists, and guiding Henry through exile to the crown. (312)
Tanner keeps the sibling rivalry of history and poetry in mind, citing a “difference between history as memorial . . . and history which explores causes,” both motives we can trace to Herodotus. He compares this to “the difference between ritual and drama, and it is in Shakespeare that we see history finally emerge from ritual into drama . . .” (313).
We know Shakespeare’s debt to Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande (1577) among other sources. But the genius of the dramatist is in finding the drama and shaping its scenes to his own purposes. The histories apparently begin with the three plays devoted to Henry VI, leading to Richard III, which concludes with the ascension of the Tudors. The propaganda value of the plays is obvious, but that does little to explain their vitality. Of Henry VI, Tanner writes,
In no other history play does Shakespeare so freely disrupt and alter the time sequence of his Chronicle material. He brings events together that were years apart; he inverts the order of their happening; he makes sudden what was slow; he makes simultaneous what was separate. He expands and contracts; he omits— and invents. (319)
With Richard III the poet-dramatist relishes his distortions as he turns the king into one of literature’s most appalling and enjoyable villains. While historians want to understand the causes underlying historical events, Shakespeare gives us characters, fully fleshed, without bothering to explain how they came to be as they are. He demonstrates that people have their idiopathic natures, though these natures may be thwarted or allowed to blossom. They are not so much fashioned by unhappy childhoods or other traumas as they are born good or evil or some mixture of both. This can be bracing in our time of psychotherapeutic melioration, with our belief that anyone can be happy given the right circumstances. Shakespeare’s psychology is more aligned with that of the Greeks, who understood the irrational nature of things.
The fact that Shakespeare wrote of earlier kings—Richard II through Henry V—at a later date suggests that his motives were different. With a few notable alterations, he does stick to the facts, more or less, but his dramatic choices, his revisions of the historical record, have made this later sequence the most popular and highly regarded of the history plays. We can see this best in Part One of Henry IV, starting with the play’s title in its first published form: “THE HISTORY OF HENRIE THE FOVRTH; With the battel at Shrewsburie, between the King and Henry Percy, surnamed Henrie Hotspur of the North. With the humorous conceits of Sir Iohn Falstalffe” (Kastan 4). Right away we have the two most important divergences from historical record. First, Shakespeare makes Hotspur a contemporary of Prince Hal, so the two Harrys can be seen in dramatic contrast. If the young Prince seems entirely unsuited to leadership and war, entranced by the dissolute Falstaff and his companions, Hotspur is the ready rebel, steeled in his purpose and totally alive in his speeches. In fact, Hotspur was closer in age to the Prince’s father, but Shakespeare saw the opportunity to build his trilogy (Henry IV Parts One and Two through Henry V) as a sort of bildungsroman, the story of different kinds of education in pleasure and duty.
Falstaff is, among other things, a professor of misrule, a subversive, offering Hal a necessary dose of humanity as carnival. In his introduction to the play David Scott Kastan writes, “. . .the very existence of the comic plot serves to raise questions about the nature of history. Comedy here isn’t subordinated to history, nor does it compete with history. Rather, comedy is revealed to be a part of the very same fabric, exposing the exclusions and biases in our usual definitions of history” (16). Just as political authority has been usurped after the deposing and murder of Richard II, so the authority of any historical narrative is called into question. We are immersed here in uncertainty, laughter and angst at the same time, which is arguably more real to human experience than a straightforward history would be. John Keats understood this as well as anyone in his now-famous formulation:
. . . at once it struck me what quality went to transform a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. (Keats 277)
This is where history and poetry—or literature, to use Keats’s word—diverge in both motive and method.
Is Falstaff a counterfeit king, stealing crowns the way Henry IV stole his Crown? On the battlefield of Shrewsbury, the King protected himself partly by having numerous other soldiers dressed in similar armor, confusing the enemy. Douglas kills Blount, thinking he has killed Henry. Hotspur sets him right:
The king hath many marching in his coats.
Now, by my sword, I will kill all his coats.
I’ll murder all his wardrobe, piece by piece,
Until I meet the King.
(V. iii. 25-28)
The rhetoric is fiercely delightful, but who is the real King? Shakespeare has taken the narrative of rebellion and counter-rebellion, and shown us that all kings are merely human beings, that power is an arbitrary and corrupting force, that appearance and reality are very hard to distinguish from one another. Hal’s killing of Hotspur precipitates the killing of something in himself, preparing the way for his own assumption of the throne. Shakespeare has pinpointed a truth in the drama that is not precisely historical truth. It is something other, the truth of stories, of Negative Capability.
There is a moment in my own book, Ludlow, when I deliberately quote from Henry IV, Part One. The words are Hotspur’s:
The king is kind, and well we know the king
Knows at what time to promise, when to pay.
My father and my uncle and myself
Did give him that same royalty he wears;
And when he was not six and twenty strong,
Sick in the world’s regard, wretched and low,
A poor unminded outlaw sneaking home,
My father gave him welcome to the shore.
(IV. iii. 52-59)
A fictional character, an orphaned girl named Luisa Mole, is reading aloud to the children of her adoptive family, the Reeds. Part of the reason she was taken in by this middle-class family is that, though she was a miner’s daughter, she had some education and could read. She is the child of immigrants in a world that does not take kindly to immigrants. After the quoted stanza above, my narrative continues as follows:
It was a history play. They all took parts,
hearing the rage of Hotspur at the king
who came to power after murdering
another king. And Mrs. Reed explained
that it was England and long, long ago,
and things were better in America
without a king who sent his henchmen out
to do such work. But maybe this was hard
and they should find another book to read?
Hard indeed. The world is hard, and poetry is no more inclined to protect us from that difficulty than history is. Both muses sing as close to the truth as they can come, but truth remains available to us only in impure forms—the very problem that so frustrated Plato and inspired him to exalt philosophy over other pursuits.
The ghost of Shakespeare touches Ludlow not only in its blank verse, but also in its vision of corrupting power, its sense of history laced with uncertainty, and the tragic heft of human experience. What is Ludlow? Is it an epic of America, a nation of immigrants and ruthless commerce? Is it a novel in verse, exploring the psychology of its characters? Perhaps it is neither and both, but it is involved with twentieth century history, and even in an era when the historical record is more complete than it was in Shakespeare’s time, history remains riddled with doubt.
- Ludlow, Poetry and History
The event now known as the Ludlow Massacre took place on April 20, 1914, in the southern Colorado coal fields. Immigrants from more than twenty countries were mining coal in brutal conditions at a time when anti-immigrant feeling was very high. The United Mine Workers union sought to gain a foothold among these workers, and infiltrated their ranks, arguing for an eight-hour day, safer conditions, and legal tender for pay rather than company scrip. On the other side, the company hired private detectives and other thugs to keep order. A strike was declared in the fall of 1913. Things quickly went from terrible to worse, with beatings and killings on both sides, until the Governor called in the National Guard to keep order. Unfortunately, order was not kept. The union organized strikers in tent camps and brought in rabble-rousing speakers like Mother Jones. The soldiers’ ranks contained veterans of wars in Mexico and the Philippines, and racism inflamed their anti-immigrant anger. When the State of Colorado could no longer afford to pay the soldiers’ salaries, the company took over the payroll. The troops could see what side their bread was buttered on.
If Shakespeare’s Hotspur is motivated partly by hate, so were both sides in the Ludlow conflict. The force of the irrational runs through history and literature because it runs through humanity, and while history may seek to understand its causes, literature tends to be more fatalistic about human nature. Acts of kindness and generosity mean so much to us partly because of the bitter contexts in which they occur. We have competing narratives about what happened on April 20, 1914—the union side and the company side. Who opened fire first? Who was responsible for the conflict? At the end of the day, more than twenty people were dead—even this number is disputed and uncertain. Thirteen of them were women and children who suffocated in a pit under one of the strikers’ tents. The tents had been set aflame and the whole camp at Ludlow burned. The photographic evidence of this is indisputable, but precisely who set the fire remains a subject of controversy. My own strong feeling is that the soldiers burned the camp, not knowing there were people hiding under the tents. They had attacked the camps on previous occasions, and this was part of their strategy, like a prelude to scorched earth tactics in our many wars.
One of the best histories of the Ludlow Massacre was written by journalist Scott Martelle, whose years working as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers trained him in research. He agrees about the basic facts I have outlined above and suggests that “Massacre” is the wrong word for what transpired, because it implies that the soldiers deliberately set out to kill women and children that day. He would call it a battle instead, perhaps one involving that despicable term “collateral damage.” I have heard Martelle patiently make this case in rooms full of people still seething with outrage and unable to hear him. Ludlow was a terrible event and has been used by both sides for propaganda. Talking about Ludlow in the nearby town of Trinidad, where my own father was born and raised, can get you into trouble. If this is history, it is so close to us that the wounds still fester.
I had heard about Ludlow from my father and his brothers, rather like Herodotus hearing from the Delphians. I had read The Great Coalfield War (1996), by George S. McGovern and Leonard F. Guttridge, and I had grown up among left-leaning people in Washington State, prone to sympathize with striking immigrants. The election of 2000, decided by a Supreme Court vote, had outraged me to the point where I questioned the legitimacy of the Bush presidency. I questioned it further when my country invaded Iraq, a country with a terrible regime, to be sure, but one that had not attacked us in the first place. I was angry about American politics, about ways in which corporate power seemed rampant and anti-immigrant feeling was again on the rise. I was also married to a Scottish immigrant and had spent much of my life among Greek immigrants. When I read Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre (1991), by Zeese Papanikolas, I began to feel I had ways of approaching the story that made my attempt inevitable. Tikas, whose real name was Ilias Spantidakis, was from Crete. He became a union organizer and was shot in the back by militia troops on the day of the massacre, a Monday following the Orthodox Easter Sunday. I had lived in Greece and spoke the language. I had recently moved back to Colorado, where I had family roots, after twenty years of wandering, and felt I knew the land and the people well enough to write about them. I had written narrative and dramatic poetry for much of my life and wanted to expand my technical range, and call upon earlier efforts to write fiction at the same time. I was made to write Ludlow. The only question was how to do it.
Two things occurred to me right away: first, I would use blank verse, giving myself permission to vary it whenever needed, and I would learn from poets like Derek Walcott about macaronic diction, ways of making the language of a place out of the many languages of its people. Second, I would mix historical figures with fictional ones, trying to make them equally real to each other and to my readers. I would try to get Clio and Calliope to sing together. My main historical character, Louis Tikas, was accessible partly through the research of Papanikolas, partly through my own experience of Greek immigrants, the hyphenated identities of Greek-Americans and the textures of Greek village life. My main fictional character, Luisa Mole, her name a sort of mirror of Louis’s, grew in many ways from my own psyche, my own feeling of crushed and splintered identity. As I would write in a note to the second edition of the book, “Our nation has since its founding produced a series of experiments into the nature of individuality. What is a person? Who has the right to exist in this place? Fiction asks such questions as urgently as history does” (Mason 5).
Something was in the air, because Scott Martelle’s Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class Warfare in the American West came out at almost precisely the same time in 2007 as Ludlow. I didn’t have the benefit of Scott’s insight when I wrote my narrative poem, but we’ve since become friends, more than once called upon, along with Zeese and others, to discuss the Ludlow Massacre at conferences. We happen to agree on the narrative and its meaning, but all three of us came at it from different directions, often with different motives. The poet usually comes across in these discussions as the least authoritative figure. People really do want to know the facts, and the historians have done a very good job of demonstrating those facts, yet ambiguities remain in spite of their best efforts.
By now, Ludlow has been the subject of films, books and articles by many hands, yet my poetic version of the story persists. I may have struck my own chord, somehow. In 2019, the scholar Yiorgos Anagnostou published an essay called “Poetry Traversing History: Narrating Louis Tikas in David Mason’s Ludlow,” which makes an argument for poetic truth in harmony with history:
An additional narrative route in Ludlow’s evocation of immigrant subjectivity travels through sheer poetic imagination. . . . a thread in the poem explicitly imagines Tikas. It visualizes his most intimate moments, including those that take place in brothels. Or it ventures into picturing Tikas sleepless, yearning for the sensual pleasures of his natal place—the sea, the smells—missing what ‘was almost freedom.’ . . . this poetic excavation of private moments brings to life experiences and feelings that largely escape the historical archive. . . History’s turn to subjectivity and Ludlow’s respective interest in these ‘most uncompromising places’ [a phrase quoted from Michel Foucault] converge then in valuing precisely the exploration of areas of human experience that are prone to elude the archive. (62)
Could poetry be another form of history?
Ludlow would not work as fiction to the degree that it does without my trying to imagine the inner lives of my characters, giving them what I call “ground sense,” the feeling of what it might be like to inhabit their skin, their minds. My Tikas might not be the real one, but neither is the historian’s. We are both storytellers, after all. I tried to see Tikas as a man who dreams, who suffers, who desires. In the following passage, before his involvement with union politics, he has just begun working in the mines—another activity I had to imagine for myself with no actual experience of it:
Mountains. Distant sea a dream above the olives.
His sisters going out to milk the goats
while he repaired a terrace wall. The weight
He woke with burning hands,
the pain of blisters, in a man-packed room
dark as the chambered pit but full of snores.
The freedom of his dreams
far off as sunlight on a swirling cove.
For all the years he’d lived in America
he’d felt the torture of its emptiness.
the quiet of a village just at nightfall,
goat bells, women’s voices, rustle of leaves,
came back as steadily as waves, as wind
in olive branches he had climbed as a boy
to feel them swaying like small boats at sea.
He felt that constant sway and almost cried.
Already Louis knew that he would quit,
but when and how, how many Greeks he’d take
straight to the union hall in Frederick—
those were questions that disturbed his sleep.
How they would leave. How pass the guarded gate.
He’d seen detectives in a motorcar,
armed men from Baldwin-Felts,
the agency well known for breaking strikes.
And so he rose and worked, went down the pit
and learned to push his fear still deeper down.
The men who argued at the scales were beaten
senseless by the guards while Tikas watched,
but each night after work the guards would talk
of apergíes, strikes, and what it meant
to be a scab, and how long they would wait
and what some unarmed men could do to guards.
Imagining Luisa Mole, the child of a Welsh father and a Mexican mother, was really no different. The material at hand was everything I knew in my skin and nerves, and in a peculiar way everything I remembered.
I’ll finish this discussion with one event, two narrations. Scott Martelle’s book opens with a gunfight on the streets of Trinidad, August 16, 1913:
Gerald Lippiatt, a stocky man with a bushy mustache, scuffed up little puffs of dust as he walked the slight rise of North Commercial Street between the Purgatoire River and the small buildings marking downtown’s outer edge. It was a few minutes after eight o’clock on a Saturday night, and the late summer sun had given way to a full moon that bathed the prairie-edge city in gentle light. A dry easterly breeze slipping in from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains carried away the last vestiges of a hot and dry day. As Lippiatt, an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, neared the heart of downtown, he was swallowed by the festive energy of people shaking off the exacting drudgery of a week working on the ranch or mining coal deep below the ground. Blue sparks flashed from overhead wires as electric trolleys rumbled along brick-lined tracks, and at the city center, where Commercial Street crossed main in front of the posh Columbian Hotel, a Salvation Army minister exhorted sinners to repent, his message stopping at the doors of busy first-floor saloons, pawnshops, and narrow gambling halls. (Martelle 10)
The setting is absolutely convincing. Martelle has done his work, researching and triangulating details to establish his facts, building on his experience of the weather, the photographic evidence, etc. Lippiatt knew he was in trouble before he went to Trinidad. He knew how dangerous it was. No sooner had he arrived on Commercial Street than he fell into an argument with Baldwin-Felts detectives. Guns were drawn. Lippiatt went down in a hail of bullets, wounding one detective in the leg. Those are the events, and they are as factual as anything can be.
My own narration of the gunfight happens from Luisa’s point of view. When the shooting starts, she’s with the Reed household across the river, caring for their children. Mr. Reed is away, working in his mercantile store in town, close to the intersection of Commercial and Main Streets. By now we know that Luisa has an unspoken crush on George Reed, and when the shooting starts, her first thought is of him:
After she put Pud down at his bedtime
Luisa sat on the steps to the front porch
to catch the evening breeze.
The girls were playing jump-rope in the yard
and Mrs. Reed, her mending basket out,
rocked and looked at the view of Fisher’s Peak.
The men worked late a summer Saturday.
Luisa gazed across at town, the river.
That was where they came from—pistol shots
in quick succession: POP-POP-POP. POP-POP.
A ricochet of sound from buildings where
Commercial Street fanned out above the river.
“What in tarnation?” Mrs. Reed had stood.
POP-POP. POP-POP. POP-POP. Luisa ran
almost before she knew it—wind rushing
past her ears, black hair flying. Behind her
voices screamed. “Luisa, no!” But no one
followed as she crossed the thumping bridge,
more people near, then running too like her,
both men and women. Then they were a crowd
and she stopped running. Motorcars and people
jammed the street outside the union office.
She saw the smashed glass of a shop window,
the bullet holes and chips in the brick walls.
A man lay on the street, holding his knee
and cursing like a soldier. Another man
lay twisted on a thick stream of his blood.
Some women screamed. Policemen cleared a way
to get an ambulance to the wounded man.
Luisa stood, relieved it wasn’t George.
No, it was George Reed standing next to her:
“What the hell are you doing here, young lady?”
He’d put his collar on, his coat and tie
with its cigar smells. Sometimes, walking home,
he liked to smoke, and maybe stop to drink
just one with Arthur before he crossed the bridge.
She felt him turn her from the sight and walk
deliberately away, his hand upon
her shoulder, steadying her shaking bones.
“Who was that man?” she asked. “The one who died?”
“Some union fella, came in on the train.
I heard him having words with two mine guards
or detectives or whatever the hell they are.”
He stopped and turned her toward him, and she saw
worry in his blue eyes. “It’s getting worse,
young lady. More union men arriving
every week, and more detectives. These fellas
argued. I didn’t see who started shooting. . .”
My motives here are multiple. I want to move the action forward and create suspense, to illuminate the psychology of my characters as best I can. George Reed is a businessman, suspicious of both sides, who simply wants to stay out of trouble, Luisa a divided soul, conflicted in her loyalties and affections. Scott Martelle’s narrative establishes the facts, while mine deals with the feelings of my characters. Neither approach denies the truth of what happened that day, as far as it can be known.
There is more to say about my use of minor characters, the effort to vary tone and create ironic echoes. While my sympathies lie almost entirely with the immigrants, I made sure not to see the union as a choir of angels. The roughness and brutality of both sides is truer to the facts. But I also don’t want to deny my outrage at the soullessness of corporations and their henchmen, the incompetence of politicians, the thwarted hopes of all who wished to keep the peace. I want that complication and ambiguity not only because it seems truer to the facts as we know them, but because it more accurately represents the complications of life.
Memory is memory, made up of imagination as much as a kind of cellular truth. She is an unreliable mother, an unknown figure whose nine daughters once were joined in “delightful utterance.” Viewing them as absolutely separate creatures isolates them in a cold universe, disconnected from meaning with all its uncertainties, doubts and ambiguities. We do well to see them dancing together again in a truly meaningful world.
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