Constance Coiner: On "I Want You Women Up North To Know"

As Olsen began her writing career, workers started pouring into the available unions. New Deal legislation included the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), and Section 7A guaranteed workers tile right to organize and bargain collectively. "Many workers," James Green observes, felt "the tide of history had finally turned" (even though the NRA was skirted for more often than it was enforced by the establishment of "company" unions and was declared unconstitutional in 1935. Three major strikes of 1934 demonstrated the great potential for working-class militancy. In February, 900 National Guardsmen failed to break a massive picket of 10,000 workers from the community surrounding the Toledo Auto-Lite plant. Significantly, the striking electricians alone could not have defied the Guard. Their strength came in sheer numbers, and those numbers came from other workers willing to join the picket in solidarity. The Maritime Strike on the West Coast, which involved Olsen directly, began in May. And in July, Minneapolis Trotskyists led the teamster strike that inspired Le Sueur's "I Was Marching," closing down the trucking industry and tying up the entire city.

Such was the dramatic setting in which young Tillie Lerner, "fierce for change," was writing. As much as a youthful zealousness and what I term the CP's "official certainty," this expanding unionization and increasing working-class militancy affected her writing. As noted above, Olsen has said of the '30s: "We believed that we were going to change the world." As one might expect, then, Olsen's 1934 publications are more polemical, more akin to orthodox proletarian writing than her more recent writing. Their settings and subjects, for example, are standard for proletarian writing--conditions in a (garment) factory; the murdering of socialists by a fascist regime; an exploited mining community; an arrest of Communist labor organizers; and a strike.

When Olsen was 21 and an active YCL member, her first publication, a poem titled "I Want You Women Up North To Know," appeared in The Partisan (March 1934), a magazine of the West Coast John Reed Club. This poem grew out of a letter to New Masses (9 January 1934) from a Texas woman, Felipe Ibarro, indicting the owners of the Juvenile Manufacturing Corporation who exploited workers--in this case, Chicanas--in the San Antonio garment industry.

Ibarro reports that Catalina Rodriguez, "in the last stages of consumption, works from six in the morning till midnight," never earning more than three dollars a week. Ibarro adds that she no longer wonders "why in our city with a population of 250,000 the Board of Health has registered 800 professional 'daughters of joy' and in addition, about 2000 Mujeres Alegres (happy women), who are not registered and sell themselves for as little as five cents." Ibarro reports that the Chamber of Commerce has dubbed San Antonio "Where Sunshine Spends The Winter" as part of its campaign to compete with Florida and California for tourists. "I don't know whether the tourists came," she adds, but "Capital came and let out the children's dresses for home work."

Olsen's basing her poem on Ibarro's letter locates "I Want You Women Up North to Know" loosely within the genre of workers' correspondence poems (although Ibarro was not herself one of the workers, she knows the "bloody facts" because she had "spoken to the women" workers). The Daily Worker identified Harry Alan Potamkin as the first to use workers' correspondence as a theme for poetry. Gold, another practitioner of this genre, crafted poems from letters sent to the Daily Worker. The correspondence from Ibarro included many specifics--names, ages, wages. Olsen repeats many of these details in her poem.

. . .

Like much reportage, this poem foregrounds fundamental antitheses: the abstract women up north who have the money to shop at "gimbels, marshall fields" versus the particular "maria, ambrosa, catalina," "down in San Antonio," "stitching these dresses from dawn to night, / in blood, in wasting flesh." In the concluding two lines (taken verbatim from the concluding sentences of Ibarro's letter), the poem embodies the "official certainty" characteristic of '30s proletarian literature, while another line describes the Soviet Union as "heaven ... brought to earth in 1917." Like many Party members, Olsen believed in an American socialist future with the buoyancy Lincoln Steffens expressed upon his return from the Soviet Union: "I have seen the future and it works."

In the following passage from the poem Olsen opposes herself to what she terms "the bourgeois poet" by moving abruptly from a parody of traditional lyrical poetry, which in her view would ignore or distance the reader from the plight of these exploited workers, to prosaically announcing their low wages and their only available alternative for employment, prostitution.

. . .

Olsen parodies a long bourgeois tradition of "romanticizing" the worker while displaying the mental agility of the poet. Olsen could easily have had Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" in mind:

Whate'er the theme, the maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o'er the sickle bending;--

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

 

Olsen could also have been thinking of the no-less-condescending Yeats poem, "The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart":

All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart, The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould, Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told; I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart, With the earth and the sky and the water, remade, like a casket of gold For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

These are only two of many such examples from the bourgeois tradition at which Olsen's poem takes aim. An amalgam rather than a blend of poetry and reportage, "I Want You Women Up North to Know," is nevertheless at points sensitive to the richness and rhythm of language. The free verse form and the repetition of words and phrases may represent a debt to Whitman, while a bold central metaphor transforms the women into the clothing they embroider--that is, into commodities.

But the discomfort this poem causes its readers is ambiguous. While the text succeeds in its intention to force us to confront the agony and injustice of these garment workers' lives, it is also unsettling because it preempts our emotional and moral responses. It bludgeons us, its exhortatory language announcing a distrust that the reader will respond appropriately to the garment workers' suffering. The language announces itself, too, as "movement" discourse, which in practice turns back on itself, speaking to itself rather than to a general audience--that is, the already converted speak to the already converted in the special discourse of Converts. Because those who might have been persuaded are, in effect, excluded by this discourse, the poem's intention is undercut.

Even so, in this first publication we already see emerging in Olsen's writing a tendency, which will later become dominant, that competes with her desire for monological authorial and pedagogical control. In this "worker's correspondence" poem, she gives others a voice, straining toward a collective form. The poem is a vehicle for the stories of exploited Chicanas, as Tell Me a Riddle will be permeable to multiple oppressed voices. And in nascent form, "I Want You Women Up North" prefigures Silences' maverick intertextuality. Olsen "yields the floor" Filipe Ibarro's words as she will to dozens of other writers in the later text, and she allows Ibarro's words to conclude the poem, as she will give the "last word" in Silences to Rebecca Harding Davis.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Constance Coiner: On "I Want You Women Up North To Know" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Constance Coiner Criticism Target Tillie Lerner Olsen
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 27 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur
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Contexts No Data Tags No Data

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