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by AARON PARRETT
Executive Director, Drumlummon Institute

Ed Lahey Montana PoetHis thundering voice now whispers in the underworld” –“Underworld Poets” (Gibbons)

“The old miner king of poetry”—that’s how Mark Gibbons once described Ed Lahey. Dave Thomas called him “the chief of us old Montana poets,” and added, “Ed has written poems that I don’t think anyone will ever equal.”  Sheryl Noethe called Lahey “My Very Own Pablo Neruda,” and Rick DeMarinis might also have had Neruda in mind when he said, “Ed Lahey is that rare creature who, I suspect, didn’t decide to be a poet, but simply had to be one.”

Drumlummon Institute is proud to announce the upcoming publication of a volume of Lahey’s last poems, called Moving On, edited by Mark Gibbons. We’ll be launching a crowdfunding effort soon which will give contributors an opportunity to pre-order a copy of this collection of previously unpublished work by one of Montana’s most important poets.

As the new executive director of Drumlummon Institute, I thought I would take an opportunity in this first-ever Drumlummon Blog post to share with you my own take on Ed Lahey and his importance to Montana Letters.

I met Ed Lahey once, only briefly, at what might very well have been his last public reading. It was at the Montana Book Festival in Missoula. I had gone to hear Rick DeMarinis read, and afterwards asked him if he wanted to get dinner or a drink or something. “I’m going to hear Ed Lahey read at a hotel downtown,” he said. “You should come with me. He’s from Butte.”

By that time, Ed’s health had grown precarious. He read some great poems, but Rick assured me his soft delivery was nothing like it had been when he was younger. Still, I could tell that this guy was no effete pretender or academic acolyte, no “concept” poet with an MFA. I think he stood at the podium in dirty jeans, disheveled and looking like he’d crawled out of one of those Lee Nye photos that hang on the wall a few blocks away at Charlie B’s in Missoula:  a man on the downside of 70 with a lot of those years logged in pursuit of what country singers call hard living.

Hard-Rock Miner Turned Poet

I’d come across a few of Ed’s poems, of course: “The Blind Horses,” or “Confederate Shacks,” usually in the context of reading a book or article related to Butte. Almost any essayist who ventured to install a new window on Butte would head it off with an epigraph from either Berton Braley or Ed Lahey. But seven years of graduate school in Comparative Literature had temporarily anesthetized me enough to forget that not all great American poetry was produced by expatriates in tweeds or by graduates of expensive colleges back east. The fact that Wallace Stevens—one of my favorites—had been an insurance executive seemed exotic, but he was still from the privileged class, as were William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, and pretty much everyone else I had liked as kid in Oscar Williams’ little book, Immortal Poems of the English Language. But unless you’re from Montana—and more specifically, familiar with Butte—it is unlikely you can name another poet besides Ed Lahey who actually spent time underground in a hard-rock mine.

His Prose

To be perfectly honest, my own deep respect for Lahey stemmed not from his poetry, but his prose: I fell in love with his novel, The Thin Air Gang (2011), a philosophical tale about the horrors of the depression, a sort of Steinbeckian saga of class struggle in Butte, a town in which I, like both my parents, had been born. In Literary Butte, I ranked it as one of the greatest works of fiction to come out of a town that has inspired more than forty novels. I admired the way Lahey told his tale of moonshine and poverty with what seemed effortless narrative ease: the plot never flagged, and the cramped futility that his characters seemed to feel translated perfectly into insights on the especially devastating effects the Depression had on Montana, and on Butte in particular.  One of the characters in The Thin Air Gang, for example, nutshelled the Butte experience in a laconic gloss that might have served as a plot summary for some of the many  novels that have tried, with far less success than Lahey, to capture Butte and its people: “The Colonel was one of those men unable to make it legally, soured by a mean society that honored the strong as cheap labor, and that worked men to death in the copper mines and mills for the sake of the treasure the owner hoarded.” An impromptu remark Lahey made at a reading a few years before his novel came out might have stood as an epigraph to his narrative accomplishment in that book: “You learn something about good and evil,” Lahey said, “when you grow up in Butte.”

The accomplishment of that novel aside, Lahey was a poet—and one of the best. Lahey wore the mantle and took it seriously—poetry was his life—even if, with a certain Socratic irony, he more than once replaced the term “poet” with “goddamned fool.” Perhaps the key to unlocking just what makes Lahey’s writing so intensely powerful lies in understanding what he meant in making that association: I do not think he meant it disparagingly, or any more self-deprecatingly than a poet deserves. It strikes me as just the sort of expression you’d hear a miner say about miners. In any case, Lahey grew up in a mining town and like many young men, at seventeen found himself in the throat of an ore kiln, slamming a five-pound hammer to chip off scale, breathing deadly dust laced with manganese in the dim light. His poetry evokes the tough lives of men who live their lives like that, in thrall to machinery and exhaustion and the lustful exuberance of leisure hours spent on liquor and women.

His most famous poem, “The Blind Horses,” opens at the deathbed of a dying miner, an old-timer who lived through a fire in the Lexington Mine in 1898, in an era when horses and mules lived their entire lives underground, corralled in drifts, worked to death in the dark. After so many years in such conditions, the horses would go blind. The ostensible subject of the poem would be grim enough, but Lahey trains his poetic laser vision on the miner who survived the fire only to die years later in the throes of acute psychic trauma from having brutalized those animals. Lahey’s genius lay in his talent for crystallizing these specific moments in the calculus of extraction that made Butte—and by extension, the country—what it was. He pulls the curtain back on the American Dream and reveals its haunted, Montana Face: “I hear them breathing, Ed.”

Salt of the Earth

For most of us, there’s something inherently attractive about the kind of people Jesus Christ called “the salt of the earth,” by which he meant ordinary, hard-working people who give flavor to the whole complicated stew of humanity. We call them authentic, noting something especially compelling about their stories and the way they tell them.

For academics and literary (or art or music) critics, “authenticity” is a sucker’s game: it’s easy to poke holes in any argument that valorizes where you’re from as a prerequisite for entrée into the canon. Why shouldn’t an aristocrat with empathy and little talent be able to write a compelling story about poverty, for instance? Should it somehow devalue Bob Dylan’s or Woody Guthrie’s contributions to American folk music to know that they both came from middle class backgrounds rather than suffering the impoverished lives they sanctified? This tendency in literary criticism can be exploded with a kind of literary Turing test, one that can be extended to all “Montana” literature: if you can’t tell whether the author of the book about Montana you’re enjoying is actually from Montana, or actually lives in Montana (adjust the terms to align with your definition of authenticity), then what difference does it make?

On the other hand, to call a poet like Lahey “authentic” just means, at least in my mind, that he was the kind of poet who was a poet first, and everything else was subservient or consequent to that primary fact.  Ed Lahey lived a hard life like hundreds of other men and women in Butte, but he also was a writer who gave voice to what that life felt like—an insider’s perspective, as it were. When verisimilitude is a function of first-hand experience it does no damage to call it authentic. His friends and fellow poets who learned from him put it similarly. “I can talk about his poetry, and his genius, and what he did for me as a poet,” Sheryl Noethe says. “He was better than an MFA. He was better than going to a program, because he lived it.”

Consider, for example, Lahey’s classic poem “Gimp O’Leary’s Iron Works,” one of only two of his poems anthologized in that bibliographic barbell of Montana Literature, The Last Best Place. The poem, which Lahey acknowledged might be considered his ars poetica, expertly portrays a skilled welder whose success with the “struggle of molecules and will” engenders the subtle envy of co-workers who attempt to diminish his reputation with surreptitious lies—falsehoods about his character, we presume. Lahey uses the subtle but complex male politics found in the company of skilled laborers to get in a dig against academic theory:

Of course you might say,
“Don’t use that example
As a metaphor for poetry.”
“Welding is a matter of utility.”

“And you’d be right,” Lahey says in the poem, except that everything admirable about O’Leary’s unparalleled prowess with rod and arc happens to be exactly those expressions of skill that transcend utility: “in his struggle with the steel / he could seldom really win,” Lahey admits, but the old welder knew that “perfection could / conceal the wound / beneath the arc of his art.” And when the poet intrudes again in the last line to say, “I liked him for that,” we know Lahey is repudiating not only a utilitarian approach to art, but the notion that debates among proud and skilled workmen are any less fierce or consequential or justified than those of academics in the Ivory Tower. That’s authentic.

A Force To Be Reckoned With

By any account, Ed Lahey was a force to be reckoned with. Poets often embody contradiction; they contain, as Whitman (himself a poet) said, multitudes. He was theatrical as a reader, with a rich, stentorian delivery befitting a fellow born of the Butte Hill and Irish stock, eccentric to a fault as a bachelor, and an unflinching intellectual behind what Dunsmore called his “armor plate” of a shirt unlaundered or changed in several weeks. “He was a great, strong reader, performer,” Dave Thomas says. “Whenever he gave a reading, you got your money’s worth out of the deal.” As much as his singular delivery when reading his poems, Ed Lahey was famous for his storytelling, his off-the-cuff commentary between poems. He once introduced “A Different Price,” his poem about a fellow named Haggarty who loses a hand to some mine machinery, in this way: “A little story about this next poem,” Lahey began. “I once worked for a guy… [long pause]. End of Story.”

Ed Lahey was born in 1936 in Butte. As with many poets, the biography becomes hazy after that. He was a precocious student with a sharp mind, and after a stint in the mines, attended UM. Dunsmore claims at one point he earned a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for graduate school at the University of Minnesota and had been a runner-up for the Rhodes Scholarship. He also suffered from mental illness and alcoholism and spent several stretches at Warm Springs and other facilities.

Ed Lahey didn’t publish a collection of poetry until 1979, when he was 43 years old, but it was a doozy. The Blind Horses won the Montana Arts Council First Book award that year, the first year the award was offered. Twenty years passed before another collection came out, Apples Rolling on the Lawn in 1999. According to Roger Dunsmore, Lahey might never have published another book, had an old friend named Hal Waldrup not stepped in.

Hal Waldrup was an old, old friend of Ed’s from way back. He worked as an aide out at the mental institution. He just felt bad that Ed did not have any poems out there after The Blind Horses. So, he did that. He actually did the physical labor to it. He paid for it out of his pocket. He is the one who reopened Ed’s publishing from that point on. I think that gets forgotten. Everybody looks at Russell Chatham’s book, or the one the University book store did that has Jenny’s drawing on the cover, the horses leaping out of the typewriter. It was Hal Waldrup who deserves the credit for the reopening. That was really important.

Persistence and Patience

Lahey tended to write slowly and methodically. He worked on one poem at a time, working it over until it felt finished. When his friend and fellow poet Jack Waller described to Lahey his own strategy of working of several different poems at a time, perhaps in different stages of development, Lahey was incredulous. “It was hard for [Lahey] to comprehend because his practice was one poem at a time. He said, “I focus on it, I write it, and I don’t move on until it seems finished to me.” He would go back later and make slight revisions but he was a ‘one poem at a time’ writer, that was his approach.”

When Russell Chatham at Clark City discovered Lahey and put out Birds of a Feather in 2005, its 181 pages held the complete works of the poet, who was by then almost 70 years old.  Lahey would only live another six years, most of that in poor health. Yet he continued to write. Nearly everyone who was close to him speaks of his penchant for writing letters as well as poetry, and one hopes that efforts are underway to collect the letters. Lahey was not prolific, even by the standards of dedicated poets, but anyone who reads through Birds of a Feather will recognize that all of it—from the first lines of “The Orphan Girl Prospect” to the Zen exhortation of “The Cardboard Suitcase,” which fittingly closes with a memory of his own mother’s dying advice (“Sleep by a river”)—demonstrates a sustained level of quality and a consistent voice that often eludes even the busiest of poets. His work bleeds with the sort of conviction that goes along with an author less worried about publishing than with getting the words out of his head. And this was poetry written to be read aloud anyway, to be memorized and carried in the soul—and not just by Lahey, but by his friends and fellow poets: I’ve listened on more than one occasion to Mark Gibbons, for example, declaim one of Ed’s poems from memory at Poetry Out Loud.

A Man of Intellect

Lahey’s persona may have been blue collar, but his gritty verse about his first-hand knowledge of the lives of men who toiled their lives away in mines below the earth in narrow shafts nevertheless teems with the sort of literary allusions graduate students live for. Nearly everyone in the collection of interviews on the subject of Ed Lahey archived at UM agrees that the man was an intellectual, a writer well-read and erudite. It would take more than the casual reader to hear the echo of The Gay Science at the close of “All My Change,” for example:

Reaching for a pen, at last,
Certain you have something
To say, someone to remember
To repay, a cock for
What’s His Name,
A debt…

But Lahey evokes perfectly Nietzsche’s wry read of the scene in Plato’s Crito, wherein Socrates, on the verge of death, begs his friends to settle a debt he has incurred to Asclepius, the god of medicine, implying that life is a disease, and death the cure. The opening stanza of Lahey’s poem hints also at Freud and his Todestrieb, the death drive that pulls us all along relentlessly:

What is it anyway,
The run of time, each step’s
Success or failure,
At last a foot in the grave

Lahey’s genius lies in the way the lines connect our anxiety at the prospect of death to that sort of existential esprit d’escalier writers are eternally cursed with, that gnawing sense of dread that we’ve neglected to jot down the words in time, failed to nail them to the page before the muse vanishes—again.

Those same grad students will note in Lahey’s line from “A Tip of the Hat”, “this is not a poem / in case you didn’t notice,” a playful nod to Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,” and scholars will like the felicitous line in “Joker’s Wild” about an Indian man “who speaks of his wyf as though / he had read Chaucer,” in the same way it will be hard for them to read the last few lines of Lahey’s signature poem, “The Blind Horses,” and not hear the hoofbeats from Euripides’ Hippolytus. For that matter, Lahey doesn’t just reference the Odyssey in his poem “The Return of Odysseus,” he rather assembles on a scaffold of its central piths the gist of his own elaborate punchline; a zinger that depends on a relatively arcane familiarity of the scene in Book 17 where Argos recognizes his master after nineteen years apart: “And she left him to sleep with the dog / who knew him and liked his smell.”

All of this is by way of acknowledging that poetry, when it works the way it was designed, transports its audience into a universe of endlessly overlapping meanings and connections, making us aware that truth consists not in the ringing of the bell, but in the echo; the poet speaks—but the poetry resonates.

A Father’s Influence

An anecdote his friends recall Lahey recounting more than once illustrates how Lahey knew early on his was to be the life of a poet: at 15, his father read a poem Ed had written and then quietly folded the poem up and tucked it in his wallet, where he carried it until the day he died. After his father died, Ed then carried the same folded poem in his wallet until the day he died.

There’s something wonderfully and perfectly Irish about that story, as if it were a scene in a Patrick McGinley novel, or exactly something old Simon Daedalus might have done with an early poem of his son Stephen’s—an outtake from A Portrait of the Artist or Ulysses. As Lahey told it, it had the flavor of a parable, an epigraph on the relationship he had with his father, a moonshiner during the depression in Butte not given to outsized gestures of affection, but it evokes at the same time a larger, almost allegorical sense of Irish tenacity, fatal and brooding: throughout the “troubles,” during the entire grim saga of their oppression, the brutality of the famine and the dislocation of immigration to the new world and hardluck towns like Butte, the Irish always had their words, their magic way with language, and his father’s gesture becomes not merely a stoic man’s way of conveying love to his son, but an affirmation of endurance, an imprimatur on his son’s urge for words beyond the ragged vernacular of a place like Butte. Lahey has distilled Wordsworth’s dictum from “My Heart Leaps Up” about how “the child is father to the man” through the copper coil of a moonshine still, and its truth, like that of whiskey’s, applies at once to paternal love, a nation’s history, and the poet’s coming of age. The story grew more poignant when, after his father died, he learned from his mother that the man who raised him and who carried that poem in his wallet all those years had not been his biological father.

Poetry As A Response to Injustice

Good poetry exudes passion, and passion tends to overflow the internal boundaries and become political. Not that Lahey was a political poet, but the emotional response to injustice that you see in his poems was evident in his personal life as well. He was an anti-war advocate early on in Missoula, for example, and a pacifist all his life. And having been a union man, Lahey understood the purpose and goal of government, which is knowledge that has all but vanished from the current political landscape. One of Montana’s best-loved and longest-serving politicians, former Congressman Pat Williams, grew up with Lahey in Butte, and said this about his friend: “Ed had an innate understanding about politics and a learned perception about politics and government and how it works. […] The need for rules and regulations, the need for safety, the need for minimum wage and the need for being able to come together in organizations we ended up calling unions. Ed understood that to the marrow of his bones, the importance of all that.”  When Percy Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” part of what he meant was that quite often political change begins with art. Ed Lahey was the kind of poet who understood that insight. Or as Pat Williams puts it, “[Ed] understood that some industries, including early-day industries in Butte and mining camps like it, put profit well ahead of the safety or well-being of either their community or the workers. There was no kidding Ed about that. He accepted no apology, no shift right, run left from the apologists for industry. He would have none of it. Because he understood having grown up in Butte, lived in Butte, he understood the history what had happened over there.”

And Lahey never lost sight of the importance of social justice. When Lahey took the podium to accept an arts award from Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, Dunsmore recounts that “the first thing he did was condemn capital punishment. The second thing he did was condemn the war in Iraq. I was really moved by his willingness to do those two things in that very political place in front those people and to use whatever award he got to make that kind of statement.” In the same way, Ed Lahey understood, like Rilke, that poets are merely conduits for poetry, and that what matters most in the end is not the persona or the writer at all. Pat Williams says that after Lahey won the Governor’s Award for the Arts in 2008, Lahey confided to him, “You know Pat, none of it’s about me. It’s all about what I wrote about.”

Leaving A Legacy

By the time Lahey gave that last reading at the Florence Hotel in what must have been 2009, it seemed evident he was nearing the end and he knew it. The tremor had intensified, he moved slowly with a cane, and his voice—once a thunderous growl—had softened to a gritty whisper. His health was failing, and he was a pauper. “Ed needed money,” Dunsmore recalls. “He didn’t have much of anything in those years when I knew him from ’91 on. He always lived on a shoe string and close to the edge.” Jack Waller recounted in an interview after Lahey passed that he had asked him to draft and execute his last will and testament. “His top priorities were his intellectual properties,” Waller said. “He had very few material possessions. He had very few assets at all.” For 75 years, the poet had eked out a living in hardscrabble Butte fashion, and died having little to bequeath to anyone beyond his legacy of some of the best Montana poetry ever written. Waller said Ed’s own assessment in looking back on his life could be summarized with the word “struggle: economical, interpersonal, political.” Waller’s recollection describes a man who, like the protagonist in “The Blind Horses,” was haunted: “His review of his life, especially at that time when we were working on his will, was a history of a lot of pain. He used the word over, and over and over again, how haunted he was by regrets. Regrets of things that happened way, way, way back. That’s part of the way I came to understand Ed’s life in the big picture is the undercurrents that originated even in childhood.”

When Ed Lahey died in 2011, he left behind him an apartment filled with the detritus of a writer’s life: well-loved and worn-out books, dirty dishes and an empty icebox, and stray paper everywhere. Mark Gibbons assumed the task of sorting Ed’s affairs and cleaning out the apartment. “The classic old bachelor’s dump,” Gibbons said. “I found forty—at least forty—uncollected poems.” He also rescued the manuscript of an unpublished novel, a sort of companion piece to The Thin Air Gang called The King of the Cabbage Patch. After sorting through boxfuls of paper and scraps of writing and performing triage, there was enough poetry to fill the book you now hold in your hands. It’s hard to know whether it’s a book Lahey would have put together himself, or in the same way, but if anyone knew Lahey well enough to make the right editorial decisions about the last writings Lahey made, it would be Mark Gibbons.

Almost everything Lahey wrote that ever made it into the world between the covers of a book came about because someone else who had heard him read, or knew his work, did the legwork required to get them out there. In the same way that Paul Warwick brought The Blind Horses to light, that Hal Waldrup made sure Apples Rolling on the Lawn came out, and that Russell Chatham delivered for us Birds of a Feather, Mark Gibbons has done yeoman’s work in rescuing the last of what Ed Lahey left us and putting in the work to see it through to publication. The world needs as much of what Ed had to say as possible in times like these, and there’s no surer measure of the value of your poetry than that your friends will take good care of it once you’ve moved on.

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References and Further Reading

[Pat Williams Interview, OH438-007, Archives & Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, University of Montana-Missoula]

Roger Dunsmore Interview, OH438-03, Archives & Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library,  The University of Montana-Missoula.

[Sheryl Noethe Interview, OH 438-002, Archives & Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library,  The University of Montana-Missoula  8]