This Old Book
by Christina PacoszCollected Poems, 1918-1938
Harper and Brothers, 1938
“A m I the Christian gentlewoman my mother slaved to make me? No indeed. I am a poet, a wine-bibber, a radical; a non-churchgoer who will no longer sing in the choir or lead prayer-meeting with a testimonial. (Although I will write anonymous confessions for The Nation.) That is her story—and her second defeat. She thinks I owed her a Christian gentlewoman, for all she did for me. We quarrel. After I escaped, she snapped shut the iron trap around my brother and sister. That is their story. I do not know if they will ever be free of her. She keeps Eddie Guest on the parlor table beside the books I have written—a silent protest against me. She is not pleased.”That’s poet Genevieve Taggard writing in The Nation in 1927 in an article titled “Poet out of Pioneer.” Born on November 28, 1894, in the very small town of Waitsburg, Washington, Taggard spent most of her childhood in Hawaii where her parents had decided to go to teach. They became missionaries for the Disciples of Christ and founded a school for Hawaiian children. Genevieve published her first poem in Hawaii when she was thirteen.
Eventually, Taggard returned to the mainland and studied at the University of California at Berkeley with poet Leonard Bacon (who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1941), taking his English 106 course, the first creative writing course offered at U Cal. She became active in the socialist political and literary community. It took her six years to graduate because she was also helping to support her parents and two younger siblings.
Taggard left the west coast for New York City, Connecticut, and Vermont and would also travel in Southern France, Mallorca, and the coast of the Black Sea, which was then part of a youthful Soviet Union.
Many of Taggard’s books are long out of print* and difficult to find, but what she wrote in the not-so-long-ago offers much-needed wisdom and inspiration for us today. Her first book of poems, For Eager Lovers, was published in 1922; 13 additional books of poetry followed. She was editor or co-editor of five other collections of poetry in her lifetime. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, she taught poetry at Mt. Holyoke, Bennington, and Sarah Lawrence Colleges. Her biography The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson (Alfred A. Knopf, 1930) remains a valuable addition to understanding one of the major poets of the United States. Taggard’s poems appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Saturday Review of Literature and The Masses and Soviet Russia Today.
Her Collected Poems, 1918-1938 attest to the wide-ranging geography and vision of her poetry. One poem seems to be a statement about poetry, though it is titled “Definition of Song.” Here is an excerpt:
Singing is best, it gives right joy to speech.
The line about the lark being the only one who has the right to sing solo and greet the day is important to understanding Taggard’s poetic vision, I think, for the book opens with a song written by Taggard with music by Henry Leland Clarke, titled “Lark” and it closes with that same song, transformed now into the lyrics of the poem. It is worth repeating.
O lark, from great dark, arise!
The solitary lark is a key to unlock the meaning of the poems. Taggard knew the joys of working with other writers and artists committed to causes and felt that such work was even more important than the individual effort. But a poet must often work in the dark, alone, like the sweet-singing lark, at least at first. The lark is also, at the same time, a way of publishing good news on the street, this time, of the arrival of dawn. For Taggard, who deliberately chose to read her poetry on the radio to include the public at large in her vision, the lark is like the cry of the earliest marcher, soon to be joined by the throngs of the long-suffering working class seeking redress.
Taggard’s poetry began to reflect more of her politics during the 1930s, sparked in part by the Great Depression and her editorship at The New Masses, but also by her experiences at Berkeley as a student of Bacon’s, and before that her life with her parents in Hawaii. Traveling to Spain on her Guggenheim money before the Spanish Civil War must have also influenced her.
Here is Taggard writing in ‘Preface to Origin: Hawaii,” 1947, a year before she died. “In the little church my parents attended in Honolulu I was impressed with the text, "I am come that ye might have life and have it more abundantly.’ When we sat listening I had only to move my eyes from the minister to see outside the flowering vines and colored trees of abundance. Nevertheless, or perhaps because we lived a rich sensuous life, the text became my own. I have never ceased to think that the text, taken literally, should be the aim of all governments. I scoff at those who tell me solemnly that government must be something else. I am not interested in anything else. . .” (Italics/bold mine.)
Taggard remains a controversial figure into this new century, though she died much too soon in 1948. Her work is still included in many major poetry anthologies, though some critics challenge the artistic worth of her political poems. Poetry critic Marjorie Perloff, in “Janus-Faced Blockbuster,” her review of Cary Nelson’s Anthology of Modern American Poetry (New York: Oxford, 2000), boldly demands, “Why is Genevieve Taggard in the anthology?”
What explains Perloff’s vehemence? Though “Ode in Time of Crisis” may not be the best example of Taggard’s poetry, one can understand its inclusion. Written in 1940, it was a call to the U.S. to reconsider its refusal to accept refugees from Nazi Germany and elsewhere on the European continent. This policy allowed millions to perish. Perloff and her family were not among them. In 1938, when she was a child, they were permitted to emigrate from Vienna and perhaps this more positive experience explains her negative response to the sentiments expressed in Taggard’s Ode. Whatever the case, I can almost hear Taggard herself snorting; after all, this dismissal of her work comes from someone whose politics and poetics she consciously and deliberately would not have emulated. In this review, Perloff also complains about the inclusion in the collection of poems by an award-winning Native American poet, Adrian Louis, but her objections are framed in much softer terms. Louis is still alive while Taggard is a much easier target because she is not.
Taggard may be best known for “With Child” written when she was married to the poet and novelist Robert Wolf with whom she had her only child, Marcia. (Wolf and Taggard evenutally divorced and she married journalist and writer Kenneth Durant.) The poem’s pregnancy theme is startling in its modernity, considering it was written in 1921.
And in the 1930’s, as so many women poets would do decades later, Taggard blended the female experience with the political. Possibly she had witnessed one of the many demonstrations that were taking place in New York City when she wrote in “At Last the Women are Moving” Kitchen is small, the family story is sad./
The poetry of Genevieve Taggard urgently recommends itself to the pressing concerns of our day.
Excerpts of Taggard’s poems used with permission of Judith Benet Richardson.