Nancy Berke

Nancy Berke: On "To the Negro People"

In 1942, Genevieve Taggard published Long View. Like Calling Western Union, this book contained poems of social urgency. Yet Taggard had also begun an interest in writing for music, and in undertaking this interest in musical forms, explored the social and public relevance of both poetry and song. At the end of Long View Taggard provides a brief essay, "Notes on Writing for Music." She informs readers that a disparate but largely popular tradition has influenced the poems she has drafted for musical settings:

My own experience, my learning process acknowledges Robert Burns and the Negroes, who have made up words for Spirituals and Blues, many of them nameless people. Leadbelly is a clear case of a person who knows [how to write for music] and does. Blitzstein. Gershwin. Shakespeare. Woodie Guthrie. Earl Robinson. Cole Porter. Certain hymn writers. The writers of songs you hear in the middle of the night on the air. This is my song book. . . (103).

In "Notes on Writing for Music" Taggard enjoins her readers to consider the communal possibilities of writing for music by including a list of suggestions that might be useful for those interested in putting words to musical settings. These suggestions still bear the marks of the mid-Depression conviction of Calling Western Union: "Song is collective. (Poetry should be.)"

Taggard perhaps best realizes her advice that poetry should engage in the "collective" in a series of poems from Long View that she wrote "To the Negro People." Through these particular poems Taggard reads African American cultural tropes, such as music, as examples of a people's struggle for "truth" and social justice. In the series "To The Negro People," Taggard's social vision, along with her interest in the collectivity of song, presents African- Americans as cultural innovators whose voices have been denied and whose "collective" contributions have been buried.

Three of the four poems from this series, "Spirituals," "City of the Blues," and "Proud Day," explore the distinct "voice" of African American music. Taggard had great difficulty publishing these poems. She sent three to Richard Wright, asking if he could recommend a place for her to send them. In her communication with Wright, she put forth her idea to send the poems to black publications. She requested no pay in return for a community of readers that would find value in the poems. Thanks to Wright's efforts, two poems, "Spirituals" and "Proud Day" appeared in the October 1940 issue of the NAACP journal, The Crisis.

It is not surprising that established "white" literary journals rejected Taggard's tributes to African American culture when the musical legacy of black Americans was similarly rejected by the eurocentric attitudes of classical music communities in the United States. In "Spirituals" Taggard reminds us of the unsung poet(s) of the South whose "bones / Sleep in the dust of song." While evoking the spiritual song form--"My way's cloudy, I cry out, / Cloudy Lord"--Taggard names the South as a "burying ground" for neglected African-American spiritual art. "Spirituals," as it laments a collective past, a musical and aesthetic practice whose cultural importance has been overlooked, also implicates the poet's own sense of neglect. Just as much of the writing (including her own) of radicals of her generation has been forgotten or marginalized, the classical focus of a eurocentric American musical canon has ignored the musical contributions of the black South. Most literary history written under the influence of the New Criticism has disregarded Taggard's contributions to American poetry in the twentieth century; it has buried her along with the popular traditions of working-class poetry and the African American lyric traditions.

Celebrating African-American cultural tropes against the mainstream canon Taggard hoped to subvert the mainstream art world's exclusive practices. "Proud Day" conflates both popular and "high" traditions as it honors a black artist whose work and person embraced both aesthetic spheres. "Proud Day" is an especially moving tribute to contralto Marian Anderson. Anderson, who was denied a voice in Jim Crow America in both the literal and figurative senses, became the toast of Europe where she sang to sold-out audiences. [Ed. Note: At the bottom of this page are two links to background information on Marian Anderson, including audio and video clips of her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial]. Constructed like a gospel hymn, "Proud Day" celebrates Anderson's famous 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson had returned to the United States from Europe in 1935. She was by then an international star and sang her spiritual and classical repertoire to a sold-out crowd at New York's Town Hall. In the following year impresario Sol Hurok tried to secure a performance for Anderson at Washington D.C.'s Constitution Hall, which the Daughters of the American Revolution had founded. A clause in the hall's contracts, however, stated that no blacks could perform there. When Eleanor Roosevelt learned of this blatant act of discrimination, she resigned from the D.A.R. Finally, with a little help from his friends, Hurok secured the Lincoln Memorial:

The voice presented in "Proud Day" appears intentionally ambiguous. A black audience is represented as mesmerized with awe and pride as it experiences Anderson's moving performance; yet there is also the white audience of the poet and other progressive whites who support black artists and engage in anti-racist activities. Yet the demarcation between a black audience, black performer, white poet, and white audience is blurred. The poet historicizes the conflict surrounding Anderson's appearance in Washington by deliberately integrating the audience within the poem. "Our sister," whom Taggard addresses in the opening lines, suggests her making a gift of the poem to a black audience that would value it. Yet there is also the gratitude of the white audience suggested by the lines, "never forget how the dark people rewarded us." It is "their want" and "their little freedom" that have produced and given this gift.

Taggard's emphasis is on the heroic; she juxtaposes the great black singer as she performs "Ave Maria" and "My Country Tis of Thee" with the stone face of Abraham Lincoln looking on. Though Lincoln was responsible for granting "limited" suffrage to black men, and allowing "the Republic to be born again," Taggard wants readers to acknowledge the neglect and burial of African American voice as she symbolically renders it through Anderson's performance: "Voice out of depth, poise with memory / What goodness, what splendor lay long under foot!" The underlying theme of this poem's celebration is the fact that racism and legislative injustice have denied blacks creative integrity, as well as denied whites the possibility of ever knowing this integrity.

Taggard constructs the poem to suggest the Spiritual musical genre refigured by African Americans in the ante-bellum South. It shows Anderson's role as interpreter and keeper of tradition as well as re-interpreter of the European canon of Schubert and Mahler.

Taggard repeats the phrase "Proud day," like a gospel refrain, in six end-lines of this twelve-line poem. Her final line shifts the attention from "our sister," spoken at the beginning of the poem, to "[s]omething spoke in my patriot heart." She reinforces the ambiguity of the voice and punctuates this final line with a final "Proud day." Taggard leaves us with a powerful image of Anderson and her diverse audience standing in front of the symbolic Lincoln. The image itself signifies the poet's renewed sense of patriotism.

Sometime in 1939 Taggard corresponded with Langston Hughes, sending him "City of the Blues," also from the "Negro" series. She had admired Hughes's work since the 1920s when she solicited poems from him for her journal The Measure. She admitted to Hughes that "City of the Blues" was her favorite of the series and lamented the fact that every magazine to which she sent it rejected the poem. In 1941, the journal The Clipper published it. The Clipper was a small Los Angeles literary review put out by the California chapter of the League of American Writers, a Popular Front organization in which Taggard was active.

In "City of the Blues," Taggard also explores the collectivity of song. Rather than representing pride and dignity, however, as "Proud Day" does, "City of Blues" offers lamentations, following another rich African-American innovation, blues music. Whereas "Proud Day" describes a musical tribute in the heroic sense, "City of Blues" pays its tribute in the discordant strains of a "river-whistle turned harsh." Taggard takes St. Louis, a city romanticized because of its rich musical traditions, and presents it through the vantage point of an unemployed black worker, "[i]n the chicken yard, listlessly, beside the piles, waiting for / nothing." (One should note the homage to William Carlos Williams's "Red Wheel Barrow.") The heteroglossic landscape that Taggard creates of St. Louis, that city on the river, with its "river-side, piles rotted with river," suggests an ugly desolation, and thus a Depression inspired mood that was all too familiar to her 1930s audience. Taggard represents a socially and economically ravaged St. Louis through a staccato placement of words, which suggest several competing scenarios. A slaughterhouse "[w]ith its droppings and molted feathers[,] [f]ence, coop, mash- / pans, wire," can also be interpreted as home, a shantytown of "slums and slime" with "frame houses, [d]ark, wet, cold." There is also a teasing possibility of industry, "[t]ug going by, puff puff," about to proceed to the "St. Louis dock / [s]tacked high" where there is "[c]oal smoke, winches, shovels, --crash of freight." St. Louis music is also a distant music that expresses itself through the "[y]'hoo's" of trains and boats. The black body that gets to comprehend "silence" is juxtaposed against this industrial movement. The silence "[b]lows clean through your bones."

Whatever is fiercest about St. Louis's riverbeds as they symbolize Depression poverty, Taggard reinforces the misery that variously visits African American communities. Those who know the place know that "(When they kill, they kill / Here, and dump the body here)." The ambiguity of these parenthetical lines evokes more than the mundane suggestions of a slaughtered animal's carcass. It intimates both the criminal nature of social and economic deprivation as well as a community continually victimized by the ubiquitous lynch mob. Taggard steeps her poem with bleak images of filth, stench, lethargy, and decay. She comments upon blues as a social condition born of these metaphors of lack, and to blues as a musical cultural formation that can only develop out of such despair. The blues then is a metaphor for the literal rottenness of place, both social and economic; if the Depression aggravated the already unjust working and living conditions of African-Americans, the cultural expressions they explored at this time were not only accurate responses, but necessary tropes with which to create resistance.

The last poem in the series, "Chant for the Negro Poet of America Not Yet Born" (1941), informs us that a rich, anonymous past will produce a talent "[b]orn, awake, with the urgent rising of his people," an unprecedented new talent from a future world finally ready for him. Like "Spirituals," "Chant for the Great Negro Poet of America Not Yet Born" acknowledges the modernist's transformation of the musical god Orpheus into a poet, and refigures the African American experience with song into a poetic contribution. "Chant for the Great Negro Poet. . . " asserts that from this rich, unsung tradition will come, in the spirit of "Blake" and "Whitman," a great poet of his people. Taggard's "Negro poet" is both social poet and black Christ: "Kin - Blake, Whitman, and the honest preachers of his / people." "[H]e is heir," she also informs us, to [t]he Hebrew poets." He will produce a new poetry born from the spaces where social oppression and art meet. She insists that he will understand not only just "the powerful mass of his people," but he will share the radical poet's concerns. "He will be our poet when he comes, he will wear / Scars." These scars also reveal a hope, a "universal singing." Taggard's black poet of the future will keep his own cultural traditions. He will also continue the important tradition of political poetry created through mass social movements and other forms of resistance.

 
 

Nancy Berke: On "Mill Town"

Much proletarian literature of the 1930s concerned itself with the pathetic plights of working men. Depression-era historical documentation and popular culture are filled with familiar images of male figures standing on bread lines, slouching over watery soup in church basements, flagging down rides on desolate highways, or fighting policement or scabs during strikes. While Genevieve Taggard's proletarian collection Calling Western Union contains poems that honor working men and their difficulties, she pays particular attention to women. Whether they are the wives of strking workers, alienated members of the middle class, or laborers themselves, in Calling Western Union, women's issues take center stage.

The poem "Mill Town" stands out from the majority of poems in Calling Western Union that speak particularly about women's Depression-era experience. Rather than presenting women in their middle class security as in "Middle-Age, Middle Class Woman at Midnight" or "Interiors," or as they come to political consciousness in "At Last the Women Are Marching" and "Feeding the Children," "Mill Town" presents the bleak realities of laboring women. Taggard introduces the poem with an epigraph from medical historian Paul de Kruif. His book Why Keep Them Alive (1936), which appears to have inspired the poem's composition, details the public health crisis the Depression created, particularly the malnutrition and starvation of America's children.

Taggard begins the poem as an accompaniment to de Kruif's dispiriting scenario, imagining the woman whose "womb is sick of its work with death."

                            . . . then fold up without pause The colored ginghams and the underclothes.                                         And from the stale Depth of the dresser, smelling of medicine, take The first year's garments. And by this act prepare Your store of pain, your weariness, dull love, To bear another child with doubled fists And sucking face...

"Mill Town" provides a gendered vocabulary of working class experience by suggesting the double meaning of the word "labor." The woman of this "mill town" experiences the excessive strains of wage-labor and that of repeated childbirth. As the poem's opening lines explore domestic routine, the infant's tight rage is a reminder of the tenuous grasp the Depression era mother has on the domestic milieu.

The poem's last seven lines show an ambiguous attitude toward the woman's poverty. What we might construe as a scolding tone stands out in these last lines. It is unlikely, however, that Taggard would intentionally reprimand the mill mother for her passivity. Her sympathetic eye for working-class conditions as they affect women and children would provide a more critically engaged treatment of her subject's circumstances. Since nowhere else in Calling Western Union does Taggard take the male left to task for its insensitivity to gender issues, it is unlikely that she means to appropriate its voice, chiding the woman for not politicizing her position. Instead it appears that the speaker's reproachful tone appropriates the voice of a hypocritical and judgmental social order, which rebukes working class mothers who become pregnant repeatedly in an atmosphere of economic want.

                            Clearly it is best, mill mother, Not to rebel or ask clear silly questions, Saying womb is sick of its work with death, Your body drugged with work and the repeated bitter Gall of your morning vomit. Never try Asking if we should blame you. Live in fear. And put Soap on the yellowed blankets. Rub them pure.

In keeping with the poet's desire to portray the Depression-era woman who was not on the barricades, one must notice the poem's negative representation of the female body. Childbearing and mill work take serious tolls upon it. In childbirth it readies its "store of pain". . . "weariness," and "dull love"; negative too are the fruits of its labor. This "store of pain," one of Taggard's most disturbing images, exposes the womb as complicit in life as death; the "mill-mother" gives birth to children who then die of starvation. Thus the female body "drugged with work," incapacitated by morning sickness, and later the child-bed of unanesthetized home birth, also represents the isolation of those women whose participation in the social struggle so important to the poet are eclipsed by domestic burdens; of course inequalities of class and gender officiate these burdens--a "womb sick of its work with death."

"Mill Town" presents perhaps the bleakest portrait of working-class life in Calling Western Union. It also complicates Taggard's desire to create a sense of hope in her readers, and to keep with the objectives of the proletarian literature of the period to present the working class as progressive agents determined to usher in a new age and new culture. Taggard never claims, as did socialist and feminist writer Crystal Eastman in the early 1920s, that if and when capitalism fell, women would still be enslaved. Yet her portrait of the captive mill-mother, however, placed alongside a variety of poems whose themes are positive and optimistic, reveals the feminist poet's tensions between representing difficult social realities and imagining a future that could transcend them.

Nancy Berke: On "Everyday Alchemy"

"Everyday Alchemy" has an interesting publishing history. It originally appeared in Taggard's first collection of poems, For Eager Lovers (1922). Later she republished the poem in her Depression-era collection Calling Western Union, along with "Revolution" also from For Eager Lovers.

With the exception of a few changes in punctuation, the poems appear much like thier original versions. Yet these poems would be read in a different light, within the pages of a radically different book, which expressed the poet's changing attitudes about art in a time of social devastation and suffereing. In their early creation "Everyday Alchemy" and "Revolution" reflected the Greenwich Village bohemia's new social outlook of the 1910s and 20s. Taggard joined important radical intellectuals such as John Reed, Max Eastman, and Floyd Dell in establishing an alternative literary and public culture. The Russian Revolution, experiments in nonconformist art and education, discussions about "alternative" forms of living, and a fascination with Freudian psychology, sexology, and sexual experimentation informed radical culture at this time, and no doubt influenced the writing of these two poems. Yet by republishing "Everyday Alchemy" and "Revolution" in the fervently political Calling Western Union, Taggard remakes these works. She emphasizes their social messages at a crucial point in her career as a writer and at a crisis point in American history.

In a 1938 interview in the Daily Worker, Taggard comments that during the period in which "Everyday Alchemy" and "Revolution" first appeared she had not yet developed her revolutionary potential as a poet. (The orthodox vocabulary that Marxists such as Taggard adopted in the 1930s rejected, for the most part, the idea that one's personal politics--one's sexuality, one's expression of personal freedom -- suggested any revolutionary potential). As she claimed, ". . . I really hadn't as yet found a way of writing. Most of the poems in my first few books were about love and marriage and having children." Taggard both acknowledges and distances herself from the postwar period and its experimental values: "There was a long period in the twenties, after the World War, when I was very discouraged. . . We writers were still too involved in all the foolish ideas of our generation." Whether these ideas were foolish or not, Taggard's change in political outlook was the direct reason for republishing "Everyday Alchemy." The poem extols the private values that the poet's public consciousness would reject by the mid- 1930s. Its republication complicates the poet's theme of the private body valorizing the private relationships of individuals over their social relationships as civil subjects.

In form "Everyday Alchemy" is a truncated sonnet. It revises the love sonnet and reverses the relationship of strong man, weak woman. Rhythmically the poem holds a kind of simplicity; the repetition of the word "peace" suggests an overriding calm within the negative space constructed by the words and phrases (though used as tropes of comparison) connoting lack: "No mountain," "no tree with placid leaves," no sonorous "valley bell on autumn air." Thematically the poem makes social commentary about poverty, while it presents women as work-worn through their roles as nurturers to men. It also symbolically treats working-class women and men who possess nothing but each other. In fact it complicates the sonnet as a form traditionally associated with love. "Everyday Alchemy," when originally published in 1922, might have been read as a gesture toward the love lyric tradition of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie, and Sara Teasdale. Yet Millay's and Teasdale's lyrics evoked the poet as lover, as one generally oblivious to the social landscape in which the love is either lamented or celebrated. Taggard explores the private couple (or couples) as a distinct social unit: the poverty surrounding working-class women and men who can seek only each other. This distinction would seem awkward in Millay's complaint, "I let my candle burn at both ends," or Teasdale's question, "Why am I crying after love?" Taggard creates through these women and men a place to demystify the magic of love, made metaphor by the poem's title--the medieval practice of alchemy: making gold out of dross--wedded to the reality of material deprivation.

"Everyday Alchemy" is also a refiguration of the metaphysical tradition that Taggard, like other significant modern poets, had begun to embrace in the 1920s. The publication in 1921 of T.S. Eliot's essay "The Metaphysical Poets" helped rekindle an interest among modern poets in this sixteenth-century literary tradition. One may read "Everyday Alchemy" with John Donne's "Love's Alchemie," in which the poet muses on the "hidden mysterie[s]" of love. Yet Taggard translates the "sexual chemistry" implied in Donne's poem into a kind of alchemical nurturing, the mothering of world-weary, destitute men.

The meeting of "poor women" and "worn men" in "Everyday Alchemy" might have reflected a tendency of the youthful poets of the 1920s to romanticize poverty as if it were a key ingredient to some of the social experiments they endorsed. When Taggard reprinted the poem in Calling Western Union, at the height of the Depression, her readers would find verse that evoked the collective concerns of ordinary men and women in a time of crisis. We recognize these ordinary men and women through the poet's symbolic rendering of their bodies. The proletarian literary genre's prominent tropes represented working men through images of virility and resilience. Yet Taggard complicates the genre's essential metaphors by representing the male workers' bodies through weakness, and by describing the female bodies in strength: (the worker's long-suffering wives). Though poverty silences the bodies Taggard describes in "Everyday Alchemy," she depicts the male bodies as more vulnerable; they are mute and bent. They provide nothing, but seek. The female bodies are active, (of course because of love) making a "solace" for the male bodies as they seek "peace." Taggard informs us that nothing in the natural world can provide the solace that women provide; their hearts, which in more prosperous times would reflect love as an idealization, now "pour out" only poverty, to men who, far from being ideal lovers themselves, are "worn."

While "Everyday Alchemy" suggests the primacy of the couple whether times are good or bad, it also permits the reading of other tropes, non-sexual unions, nurses / patients as in wartime, or mothers and sons. Whether or not Taggard had it in mind, we cannot overlook the poem's evocation of women, men and war, especially if we are to read the poem in its social context, and as an answer to the erotics of Donne's "Loves Alchemie." With the line "men go to women mutely for their peace," Taggard evokes the image of a pieta or a woman holding a wounded or dying soldier to her breast as in war memorials and antiwar posters. Finally, by removing the poem from its association with the both the love lyric and the metaphysical tradition, Taggard complicates the relationship of poetic form in general.