Cary Nelson: On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Lucia Trent opens the 1929 poem "Breed, Women Breed" with a blistering mock-injunction for women to produce children for male ends:

 

Breed, little mothers,

With tired backs and tired hands,

Breed for the owners of mills and the owners of mines,

Breed a race of danger-haunted men,

A race of toiling, sweating, miserable men,

Breed, little mothers,

Breed for the owners of mills and the owners of mines,

Breed, breed, breed!

 

Although Trent's poem moves forward relentlessly through three more stanzas tonally in keeping with the one above, it is clearly grounded in an unstable mix of anger, anguish, and contempt--emotions directed not only at the men who manage the institution of motherhood within capitalism but also at the women who collaborate with it. Only by wholly rejecting both capitalism and patriarchy can we gain any relief from the gender dynamics she critiques, and that is precisely the recognition she seeks. Biology, economics, and male power are part of one interlocking system, one overarching productive and constraining mechanism. If we are to change any of it, we must change it all. Trent is willing to risk offending part of her audience because there is nothing to lose. No modest gains, no hedged alliances, can alter the mutually reinforcing structures she describes.

All these poems attacking conventional gender roles and power inequities are also implicitly written against conventions for representing male and female interests and identities. Occasionally representation becomes the explicit focus of critique and sometimes the weapon is satire. There is certainly a satiric impulse behind Trent's "Breed, Women Breed," even though it is not the only sentiment informing the poem, and the risks inherent in satire are apparent not only in the aggressive triple command that ends the stanza but throughout. One of the risks, of course, is that the poem becomes merely an instance of the thing being satirized.

Details

Title Cary Nelson: On "Breed, Women, Breed" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Kevin Dettmar, Stephen Watt Criticism Target Lucia Trent
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry
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