Ryan Cull: On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Lucia Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" is characteristic of a neglected series of haunting poems from the 1920s that approach the subject of maternity from the perspective of the working-class. Other notable examples of this sub-genre include Genevieve Taggard’s eloquently understated "With Child" and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s harrowing prayer for a stillbirth "Motherhood." While Johnson became one of the most significant female poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Taggard and Trent were both deeply involved in the radical politics of the left and wrote poems that considered matters of race and economics in addition to women’s issues. Drawn from her third volume of poetry Children of Fire and Shadow, Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" unflinchingly identifies how motherhood has been used as a source of political and economic oppression, while also pointing towards a way that maternity, and perhaps female sexuality in general, could be used instead as an important source of social change.

Trent tells us, in her polemical tract "More Power to Poets" (also quoted on MAPS), that "the experience of maternity makes a woman reach out beyond self to the child. . . .Her sacrifice for new life both in bearing and rearing children helps fit her for the poet's post as prophet and as interpreter of the future to the present. Her preoccupation with children also helps her fill the poet's role of giving voice to the inarticulate." And yet she goes on to inform us that, "in a contest we ran in Contemporary Vision [a magazine that Trent and her husband edited] for poems on pregnancy the winning poem and the majority of the most profound poems were by men. This does not mean necessarily that men are better poets or better equipped to handle this theme, but that women are more inhibited as yet." Trent, in this text, never really explores the possible sources of this inhibition. Instead, she exhorts her peers to follow the example of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and gather together to form a "larger battalion of women singers marching as standard-bearers of a more decent civilization."

One could read Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed," however, as a possible response to her own query about why women of her time may have felt "inhibited" from writing about maternity. Her poem presents the topic, especially for women of the lower classes, as being imbued with a dark irony, for the creation of a wholly new life is treated as just a source for spare parts. Thus, where the essay focuses on her idealistic hopes, the poem examines depression-era realities. And what she sees is not a "battalion" of empowered "women singers" helping to create "a more decent civilization" but rather a nearly helpless mass of "little mothers." These unidentified and undifferentiated women are utterly lacking any control over their own fate. Far from being poets in the tradition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, they have no voices (as individuals or as a chorus) and are characterized in the most coarsely animalistic fashion: by their physical condition and their economic utility. Trent’s description of these women is intentionally minimalistic. They are reduced to being merely "tired backs and tired hands" to go along with "sunken eyes and. . .sagging cheeks." After having been worn down in both body and spirit, these women nevertheless are forced to give what they have left: the procreative capacity of their wombs.

In this poem, thus, the incessant mono-syllabic repetition of "breed" is by design meant to be crudely mechanical. In using this technique, Trent’s poem recalls Walt Whitman's Civil War poem "Beat Beat Drums." Like Whitman’s work, Trent’s poem begins each stanza with the same imperative phrase, which then may lead into a series of other terse commands ("Breed. . ./ Offer. . ./Wrack. . ."). She, thus, exchanges Whitman’s mechanical drumbeat of war for the mechanical heartbeat of a human assembly-line. And such monotonous droning increasingly encourages the reader to interrogate these unemotional, impersonal orders and the voice behind them.

The focus of Trent’s cultural critique is callous corporate capitalism and its influence in both business and politics. The poem horrifically presents maternity as just another cog in the machinery of the elite, whether it be for "the owners of mills and the owners of mines," "the bankers" or for the governmental "war lords." Being of no further physical and mental usefulness, these poor "little mothers" become a source of another type of labor. They are invited to "offer" and "wrack [their] frail bodies with the pangs of birth" to supply the next generation of workers, so that the hopeless cycle may go on. For Trent, this use of maternity is less a form of prostitution than it is an example of outright enslavement that will grow with each generation, encompassing successive mothers and their offspring. These children are fated to be an equally faceless "race of aenemic, round shouldered, subway herded machines," suitable for use as the cannon-fodder of the "war-lords" or as generic fixtures to be plugged into the system.

But as much as Trent criticizes the elite, she also reveals a certain uneasiness or frustration towards these women. Although she empathizes with their plight, she describes these "little mothers" as having a "faith patient and stupid as cattle." Trent feels the need to stir these people beyond what she views as an all too patient passivity. It is this unreflective submissiveness, and not their childbearing, that the poet finds regrettable.

Lest this accusation seem unfair, it is only a single line, more than counter-balanced by the indictments surrounding it. But, even within its limits as a single accusation, it is an unyielding assertion by Trent that these mothers do retain a measure of agency that can never be fully taken from them. Though she does not blame them for the possible fates of their children, she also does not remove from them a special kind of maternal responsibility to do what they can to produce social change. This fundamental refusal to accept sheer economic determinism underlies the poem. And it is evidenced by Trent’s rhetorically shrewd decision to write the poem as an address pointed towards the "little mothers" and not the mill-owners, bankers or "war-lords." "Breed, Women, Breed," thus, becomes a double-edged sword: both a fierce accusation of injustice towards the oppressor and a potent call to arms directly addressed to the oppressed.

Near the conclusion of "More Power to Poets" Trent declares, "let us have poems that strip off masks of hypocrisy and sham, poems for the advance of women, of labor, of all humanity!" "Breed, Women, Breed" attempts to do just this. Though her hope of establishing a "battalion" of working-class "women singers" never may have been fully realized, her poem is significant as a brutally honest account of the sometimes dehumanizing economic policies and practices that were the festering darkside of the roaring twenties.

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Criticism Overview
Title Ryan Cull: On "Breed, Women, Breed" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ryan Cull Criticism Target Lucia Trent
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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