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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry Genevieve Taggard (1894-1948)

[7106] World-Telegram, Forgotten Women (1933), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-113263].

Born in Waitsburg, Washington, Genevieve Taggard was raised in Hawaii, where her parents ran a school. Taggard attended the University of California at Berkeley on a scholarship. In 1920 she moved to New York City, where she worked for publisher B. W. Huebsch and, along with several other writers, including Maxwell Anderson, started a journal, the Measure. She also married writer Robert Wolf that year and they had a daughter, Marcia. In 1922, Taggard published her first collection of poetry, For Eager Lovers. Taggard spent most of the 1920s in Greenwich Village, where she socialized with other writers and artists. During this time she edited a poetry anthology called May Days, which collected work from the radical socialist journals The Masses and The Liberator. She also taught at Mount Holyoke, where she wrote a biography of Emily Dickinson, The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, which was published in 1930.

The 1930s marked a turning point in Taggard’s career. The Great Depression sparked a renewal of social and political awareness among writers, and although Taggard had sympathized with socialism since her college years, only now did her poetry begin to show the imprint of her political leanings. As a contributing editor of the Marxist journal The New Masses, Taggard published poems, articles, and reviews. In her work she grapples with such timely issues as class prejudice, racism, feminism, and labor strikes. Unlike poets like Eliot and Pound, Taggard was very much concerned with the plight of the working class, and she used her poetry to raise social and political awareness. As her poetry suggests, Taggard remained an activist for most of her career. She participated in a host of organizations, including the Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, the United Committee to Aid Vermont Marble Workers, and the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. In addition, she was a member of the New York Teachers Union, the League of American Writers, and the U.S.-Soviet Friendship Committee.

In addition to her work as a social activist, Taggard was also deeply interested in radio and music. She saw radio as a means to make poetry and art accessible to the masses, and she often read her poems on the radio. Fascinated by the intersections between poetry and music, Taggard also wrote many poems that were later scored by such composers as William Shuman, Aaron Copeland, Roy Harris, and Henry Leland Clarke.

After more than a decade of marriage, Taggard and Robert Wolf divorced in 1934. The next year she married journalist Kenneth Durant and moved to a farm in East Jamaica, Vermont, a landscape that provided inspiration for her poetry. She also joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, where she taught until her retirement in 1947. Although Taggard died at the comparatively young age of fifty-three, she edited four books, wrote a biography, and published thirteen books of poetry.

Teaching Tips

  • Review the basic tenets of Marxism with your students, including concepts like the proletariat. Marx thought that the ideal society would be classless and that the workers would own the means of production: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.” Taggard’s poetry reflects her close ties to Marxism. What themes, images, or techniques does she use to articulate the relationship between her poetry and politics? What does she expect art to accomplish?
  • Many of Taggard’s poems focus on the plight of working-class women. How does she portray the women in her poems? Which portraits are more sympathetic than others? Could Taggard be termed a feminist poet? Are there connections between Marxism and feminism that might be useful in understanding her work?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is the meaning of the title “Everyday Alchemy”? What is Taggard saying about the relationship between the genders? How does her syntax help or hinder the message? Why does Taggard specify “poor” women? How should readers interpret the adjective “poor”?
  2. Comprehension: In “With Child,” who or what is the “it” in the last stanza? What is the tone of the poem?
  3. Context: The turn of the twentieth century witnessed the first wave of feminism in America, culminating in women gaining the right to vote in 1920. Much of Taggard’s poetry reflects this activism, though she concentrates on the working class. In “At Last the Women Are Moving,” how are the women portrayed? What are they protesting? Why are the last two lines in italics?
  4. Exploration: Unlike Eliot and Pound, Taggard wrote poetry for the masses, and her interest in radio broadcast enhanced her ability to reach a wide and diverse audience with her verse. How does her notion of poetry and audience differ from that of other writers in this unit? With whom does she seem to share a similar outlook?

Selected Archive Items

[2360] Anonymous, Listening to the Radio at Home (1920), 
courtesy of the George H. Clark Radioana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. 
Family seated around their radio in the early 1920s. Radio was the first affordable mass media entertainment to enter the homes of nearly all Americans. A powerful tool for rapid communication of news, radio also helped advertise products and spread music like jazz and swing around the country.

[7106] World-Telegram, Forgotten Women (1933), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-113263]. 
Unemployed and single women march in New York to demand jobs. Work relief programs during the depression often gave priority to men, on the assumption that the father should be a family’s primary wage earner.

[8613] Vito Marcantonio, Labor’s Martyrs (1937), 
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries. 
Socialist publication describing the “great labor martyrs of the past 50 years.” This pamphlet discusses the trial and public execution of the “Chicago Anarchists,” who organized the Haymarket bombing in 1887 as well as the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 and the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. The pamphlet goes on to talk about the thriving state of the 1930s labor movement.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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