Genevieve Taggard, Poet

Does Genevieve Taggard qualify as a neglected writer? After all, her work appears in all the essential thick anthologies: Norton’s Anthology of Literature by Women; Oxford’s Anthology of Modern American Poetry; and the Library of America’s American Poetry : The Twentieth Century. She has her Wikipedia page, her Encyclopedia Britannica article, her page at the Poetry Foundation website. Yet her books have all been out of print since publication, and the only collection of her work released since her death in 1948 was To the Natural World, which was issued in 1980 by the Ahsahta Press out of Boise State University in Idaho (fortunately, it is available for free in PDF format (link).

Genevieve Taggard, around 1932, holding "Blackie," a pet blackbird
Genevieve Taggard, around 1932, holding “Blackie,” a pet blackbird

In the eyes of some critics, Taggard has only herself to blame. Somewhere in the early 1930s, Taggard decided that her work was simply not confronting the traumatic social conditions she saw around her. She “refused to write out of a decorative impulse because I conceive it to be the dead end of much feminine talent.” Instead, she chose to write what she considered “poetry that relates to general experience and the realities of the time.” Although she gives Taggard prominent mention in her landmark survey, A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter concludes that the poet’s choice to reject her early lyrical style in favor of a more politically-oriented realism “stifled the ardent feminine voice that had made her poetry alive.”

The fact that her second husband, Kenneth Durant, was the American agent of the Soviet news agency, Tass, and that her poems regularly featured in New Masses, colored the opinion of even her closest friends. In an interview for an oral history project, Sara Bard Field claimed, “She wrote a poem called something like ‘Our Good Father Stalin.'” (Bard may have been recalling Taggard’s 1942 poem, “Salute to the Russian Dead,” which includes such propagandistic declarations as, “Whatever is good and tangible and fair in time to come/Begins here, where they die in their blood, in their genius.”) Certainly, Taggard’s tendency to reach for the red banner and to wave it a little too enthusiastically after her marriage to Durant is difficult to look past, particularly after The Gulag Archipelago and the declassification of the Venona intercepts.

Yet it’s worth taking the effort to look past Taggard’s most strident verses and discover more about this woman and her work. And a great deal can be understood by a series of autobiographical pieces she wrote for various magazines between 1924 and 1934. The last of these, titled “Hawaii, Washington, Vermont,” appeared in the October 1934 issue of Scribners magazine, and contrasts the two extremes of her childhood: the bleak, narrow-minded aridity of Waitland, a small town in the farmlands of Eastern Washington; and the lush, gentle warmth of rural Oahu, Hawaii.

Taggard was born in Waitland, where her father had come at the invitation of his brother, a successful apple farmer, in hopes of improving his always-fragile health. The dust of farmland life, however, was ruinous, however, and in 1897, when Genevieve was two, he accepted an offer from the Disciples of Christ to run a missionary school on Oahu. They lived there for over ten years, then returned to Waitland, came back briefly, then left Hawaii for good, settling back in Waitland, where Genevieve graduated from high school in 1912.

For Taggard, Hawaii was, literally, “our Garden of Eden.” They lived with the diverse cultures of the island–“the Portuguese, the Filipinos, the Puerto Ricans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Hawaiian-Chinese, and the hap-a-haoles.” They ate mangos, scooped minnows by the hundreds from coastal lagoons, picked algarroba beans, and played in the warm Pacific surf. Having to return to Waitland was like being cast out of Paradise. In an article titled, “A Haole Scrapbook,” published in the June 1924 issue of The Bookman, Taggard recalled one of her last days before leaving:

John Frank, the greatest swimmer of all the native lads, stood on the big rock that overhung the Kalihi-kai swimming pool, the last day I saw him. His fathers had fished there, with spears and torches. The fish, white and languid, went back and forth, that day, in a shaft of sunlight that knifed the yellow-green water. John Frank stood on the stone worn into a little hollow by the feet of his forefathers. He didn’t own the stone. It was on a white man’s estate now.

“Wellakahou”, shouted John Frank, and cut the water with his joined palms.

I sat on the stone when he left it and strung myself a lei–it was a goodbye lei made of ilima flowers. The first span of my years–the first ten years spent in the islands–was ending the
next day.

John Frank’s smooth black head popped up from the water. “How long you going stay in the States?” he asked me, as if it had just become clear that I was really going,

“Three months”, I said.

“Mangoes getting ripe soon”, he offered.

A sudden pang at the thought of missing mango season went through me. John Frank had dived again. The water was sooty black and quiet. Then in a whirlpool came a brown arm. This time he popped up with a well formed idea: “Too bad you gotta be haole”, he said, and went under again.

Off and on, I have thought so too, all my life.

Waitland, on the other hand, seemed something very like Hell:

Hot stubble faces met us at the train window. I ducked down and took a quick look at the hot face of the town, with the feeling of a person about to enter a jail. Dust, ankle-deep, paved the main street. Broken wooden sidewalks bordered by dusty weeds led to a block of ramshackle stores. A drooping horse and a spring wagon stood hitched in front of the post office. No trees in sight; just stubble-covered hills through which we had come for hours. We children found even the first day in the new home town as dull as ditch, or rather dish, water. Houses had the blinds down to protect carpets. Houses were tight and smelled of dust. Kitchens were hot with wood stoves. Parlors were not to sit in. Flies swarmed around doorways. Outside there was stubble or dust, no grass. Children must not play in the orchards. If little girls were bored they could hem dish towels or swat flies.

James Taggard, Genevieve’s father, was given a miserable plot of land between two railroad lines and planted with a withering stand of pear trees. His brother, who had gotten his start with $2,000 borrowed from James, told him the orchard was repayment and just needed “intensive farming.” Instead, it failed, as did James’ already-poor health, and when Genevieve was accepted into the University of California Berkeley in 1914, the whole family moved with her.

Her mother ran a boarding house and Genevieve worked when she wasn’t taking classes. It took her five years to graduate, after which she parted from her family and moved to Greenwich Village. She quickly landed a job with a literary magazine, then another, then founded Measure, a Journal of Verse of which she worked as editor, and also worked as poetry editor of the Liberator, the slightly toned-down version of the Masses set up by Max Eastman. Her university classmate, Josephine Herbst, joined her, and the two were soon best friends. Taggard helped arranged for Herbst’s abortion after she became pregnant during her affair with Maxwell Anderson. The two complained about the character of the men they met: “What’s in the men nowadays–the women have the fire & the ardency & the power & the depth?,” Taggard once wrote Herbst.

Then she met Robert Wolf, who styled himself the model of the serious artist: “He had an extremely high idea of his own value as a poet,” recalled Sara Bard Fields. Taggard fell for him, hard, and they soon married. In an anonymous piece, “Poet out of Pioneer,” published in the Nation in 1927, it’s clear she was still convinced that Wolf’s art was the great cause for which she had to sacrifice: “I think I have not been as wasted as my mother was…. My chief improvement on her past was the man I chose to marry….. I married a poet and novelist, gifted and difficult….”

She gradually discovered just how difficult Wolf could be. He insisted he had to go off on his own to write, that she was too intrusive and confining for him to be able to create around her. After Genevieve gave birth to their daughter, Marcia, in 1921, he said she would have to take full responsibility for raising the child. They moved back to California and Genevieve went to work at Mills College while Wolf went off to the Pacific coast to write. Soon, instead of looking on her marriage as her “chief improvement,” she was writing Herbst that it was hard to sacrifice herself for his art “when you struggle for weeks with stoves and mud and diapers and canned food….”

Though they did not finally divorce until 1934, Wolf and Taggard spent less and less time together. He became subject to bouts of depression, bouts of hyperactivity, and bouts of anger, most of it directed at Genevieve. She continued to be the main bread-winner, working as a book reviewer, teaching at Bennington College, and still managing to write far more than Wolf did. Her first book, For Eager Lovers, was published in 1922. In it, in a poem titled, “Married,” the refrain tells us much of the state of her own marriage: “Apart, apart, we are apart.” The book included a poem that demonstrated just how much her initial idealism had given way to a much more measured view of the world:

Everyday Alchemy

Men go to women mutely for their peace;
And they, who lack it most, create it when
They make because they must, loving their men–
A solace for sad bosom-bended heads. There
Is all the meager peace men get no otherwhere;
No mountain space, no tree with placid leaves,
Or heavy gloom beneath a young girl’s hair,
No sound of valley bell on autumn air,
Or room made home with doves along the eves,
Ever holds peace like this, poured by poor women
Out of their heart’s poverty, for worn men.

hawaiinhilltopHer second book, a small volume titled, Hawaiian Hilltop, was published in 1924. In 1925, Eastman asked her to edit May Days: An Anthology of Verse from Masses-Liberator. In her preface, she remarks that re-reading the back issues of the magazines “had the same fascination that the face of your father at the age of sixteen has, when you come upon it peering from an album, for the first time after years of pre-occupation with your own generation.”

Her third book, Words for the Chisel, was published by Knopf in 1926, but it was Travelling Standing Still (1928) that first earned her serious critical acclaim. Edmund Wilson called Taggard “a poet of our common human experience” and lauded her poem, “With Child,” as the best poem about birth he’d read. William Rose Benet, writing in the Saturday Review, said he found it “almost impossible to classify Miss Taggard as a poet. If you use the image of a gem, she has many facets, and she has always possessed a quality like the moods of water.”

Though she no longer considered her marriage a triumph, she still saw herself as something of a rebel against the conventions of her parents. In a piece titled, “Statements of Belief,” published in The Bookman, Taggard described how her inclination toward contrarianism started early:

We always sang four-part songs, in the Islands, at school and singing was important. I sat with the altos and sang the dark humming parts. After about a year, came along a singing teacher who applied her octaves and diagnosed: “But you are a soprano.”

There it was again. I was a freckled blonde when I wanted to be brunette, white when I wanted to be Hawaiian, and a soprano when I wanted to be alto.

“I’m going to keep on singing alto.” That was final.

“Very well, and ruin your voice. You have a real soprano. And you might sing solos.”

And so, Alto against Nature, with now (she was right), no voice at all . . . and the only chance for singing, on paper. Uncomfortable as a dog within ear-shot of high sopranos, still liking best middle register and counterpoint.

And so, Alto against Nature, she proclaimed herself quite the opposite of all that her parents stood for: “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.”

The late 1920s and early 1930s was perhaps the period of Taggard’s best work. Benet later selected a poem Taggard published in the 13 October 1928 issue of Saturday Review for his anthology, Fifty Poets (1933). The poem offers hints of the two worlds of her childhood:

Try Tropic for Your Balm
(On the Properties of Nature for Healing an
Illness)

Try tropic for your balm.
Try storm.
And after storm, calm.
Try snow of heaven, heavy, soft, and slow,
Brilliant and warm.
Nothing will help, and nothing do much harm.

Drink iron from rare springs; follow the sun;
Go far
To get the beam of some medicinal star;
Or in your anguish run
The gauntlet of all zones to an ultimate one.
Fever and chill
Punish you still,
Earth has no zone to work against your will.

Burn in the jewelled desert with the toad.
Catch lace
In evening mist across your haunted face;
Or walk in upper air the slanted road.
It will not lift that load;
Nor will large seas undo your subtle ill.

Nothing can cure and nothing kill
What ails your eyes, what cuts your pulse in two.
And not kill you.

Taggard later wrote that, “One Summer evening in 1928 in a special key of loneliness and intensity and certainty, the whole thing came as if dictated…. When I wrote it … I had myself and you, reader, in mind … and many others … all of us, and there are many now–who run through books and landscapes looking for something, with worn faces. I chose this poem because it is about our life and our way of behaving.”

She joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College and began work on a biography,
The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, which was published in 1930. In 1931, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed her to travel to Europe, where she spent several months living on the island of Mallorca.

When she returned to the United States, she appears to have brought back a conviction that she had to make a fundamental change in her poetry. She felt her previous work was frivolous, and she now wrote with a thumping seriousness worthy of Robert Wolf:

To the Powers of Desolation

O mortal boy, we cannot stop
The leak in that great wall where death seeps in
With hands or bodies, frantic mouths, or sleep.
Over the wall, over the wall’s top
I have seen rising waters, waters of desolation.

From my despair bibles are written, children begotten;
Women open the wrong doors; men lie in ditches retching,–
The horrible bright eyes of insanity fix on a blue fly,
Focus, enlarge. Dear mortal, escape
You cannot. I hear the drip of eternity above the quiet buzz of your sleep….

Genevieve Taggard in the 1940s while on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence
Genevieve Taggard in the 1940s while on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence

In a review of a collection of poems by William Carlos Williams written for New Masses at around the same time, Taggard bemoaned that Williams had “fallen among the Imagists” and declared that, “We do not need to pay such exaggerated attention to ‘real objects’ because now the fog clears off; real ideas challenge us.”

Divorced from Wolf in 1934, she joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, where she remained until forced by ill health (chronic hypertension) to leave in 1946. Through her work for New Masses, she met Kenneth Durant and they married in 1935. By all reports, the two were deeply in love. She became a member of the Communist Party and they took a tour of the Soviet Union in 1936. She published a selection of her new, realistic poems, Calling Western Union, soon after, and two years later, Collected Poems: 1918-1938, in which she formally declared her lyrical work a thing of the past.

Interestingly, her shift from modernism to realism was mirrored by a renewed respect for the values her parents–and, in particular, her mother, stood for. In the November 1938 issue of Poetry, she published the following:

To My Mother

The long delight and early
I heard in my small years clearly:
The morning song, bed-making, bustle for new undertaking,
With dish-washing and hay-raking,

This vanished, or seemed diminished,
Was lost, in trouble finished.
I did nervous work, unsteady, captive work and heady.
Nothing well-done and ready.

And heard in other places
Than home, and from foreign faces
The dauntless gay and breezy communal song of the bust,
I–idle and uneasy.

I said, my work is silly,
Lonely and willy-nilly.
See this hand with nicotined habits, this useless hand that edit
A chronicle of debits.

Join, if I can, the makers,
And the tillers of difficult acres;
And get somehow this dearly lost, this re-discovered rarely
Habit of rising early.

She had apparently also forgiven her mother for keeping a volume of Edgar Guest’s poems next to Genevieve’s books on her nightstand.
slowmusic
During the Forties, Taggard spent a good deal of her free time at a farm near Bennington that she had bought with the profits from her Dickinson book. Although she acknowledged she could never fully assimilate with the locals, the rural atmosphere somehow brought back her memories of Hawaii, and a lyrical strain began to force its way back into her poetry. She published A Part of Vermont in 1945–a slender book but with nary a sign of red banners or marching masses.

A year later, she published Slow Music, which showed a writer torn between the cause she believed in and the sensuality at the core of her spirit. Dross like “Salute to the Russian Dead” is overwhelmed by such poems as “Hymn to Yellow,” “A Dialogue on Cider,” “A Poem to Explain Everything About a Certain Day in Vermont,” and the playful “A Sombrero Is a Kind of Hat This Poem Is a Kind of Nonsense.” And the woman who rejected William Carlos Williams for fixating on objects came up with a lovely little poem with echoes of William’s red wheel barrow:

The Geraniums

Even if the geraniums are artificial
Just the same,
In the rear of the Italian cafe
Under the nimbus of electric light
They are red; no less red
For how they were made. Above
The mirror and the napkins
In the little white pots …
… In the semi-clean cafe
Where they have good
Lasagne … The red is a wonderful joy
Really, and so are the people
Who like and ignore it. In this place
They also have good bread.

And so, with her last book, Origin: Hawaii (1947), Taggard returned to Oahu for the last time (and perhaps knew it for the first time). In her introduction to the collection, she wrote that, “A place that has not been truly felt and communicated does not, in a certain sense, exist. Just as a human being who is not quite conscious may be said not quite to exist either.” The collection includes the last poem she wrote, “Luau,” which, one could argue, offers her own equivalent of the Last Supper:

So I come home in the valley of Kalihi,
My bare feet on hard earth, hibiscus with stamen-tongue
Twirled in my fingers like a paper windmill,
A wheel of color, crimson, the petals large,
Kiss of the petal, tactile, light, intense …

Now I am back again. I can touch the children:
My human race, in whom was a human dwelling,
Whose names are all the races–of one skin.
For so our games ran tacit, without blur.


Here we are dipping and passing the calabash
In the ceremony of friends; I also;
But in frenzy and pain distort
The simple need, knowing how blood is shed:

To sit together
Drinking the blue ocean, eating the sun
Like a fruit …

Geraldine Taggard died in New York City in 1948 at the age of 53, of the debilitating effects of long-term chronic hypertension. Though all her books are now long out of print, by far the best place to start to discover her poetry is the collection compiled by her daughter, Marcia Durant Liles, To the Natural World, which was issued in 1980 but is available for free in PDF format (link. It includes some of her very best poems and suffers none of the shortcomings of Taggard’s “realism” period.


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