Nancy Berke

Lines that Come with Age:
American Women Poets and the Challenge of Midlife:
An Excerpt

by Nancy Berke


As part of a larger article on which I am working about Twentieth-Century American women poets’ representations of what we now call “midlife,” I’d like to offer a few comments about Genevieve Taggard.  In my book, Women Poets on the Left, I focused almost exclusively on Taggard’s role as political poet and public intellectual, which I tied to Taggard’s own admission that her real work as a poet began in the 1930s, connected in large part to her commitments to Depression-era social movements and the fight against fascism.  Yet Taggard’s poetry has always consisted of interesting intersections between the private and the public.  Whereas the private Taggard can be best found in poetry she published in the 1920s—poems such as “Everyday Alchemy,” “Ice Age,” and “With Child”—the publication, in 1936, of Calling Western Union is perhaps Taggard’s most outspoken claim that poetry has and should have a public purpose.  As she urges fellow writers and readers at the end of “Definition of Song,” “Swing the great stanza on the pavement,—use / The public street for publishing good news.”

It is nevertheless important to note that throughout Taggard’s career, from her lyrical representations of the personal struggles informing her life as a radical within the social bohemia of 1920s Greenwich Village, to her mid-life commitments as a member of the partisan left, her poetry consistently presents significant tension between private and public issues.  Taggard never completely abandons representing the self as an exclusive subject as she moves from the feminist love lyric of her youth to the literary staging of public protest in mid-life.  Thus I would like to suggest that Taggard’s representation of middle age in poems such as “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight,” written when she was 42, and “No Abstraction,” written when she was 47, explore a conflicted midlife. In “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight,” the midlife self is transcended in order to reveal the outer political realities of a radically charged decade.  In “No Abstraction,” the poet presents midlife as a time of increasing personal and social powerlessness.

I’d like to propose that “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight,” and “No Abstraction” are statements about middle age, written at a time before any such midlife discourses existed.  Although there are other poems in which Taggard explores and complicates middle age, I find these two particularly compelling.  Indeed, they endorse my view that women poets of the modern period have much to teach us about women’s experiences at the beginning of the last century, including, of course, the experience of aging. These poems are also good examples of the ways in which the social category of “middle age” was understood by feminists of Taggard’s generation.  I refer to middle age as a social category here because, as feminist critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette has recently argued, in our determination to point to the myriad ways in which, for example, race and gender are socially constructed, we have ignored how age and the aging process are socially determined as well.  We assume that aging is a “natural” act, when in fact we are “aged by culture” (3).

To further advance a critique of “age ideology,” Gullette argues that while “ageism is an ancient prejudice,” . . . “Middle-ageism is our own local twentieth-century toxin” (3).  Gullette contends that the “explosion of mid-life discourse that began in the early 1970s” also ushered in the beginning of an age ideology that has manipulated the “baby-boom” generation into a subtle as well as coercive discourse.  As Gullette explains, “through the blue smoke, age ideology has moved the “problem” of aging backwards—from old age into the middle years and toward even younger ages.  Despite the longevity revolution that began a century ago, we are being aged by culture younger all the time” (4).  Gullette suggests that the “fear of fifty,” so prevelent among today’s baby-boom generation, is moving scarily backwards; soon we will approach forty with similar dread, returning us to the age of “decline” found in Taggard’s generation—but perhaps with one slight difference.  Taggard’s generation was busy fighting other battles.  Her Depression-era mirror did not primarily reflect signs of feminine decline, but rather it reflected back a fortunate self who took her sagging and graying with her to the front, in the fight for peace and social justice.  Today we live in a culture that, with a few notable exceptions, no longer makes social movements because it no longer believes in the possibility of social change.  We turn our fears inward and look into the same ageist mirror that the speaker in “No Abstraction” confronts with anger, but also resignation.  

It is true that middle age had a different time frame for those women poets who, like Taggard, came of (middle) age in the 1930s.  Many women born in the 1890s could still expect to live half as long as those women born several generations later. As we sit atop the twenty-first century, we have by now gotten past Abbie Hoffman’s dictum that thirty rings the death knell to youth’s integrity.  In 1920, however, when the then thirty-six year old “love” poet Sara Teasdale published her book Flame and Shadow, she was already producing numerous maudlin sketches about feminine decline. Curiously, the slightly younger Taggard, in transforming herself from flapper-era love lyricist to Depression-era socialist-feminist, public intellectual, began to represent a different kind of middle age—politically resonant and passionate.  Yet as I suggest here, Taggard cannot completely escape being aged by culture through her radicalism alone.  No such acts of resistance existed—well—except for the practice of refusal she found by writing poetry.  Taggard died from complications of high-blood pressure when she was fifty-two years old—a woman in the prime of midlife. (When I intimated to Taggard’s daughter, Marcia Liles, that perhaps the stress from the paranoid, Cold War climate of FBI surveillance and blacklists might have hastened the decline in her mother’s already fragile health, Marcia curtly responded that it was “kidney failure”.) 

Gullette’s work is also important because she is one of the few feminist critics to attempt to devise a theory of middle age as a socially constructed ideological discourse that must be resisted.  What interested me in the work of American women poets on the left was how their poetry established, to use Alan Wald’s phrase, a “premature socialist-feminist” literary theory and poetics of resistance. At a time when socialist-feminism (a now unfashionable term) was not a fully synthesized and realized critical practice, poets like Genevieve Taggard, Lola Ridge, Muriel Rukeyser, and Margaret Walker were writing poems that engaged in social critique from their respective positions as leftists and feminists.  Thus I am interested in how Taggard represents middle age, and its contradictory meanings in her life and work. 

In “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight,” from Calling Western Union, the poet identifies herself and women like her whose source of alienation is not only their age and class, but their separation from the sites of class struggle.  In typical structure of much proletarian literature being written during the Depression, “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight” explores how the poem’s speaker moves from an isolated, depressive state to one of social consciousness as she compares her fortunate lot to the hunger filled lives of laboring families in central Vermont, where in the winter of 1936 marble workers went out on strike against the Vermont Marble Company.  The poem’s action begins with its speaker’s sleeplessness and self-absorption.  But as she takes “Veronal in vain,” the “stealthy cold, old terror / of the poor” impresses itself upon her psyche, disrupting the sedative’s effects. In contrast to the midlife self represented in “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight,” in which the poem’s speaker ultimately identifies with the working-poor whose misery is immeasurably greater than her own, in “No Abstraction,” which appeared in Long View, Taggard’s 1942 follow-up to Calling Western Union, the speaker is alone, face to face with her mirror-image: “Never so clearly in mirror / Caught I this—age in the edges.”   Here Taggard represents middle age as a time of decline, a time to cede one’s potential powers. Although Long View, as a collection of poetry, contains many poems of political ardency, “No Abstraction” stands out as the private scream the poet lets out in between the biting satire and passionate pleas for social justice that are characteristic of much of Taggard’s later (and midlife) work. In “No Abstraction,” Taggard uses the essential metaphor of hair to represent middle age decline and the loss of “femininity.”  Her dying hair has “lost the childish tousle” and “quick swirl,” and further symbolizes a loss of vitality and vibrancy.  It might just as well disappear altogether like the poet, like the woman at midlife. 

“Middle-age Middle-class Woman at Midnight” reveals the possibility that youth’s decline is only met with the freedom to remove a focus on the self—on appearance and personal comforts—toward a focus on the greater humanity.  Taggard mocks the mink-coats, heated taxis and orchids of middle-class femininity.  They are trivial compared to the children who “shrivel” from malnutrition in their “Ford towns.”  “No Abstraction” refuses to read middle-class femininity as trivial.  Decline is an inevitable and painful social (and physical) process that the poet symbolizes through the image of dying hair. The poem describes a “body obedient” to the aging process.  It explores resignation, with no political solution or possibility.  There is no working-class struggle for the middle-class woman as she confronts midlife.  There is no social movement that contains her ranks, nor those in solidarity with them.  “No Abstraction” explores what it means to be a forty-seven year old woman in an ageist and sexist culture.  And it motions toward a movement yet to be born.  Hence both these poems with their wholly different emphases suggest that without a working theory of how midlife operates as a disabling, socially produced limitation, creative tensions between resistance and collusion surface.  “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight” and “No Abstraction” pose contrary positions about mid life for the middle-aged radical poet to sort through and document.

The subject of “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight” is ultimately not about middle-age decline, but rather about middle-class indifference to corporate greed and power and its dehumanizing effects upon working-class families. Yet for the socially isolated poet, her subject offers her a way out of a socially constructed middle-age (and middle-class) malaise.  The poem works as a form of self-disengagement.  The poet reaches outside the limits imposed by age and class in order to focus her attention on helping to alleviate the misery of others—the “hunger that has no haste.” What is more, “Midde-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight” mirrors the poet’s own political activism. At the time she wrote this poem, Taggard was a member of the United Committee to Aid Vermont Marble Workers, which was organized by the socialist painter and illustrator Rockwell Kent, to alert the public and pressure the company executives to the inadequate conditions under which marble company workers and their families lived.  Taggard resided part-time in Vermont, somewhere in between the starving, mostly immigrant families that worked the marble quarries, supplying the government with its bloody marble halls (to paraphrase New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio), and the Proctor family, the wealthy owners of the Vermont Marble Company, whose workers had been denied the right to organize a union.  As Taggard’s committee colleague, Sarah Cleghorn, a Vermont poet, social reformer and antiwar activist, wrote in the New Masses, “The workers were encouraged to remain the feudal type of worker, in a safe and contented state of tutelage, perpetual minors in the industrial world” (21).

Middle age, as it is traditionally constructed, is a time of decline, a time for sedation, a time to “take stock,” to become “more conservative with age”—to cite several popular clichés. With “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight” Taggard rejects such passive models. The poem’s speaker can’t sleep, tries a sedative but remains wide awake.  It is not the “continent-wide / Iron bitter. . .Ten below” that keeps her awake, but the knowledge that “[i]n Vermont near the marble-quarries” children freeze and starve while “their fathers accept tear gas and blackjacks.”  Her sleep, which might be eased by Veronal, were she more inclined to identify with the mink-coated women climbing out of heated taxis, is the wakefulness of a raised consciousness.  In contrast, “No Abstraction” presents no forum of identification, no labor organization or support committee in which to join, nothing in the poet’s activist biography can be connected to these solemn words of resignation.  Written twenty odd years after the passage of the 19th amendment and just as many more before the rebirth of feminism in the late nineteen-sixties, “No Abstraction” reveals the kind of self-imposed surrender that is unique to Taggard’s writing even at its most private.  It is hopeless as the subject of decline is hopeless without a movement creating the possibility of new avenues with which to combat the socially decreed discourses that surround the subject of middle age. Arguing that internalization of middle-ageism becomes a collective cultural script, Margaret Gullette insists that “[d]ecline can make losing seem like the only form of life—irresistible” (8).

Since the trope of the body has been important to both women’s writing and the left tradition in modern American poetry, I’d like briefly to address how Taggard represents the body as part of her commentary on middle age. In “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight” the body is sleepless and lacks the comfort it is presumed would accompany the midlife of a middle-class woman.  It is the bodies of working class families that are the object of the speaker’s concern.  They are cold and hungry.  Their bodily strength is compromised.  The speaker cannot accept comfort when it cannot be distributed evenly (the way weight is ideally distributed upon a body). In “No Abstraction,” the speaker laments being trapped in an aging body.  While the central bodily trope of aging is the speaker’s hair, in the poem’s third stanza it is not only her old hair that she despairs, but also her body’s increasing girth.  Strong, muscular bodies of workingmen and the sturdy bodies of their women, (championed through both domestic labor and the labor of childbirth), were significant features of much left literature of the period. Yet here, Taggard renders the weight as “obedient;” heaviness becomes a sign of age rather than strength.  Also of note, the then popular Marxian paradigm imagined the working class (and the working class body) through its historical and collective agency; the aging body as constructed here has no such power:

                       The old, the only body
                       Makes no cave in mirrors,
                       No monster shade

In “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight” the contrast of hunger with comfort suggests that the speaker understands her own complicity with the state of affairs in central Vermont.  The faces of children “hungrier than rodents,” hunger that “haunt[s] the houses of farmers,” ensures the speaker’s resolve to support the right side.  The middle-aged, middle-class woman recognizes that her comfort comes at a great cost.  If the children of this country are in trouble then everyone is in trouble. That hunger and cold are the two most often repeated words in the poem also reminds us that these are “keywords” of Depression-era America.  Yet it is not just the poet’s identification with Vermont’s cold and hungry laboring families that inspires her social critique.  She is able to make an ironic connection to the situation of the city poor.  They cannot pay to heat their flats so they cannot use gas as a painless means of suicide.  They cannot alleviate their “depression” by dying if they can’t afford to pay the gas bill.  Nor can they find the middle ground and sedate themselves because “Veronal” costs money.  What begins as a complaint by a middle-aged woman becomes universalized (to use another unpopular word) into every single person’s complaint, well, except of course for the rich who have their heated taxis, mink coats and hothouse flowers.  Nor is there is little comfort expressed in “No Abstraction.“  The speaker agrees to “[s]ay it clearly; this is dying.”  She begrudgingly announces her commonality with old women, but it is not the same kind of camaraderie that is found in a solidarity campaign. “No Abstraction” is a far cry from the moving social dilemma that brought hundreds of like-minded individuals together in support of starving families and greedy quarry owners. Such collective power is dispersed.  The speaker admits “all powers work inward now.”  The cold, “iron bitter” of the Vermont struggle is now the “dying centre” of the middle-aged, female body, “Outcast, cold.”

Although “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight” and “No Abstraction” are wholly different in their representations of midlife—the first expressing the poet’s public voice and the latter her private voice—both poems end with a challenge to social conventions. The first makes a claim for social commitment as an act of resistance, and the second asks why the midlife woman must acquiesce to what has been determined for her.  As previously noted in “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight,” the cynicism of city life is marked off by the italicized references to no money for gas, no money to die.  Yet as the poet names the culprits at the end of the poem, middle-ageism is notably absent, “Sheriffs, cops, / Boss of the town, union enemy, crooks and cousins, / I hope the people win.”  Yet “No Abstraction” is not completely without the poet’s understanding of the damaging consequences of a socially imposed attitude about midlife.  “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight” follows the formula of proletarian writing by rejecting the personal over the political. It resolves itself in a call to action, “I hope the people win”—a poetic line that would surely have got Pound and Eliot’s hackles up.  In the last stanza of “No Abstraction,” Taggard returns to old hair and the speaker’s hope for acceptance into the company of old women, where there is no transition from middle to old age; the two are blurred together.  Importantly, Taggard moves from speaking to and for those living on the world’s margins, to reflecting upon a middle age that marginalizes women (“old women accept me in your company”).  This company is at least “truthful” if it must be “unattractive.”  But the speaker also poses a question to which she does not yet have an answer:

                  Who loved myself that I was young
                  And the earth with me and in me,
                  Must I hate myself that I am old
                 And the earth not with me, not in me?

By asking whether the aging process should automatically force women to regret their passing youth and loathe their aging selves, Taggard tacitly attempts to resist age ideology.  She implicates the fairness of judging women based on the superficial structures of youth and its accompanying beauty.  More to the point, she questions in these final lines the constructedness of youth and beauty as well as the constructedness of aging.  Still, the poem, in its quietness, its personal focus, its implosion of pain, leaves readers sharing the poet’s sense of loss and social collusion, which seems odd for the public voice we have come to identify in Taggard’s later poetry.  It is precisely this oddity, this contrast between the public claims of “Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight” and the personal lament of “No Abstraction,” that Taggard inadvertently complicates by writing political poetry as a woman at midlife.


Works Cited

Berke, Nancy.  Women Poets on the Left: Lola Ridge, Geneveive Taggard, Margaret Walker.  Gainesville, FL:  University Press of Florida, 2001.

Cleghorn, Sarah.  “The Marble Strike in Vermont,” The New Masses.  January 21, 1936.

Gulette, Margaret Morganroth.   Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of Midlife.  Charlottesville, VA:  University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Taggard, Genevieve.  Calling Western Union.  New York: Harper Brothers, 1936.

—-.   Long View. New York: Harper Brothers, 1942.

Bio: Nancy Berke is the author of Women Poets on the Left.  She has also edited a section on American women radical poets for the forthcoming anthology The Gender Complex of Modernism.  Her essay in this issue of HOW2 has been developed from a larger project in which she examines how a variety of women poets represent midlife in the context of creating their own theories of aging.

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