The Work of Lyric Discourse in a Long Poem by Genevieve Taggard

by Julia Lisella


[A version of this essay was delivered at the American Literature Association’s Symposium on Twentieth Century Poetry, Long Beach, California, March 2003]

During the late 1920s when Genevieve Taggard began writing  “Evening-Love-of-Self,” the narratives of oppression and liberation from which she operated—socialism and feminism—were already fragmented and varied. In this poem, one senses, too, Taggard’s growing acknowledgment that the feminist discourse available to her through the Bohemian ‘20s may have already become a silenced discourse in modernist and socialist circles. On the surface, this poem reflects what a good Marxist may have considered to be pure middle-class bourgeoisie preoccupation with self. Yet, I argue, Taggard’s poem carves out a place for individualist reflection and community action through a variety of lyric and narrative techniques that at times counteract and at other times counterbalance each other. Direct address to her readers, interior monologues, third-person narrative, apostrophe, fusion of narrator and subject all wind her two subjects—individual emancipation and social revolution—together. And though it operates as a long, investigative narrative, the poem itself becomes an aesthetic promotion of the lyric form as strongly as it is an argument for an increased feminist agenda within socialism.

 “Evening Love-of-Self” also plays with our own expectations of both modernist and leftist inspired poetics. Taggard considered herself a Communist and a modernist. Those of you working on leftist poets of the 20s and 30s will know that there was easy commerce between these two terms, but that this fact is presently somewhat forgotten or neglected (or as Cary Nelson characterizes it, repressed) literary history. Though Leftists had their quarrels with High Modernists—for example, Taggard disliked “The Wasteland” and described it as  “nihilistic”—many radical left poets of the 30s saw themselves as part of the modernist project. The debate about poetics in the 1930s focused more on degrees of preoccupation: Leftist enough? Modernist enough? Accessible enough? Too much experimentation was bourgeoisie and self-aggrandizing, yes, but ignoring the possibilities of what poetry could do linguistically, was, for artists like Taggard, a publicly committed Communist and self-proclaimed modernist, simply naïve and silly.  

 “Evening Love-of-Self” has all the makings of a poem that desires to withdraw, at least temporarily, from the debates among Taggard’s fellow Communist and other leftist poets about the relationship among lyric, interiority, inventiveness of language, and social action, not by abandoning such themes and goals, but rather by accentuating their seemingly impossible and irresolvable contradictions. In shape, voice, content and conclusions, “Evening-Love-of-Self reads like a breakaway poem from a social vision agenda, at least as it had been marked off by other leftist writers and theoreticians at the time. But as I will argue here, the poem consistently insists on an opposite reading as well—a statement of what we might identify today as feminist socialism, a term Taggard would not necessarily have chosen herself because of the particular relation women Communists had toward their party allegiances. In many respects, Taggard took her feminism for granted. At the same time, she and many other leftist women writers really struggled to make a place for a feminist critique within their notions of socialism and revolution. The editorial notes in Collected Poems  indicate that Taggard wrote this poem simultaneously with her other work, lyrics that focused on romantic love and maternity, and poems on social themes. Begun in 1927 in New Preston, Connecticut, she returned to work on it in New York City in 1928, Cornwall-on-Hudson in 1928, Mallorca, where she lived briefly, in 1932, and finally, completed it in Bennington, Vermont in 1934 when she was  40 years old. The poem’s history indicates a continuity of concern for Taggard,  a desire extending over several years to articulate a space between the social and the private, the political and the interiorized, for an introspective poem that could resonate politically.

Taggard takes a  favorite subject of lyric: subject in nature reflects on his life. Only this lyric gesture is carried out in a Wordsworthian fashion. By that I mean, it’s long, 21 pages long. And the subject of the poem is neither a wise older man reflecting back, or a young woman waiting for the world to begin as in the early lyrics of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but rather, an older, married woman, wondering where her life has taken her. A third-person omniscient narrative voice separates reader from subject, but as I’ll suggest this distance breaks down at various moments in the poem, fusing narrator and subject. The backdrop of the poem is a fall evening, and a speaker describes a woman, alone, on a hill, watching the sunset. In the course of the poem, the woman examines her long marriage, and her own lack of extraordinariness. Just as the poem readjusts subject, content, and form, and even address of a typical lyric poem, it also abandons any precepts of good socialist writing or narrative poetry one might have come to expect from such a committed radical as Taggard.  The title, for example: Is the title a built-in critique of the speaker’s self-absorption? After all, the title itself seems a strident commentary on the Left’s worry over the self-interested nature of lyric poetry—love of self.  Or is the title an early recommendation to her socialist allies to include concerns for the psychological health of the oppressed, especially women, in their analyses of revolution? 

Just as one begins to measure the meaning of the title, Taggard throws up another major hurtle to experiencing the poem outside of a leftist or within a purely lyrical tradition:  she sets up the title against the epigraph, a  quote from  an essay by Rebecca Pitts, a fellow political writer from New Masses. It reads:   “. . . this profound turning away from life and from the world takes place on a large scale only in periods of social stagnation and despair.”  The 21-page poem that follows, Taggard seems to be telling us, is both a tale of one woman’s struggle and a reflection of our entire culture. One woman’s despair is a response to a society’s “stagnation.” Pitts herself firmly believed that “the specific dilemma involved in being a woman . . . is social rather than biological” and that “only Communism offers women the right to be an independent, productive worker [sic] . . . [and] the right to a freer, more natural sex happiness” (Writing Red 7).  Pitts was an ideological theoretician and her confidence in the Communist Party to cure gender inequalities engaged its own brand of orthodoxy.  Taggard’s position in “Evening Love-of-Self,” on the other hand, is more ambiguous about the power of Communism to cure female unhappiness, but the poem also operates from Pitts’s conviction that the difficulties of being a woman are socially constructed rather than biologically determined.  Taggard asks: How could the Left address the kind of personal oppression an ordinary woman might experience through the limits she endured as a wife or a mother?  By beginning with Pitts’ quote, she places an issue off limits or avoided by her fellow Communists as self-indulgent within the parameters of CPUSA debate: the onus for a solution, for a way to include even personal despair, is placed onto the community, on her (with any hope, politicized) readers, and on her generation. It begins with this insistence on identification with her audience: “She did what you have done: watched a still sunset.”  As she had noted in the introduction to her Collected Poems, Taggard wants to make clear to her readers that one single woman’s despair can be likened to a universal experience. The narrator says of the woman: “Not knowing why, ineffectual she felt, human and crude.”  The narrator emerges more sympathetically and closely aligned to the woman by capturing that feeling of defeat in which the everyday tasks feel impossible:  “We must remember our names, and the houses we sleep in.” 

In terms of form, the poem is a hybrid, too, narrative in length, yes, but telling very little story, containing very little “history”, and engaging many techniques of lyric in shape and voice. In one of the more self-conscious moments of the poem, Taggard writes, “ What is pure cannot be destroyed; destruction is only / Breaking what is corrupt into units of purity.”  Could the lyric represent that smallest unit of linguistic “purity”?  And if so, what would that mean in terms of its power to effect social change?  Though “Evening Love-of-Self” is an epic-length poem, it also strongly argues in favor of these “pure” lyric moments in which corruption, whether it is public and political, or private and domestic, can be broken down and revealed.  That revealed corruption here could be interpreted as the life the speaker leads, and the marriage she’s arrived at, seemingly without will or agency.

Unlike  many of Taggard’s poems that focus on women as mothers, this poem depicts a childless woman. She is not oppressed by factory work, endless hours of providing childcare, or by racism or poverty, but by the loneliness of a seemingly conventional marriage and her own unmet expectations of herself.  In addition, it seems far from Taggard’s small lyric efforts presented in poems like “With Child.”  There is very little redemption in this poem, there is no political conversion of the subject herself, and nor does Taggard resort to the more standard CPUSA solution to individual depression—to be more involved with the Party [a solution that was often offered by the CPUSA’s women’s newspapers as Constance Coiner pointed out in Better Red, her study of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur (56-57)].  And in contrast to some of her contemporary prose writers, such as Olsen or Le Sueur, who often placed their characters within a realm of experienced older women, Taggard seems to have had little confidence in the power of alternative communities of working women to solve or to cope with psychological issues. 

Although the poem describes the withdrawal of one human being from communal life, the poem invests the individual woman with insight; the group does not necessarily possess any particular wisdom or salvation for this woman. The despair and sense of alienation in the poem runs so deeply that one might even suspect the poem will end in suicide, though it does not: “She took the other step, one inch off centre. / She chose, seduced from routine, from neglect and habit / To try the other way. Not ours. Her nature froze / Against us, our stupidity, our natural day.”  The poet continues to watch this woman and in the course of the poem, speaks for her and at times makes room for the woman’s direct speech. Sometimes this speech is marked off by parentheses and sometimes not. And sometimes the speech in parentheses seems the narrator’s speech and not the direct speech of the woman. These shifts create an odd sense of both instability and connection between the narrative voice and the subject’s voice.

In many ways, Taggard treats the subject of this poem the same way that she treats other subjects of her more identifiably social vision verse. She describes, ascribes motives, paints a portrait of despair and lack. At the same time, however, the close connection between narrator and subject challenges her notions of documenting hardship. Critics such as Louise Kertesz have also noted the way in which Taggard boldly disassociates a woman’s unstable emotional state from immaturity here—not childhearted tears but rather, adult anger: 

. . . (Spent life in bad purpose, bad and barren:
Pumping water with grim lips, dropping dead stovelids,
Hatred of life making my hands blur under my eyes. . .
And tears never; nothing so clean as tears; nothing so

But adult anger, brutal response to the plain facts
            about me.) (132)

At a time when Freud’s theories of female hysteria were gaining momentum in American culture, claiming that women’s anger could be explained by societal expectations rather than childhood trauma was truly radical from a feminist perspective, but also from the perspective of her position as a Communist: This woman takes charge of her anger, her “hatred of life making my hands blur under my eyes”. There is no avant coterie of political analysts in this poem. This woman is in charge of her own analysis of her own labor, her life, and her musings, which Taggard does not trivialize: “She said what others said; ate the same food, gestured. / Nothing was about her. Then after melancholy years / Once to stand in her faded dress consulting the sky / For omen of some sorrow not located in events called real. . . .” (ellipses Taggard’s) 136. She literally pulls herself out of despair, reasoning herself to live. But although the woman chooses life over death, it is not a joyful option:

The evening hour indulged her; only evening,
With that nobility her genteel nature craved
Held her fair image—poetic semblances;
Adages, faint wisdom, piety and negation.
So rarely clear, her world, so very rarely,—
Fogged and distracted often; this one evening
Hung in the west, declared the world again,
In limpid light kindly to nerves and senses.
She, lonely as all her kind had been in New England,
Gazed at the waning ray. (135)

For Taggard the poet, as much as for the woman subject of the poem, this movement from despair to acceptance becomes its own source of radical and personal statement.  The speaker’s genteel nature craves a “fair image,” something “poetic,” something that might fit the old forms, something, I’d like to suggest, that fits lyric poetry but in the end, simply can’t be accommodated by lyric and can’t be accommodated by the political public poem, either.  Both subject and the speaker accept the burden of their legacy as individualistic New Englanders, and their future.  They “declared the world again.”  By page 145, near the end of the poem, it is hard to tell who is speaking. Poet-narrator and woman-subject merge. There are no parentheses marking off the speech here:

Death, since I have known you so, forget me,
Since I have burrowed past your three dark hills, forget me,
For I am far from ripe for your cold plunder,
And colder now than even death could make me. . .

The poem is chilling, and atypical of leftist poetry, in its refusal to liberate the subject of the poem, but the resolve of the speaker to face the sunset with a sense of her own dignity is emancipatory, in a new way, I would say a “feminist” way, too.  Her self-realizations help her to conclude that her life has the potential to be worth something.  Taggard does not settle back into the safety of third-person narrative until the final few lines of the poem. She ends the poem demanding her listeners identify with the subject rather than judge her, and by repeating the first few lines of the poem:  “She did what you have done: watched a still sunset. / Saw absently where it went down, a simple sun.”  By refusing to release the subject of this poem from her purgatory of despair, Taggard suggests that the power of poetry itself is limited:  It cannot necessarily redeem but only reveal and unveil personal and political crises.  It can strip experience down to its essentials. At the same time, just as the epigraph and opening lines of the poem suggest, these last few lines remind us that this woman’s private moment of reflection means nothing without our presence, and our willingness to acknowledge our shared emotional lives.


Works Cited

Coiner, Constance.  Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur.  New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Kertesz, Louise.  The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979.

Nekola, Charolotte and Paula Rabinowitz, eds.  Writing Red: an Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940.  New York:  Feminist Press, 1987.

Nelson, Cary.  Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory 1910-1945.  Madison:  U of Wisconsin P, 1989.

Taggard, Genevieve. Collected Poems: 1918-1938.  New York & London:  Harper, 1938.

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