“The Genevieve Taggard Effect: Producing Poetic Narratives and Literary Misfits”

by Alison J. Van Nyhuis


[This paper was delivered at the Marxist Reading Group Conference 2002,  “Refusing Our Way of Life: Praxis for a Radical Present,” University of Florida.]

Glancing at book jackets and websites of recently published literary anthologies reveals new-equals-inherently-improved rhetoric. The book jacket of Cary Nelson's Anthology of Modern American Poetry (2000) even boasts its "comprehensiveness" quantitatively. It "contains over 750 poems by 161 American poets” with "numerous poems by women, minority, and progressive writers only rediscovered in the past decades."  But its selections enraged and continue to enrage many.  In a 2000 review of the Anthology of Modern American Poetry, for example, Marjorie Perloff argues that Nelson selects poems "as exemplars of specific racial, ethnic, and political groupings and generally as proponents of a radical politics" (207). She singles out Genevieve Taggard--a white, middle-class poet who writes during the 1930s--as one such "exemplar" and seriously asks, “Why is Genevieve Taggard in the anthology?” (211).  Her review suggests the answer: Nelson includes Taggard because of her political involvement during the "red-decade" of the 1930s and her poems’ radical, leftist content. Taggard fits in Nelson's radical and "instructive" poetic narrative, but, Perloff argues, her poetry does not deserve to be in the anthology.  If Taggard's poetry is just "plain bad writing" on leftist political topics, as Perloff asserts (210), how can we explain the consistent appearance of Taggard's work in literary anthologies from the 1920s until today ?   And since multiple anthologies have included Taggard's poetry, why have so few contemporary scholars commented on her work?  Answers to these questions seem to lie in a process I would like to call the reproduction of anthological literary narratives, meaning that anthology editors' organizing motifs or narratives amplify particular strains of Taggard's own career.

Tracing Taggard's anthological repositionings throughout the past seven decades foregrounds rival cultural narratives of literary modernism: 1920s versus 1930s. The 1920s narrative, found in traditional anthologies, privileges aesthetics, alienation, innovation, and revelation while the 1930s narrative, found in alternative anthologies, privileges leftist political politics, unity, and revolution. In this essay, "traditional anthology" refers to such anthologies as Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry & Modern British Poetry (1962) that primarily strive to construct a survey of "the foundational authors" supported by many canon-formation proponents, and "alternative anthology" refers to more recent anthologies such as Cary Nelson's Anthology of Modern American Poetry (2000) that strive to present a more inclusive literary narrative by recovering or including previously repressed and excluded poets and poetry (Kaloustian 15).  Due to Taggard's leftist political ties and protest poems, it might initially seem that she is exactly the kind of poet who would benefit from alternative anthologies like Nelson's that avidly work at opening up anthological spaces in order to construct a more inclusive poetic narrative; however, tracing editors’ repositionings of Taggard’s poetry within traditional and alternative anthologies troubles both of these anthologies' effects and literary narratives. The anthologies' reproduction of rival 1920s versus 1930s literary modernisms contains Taggard in their anthological margins. Exploring canonical/anthological obstacles faced by revolutionary writers like Taggard could help combat the reproduction of reductive anthological spaces. 

The cycle of Taggard's literary repression begins with literary reviews. Initially, Taggard's contemporaries praised her verse, but praise quickly turned to character assassination when she began publishing poems with more explicit political themes. In a 1926 review of Words for the Chisel (1926), a collection of poetry published by Taggard, Allen Tate echoes previous reviewers' praise and adds even more accolades by claiming that she writes "consistently better" than "her contemporaries because she crafts "intelligently sustained," "economical," verse "in clean, essential outlines" (45). As Taggard writes less lyrical poetry on nature and love and writes more protest poems on class, gender, and race, reviewers write increasingly more unsympathetic critiques of her work. One Time review describes Taggard's poetry "as the work of a 'worried, earnest, political nondescript'" (qtd. in McCann 378).  Later reviewers' repression of Taggard's protest poetry starts positioning her as a poetic misfit, and traditional and alternative anthologies have consistently reproduced Taggard's misfit position by repressing substantial portions of her life and work.        

Most traditional anthologies foreground her lyrical poetry but repress her political associations and protest poetry. Only one of the traditional anthologies I examined mentioned Taggard by name in its preface--Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry & Modern British Poetry (1962), and he only mentions Taggard briefly in the "New Lyricst" section: "Genevieve Taggard and Jean Starr Untermeyer lifted the ordinary round of woman's everyday into the extraordinary and, not seldom, into the ecstatic" (27). The word “ordinary" suggests Taggard lives within and works from a private, domestic realm and negates much of Taggard's political involvement. The words “extraordinary” and "ecstatic" tag Taggard as a lyrical poet. Although Untermeyer explicitly positions Taggard as an “everyday,” “private,” “individual,” “female" poet who personally and subjectively writes about her experiences, other traditional anthology editors reposition Taggard within their respective 1920s literary narrative--but contain her in their margins.

And they reposition her liberally: no poem appears in more than two traditional anthologies. Only one poem, “The Enamel Girl,” overlaps between the three anthologies published before the 1970s.  In effect, these shifting poetic selections recodify Taggard. As opposed to Untermeyer, who positions Taggard as a minor lyrical poet, Thomas Carruth, the editor of The Voice that is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century (1970) calls Taggard “metaphysically and traditionally oriented” in his headnote (191). Carruth's “metaphysical” tag directly contradicts Untermeyer, who situates her poetry in opposition to other metaphysical poets.  But Carruth's “traditional” tag could function as an extension of Untermeyer’s “ordinary” and "New Lyricist" descriptors.  Since Carruth does not specify how and in what tradition Taggard’s poetry is “traditional,” it seems rather difficult to fix the term’s meaning. Possibly in response to these vague and possibly competing poetic positionings, the Survey of American Poetry (1986) only prints poems found in Untermeyer's and Carruth's anthologies. Instead of sifting through and rejecting past descriptors, the anthology unites them, and Taggard emerges from the twentieth century as a "(new)lyricist," "traditional," and "metaphysical" poet. 

But this united recodification suggests Taggard’s poetry does not apply to or will not be understood by the masses. The lyric is  traditionally regarded as representing personal, individual experiences that do not necessarily represent group experiences, and its fragmented, disruptive, self-reflexive aspects often complicate readers’ “understanding” of the poetic message--if one exists. Foregrounding her lyrical and metaphysical writing represses her more explicitly "political" poems. Privileging the aesthetics, alienation, formal innovation, and personal revelation of Taggard's earlier writing represses a substantial portion of her verse and separates her from the communities she worked in and for.

Alternative anthologies, such as Nina Baym’s Norton Anthology of American Literature (1998) and Nelson’s Anthology of Modern American Poetry (2000), move Taggard further away from the anthological border positions held in traditional anthologies by privileging what the traditional anthologies repressed--Taggard's leftist poetry.  In the anthology’s preface, Nelson presents Taggard as one of the most important poets writing during the 1930s, which he foregrounds as one of the most important poetic decades in the twentieth century. Then he uses his poetic selections to emphasize Taggard’s political roles. "Everyday Alchemy," "Up State-Depression Summer," and "Mill Town" highlight the harmful effects of class inequalities (336-339). "Ode in Time of Crisis" and "To the Negro People" prompt the laboring masses to unite and rise up against hegemonic forces (339-42). The poem printed last, "To the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade," challenges readers to analytically reconsider their present “peaceful” situation (342). In contrast to the traditional anthology editors' selections, Nelson’s selections suggest that Taggard primarily writes about class, gender, and race (in that order) to induce political activism and cause social change: the poems and their subject matter function as a means to a higher, political end. Baym does mention one of Taggard's earliest lyrical collections that addresses love, marriage, and nature, For Eager Lovers (1922), but both Nelson and Baym reposition Taggard as a political poet first and foremost, solidly grouping her with other female, radical, leftist poets; however, this misrepresents Taggard’s self-positionings in essays, articles, and literary works. She more clearly aligns herself with men and women in class more than gender struggles. By foregrounding Taggard’s historical situatedness and political associations, alternative anthologies do reintroduce important information that traditional anthologies have repressed for decades. In doing so, they almost eclipse her formally innovative, critically acclaimed 1920s lyrical and metaphysical work.

Reading “With Child,” one of Taggard's most representative poems, within a 1920s and 1930s literary context shows how both rival literary narratives might prompt limited readings of Taggard’s poetry. “With Child" begins as follows:

                       Now I am slow and placid, fond of sun,
                       Like a sleek beast, or a worn one,
                       No slim and languid girl—not glad
                       With the windy trip I once had,
                       But velvet-footed, musing of my own,
                       Torpid, mellow, stupid as a stone.  (Collected Poems 20)

In a traditional anthological context like Untermeyer’s, readers might be more apt to focus on the self-deprecating remarks voiced in the poem’s opening lines since Taggard’s other poems in Untermeyer’s anthology echo those remarks. Within this context, readers might conclude that the speaker simply discusses a mother’s “natural" and “ordinary” relationship with her child in the remainder of the poem; other poems near “With Child” also mention mothers and/or nurturing. Reading the same poem in an alternative anthology like Nelson’s might elicit slightly different responses. Nelson’s poetic selections present women as powerful, social activists rather than “everyday,” private, individuals. In Nelson's anthology readers might experience the language of the speaker as that of  a powerful creator, a poet. In that same vein, people might read the poem’s concluding lines more self-reflexively:

                                                              In the dark
                       Defiant even now, it tugs and moans
                       To be untangled from these mother's bones.

Instead of reading the poem as a speaker strictly narrating a literal struggle between mother and child, readers might conclude that the poem also wrestles with a poet's relationship to her poem, or product, considering Nelson’s class-conscious context. The position of “With Child” within rival poetic narratives prompts alternative readings that legitimize anthology editors’ poetic repositionings of Taggard but also reproduces limited readings of Taggard's poetry. A richer context could facilitate a more layered reading.

After developing a better understanding of how editors' revisionist 1920s and 1930s literary narratives repress crucial aspects of Taggard's person, poetry, and politics, literary scholars should continue working to locate the “Genevieve Taggard effect"--the marginalization of poets or the production of canonical/poetic misfits because their body of work does not squarely rest on either side of a literary divide. Once located, scholars should examine and eventually deconstruct the literary narratives that produce limited readings in order to produce a transformative anthological space that would produce more informed readings of poets and their work.

Taggard’s own self-positionings offer a more complete anthological representation. She positions herself as an impassioned artist concerned with poetic form and expression, as well as a political activist concerned with using her individual voice and experiences to benefit and unite others. In the introduction to May Days, Taggard writes, the "artist's concern is not to persuade or educate, but to overpoweringly express" (14). Shortly thereafter, she states, “The working class needs artists.” Taggard does not separate her more personal, lyrical poems from her more social poetry as anthology editors have done. She also presents herself as more poetically innovative than others have positioned her. In an introductory statement to Ten Introductions (1934), a collection of modern verse that Taggard co-edited and published, Taggard “humbly” repositions herself as a progenitor of innovative poetry. She writes, "our purpose has been simply to indicate possible fresh sources of poetry” (5). It logically follows that “simply indicating fresh sources of poetry” will generate more profound effects--more “fresh,” innovative poetry. Although Taggard writes fresh, innovative poetry, anthology editors repress her most innovative poetry, as will be shown by examining "This Poem" (Slow Music 9, 1946). Even though her leftist political involvement and poetic content generated negative poetic critiques, she continued cultivating and communicating her political positions. In a 1942 interview Taggard says, “At the end of college, I called myself a Socialist in a rather vague way. Since then I have always been left of center” (qtd. in McCann 377). When she publishes Falcon: Poems on Soviet Themes (1942) she dedicates it to Liudmilla Pavlichenko, a Soviet war hero (Repression and Recovery 260). Curiously, (note the sarcasm) The Dictionary of Literary Biography (1978) lists seventeen of Taggard's major publications but neglects to list Falcon. Taggard describes the “social poetry” found in Falcon and many other sources as emphasizing “the struggles of labor, the sufferings of the city and country poor, and the part of the humane middle-class person" (qtd. in Salzman and Zanderer 330). In addition to foregrounding the grossly repressive elements of traditional and alternative anthologies, this brief overview of Taggard’s own words and projects shows how scholars might conceptualize the deconstruction of rival literary narratives in order to produce a more complete presentation of Taggard‘s poetry. This could prompt people like Marjorie Perloff to reread Taggard’s poetry as more aesthetically, politically, historically, and culturally valuable.

“This Poem” (1944), one of Taggard’s poems neither included in traditional nor alternative anthologies, suggests that scholars should look beyond previously anthologized poetry when constructing anthologies. Excluding “This Poem” enables traditional and alternative anthology editors to downplay her verse’s innovative slant.  The poem’s concluding lines, “This is Tuesday morning; and we, the multitude / Fresco the wall of the sky into which we fade” turn the modernist structure on its head by uniting its audience instead of alienating it.  The poem functions as the modernist verse outlined in Baym's “American Literature between the Wars, 1914-1945” introduction (911-21). It uses fragments; it shifts voice, perspective, and tone; it uses symbols; it searches for meaning; it uses the poem as subject matter. Inserting “This Poem” in traditional or alternative anthologies would disrupt their narratives of Taggard’s poetry. It would also enable the anthologies to more accurately convey Taggard’s poetically innovative work. Taggard’s shift from the modernist tradition of alienating the audience to uniting it positions her as a poetically and socially powerful disruptor of a disruptive form.   

Rephrasing Perloff’s question, “Why is Genevieve Taggard in this anthology?, might be more important than answering it. This essay offers many answers explaining why editors include Taggard in their anthologies. But instead of continuing to ask, “Why is she there?” it might be better to ask, “How does her presence there affect our readings of her?” Asking how and why editors do what they do will help readers better understand how to more effectively respond to the literature editors choose to present, as well as the literature they repress.

Contemporary scholars occupy prime positions to critique the limiting effects of anthological spaces in order to produce a transformative anthological space. Our turn-of-the-century position enables us to look back and assess how others have “packaged” twentieth-century poets within anthological narratives.  When we begin to look back and evaluate anthologies' representations of poets we should think about a poet's entire career, and about the poet's own narrative rather than imposing our own discursive confections on a poet's work.

I would like to thank Marsha Bryant for "introducing" me to Genevieve Taggard, inspiring me to consider how she has been represented in anthologies, and also reading and perceptively commenting on this essay. 


Works Cited

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1998.

Carruth, Hayden, ed. The Voice That is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1970.

Kaloustian, David. "Selling Out Literature in Institutions of Higher Education; or, a New Canon Lite for the Millennium." CEA Magazine: A Journal of the College English Association, Middle Atlantic Group 13 (2000) : 14-26.

McCann, Janet. "Genevieve Taggard." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978. 375-381.

Nelson, Cary, ed. Anthology of Modern American Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

_____. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Perloff, Marjorie. "Janus-Faced Blockbuster." Rev. of Anthology of Modern American Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson. symploke 8.1-2 (2000): 205-213.

Salzman, Jack and Leo Zanderer, eds. Social Poetry of the 1930s. Burt Fraklin & Co., Inc., 1978.

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

_____.  Collected Poems, 1918-1938.  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938.

_____. Falcon: Poems on Soviet Themes. Harper & Brothers, 1942.

_____, ed. May Days: An Anthology of Masses-Liberator Verse, 1912-1924. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1925.

_____. Slow Music.  New York: Harper, 1946.

Tate, Allen. "Genevieve Taggard." The Poetry Reviews of Allen Tate, 1924-1944. Eds. Ashley Brown and Frances Neel Cheney. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press. 45-46.

Untermeyer, Louis, ed. Modern American Poetry & Modern British Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1962.


Anthologies Containing Genevieve Taggard’s Work (compiled by Alison Van Nyhuis with Julia Lisella)


Bio: Alison J. Van Nyhuis received her B.A. in Humanities from Northwestern College, and has just completed her M.A. in English at the University of Florida with a thesis on Genevieve Taggard and another 1930s writer, Una Marson. Her research interests include twentieth-century cultural studiesand postcolonial theory, and she has presented papers at the Literature and Film Association's Annual Conference (2002), the Florida College EnglishAssociation's Annual Meeting (2002), the Marxist Reading Group Conference (2002), and the Fifth Annual Red River Conference on World Literature (2001).

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