Daughter of James N. and Alta Arnold Taggard; married Robert Wolf, 1921; Kenneth Durant, 1935; children: one daughter
Genevieve Taggard was the eldest child of schoolteacher-missionaries, whose Scots-Irish pioneer ancestors had migrated to Washington from Vermont. Feeling alienated from the spiritual and cultural sterility of eastern Washington, Taggard's devout parents moved the family to Hawaii when she was two. Except for two traumatic returns to Washington necessary for her father's health, Taggard lived 18 years in what she later idealized as innocent, exotic poverty.
The contrast between Hawaii, where caste, race, and wealth seemed irrelevant, and Waitsburg's smalltown prejudice and rude materialism, focused Taggard's moral vision. Her social conscience was a logical extension of her parents' preachings, but their faith as fundamentalist Disciples of Christ allowed only biblical reading; Keats and Ruskin were illicit pleasures. Defiantly, Taggard embarked upon her writing career at age twelve.
By the time she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley (1920), Taggard was both poet and socialist. Nationally published, Taggard was offered work in New York by Max Eastman at the Liberator. She took a leading role in the literary and social developments of the 1920s and 1930s, working first for B. W. Huebsch's avant-garde Freeman and helping found and edit the Measure, a lyric poetry journal. Taggard taught at several colleges, traveled in Europe and Russia, raised a daughter, and was active in humanitarian and proletarian causes. Her two husbands were also radical writers. Taggard retired in 1946 in Vermont; she died in 1948 of the effects of hypertension.
Known primarily to scholars for her biography of Emily Dickinson (1930), a passionate, bold interpretation of the father-daughter relationship and Dickinson's psychology, Taggard received wide recognition throughout her career as a literary activist and poet, who was published and reviewed in journals ranging from the New Yorker to New Masses.
Her first book of poetry, For Eager Lovers (1922), established her unique idiom as a metaphysical Marxist, a lyric intellectual who incorporates Hawaiian exotica into poems about revolution and a woman's experience in love. Even such Marxist visions of doomed decadence as "Twentieth Century Slave-Gang" eschew rhetoric and combine modern directness ("the ants are hurried") with extraordinary images: oaks bend knotted knees in labor, a pond is wrinkled with velvet oil, wasps carry spider-spoil to where crude honey hangs in mud.
While this volume commemorates a first year of marriage, and Taggard occasionally speaks as an "eager lover," she insists on the necessary independence—even defiance—of soul, voice, whole being, especially in the potentially compromising love relationship. Her resolute quest for freedom (personal, artistic, social, and political) is the dominant theme of Taggard's poetry; here the tone is "caged arrogance" as the voice celebrates its emancipation.
In Collected Poems, 1918-1938, Taggard juxtaposes early and late poems to show their essential continuity, that love of beauty and hatred of oppression are not contradictory. She brings her modernist and ideological rebellion against romanticism to the lives of "mothers, housewives, old women" to capture with compassion, "the kitchens they knew, sinks, suds, stew-pots, and pennies… / Dull hurry and worry, clatter, wet hands and backache." While Taggard's Marxism and moral upbringing lead her to respect "those timid slaves of breakfast" who "get out in the line, drop for once dish rag and broom," her tolerance turns to scorn for artists who care only for aesthetics. That she feels the odds are against a "middle-class middle-aged woman" succeeding either socially or aesthetically at "useful" lyrics is told in "Words Property of the People," where Taggard cites the cost of her convictions. She finds herself "stammering/Anxious to show that a poet's mind / Is as useful as a carpenter's hammer."
In Slow Music (1946), Taggard is still working to support her lifelong conviction that the desire to be socially relevant and the belief that art obeys its own laws must coexist. Charges that her poetry lacks a "unified sensibility" point to what makes Taggard's poetry unusual: the lifelong synthesis of her experience and vision as sister, daughter, mother, wife, lover, professor, activist, and poet, whose words were heard on records and on the radio, sung at Carnegie Hall to music of Copland and Schuman, and read in Moscow and in bean fields. She lived paradox as naturally as she wrote metaphysical verse. The synthesis of mangoes, metaphor, and Marx makes Taggard's poetry complex. But her passion for precision makes abstract idea and mood arresting and accessible: Taggard renders psychological and social states through metaphors of the physical world.
Hawaiian Hilltop (1923). Continent's End (edited by Taggard, with G. Sterling and J. Rorty, 1925). May Days (edited by Taggard, 1925). Words for the Chisel (1926). The Unspoken, and Other Poems by Anne Brenner (edited by Taggard, 1927). Travelling Standing Still (1928). Circumference: Varieties of Metaphysical Verse, 1459- (1929). The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson (1930). Remembering Vaughan in New England (1933). Ten Introductions (with D. Fitts, 1934). Not Mine to Finish (1934). Calling Western Union (1936). Long View (1942). Falcon (1942). A Part of Vermont (1945). Origin Hawaii (1947).
Aaron, D., Writers on the Left (1961). Lins, K. L., "An Interpretive Study of Selected Poetry by Genevieve Taggard" (thesis, 1956). Mossberg, B.A., and C. L. Mossberg, Genevieve Taggard (Western Writers Series). Peck, D. R., "Development of an American Marxist Literary Criticism: The Monthly New Masses" (dissertation, 1968). Wilson, E., "A Poet of the Pacific," in The Shores of Light (1952).
DAB. NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to American Literature (1965). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA.
Masses and Mainstream (Jan. 1949). Ms. (1979). Nation (19 Jan. 1927). New Masses (Jan. 1927). Poetry (Dec. 1934, May 1936, Feb. 1947). SR (7 Nov. 1936; 14 Dec. 1946). Scholastic (17 May 1938). Time (22 Nov. 1948). WLB (Jan. 1930).
—BARBARA CLARKE MOSSBERG