Taggard, Genevieve (1894–1948)
Taggard, Genevieve (1894–1948)
American poet. Born in Washington state on November 28, 1894; died on November 8, 1948, in New York City; daughter of Alta Gale (Arnold) Taggard and James Nelson Taggard (both schoolteachers); graduated fromm the University of California at Berkeley in 1920; married Robert L. Wolf (a writer), on March 21, 1921 (divorced 1934); married Kenneth Durant (who worked for Tass, the Soviet news agency), on March 10, 1935; children: (first marriage) Marcia Sarah Wolf (b. 1922).
For Eager Lovers (NY: Selzer, 1922); Hawaiian Hilltop (San Francisco, CA: Wyckoff & Gelber, 1923); Words for the Chisel (NY: Knopf, 1926); Travelling Standing Still: Poems, 1918–1928 (NY: Knopf, 1928); Monologue for Mothers (Aside) (NY: Random House, 1929); The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson (NY: Knopf, 1930); Remembering Vaughan in New England (NY: Arrow, 1933); Not Mine to Finish: Poems 1928–1934 (NY: Harper, 1934); Calling Western Union (NY: Harper, 1936); Collected Poems, 1918–1938 (NY: Harper, 1938); Long View (NY: Harper, 1942); A Part of Vermont (East Jamaica, VT: River Press, 1945); Slow Music (NY: Harper, 1946); (selected by Donald Angus) Origin: Hawaii (Honolulu: Angus, 1947); (edited by Taggard, George Sterling, and James Rorty) Continent's End: An Anthology of Contemporary California Poets (San Francisco, CA: Book Club of California, 1925); (edited by Taggard) May Days: An Anthology of Masses-Liberator Verse, 1912–1924 (NY: Boni & Liveright, 1925); (edited by Taggard) Circumference: Varieties of Metaphysical Verse, 1456–1928 (NY: Covici Friede, 1929); (edited by Taggard and Dudley Fitts) Ten Introductions: A Collection of Modern Verse (NY: Arrow, 1934).
Although Genevieve Taggard's poetry was well known in her time to both literary and popular audiences, her work as a poet is now largely forgotten, and she is best known as the author of The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson (1930). A passionate, intuitive, and bold interpretation of the father-daughter relationship and of Dickinson's psychology, it proposed George Gould as Dickinson's mysterious lover and her father as a repressive villain. The book, well received when it was published but since superseded, was based on Taggard's acquaintance with people who remembered Dickinson, reinforced with meticulous scholarship. In addition to poetry and scholarly work, Taggard wrote short stories, reviews, essays, and articles on poetic theory, and edited literary journals and anthologies. In her prose work, she was a tireless crusader for more involvement—in liberal causes, in art, in life. Her first commitment was to the writing of poetry, however, and at her best, she produced some fine poems containing imagery still vivid today. Her writer friends included Wallace Stevens, who strongly influenced her work, especially her later poems. Yet Taggard's poems are only occasionally derivative, and her best poetry, on art, woman's experience, and social injustice, has much in common with the work of later poets such as Sylvia Plath and especially Adrienne Rich .
Taggard was born in 1894 to Alta Arnold Taggard and James Nelson Taggard, both schoolteachers in Waitsburg, Washington; the eldest of three children, she was the granddaughter of two Union soldiers. When she was two years old, the family moved to Hawaii. There her parents served as missionaries for the fundamentalist Disciples of Christ, and her father built up a public school at Kalihiwaena, near Honolulu. Taggard spent most of her childhood in Hawaii, where she grew up among her father's Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese students, and she developed a hearty dislike for American tourists. The Bible was the only book her parents allowed in the house ("I made Bible stories into fairy-tales," she wrote in 1927), but she read Keats and Ruskin secretly, and at school she learned Hawaiian legends. When the family made preparations to return to Waitsburg in 1905 (because her father was thought to have tuberculosis), one Hawaiian playmate told her, "Too bad you gotta be Haole [white]"—and later she wrote, "Off and on, I have thought so too, all my life." The family did not like Waitsburg, and in 1906 they came back to Hawaii, where they stayed until 1910, when James' ill-health once again drove them back to Waitsburg. They remained there, her father working a small pear farm for his brother, until 1912. The contrast between small-town rural America and the rich multiracial cosmopolitanism of Hawaii made a lasting impression on Genevieve: the cruel and brutal insensitivity she found in Waitsburg, where the Taggards lived the life of the rural poor, crystallized into a liberalism she later expressed through leftist poetry and commitment to liberal and proletarian causes. In 1934, she wrote that the time in Waitsburg had been "the active source of my convictions. It told us what to work against and what to work for." It is quite possible that the family's financial history also contributed to her political and feminist convictions: after many years of saving, her parents had accumulated $2,000, and it was earmarked to pay for Alta's college education, but when James' brother fell on hard times, the money went to him. With it he bought a farm in Waitsburg, became prosperous, but never repaid the loan: "my mother," Taggard later wrote, "went as nearly insane with rage as she could permit herself." Instead, he hired James, when he was forced to leave Hawaii, to work on his pear farm—and it was in those years that, in Genevieve's words, "used as my uncle's hired help and wearing his family's cast off clothing, we integrated ourselves into the single struggle to exist."
In 1906, when she was 12, she entered the missionary Punahou school and began to write poetry; her first published poem, "Mitchie-Gawa" (about American Indians) appeared in the school magazine, the Oahuan, in 1910. In Waitsburg, she was the editor of the high school paper, Crimson and Gray, and in 1914 (the year she became editor of the Oahuan), just three months before graduation, her father fell ill again, and she took over his teaching at his school. The family moved to California in the fall, and, with friends contributing $200 toward expenses, she entered the University of California at Berkeley. Since her father was now an invalid, Taggard and her mother (according to an account she published in 1927) became servants in a boardinghouse for Berkeley students; her studies interrupted by work, she took six years to graduate. She studied poetry with Witter Bynner at Berkeley, and in November 1915 her poem "Lani" was published by the San Francisco magazine Overland. In December 1919, Harper's published another of her poems, "An Hour on the Hill," and in her final year at Berkeley, she became the salaried editor of the college literary magazine, the Occident. Before her graduation she had become a socialist, familiar with radicalliterary circles in San Francisco. "At the end of college," she told Twentieth-Century Authors (1942), "I called myself a Socialist in a rather vague way. Since then I have always been to the left of center. In those days Frank Norris and Jack London were still heard of as friends of friends. The great city of San Francisco taught me a good deal that I needed to know."
After Taggard graduated from Berkeley in 1920, Max Eastman, editor of the radical Liberator, arranged a job for her on the Freeman, and she moved to New York. There, she began publishing her work in such magazines as Nation and Harriet Monroe 's Poetry, and in such journals as Liberator. The job with the Freeman did not materialize, and she instead worked for the avant-garde publisher B.W. Huebsch. On March 21, 1921, she married Robert L. Wolf, a writer, and the following year had her only child, Marcia Sarah Wolf . Also in 1921, she joined with Maxwell Anderson and Padraic Colum to found and edit the Measure: A Magazine of Verse, which rapidly became quite prestigious but folded in 1926. In 1922, her first book, For Eager Lovers, was published. Reviewing it for the Bookman, Grace Conkling called Taggard "genuinely original in her musical effects. Her imagination is to be trusted." Louis Untermeyer, in the Literary Review, praised the book highly: "It is a woman speaking; straightforward, sensitive, intense. Instead of loose philosophizing there is a condensed clarity; instead of rhetoric we have revelation." Mark Van Doren, in the Nation, said that this first volume "places her among the considerable poets of contemporary America." The collection consists mostly of rhymed, personal poems about love and nature. A few, such as "Thirst," come close to the imagism of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle ), and others, such as "Twentieth Century Slave Gang," look forward to the theme of social injustice which dominates so many of her later poems.
In the 1920s, Taggard and Wolf both served as contributing editors to New Masses, but in a 1927 symposium she expressed her uneasiness with pressures to join the proletarian cause. No doubt her experiences, in childhood and youth, of intense sectarianism and of the social pressures inevitably attendant on the embracing of a "cause" led her to back off: hers was an independent cast of mind and personality.
Genevieve Taggard's poems were praised by such well-known writers as Edmund Wilson and Allen Tate, but they were often disparaged by the popular press. Her poems tend to reflect the best and worst of the intellectual currents of their times; the lyricism, focus on art, and concern for the image of the 1920s, and the 1930s social conscience and sense of place—but they make strongly individual statements as well. From her first poems published in the 1910s and 1920s to her last work in the 1940s, Taggard's writing evolved through a series of roughly defined stages, from rhymed poems of nature and love, through protest poetry, to the often experimental poems she wrote in the 1940s about art and women's experience. However, social protest was her overriding concern and it was her protest poetry which was most likely to draw unfavorable criticism from the popular press. Time, for instance, once described it as the work of a "worried, earnest, political nondescript."
In 1922, Taggard and her husband spent a year in San Francisco, where she gave courses in poetry and helped edit an anthology of California poems, Continent's End, in which she called for more honest involvement in social issues, and less artistic detachment among regional writers. In 1923, she published Hawaiian Hilltop, a small pamphlet of poems that show her development of a sense of place. That same year, she and her family settled in New Preston, Connecticut. Her anthology May Days, drawn from the pages of New Masses and the Liberator was published in 1925; it was followed in 1926 by Words for the Chisel, her first book to be widely read and reviewed with favorable notices in national and popular literary journals. Some of the poems in Words for the Chisel contain strong images from Taggard's Hawaiian childhood, while others deal with social inequities. The collection includes a number of sparse, economical poems about love and art, and shows a passion and political restraint not found in the earlier ones. Katherine Anne Porter , herself politically sympathetic to Taggard's position, wrote in the New York Herald Tribune (April 18, 1926) that "this is poetry to be read for its own sake"; Joseph Auslander, in the New York World, talked of the "sovereign and dextrous craftsmanship"; and Allen Tate, in the Nation (April 28, 1926), praised the work as "intelligently sustained." He went on: "The artistic aim indicated by the title … would be pretentious, if it were not accurately realized. Only with excessive zeal could one discover a single failure in her three volumes of poetry." But he then sounded a note which would recur throughout Taggard's career, and possibly haunt her: "It is unfortunately true … that she has not yet produced a single perfect utterance." This was a remark that Leo Kennedy would echo in Book Week in 1946, while reviewing her collection Slow Music: "There is not a bad poem in the book … but it is like a shop window full of everything from children's toys to bull fighting equipment to hardware and tourist travel literature. I think that what I am regretting is the absence of a unified sensibility in these fine poems."
Travelling Standing Still (1928), a selection of previously published poems, brought further critical acclaim (though again with reservations) from such critics as William Rose Benét and Edmund Wilson. Taggard next produced two brief pamphlets, Monologue for Mothers (Aside) (1929) and Remembering Vaughan in New England (1933), each containing a single poem, as well as her widely praised biography of Emily Dickinson , published in 1930.
She had spent 1928 in Southern France, and in 1929 moved to New England, where she taught at Mt. Holyoke College for a year. A Guggenheim award in 1931 took her to Capri and Majorca with her daughter and sister Ernestine Taggard . In 1932, she began teaching at Bennington College in Vermont. Taggard divorced her husband in 1934, and the following year married Kenneth Durant, who worked for Tass, the Soviet news agency. She also left Bennington for a faculty position at Sarah Lawrence College, where she would teach until 1946. Taggard bought a farm, Gilfeather, at East Jamaica, Vermont, a few miles south of her grandfather's hometown of Londonderry. No farmer, she settled into a life of teaching and observing—and writing.
Not Mine to Finish: Poems 1928–1934, her next collection, was published in 1934. At the time, Taggard was fascinated by New England, which seemed to her to exemplify the best America had to offer. In contrast to New York, Vermont appeared to be unspoiled and humane. But two years later, as was apparent from her next collection, she had changed her mind. Instead of opportunity for self-realization amid natural beauty, New England came to mean exploitation and injustice. After witnessing the treatment of workers involved in the Vermont quarry workers' strike, she wrote in the introduction to 1936's Calling Western Union:
I was wrong about Vermont. At first it looked to me the way it looks to the summer visitor who goes up there to get a rest. And then the facts contradicted my hope. I saw canned wood-chuck in the farmers' cellars…. I knew a man who worked in a furniture factory for ten cents an hour! I saw his starved wife and children. Slow starvation gives children starry eyes and delicate faces…. When they eat, the quarry workers eat potatoes and turnips…. And so I say I was wrong about Vermont.
This long introductory essay is considered by far the most vivid and evocative part of the book; Taggard describes her Hawaiian childhood, the disappointment of her return to the United States, and her unfulfilled search for a promising and just America. The poems, on the other hand, were more social protest than art, with such titles as "To an American Worker Dying of Starvation," "Up State—Depression Summer," "Feeding the Children," and "Mass Song." A number of poems have rousing assertions as conclusions: "We must feed the children. Vote the strike!"; "I hope the people win"; "For my class I have come/To walk city miles with many, my will in our work." Others express standard condemnations of middle-class complacency. Reviews were mixed at best.
After the publication of Calling Western Union, Taggard pursued various poetic interests. Her Collected Poems was published in 1938, with selections from her earliest work but an emphasis on the protest poems from the 1930s. She also worked with composers at putting poetry to music; in 1939 one of her poems, set to music by William Schuman, was sung at Carnegie Hall. Her last major collection, 1946's Slow Music, was a departure from the strident protest poems of the 1930s. With a kind of deliberate artificiality, impersonal and elegiac in tone, the poems focus on the colors of life and death; a color symbolism Taggard devised persists throughout the book. Her sister Ernestine had died in 1943, and Taggard herself soon would be all but confined to her home due to illness. She left Vermont only rarely, to receive medical treatment in New York. Slow Music shows Wallace Stevens' influence most clearly, but it is the earlier Stevens of Harmonium (1923) whose traces can most easily be found. According to the reviewer for Kirkus Reviews, the poetry is "sometimes fanciful, sometimes profound, brightly-hued and yet often obscure." Rolfe Humphries, in the Nation (March 8, 1947)—a usually sympathetic journal to which Taggard had contributed often—commented: "Miss Taggard's specialty is a peculiar kind of lyric, very frail, clear, disembodied; larksong descending from way up high in the pure air, or coming down from above the cloud. This is a difficult genre to sustain, or repeat; aiming at effects of innocence, of being 'natural,' Miss Taggard overdoes it a little."
As early as Continent's End (1925), she had deplored "the Longfellow-Whittier School—the Lo! here and Lo! there! school in American poetry—a school that never absorbed its environment, but always held it at arm's length in the gesture of a curio-lecturer," and in 1947 she published a book of regional poetry, Origin: Hawaii. She died in a New York hospital the following year.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.
Nation. April 28, 1926; March 8, 1947.
New Republic. October 21, 1936.
New York Herald Tribune. April 18, 1926.
Saturday Review of Literature. November 10, 1934.
Papers: Taggard's papers are in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library and in the Taggard Archive at the Dartmouth College Library.
Freely adapted from Janet McCann , Texas A&M University, for Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 45: American Poets, 1880–1945, First Series. Edited by Peter Quartermain, University of British Columbia. Gale Research, 1986, pp. 375–381