Poetry for Archaeologists

“Over and over again work never fully tested in its own time offers itself to us to see if it might yet do valuable work in ours.” – Cary Nelson, Repression and Recovery

In his book Repression and Recovery, Cary Nelson champions the social value of the marginalized, and largely forgotten, protest poetry of the 20s and 30s. These poems – recited by coal miners, distributed by factory workers, and printed into pamphlets by the IWW – have a place in literary history. They are important because they provide insight into the social, economic and cultural climate of modern America, painting a broader picture that represents the struggles of disenfranchised populations in a way that canonized poetry from the same era does not. When Cary argues for the recovery of these poems, his safest and most straightforward claim is that the poems of struggling labor activists have social and cultural value as artifacts. They demonstrate the laboring class’s relationship to poetry and the important role poetry played in inspiring and influencing workers. They also document the experiences of the laboring class.

Where Cary’s argumentation gets a bit problematic, however, is when he delves into aesthetics and works to prove that many of the social activist poets of the 20s and 30s – Genevieve Taggart, Lola Ridge, Sterling Brown – are working with the same modernist techniques as poets such as Pound and Eliot. It’s not that Cary’s wrong; I agree whole-heartedly that Ridge’s uses of imagism in The Ghetto may be one of the best examples of the Imagist movement. It’s that he is compelled to work with an established set of criteria for deciding whether or not poems of the modernist era meet aesthetic standards. I’m not being really fair in taking issue with this approach, since the foundation of Cary’s book is to demonstrate that it’s politics, not aesthetics, that determine which poems are excluded from the canon. So he needs to demonstrate aesthetic similarities between poems of the labor movement and poems of higher brow concerns. But the unintended fallout of his argument is the reification of narrow aesthetic values that privilege a certain subset of poetry that has been marked by academia as noteworthy.

The truth is that there were hundreds of poems of the labor movement that weren’t aesthetically modern. They were traditionally formal, or they had pat rhyme schemes that could be easily memorized and sung. They proselytized with unsubtle messages and familiar tropes. Despite this, they still earned a place in our literary history for the work that they did and the lives they affected. And they are to be considered on their own terms and by their own aesthetics. Some are dreadful. But so are many Imagist and Objectivist poems. Here is a protest poem by Genevieve Taggart that is decidedly not dreadful:

At Last the Women Are Moving

Last, walking with stiff legs as if they carried bundles,
Came mothers, housewives, old women who knew why they abhorred war.
Their clothes bunched about them, they hobbled with anxious steps
To keep with the stride of the marchers, erect bearing wide banners.

Such women looked odd, marching on American asphalt.
Kitchens they knew, sinks, suds, stew-pots and pennies…
Dull hurry and worry, clatter, wet hands and backache.
Here they were out in the glare on the militant march.

How did these timid, the slaves of breakfast and supper
Get out in the line, drop for once dish-rag and broom?
Here they are as work-worn as stitchers and fitters.
Mama have you got some grub, now none of their business.

Oh, but those who know in their growing sons and their husbands
How the exhausted body needs sleep, how often needs food,
These, whose business is keeping the body alive,
These are ready, if you talk their language, to strike.

Kitchen is small, the family story is sad.
Out of the musty flats the women come thinking:
Not for me and mine only. For my class I have come
To walk city miles with many, my will in our work.

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