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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Number 209: Genevieve Taggard " The Geraniums"

The Geraniums

Even if the geraniums are artificial
Just the same,
In the rear of the Italian cafe
Under the nimbus of electric light
They are red; no less red
For how they were made. Above
The mirror and the napkins
In the little white pots ...
... In the semi-clean cafe
Where they have good
Lasagne ... The red is a wonderful joy
Really, and so are the people
Who like and ignore it. In this place
They also have good bread.

-- Genevieve Taggard

Hap Notes: Genevieve Taggard (1894-1948) is another of the criminally under-read poets of a a bygone era. I refer you to the fact that Taggard died in 1948 and this poem sounds refreshingly contemporary doesn't it? Not all of Taggard's poetry reads quite this easily but it all has startling visions of the world. She is a treasure and it's very sad her reputation is so threadbare. Taggard is still often included in anthologies although, less and less as the years go by. I'm sort of shocked by this although I don't know why I should be; women poets are often ignored if they are not twice as smart and twice as popular as male poets. (I said "often" not always.)

Taggard was born in Washington state but her parents, James and Alta (he was a school principle, she was a teacher), moved to Hawaii as missionaries for the Disciples of Christ (now known as the Christian Church.) Taggard tells of a time when her parents had saved up enough money for them to both attend college and James' brother needed money to buy an apple farm. James' brotherly love outweighed his ambition and the money was given to his brother. The Taggards lived close to poverty their whole lives. Genevieve went to UC Berkeley on a borrowed $200 and then went to New York to pursue her own destiny. Taggard remarked that her mother kept a book of Edgar Guest's poetry on a table in their house as a silent protest of Genvieve's chosen profession. (Edgar Guest was a prolific and somewhat syrupy poet firmly rooted in "traditional" values. I believe that's the nicest thing we can say about him.)

Taggard was a socialist who believed in the working man, fair pay, equality for all races and kindness towards all-- of course she was looked on (as many would today) as a radical. It was especially radical in the early 1900s.

She commented, “In the little church my parents attended in Honolulu I was impressed with the text, "I am come that ye might have life and have it more abundantly.’ When we sat listening I had only to move my eyes from the minister to see outside the flowering vines and colored trees of abundance. Nevertheless, or perhaps because we lived a rich sensuous life, the text became my own. I have never ceased to think that the text, taken literally, should be the aim of all governments. I scoff at those who tell me solemnly that government must be something else."

Notice how despite their poverty she describes their life as "rich" and "sensuous." She understood the difference between the poverty of the soul and the lack of wealth.

She taught at Mount Holyoke College and Bennington but the greater portion of her teaching career was at Sarah Lawrence. She also founded a magazine, The Measure, with her friend Maxwell Anderson (who wrote plays you will know from the movies made from them, "The Bad Seed," "Anne of the Thousand Days" and "Key Largo.") She wrote a great deal for socialist magazines and was devoted to equality for all and freedom. She was a very early proponent of Black Blues and Jazz and a devoted fan of Langston Hughes' poetry and Leadbelly's blues. In fact Taggard often tried to emulate the Blues in some of her poetry and often wished she was a musician.

Much of her life has to be taken in the context of the Great Depression and the sadness therein. So many Americans were suffering from joblessness, women were mostly homemakers, Blacks were thought "inferior" etc. etc. She railed against this and her poetry often has the tang of a progressive trying to paint a picture to make a point. Often Taggard donated any royalties from her books to the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) health care fund.

In today's poem, do not be fooled by the simplicity of the statements. She is giving us a photograph and an impression, for a brief instant of a moment in a restaurant but it is more than this. The moment feeds her, and us with colors, candles, lasagne, light, geraniums and bread. This is not a short review of a good restaurant; this is a statement of warmth from a rich moment of life. It's a form of communion.

We will do more Taggard this year.

All of Taggard's books were out of print. There is one available now from Ahsahta Press, To The Natural World. If you are interested in it you can find it here:

Here's a good Taggard quote (a preface from one of her books):
"The reader will misunderstand my poems if he thinks I have been trying to write about myself (as if I were in any way unique) as a biographer might – or as a romantic poet would, to map his own individuality. Since the earliest attempts at verse I have tried to use the 'I' in a poem only as a means for transferring feeling to identification with anyone who takes the poem, momentarily, for his own. 'I' is then adjusted to the voice of the reader.

You can find more Taggard here:

The picture on the masthead today is one of my favorite places –Lagomarcino's in downtown Moline, IL. The store started as a confectionery (Candy!!!) in 1908 but also serves ice cream and food. The booths and mirrors are still the same as they were in the 1920s. It's an awesome place (and still there, thank God) and reminded me a bit of the poem.

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