Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Which Side Are You On?

It's not often that you discover a poet right beneath your feet, but that's what happened to me in Berkeley. Given, it's more likely there given the Berkeley Poetry Walk just off Shattuck Avenue, the main street. It's an amazing thing to trip lightly over Sappho, Shakespeare, Ohlone songs, Ursula Le Guin, Ntozake Shange... and then, an unfamiliar name: Genevieve Taggard.

Born in Hawai'i and moving across the country from California to New York, Taggard's early twentieth century trajectory weirdly mirrors that of President-Elect Barack Obama. And as a poet who combined love lyrics and political shout-outs, she certainly would make provocative bedside reading for the world's next leader.

Taggard eschewed her missionary upbringing to join communes (this is in the 1920s, not the 1960s), walk picket lines and correspond with the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Her work appeared in small magazines and chapbooks that were produced by the leftist community, but was also published (and sold widely) by Knopf.

Although she's been recuperated as a labour poet, a maker of modern ballads like Florence Reece, who wrote the lyrics to Which Side Are You On? during the 1930s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky (you can see her sing the song during the 1970s strike documented by Barbara Kopple in Harlan County, USA), it's an early and ecstatic love poem, written while she lived in California, that shines up in gold letters from the Berkeley sidewalk. She takes her place among better-known radical poets of place like Jack Spicer, whose works encompass picket lines, chorus lines, die-ins, sexual ecstasies, detention camps, weatherboard houses, bookstores, the wind...

While in California, I read a lot (a lot!) of poetry, including celebrations of place, love and politics in C.S. Giscombe's mysterious and wonderful Prairie Style and Luci Tapahonso's lyrical unfolding of family and roots in SaanĂ­i Dahataal/The Women Are Singing. But I also read Howard Zinn's A Power Governments Cannot Suppress and several Ursula K. Le Guin novels, and all this reading from the left made me wonder: where is the literary history of this thread in American literature (taking in Emma Goldman, Theodor Dreiser, Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and others)? Where is the literary history of work and workers?

And while I wondered that, I thought: as publishers, film studios and record labels confront the internet era, a recession, and what seems like a dwindling appetite for diverse, serious culture, could community organising and the historical Alphabet Agencies point a way ahead -- and are there artists who would, like Taggard, take up the banner and link poetic lines to picket lines? Where are Grace Paley's street-corner heirs? Who will follow Dreiser, and join WalMart or hotel employees as they strike? And could Obama, deep in biographies of FDR, see a way to incorporate the energy of radical artists in his plans for change in America?

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