Follow Harriet on Twitter
Marxist Hexameter: Genevieve Taggard in a Heroic Measure–now with audio!
Labor Day march across the Mackinac Bridge
A poetic measure can mean so many things to different poets. The dactylic measure, for example, evoked serious Homeric epic for Virgil’s Aeneid and Longfellow’s Evangeline, but a more satirical epic quality for Carolyn Kizer’s Pro Femina. Here’s a smaller-scale yet equally meaningful kind of epic heroism commemorated by Genevieve Taggard:
“At Last the Women Are Moving,” Genevieve Taggard (1935)
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.
Taggard’s dactylic meter is rougher and more awkward than, say, Longfellow’s, perhaps in solidarity with the “stiff legs” of the women she writes about. She intersperses many trochees with the dactyls, and she varies the rhythm with running starts (“came,” “there,” “Oh but,” ) antibacchics (“clothes bunched a,” “stiff legs as,” “line drop for”), cretics (“housewives, old,” “bearing wide”), one-syllable feet followed by a rest (“Last,” “(e)rect,” “once,” “odd,” “sinks,” “suds”), and first paeans (“Mama have you,” “ready if you”).
As can be heard in this audio clip (which I think may be the first audio to be posted on Harriet–thanks Travis for figuring out how to do it!), throughout the poem the dactylic rhythm becomes increasingly sure and powerful, running over obstacles and rough places. Though the first stanza takes some time getting going, “hobbling with anxious steps” before it “keeps with the strides of the marchers,” this meter comes out of its classical past to inspire this poem with great energy, carrying both the force and the compassion of Taggard’s beliefs and personality.