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  • The Justice Poetry of Miriam Tane
  • John Marsh

In the decade following its successful 1933 general strike, but from its beginnings in 1900, too, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) devoted considerable resources to its workers' education.1 Perhaps most famously, the ILGWU financed composer Harold Rome's Pins and Needles, the enormously popular 1937 musical about exploited, defiant, and occasionally romantic women garment workers performed by ILGWU members themselves. The union also ran several education centers in and around New York City, as well as a sprawling summer school complex in upstate New York. At these centers, as Daniel Katz explains, the ILGWU offered its workers classes in the English language, economics, art, literature, music, drama, philosophy, and history. And like many other AFL and, later, CIO union newspapers during this period, the newspaper of the ILGWU, Justice, routinely published stories and poems sent in by its readers. The editors of Justice also nurtured a number of regularly appearing ILGWU "poet laureates," including the subject of this essay, the prolific and talented Miriam Tane, who, between 1939 and 1946, would publish over one hundred poems in the newspaper.

Though we cannot know for certain, Tane's accessible and striking poetry probably found a sympathetic and enthusiastic audience among the over 200,000 members of the ILGWU and the readers of its biweekly newspaper. Since then, however, like much of the remarkable poetry published in union newspapers throughout the 1930s, it has met with an unqualified critical indifference. Tane's work would thus seem to have fallen into what Tillie Olsen, a contemporary of Tane, famously called the "silences" that "darken literary history." "These are not natural silences," Olsen insists, "that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural; the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot" (xi).

Having battled those silences herself, Olsen is above all "concerned with the relationship of circumstances—including class, color, sex; the times, climate into which one is born—to the creation of literature" (xi). In the 1930s, Miriam Tane outwitted the circumstances that had silenced other writers of her class and sex and, to some degree, would go on to silence her creation of literature after the 1930s. Her work, however, suffers from another kind of silence, related to that which Olsen broadly calls "the times, the climate into which one is born": in [End Page 44] this case, a literary-critical climate that, from the 1930s when Tane published her poetry until very recently, could not discern the value of the writing workers did manage to bring into being.

In this article, I hope to break the silence that has attached to Miriam Tane's poetry. As such, I am less interested in why Tane's poetry met with silence than in starting a dialogue about the poetry that remains. As Cary Nelson argues in Repression and Recovery, "[F]or texts previously ignored or belittled, our greatest appreciative act may be to give them fresh opportunities for an influential life" (14); those texts "can gain that new life," he continues, "in part through an effort to understand what cultural work [they] may have been able to do in an earlier time" (11). My aim here is to do just that: to give contemporary readers a sense of Tane's range as a poet, the sequence of topics she addressed, the shape of her early career, and the cultural (and political) work of her published poetry. To that end, I offer a brief biographical sketch of Tane, followed by readings of some of the poems published in Justice between 1939 and 1946. Most of those poems restate the themes of liberation and escape that emerge in her first published poem, "Spring," though what one tries to escape from (sweatshops, cities, wars, and shopping) and how one tries to escape change with Tane and the world around her. Indeed, I will argue that what Tane's poetry ultimately and unsuccessfully tries to escape is modernity itself.

The critique of modernity that emerges from Tane's poetry, however, does not wholly resemble the reactionary antimodernism of T...


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