The New Masses, Daily Worker, and Masses and Mainstream, as well as in the 1944 volume Seven Poets in Search of an Answer, which also featured poems by Langston Hughes. In the early 1940s, she wrote political tracts and pamphlets for the New York City Central Committee of the International Workers Order. In the 1950s, she published two volumes of original poetry (Thine Alabaster Cities: A Poem for Our Times  and Dangerous Jack: A Fantasy in Verse ) and edited The Rosenbergs: Poems of the United States (1957). And some of her verses were published in Poetry magazine. Despite this poetic output, Millet remains relatively unknown, even among scholars of the Depression-era Left, and it's worth wondering what narrative of U.S. Left poetry—and of U.S. poetry in general—might surface if we were to take as starting points Millet's engagements with children's verse and her belief in the "popularity" of Popular Front poetry.
Learning from the Left: Children's Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, Julia Mickenberg describes how the "variety of stories, articles, pictures, jokes, puzzles, book and film reviews, and letters to the editor" published in the New Pioneer worked "toward serving the goals of the Communist children's movement" (67). Through story, rhyme, and illustrations by Marya Morrow, the published version of "Pioneer Pied Piper" in May of 1933 exemplifies what Mickenberg describes as the New Pioneer editors' careful efforts "to combine child appeal with political content" (67). But while the poem survives as a significant artifact from the communist children's movement, I think it also begs to be read as something more.
T.S. Eliot, perhaps?) and "tired intellectual towers," and they pitted a "difficult," "cerebral," or "despairing" modernist aesthetic against a more "straightforward," "populist," or "optimistic" one. In a letter to the editor, one subscriber to The New Masses, R.W. Lalley, wrote that he liked "simple, direct little verses" and disliked "the amorphous type" by writers such as Muriel Rukeyser. Millet herself penned a letter to The New Masses in 1938 ("Is Poetry Dead?"). In it, she urged that, for Popular Front poetry to stay "popular," it would have to "mean more to more Americans" and, therefore, it "should, even when representative of the Left, not be confusedly ornate, pretentiously intellectual, and 'cerebrally dull.'"
Little Miss MuffetIn drawing on such popular forms, New Pioneer contributors also re-purposed popular nineteenth-century texts, versifiers, verse genres, and verse presentation contexts in order to construct a poetry that could reach a wide audience and have an immediate impact. Millet's "Pioneer Pied Piper," for instance, doesn't just adapt a familiar text but is also formatted in a way that recalls the print conventions of the ballad broadside as well as nineteenth-century newspaper verse.
Ate such vile stuff, it
Made her feel rotten inside
Black coffee, stale bread—
Miss Muffett saw Red!
She joined with the workers and cried:
"Don't Starve, Fight!
Don't Starve, Fight!"
You are Old, Father William" (1865) and the poem Carroll parodied, Robert Southey's didactic verse "The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them" (1799). All three poems begin with a youth telling Father William, "You are old, Father William," and then proceed with a dialogue in which the youth questions the older man about this condition. Carroll's poem turns Southey's Father William on his head, transforming a pious elder who always "thought of the future" and "remember'd my God" into a rotund, quick-tongued man who turns somersaults and balances an eel on his nose. (That's Carroll's illustration pictured here.)
"In my youth," the old fellow replied to the lad,In the subsequent dialogue, the youth slowly loses his ideals about the work world. At first, he assumes that Father William must have been paid a "handsome wage" because he worked so efficiently. When he learns this wasn't the case, the youth figures, "surely the boss has given a dole" to the old man. But Father William closes the poem with a more difficult truth:
"I slaved every day for the boss
And while I turned out some perfect machines
My own health is totally lost."
"Well, to tell you the truth, I've been working right onIn the end, Hayes reverses the moral of Southey's poem. In the nineteenth-century original, Father William shows the youth that, if one takes care of oneself and thinks always of the future, then one can be comfortable in old age. Hayes's Father William never had such luxuries, however, and has been prematurely aged by factory work. The ultimate lesson is that, unless there is a fundamental socioeconomic change, these conditions are bound to continue and the youth is doomed to suffer the old man's fate. In addition to engaging Southey, Hayes also imparts this lesson by referencing Carroll's more familiar version of Old Father William. The last line of Hayes's "Father William" ("And I just got kicked out today") is a play on the last line of Carroll's "Father William" ("Be off, or I’ll kick you downstairs!").
Till a stronger man for less pay
Has come to the factory to end up like me
And I just got kicked out today.
Longfellow’s Tradition," 472). Such readings serve as productive misreadings, lending fact to the fiction that the most effective revolutionary poetry need not be read at all, for a poem's rhyme and melody would directly transmit its meanings to its readers and their lives. Children's poems—deliberately constructed, but in forms so familiar they seem natural—illuminate the slippage between the Left ideal of the ultimately accessible poem and the historical reading practices on which this ideal relies.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that Millet penned for the October 1938 New Pioneer. Millet casts Longfellow (pictured here) as, above all, a social poet enraptured by "the love of literature and writing" and the uses to which such writing could be put. Over the course of the essay, she highlights his interest in the "impoverishment and oppression" of the people of Spain, his "deeper awareness" of Native American culture, and his condemnation of the "criminal institution" of slavery. Millet's narrative of Longfellow's political activism is overly forgiving, if not downright wrong. But it's also canny. In mentioning Spain, the colonization of the American West, and the antislavery movement, Millet refers to the U.S. Left's solidarity with the international anti-fascist front in Spain as well as the anti-imperialist and anti-racist discourses characterizing Popular Front politics. In so doing, she also extracts Longfellow from the conservative schoolroom, where, as Angela Sorby explains in Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, his poems served a "fantasy of universal humanity" rooted in nationalist discourses (11). Millet repurposes Longfellow for the New Pioneer schoolroom, where the ideal of a united "common people" is meant to enact an international and potentially revolutionary political community.
Millet glorifies Longfellow's politics not only so that they match her own, but also so they match what she perceives to be the politics of his poetic form. She highlights how his poems' political messages are conveyed through simple and musical verse that could be enjoyed by all and praises Longfellow as a writer who:
wrote simply and understandably. He will be remembered as the ever-musical poet of simplicity who could make people see the traditions and folklore of the much-abused Indian through his poetry, and who dealt with life and people in a manner that all could enjoy.Millet's understanding of Longfellow's poetry is symptomatic of prevalent twentieth-century conceptions of his work that privilege its apparent simplicity as well as the promises for reception such simplicity implies. Millet does not, for example, mention Longfellow's use of classical meter (like the trochaic tetrameter lines of "Song of Hiawatha," which she eventually quotes); rather, she describes him as an "ever-musical poet" whose work reached the "people." In Millet's estimation, Longfellow, in a strange way, becomes the ideal radical poet. And, as she suggests through strategic excerpting from "Song of Hiawatha," he advocates peace and solidarity by speaking to children:
O children; my poor children!
Listen to the words of wisdom,
Listen to the words of warning,
From the lips of the Great Spirit,
From the Master of Life, who made you.
I am weary of your quarrels,
Weary of your wars and bloodshed,
Weary of your prayers for vengeance,
Of your wranglings and dissensions;
All your strength is in your union,
All your danger is in discord;
Therefore be at peace henceforward,
And as brothers live together.