Most American poems never see the light of day. Even though thousands of people from all walks of life write poetry every day, the vast majority will never show their work to anyone other than their closest friends. These private writers may lack the opportunity to have their work published, or they may feel it is too personal to share. Even now, the work of another Langston Hughes or Emily Dickinson may be lurking in the back pages of a diary or at the bottom of a desk drawer, waiting to be discovered.
During the Great Depression, the Federal Writers’ Project brought many of these hidden poems out into the daylight. Launched as a government program to put unemployed writers to work, in 1938 the Project sent thousands of field workers into communities across the country to collect the life stories of ordinary Americans. In a few years, the Project’s writers interviewed more than 10,000 people, from New England stonecutters and Mississippi sharecroppers to Washington sailors and stevedores, collecting not only their biographies, but also the poems, songs, jokes, and tall tales that enriched their lives.
"Textile Life" was discovered in 1938, when a Writers’ Project field worker visited a North Carolina textile mill village. At the time, the village’s textile workers were suffering greatly under the effects of the Depression, and they sent the field worker to Mary Branch, a longtime mill employee who had written a poem that, they said, "put down on paper what the rest of us feel."
Branch’s poem is direct and very personal, and provides a vivid, authentic portrait of a community struggling to survive. As you read it, think about why the author might have written down and shared this poem with her neighbors. You might also ask yourself what your friends or community might gain if you shared some poetry of your own.
For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.
- American Memory Timeline (Great Depression and World War II)
- America’s Library — Jump Back in Time (Depression & WWII)
- Voices from the Thirties: Life Histories from the Federal Writers' Project