Friday, February 27, 2015

Why Audiences Matter: Lorelai's Version of "I Will Always Love You" (Season 7, Episode 20 [May 1, 2007])

In the final season of the Gilmore Girls, Lorelai sets out to sing Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" to her daughter Rory, who is on the verge of graduating from college. Then Luke walks in. Grab a hankie and watch this unexpectedly touching illustration of P&PC's poetics at work.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

"I don't know why a cow goes moo": The Love Poetry of "Silver Spoons"

Check out the following episode of Silver Spoons (Season 1, Episode 5 [October 23, 1982], "Takin' a Chance on Love") in which Ricky's love for a new girl at school goes unrequited. From about 13:00-16:45, you'll find a scene in which Ricky is writing a (bad) love poem, followed by a scene in which Ricky's father recalls the (bad) love poem that he once wrote.

Once you've enjoyed those verses, then recall the (bad) love poem written by banker Dale Haywood in Season 4, Episode 6 of Justified (see the screen-shot shown below the video). All three are rhyming quatrains written by white American males in love. But what else do they have in common? How do they motivate and interrupt cliche? What type of poetics starts to come into view as a result of this comparison? Your five-page paper on the subject is due Monday!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

"A Glee for Mixed Voices": W.K. Kellogg's "Funny Jungleland Moving-Pictures" and the Poetry of Corn Flakes

If you're a regular P&PC reader, then you know that we and the office interns have been thinking a lot lately not just about poetry and popular culture in general but about how poetry fares and has fared more specifically in relation to popular non-print media, especially film and television. We've been mulling over the odd ways in which Edwin S. Porter's short 1905 Edison Studios film The Night Before Christmas quotes sections of Clement Clark Moore's 1823 poem on intertitles (like the one shown here). We've been collecting examples of poems as they've been presented in various ways for audiences to read in films like Citizen Kane, G.I. Jane and The Grey and in TV episodes of Justified, Criminal Minds, and even the goofball crime-solving comedy Psych. Some of this is just our curiosity. Some of it is an extension of our interest in how poems and hymns around the turn into the twentieth century—like Oliver Wendell Holmes's "A Sun-Day Hymn" and Reginald Heber's "From Greenland's Icy Mountains"—were projected by magic lanterns to give audiences the then-new thrill of reading via a medium other than the material page. And some of it's a longer, more concerted effort to think toward a couple of new projects including (eventually) a new book as well as an article that we've been asked to write about the transitions in the culture of popular poetry between 1910 and 1920.

Imagine our surprise and joy, then, to come across the promotional item pictured here—an eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch "Funny Jungleland Moving-Pictures" poem booklet copyrighted by Kellogg's in 1909, four years after Porter's moving-pictures adaptation of Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas." If movies were trying to figure out how they related and might respond to poetry and print culture, then print culture and poetry were also trying to figure out how they related and might respond to the advent of film. And leave it to advertising to lead the way.

Building on the tradition of the small folding or meta- morphic trade card that was a common form of advertising in the nineteenth century (see one here), Kellogg's takes things several astonishing steps farther, constructing a trifold booklet with two sets of six panels inside that, when flipped back and forth on their stapled hinges, allows a reader or user to superimpose the body parts and verse captions of one set of animals onto another. In other words, it's a game of inter-species cross-dressing—animals who are doubly in drag, since they are first dressed up like humans ("we're dressed like men, you see," one verse points out) and then, thanks to the booklet's innovative architecture, re-dressed to "wear" the clothes and body parts of other animals.

It's pretty awesome, isn't it? An alligator can wear a plaid jacket, wear glasses, and then wear the head of a monkey. A tiger can wear a frilly pink blouse and skirt, then wear the roller skates of an ostrich. Or, as in the image pictured here, a singing horse (we like to think he's singing something by Cher or maybe Dusty Springfield) can wear a little chapeau and then the blue overalls and yellow body parts of a pig. As one set of verses puts it:

"Let's change about," the Lion said.
Suppose we take the feet and heads

Of the Camel, Donkey and Kangaroo.
Our friends won't know us then, would you?

Not surprisingly, perhaps, all of this non-normative reading, viewing, cross-dressing and mixing is identified in one panel of the pamphlet's poetry (the "Queer Fellows" pictured here) as "queer":

If you wish to see something queer,
Put other heads on the Cow, Horse and Deer.

Change their feet, too, try it and see
How very funny they all will be.

As the metrical variation that "too" in line three above might suggest—it changes up the metrical "foot" at the precise moment when readers are invited to "change [the animals'] feet," troping the motif of change in the pamphlet writ large—this is a pretty self-reflexive and (dare we say it?) unified aesthetic project from the vantage point of media. Even the seemingly incidental subject matter of the other verses—the refraction of light through water that produces rainbows in bubbles, the singing of songs, the "tortoise-mobiling" in the horse/pig panel pictured earlier, roller skating, and so on—keeps coming back to the topic of transmission and the tools by which various things (light, sound, bodies) get conveyed.

All of this no doubt feeds (pun intended) into the claim that Kellogg's makes on the pamphlet's back cover for its cereal as a new, improved, and modern nutritional medium. Updating the "Old Rhyme" of the woman who lived in a shoe—a moment that for us recalls the poetic "foot" mentioned in the  paragraph above and lets us indulge the fantasy that the old woman and her children are living in the genre of poetry itself—the pamphlet's new old woman does know what to do:

There was an old woman
Who lived in a shoe,
She had lots of children
But knew what to do.

She gave them Kellogg's Corn Flakes
Three times a day,
And they thrived and grew
In a marvelous way.

If you look closely, you'll see a little American flag flying from the shoe's toe, and if you look even more closely, you'll notice that while almost all of the children are white, one is clearly not. Sitting to the right of the flag is a girl who reads as indigenous Central or South American; not only is her skin darker, but she's got that ridiculously large hat to code her as ethnic in the event there was any doubt she's not. It's kind of hard not to wonder what sort of bookend she makes when paired with the grey-skinned elephant, so often symbolic of Africa's "Jungleland," who appears on the booklet's front cover. The subjects of race, romance, and the transmission and mediation of genetic stuff do not come up in the poetry, but the robust, darker-skinned male elephant, the single old white woman in the shoe, all of the assorted children including the girl with the hat, and that American flag kind of beg the issue, no? Where did the children come from? What America is being envisioned here? What "moving-picture" of a nation is being processed via this hands-on, media-rich, hybrid poem-film, exercise in queerness, drag, and cross dressing?

As we know, the decade in which Kellogg's was designing, copy- righting, and circulating "Funny Jungleland Moving-Pictures" was the historical high point in immigration to the U.S. (the decade from 1901-1910 saw nearly nine million people immigrate, double the previous decade), so it would be crazy to think that everything going on in the booklet is not in some way related to social anxieties regarding the moving picture of race and ethnicity in the U.S. While we're not going to say that Kellogg's is being entirely progressive in relation to this history, it certainly does not look like an exercise in purity—a discourse that was commonly racialized in American advertising and especially, as we've discussed before, in soap ads. Instead, as the sheet music being held by the horse and cow in the panel pictured here appears to spell out, "Funny Jungleland Moving-Pictures" pitches itself—and Corn Flakes—as "A glee for mixed voices." Indeed, breakfast might be the most important meal of the day after all.

Friday, January 2, 2015

"Orality, Literacy, and the Memorized Poem": Bonus Features & Extra Extras

If you pick up your copy of the January 2015 issue of Poetry magazine, you'll find in the monthly "Comment" section an essay titled "Orality, Literacy, and the Memorized Poem"—a piece that P&PC was asked to write in part to reflect on the total coolness of Catherine Robson's great new(ish) book Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, which tracks the history and literary and cultural impact of poetry memorization and recitation in British and American schools. You might recall that one of P&PC's favorite writers (and recent National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship recipient) Melissa Girard reviewed Heart Beats in these very, uh, pages a year and a half ago.

To think about Robson's book in a different but related way for the Poetry article, we took a little bit of The Outsiders and a little bit of Robert Frost's recitation of "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's inauguration in 1961, mixed both with some thoughts about the oral/aural experiences of poetry in non-print media formats, and came up with a piece about how we value poems in relation to what Robson calls "the particular circumstances of [their] assimilation into a culture"—that is, whether we encounter and experience them orally, aurally, in print, or via other media. In an age where poems are circulated and remediated by film, tv, audio formats, and digital platforms of all types in addition to print, the effects of media on poetry—and poetry's effects on media and its audiences—is a conversation in which we love to take part. A particular hallmark of popular verse (and of verse encountered in popular contexts) is, after all, its refusal to stay obediently on the printed page of the book or little magazine, and if we're invested in assessing the cultural impact of poetry on a broad scale, we'd do well to extend our attention (and in some cases our admiration) to what poetry is doing in and for non-print media and what non-print media are doing for (and to) poetry. We know you all know this, or that you've at least heard us say it before, so forgive us if we sound a little bit like the metaphorically-apt but nonetheless dated broken record; we're just taking our cues from the larger media landscape and trying to make it new, dig?

One of the things that Poetry noted when first contacting P&PC about reviewing Heart Beats was the fact that in 2013—a year after Robson's study appeared—Caroline Kennedy published Poems to Learn by Heart, a kid-friendly collection issued by Disney's Hyperion Press and featuring colorful watercolors by Jon J. Muth. Was this book a sign, Poetry wondered, that poetry memorization was on an upswing? That some cultural nostalgia for days long past was finding new expression? That the age of the internet—fueled in part by things like Disney's "A Poem Is..." video series that premiered during National Poetry Month in 2011 featuring celebrities like John Leguizamo, Jessica Alba, and Owen Wilson reciting poems—was perhaps, unexpectedly and surprisingly, participating in if not prompting this upswing?

Unbeknownst to Poetry, Girard was already writing her P&PC piece and had also made the same connection between the Robson and Kennedy books, so how could we ignore that correspondence, coincidental or not, when writing our essay? That's when we thought of John F. Kennedy's inauguration and how, flustered by high winds and bright sun, Robert Frost was unable to read the verse he'd composed specially for the event and, instead, recited from memory "The Gift Outright"—perhaps the most famous recitation of a poem in U.S. history and a moment when the values of the memorized poem trumped the values of the printed or written poem on a national stage. Born in 1957, Caroline Kennedy—the only living child of President Kennedy and current U.S. ambassador to Japan—wouldn't have even been four years old at the time. (That's Jackie reading to Caroline in the picture here, taken before 1961 but published by Time on the occasion of Kennedy's inauguration.) But is it possible that something from that day about the durability and reliability of the memorized poem stuck with her?

It's hard to say for sure (we haven't yet contacted Caroline's people to ask), but there's no denying Caroline's advocacy for poetry and especially the incorporation of poetry into children's lives where it is often memorized. She has published The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (2001); A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children (2005); A Family Christmas, which incorporates poems (2007), and She Walks in Beauty—A Woman's Journey Through Poems (2011), in addition to Poems to Learn By Heart. She hasn't been especially shy about this either. For example, check out her 2013 appearance on The Colbert Report where she plugged Poems to Learn By Heart, explained why one would memorize poems, defended the merits of poetry in the age of Twitter as "the language of the human heart," and along with Colbert did a tag-team recitation of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" as well as a thoroughly entertaining memorized-poem back-and-forth tennis match with him.

Lest ye think that poetry is a recent, new-millennial interest of Kennedy's, check out the curious book (pictured here) that the P&PC interns got their hands on recently: The Caroline Kennedy First Lady Dress-Up Book, published by Rolton House Publishers in 1963. Illustrated by Charlotte Jetter (whom we think did lettering for Marvel comics in the 1960s and 70s), the book features colored drawings of Caroline dressing up in period-appropriate First Lady attire accompanied by extensive runway-like captions about those costumes. "When I make-believe I am Martha Washington," the first caption in the book explains, "I wear a beautiful eighteenth century gown. It is made of finest taffeta with a big full skirt and a tight-fitting bodice which laces down the back. The material was purchased in London and it is salmon pink in color. The dress is hand-painted with white ribbon chains all over it. Violets, buttercups, daisies and morning-glories are embroidered beside ladybugs, wasps and grasshoppers. I wear a lace cap on my head, lace mitts on my hands and a lace shawl over my shoulders. Don't you think Martha Washington is pretty? I do."

But the Dress-Up Book is more than just a fashion show: it's also an anthology of children's poems! Many are little ditties about presidents; others (some written by Alene Dalton) appear to have nothing to do with fashion but are almost cut-and-pasted, scrapbook-like, into the book. Take, for example, the page-spread pictured here: a picture of Caroline dressing up as Florence Harding, a poem written about "Warren Harding," and three poems ("The Grasshoppers," "The Chickens," and "The Apple Tree" that are linked to each other in theme but that appear to have little or no connection to the roaring twenties, Harding, or a time when "clothes were tight and hats were high." It's kind of a bizarre assemblage—one that connects dress-up play, sanitized versions of history ("We danced and played without a care / Laughter and joy were everywhere," reads "Warren Harding"), and rhymes and metered language. P&PC comes away from it all feeling like childhood, history, and poems are all exercises in pretending and, in the process, poetry emerges from this mix as the language of childhood naivete. Far from the memorized poem, which the grown-up Caroline values for its durability and longevity in the human mind, the verse in the Dress-Up Book appears to feed a discourse in which poetry is the language of childhood—something precious, yes, but ultimately something that we leave behind for the more serious (and prosaic) endeavors of adulthood and "reality." Most of the Dress-Up Book, in fact, is about the past: past presidents, past first ladies, American history, and a fantasy world rooted in farms, apple trees, and ponies.

For this reason, the most interesting page of the Dress-Up Book is the last one, which pairs "The Old Frontier" (about Columbus, who "sailed and found our land, / The one we love 'cause it's so grand") with "The New Frontier" (pictured here and featuring a little space-person pointing up at, what, the moon? the sun? some other heavenly body?). That final poem in the book reads as follows:

When history books open up
In future years
They will show that Kennedy's plans
Were called The New Frontiers.

Astronauts blasted off
In shining silver missiles
Sounding like explosions
From a billion giant whistles.

And, who can deny it?
Maybe one day soon
We may see a New Frontier
Staked out upon the moon.

This is the most "adult" poem in the book, one where the activity of dressing-up takes on new and different implications. Here, history is in the making. Evoking the space race admits into the Dress-Up Book for the first time the subject of the Cold War, as does the comparison of rockets to "silver missiles" in line six—a line that, months removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, couldn't be read as naive or innocent. Anticipating the moon landing—line 9 even seems to anticipate conspiracy reports denying the landing ever took place—makes this poem about the future, not the past. And even the dress-up taking place here is different; it's a gender-neutral space suit freed from the taffeta, satin, and ruffles of earlier pictures in which all markers of gender are disguised. Boy or girl, you can imagine yourself inside that suit, and it's a moment that caps off a narrative of American history by looking forward from childhood, beyond the corsets of bygone eras, and into new frontiers where pretending (like pretending to be an astronaut) is still in play but leads to actualization—to history making. Even the voice of the poem is different; while retaining the rhyme and meter of previous poems, line 9 contains the only unanswered question in the entire book.

There's a much darker side to the history in which the Dress-Up Book is embedded, of course. It was published in 1963, and Caroline's father would be shot and killed in November of that same year—a moment so seared into the American memory that we here at P&PC can't but imagine it in some type of relationship with the history of the memorized poem, the decline of memorizing poems in American classrooms that Robson pegs to the 1960s, the made-up histories in the Dress-Up Book, the loss of American innocence that many people attribute to the moment of Kennedy's assassination, and Caroline's advocacy of poetry memorization now. As Frost demonstrated at Kennedy's inauguration, and as Caroline argues in Poems to Learn by Heart, the memorized poem is always with you and something that—for better or worse—you can't forget.