Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday, June 21, 2015

P&PC Correspondent Catherine Keyser Reviews Francesco Marciuliano's "I Could Pee On This: And Other Poems By Cats"

Editor's Note: Usually the P&PC office cats show little interest in our regular postings and office politics. Sure, they appreciated our analysis of the poetry printed on the packaging for Purina's Friskies Crispies Cheese Flavor Puffs, but—not unpredictably—they were more interested in the puffs themselves. Our posting about the poetry printed on the reverse side of an old "Rat On Toast—For Dinner" stereoview card met with relative indifference, and while we thought our "Stray Cat Ethics of Poetry Criticism" was pretty damn charming, they (Athens and Bella, pictured here) felt it was pretty much common sense.

Thus, when Athens and Bella came to us with paws outspread suggesting that Francesco Marciuliano's new collection I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems By Cats would be excellent material for a posting, we had no choice but to oblige. So we turned to longtime P&PC friend and correspondent Catherine (Cat) Keyser, hoping that she and her housemates Buffy, Spike, and Dorothy Parker (Dottie) might be inspired to write a few lines on the subject of feline purr-sification. An Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, Keyser (pictured here with Dottie) is the author of Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture (Rutgers UP, 2011). Quite fittingly, then, she locates I Could Pee on This in a long tradition (a literary cat-egory, perhaps?) of magazine, newspaper, and popular modernist poetry that includes T.S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Deems Taylor, and Don Marquis. Read on, dear reader, to discover which litter boxes Marciuliano's Twitter-era internet celebrities have inherited from those literary lions—and which ones they've broken in on their own.

Letter from Columbia, South Carolina

Dear P&PC,

Before tendering the commissioned review for I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats, this correspondent must acknowledge that her deskmate Buffy (pictured here) harbored significant reservations about this reviewer's expertise on feline versification. (Subsequently, your loyal correspondent realized that Buffy's efforts to interpose her body between keyboard and screen may have been a bid for food rather than a verdict on the review.)

Francesco Marciuliano, the author (amanuensis?) of I Could Pee on This, is the heir to a long line of cat poets before him. Perhaps most famously, T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939) features the prestidigitation, tom(cat)foolery, and grand larceny of lovable rogues such as Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer, and Rum Tum Tugger. The original edition (pictured here) included a cover illustration by the poet. The kitties shimmying thereon forecast the choreographic feats of the Cats that would grace the stage of the Winter Garden throughout the 1980s.

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats embraced many features of light verse—broad rhymes, rollicking rhythms, nonsense words, tonal grandiosity and thematic deflation, and ironic twists. Ever the modernist, however, favoring inscrutability and interiority, Eliot insisted that cats have a "name that no human research can discover— / But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess." Cats in popular print culture confessed rather more, as in Don Marquis's newspaper column "archy and mehitabel." In a 1927 column, Mehitabel, a cat who claimed to be Cleopatra reincarnated (pictured here), complained that her kittens rather cramped her style:
just as I feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens
it is not archy
that I am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them
If Eliot's jellicle cats played feline flâneurs, Mehitabel flaunted her flapperdom. (She would later be played by Eartha Kitt in a short-running musical by Mel Brooks called Shinbone Alley [1957]).

Cats also resembled columnists: they kept nocturnal hours, liked to doze on couches, and never knew where their next meal was coming from but trusted that someone else would pick up the tab. Composer, music critic, and light verse writer Deems Taylor insisted that he turned to Broadway songwriting because someone had to support his cat, Mrs. Higgins. In a 1912 Smart Set poem called "Jack of All Trades," Taylor offered to get his cat in on a double act: "I can play a jig, or dance it; / I can teach a cat to hurdle through a hoop," for "well, you know, a fellow's got to eat." When Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote humor columns for Vanity Fair under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd, the magazine introduced her alter ego with a cat compatriot (pictured here), whose vantage point above the shoulder seems both inspirational and editorial.

If the cats of interwar light verse seemed like magazine columnists, Marciuliano's cats are decidedly bloggers. They write in free verse, not pesky ballad forms. Each poem is illustrated, not with a cartoonish line drawing, but with a close-up photograph of Instagram ilk. These cats are hyper-aware of their mediated lives, knowing their hijinks are likely to become memes: "But you took that special moment / You posted it online / Now forty million people think / I bark like a dog." They document the minutiae of their daily routines ("I lick your nose / I lick your nose again"). They observe shared occasions (In "O Christmas Tree": "The tree looks better on its side"). They confess their insecurities: "I thought I saw something / I forgot what it was / Now everyone is staring at me."

If the Internet is made of cats, it is perhaps cats who can best show us, not merely their native habits—though the catalog that Marciuliano offers, from keyboard-sitting to faucet-licking, is impressively complete—but also our media habits. These poems uncover the proximity between cats' OCD and ours, their distractibility and our longing for distraction. From the modern period to the digital age, cat light verse expresses the desire shared by cats and their humans to be elevated and adored, tempering that aspiration with the recognition that poetry, like all media, is ephemeral and transitory, dependent, above all, on audience:
In ancient Egypt
We cats were gods
We ruled the heavens
We reigned on earth
So kneel before me
I said come to me
Uh, listen to me
How about just a treat then?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Penny Dreadful: "All sad people like poetry"?

We here at P&PC haven't yet seen the Showtime series Penny Dreadful—"a psychologically dark adult drama filled with intense mystery and suspense"—but the little "Sound Bite" pictured here and appearing in the June 12 issue of Entertainment Weekly has certainly caught our interest. "All sad people like poetry. Happy people like songs," says Vanessa, an "enigmatic, composed, driven woman" who (according to Wiki) apparently "fears little, until the witches' power begins to pick at her strength." Add it to our queue—right after Grimm, True Blood, Crossing Lines, Broadchurch, Witnesses (Les témoins), and Justified? You bet.

Friday, May 29, 2015

1910-1920: The Golden Age of Poetry at the Movies?

The P&P summer interns have been knee-deep in the 1910s of late, as P&PC has been assembling and studying archives for an essay that editor and Northern Illinois University English professor Mark W. Van Wienen has asked us to write on "Popular Verse" from 1910-1920 for Cambridge University Press's decade-by-decade American Literature in Transition series. We're discovering that the 1910s were a special time in the world of popular poetry, a decade when everyone—including the Packers Fertilizer Company of Cincinnati—seemed to be reading and writing poetry. The Packers promotional notebook you see pictured here was bookended by calendars for 1911 and 1912 and contained the poem "Packers Fertilizer (By Almost Truthful James)" in which the "tall" fence posts of the final stanza gesture to the "tall tale" genre which the poem is clearly channeling:
You crowbar your potatoes out,
This fact you won't be doubtin,
Your very fence posts grow up tall
Well, you can hear us shoutin,
Everything grows, save mortgages,
And that's the reason why, sir,
We're selling such an awful lot
Of Packers Fertilizer.
How popular was poetry in the 1910s? Well, writing for the North American Review in 1911, poet and lawyer Arthur Davison Ficke wrote, "just now there appear to be more writers of verse than there have been at any time in the history of literature." A decade later, in her New York Times article "Poetry as a Major Popular Sport," journalist and social commentator Helen Bullitt Lowry wrote, "Not only gentlefolk are now urged to compose their own, but shoe clerks and manicurists, school teachers and bootblacks, policemen, reformers and flappers." And in 1931, considering the damage Modernism had done to the poetry-reading public, H.L. Mencken would look back on the 1910s with nostalgia. "In the last heyday of the craft—say in 1915 or thereabout—" he wrote, "[people] bought poetry so copiously that a new volume of it often outsold the latest pornographic novel." So what if Mencken was creating a bit of a tall tale of his own about poetry before Modernism; the fact that he set his "golden age" of poetry in the 1910s is good enough for us.

Perhaps the most amazing thing we've discovered about the decade of 1910-1920 so far, however, is the number of poems that were adapted to film. Yes, poems in the short and silent film era were regularly made into movies. This is new to us—almost totally brand new. Did you know, for example, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith" was adapted to the screen six times between 1898 and 1936—and that Frank Capra and John Ford each directed a version in 1922? Or that John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller" found its way to screen five times between 1909 and 1928? Or that Tennyson's "Enoch Arden" was adapted ... wait for it ... in 1911, 1914, 1915 and 1916?

Why haven't we seen anything about this before? Has someone written about it, and where? 'Cause we think this is pretty huge, folks. Like, for starters, it's awesome evidence of how supposedly outdated "genteel" poetry helped broker the new medium of film. It allows poetry scholars to bring adaptation theory—and film theory in general—to poetry studies and vice versa. It gives us examples of poem inter-titles and thus a chance to think about how people were reading poetry on screen. It helps us reconceptualize the binary between "popular" and "literary" poetry—since Longfellow and Tennyson, for example, are considered "literary" but appear in a "popular" medium. It furthers the claim that poetry scholars gotta stop looking only at the page—damn the hegemony of the book and the little magazine!—if they want to understand just how big of an impact poetry had on modern life. And it gives us a huge new archive to study, beginning with the Internet Movie Database.

When we search the IMDb for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for example, we find, among other writer credits, the following:

The Village Blacksmith (1897)
Hiawatha (1903)
The Village Blacksmith (1905)
Evangeline (1908)
The Village Blacksmith (1908)
Hiawatha (1908)
Hiawatha (1909)
The Courtship of Miles Standish (1910)
The Death of Minnehaha (1910)
Evangeline (1911)
The Flaming Forge (1913)
Hiawatha (1913)
Hiawatha (1913)
His Mother's Birthday (1913)
King Robert of Sicily (1913)
The Village Blacksmith (1913)
The Children's Hour (1913)
Evangeline (1914)
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1914)
The Village Blacksmith (1917)
Evangeline (1919)
The Village Blacksmith (1922)
The Village Blacksmith (1922)
The Courtship of Myles Standish (1923)
A Woman's Secret (1924)
The Wreck of the Hesperus (1926)
The Wreck of the Hesperus (1927)
Evangeline (1929)

And here's a partial list of films that give Tennyson writing credit:

After Many Years (1908)
Dora (1909)
Dora (1910)
The Golden Supper (1910)
Maud (1911)
Enoch Arden (1911)
Lady Godiva (1911)
Dora (1912)
The Lady of Shalott (1912)
Lady Clare (1912)
A Day That Is Dead (1913)
The Gardener's Daughter (1913)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1914)
Break, Break, Break (1914)
The May Queen (1914)
Sweet and Low (1914)
Enoch Aden (1914)
The Gardener's Daughter (1914)
The Lady of Shalott (1915)
Enoch Arden (1915)
Dora (1915)
Naked Hearts (1916)
The Lady Clare (1919)
A Dream of Fair Women (1920)
The Vanishing Hand (1928)
Balaclava (1928)

Just mull that over for a moment. Mull some more. If these movies were good enough for the likes of John Ford, Frank Capra, and D.W. Griffith (Griffith directed a 1911 version of Enoch Arden, wrote for the 1915 version, and anchored The Avenging Conscience [1914] in Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee"), shouldn't they be good enough for us to take a look at too? Unfortunately, space is too limited for us to do much with this in the "Popular Verse" chapter of the American Literature in Transitions essay that we're currently writing for Cambridge, but check in with that essay when it's published to see what we make of this phenomenon. In the meantime, start watching. And if you're a graduate student or teacher of graduate students, just think about what a great dissertation this-all would make. It's yours for the taking.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

P&PC New Acquisition: Mighty-Maurice the Pot-Holder

Everyone knows about the Kitchen Debate between then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the opening of the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow on July 24, 1959. But who knew that the Cold War American kitchen was also full of poetry? About two years ago, we introduced P&PC readers to a wooden ring holder and a "Pinkerstink" cocktail glass, both of which had poetry on them. And now we have the pleasure of bringing you our latest find—the "Mighty-Maurice Pot-Holder" produced by Gilner Potteries, a company that operated out of Culver City, California from 1948-1957 and claimed to be "California's Largest Art Ware Manufacturers." Unfortunately, our recent acquisition is only the box, but even though we don't have the pot-holder or the pottery, we're happen to at least have its poetry—two stanzas of self-introduction straight from Mighty Maurice's mouth:

For neatness in your kitchen
Hand your hot-pads on my arms
I'm the guy for whom you've been wishing
And being handy is one of my charms.

I can also hold your watch and rings
Whenever you do the dishes
Ever see another fellow
Who is quite so ambitious?

Apparently, Maurice is one of the "Happy People"—little male pixies that, apparently, fed and responded to the "pixie craze" of the 1940s and 1950s. (Maurice's female counterparts, like the one pictured here, were called "Merry Maids.") Tempted though we are to tie Mighty Maurice and his kind to The Borrowers (which was published in 1952), we're more moved to think back in time—like, to fifty or sixty years earlier when Palmer Cox's "Brownies" were all the rage. Wiki writes, "Not unlike fairies and goblins, Brownies are imaginary little sprites, who are supposed to delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds. Never allowing themselves to be seen by mortal eyes, they are male, drawn to represent many professions and nationalities, all mischievous members of the fairy world whose principle attribute is helping with chores while a family sleeps."

Imaginary little sprites? Male? Helping with chores (like holding pot-holders, rings, and watches)? Sounds a lot like Mighty-Maurice to us. A Canadian illustrator and author, Cox made his Brownies into a pioneering name brand in advertising. There were Brownie books. There were Brownie pamphlets advertising patent medicines and soap (you might remember us talking a bit about that here.) There were Brownie dolls, games, mugs, plates, flags, and more (though we can't find a Brownie pot-holder). Like Mighty-Maurice, Brownies also wore funny hats. And as the picture of the Brownie pictured here suggests, Brownies also had a special relationship to poetry, oftentimes speaking in verse just as their pixie cousin Mighty-Maurice does. But perhaps the most telling and interesting connection between Brownies and Mighty-Maurice's "Happy People," however, is the semantic one, as the name "Maurice" (which means "dark skinned" or "Moorish") can't help but link up with the brownness of Cox's ethnically-other Brownies.

The upshot of all this? Both the creations by Cox and Gilner are little idealized racial or ethnic others who happily help with chores around the house. (Cf. "Happy People" and "Merry Maids.") Who knew, then, that even as Nixon was extolling the virtues of capitalism and the labor-saving technology of the modern American kitchen, some kitchens in America contained a nostalgic kernel of the past—the ghost of the African American or ethnic housekeeper and/or kitchen maid whose physical labor and position in the American economic system would have never been mentioned, much less extolled, by an American politician debating social progress with a Soviet Premier.