Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Stealing Poetry in North Platte, Nebraska

The P&PC Office has been a little bit ... let's say ... irregular in the frequency of its postings of late, but there's good reason for that, dear reader: we've been in the process of temporarily relocating our offices to Washington, D.C., where we'll spend the Fall 2015 semester doing research at the Library of Congress thanks to the generosity of a five month-long Kluge Fellowship and, of course, Willamette University, which granted us a semester-long leave. (You'll no doubt hear more about the nature of our research in the coming weeks, but you can get the gist of it here, in a posting we wrote while doing preliminary research on site last Fall.) So, the past month or so has been full of details details details having to do with the move: staffing the office in Oregon, finding new digs in D.C., and embarking on a six-day, five-night, 2,800-mile road trip with a (rented) minivan full of essentials, non-perishables, and the two P&PC Office cats. It was a long ride—kind of like doing the Oregon Trail in reverse but without all the wagons, dysentery, and barrels of salted pork—featuring stops in Boise (Idaho), Rock Springs (Wyoming), North Platte (Nebraska), Iowa City (Iowa), and Bowling Green (Ohio) and made somewhat more bearable by the fact that we've been watching Hell on Wheels and, for much of the trip, riding along the route of the transcontinental railroad including passing Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah. But now we're finally in D.C., settled in to our awesome pad across the street from Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill, and more or less installed at our work space in the Kluge Center. The picture of the capitol you see above is the last sight on our daily commute before we disappear into the Library to work.

While stopping in the booming metropolis of North Platte on the way here, we had the pleasure of staying at America's Best Value Inn, an independently owned, 1950s-style motel that we'd recommend to anyone passing by not just because of its cleanliness, affordability, and level of hospitality, but because of the poem "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" (pictured here) that they've got tacked to the wall in each of the motel's 33 rooms. Here's the text of that verse:
Is anybody happier because you passed his way?
     Does anyone remember that you spoke to him today?
The day is almost over, and its toiling time is through;
     Is there anyone to utter now a kindly word of you?
Can you say tonight, with the day that's slipping fast,
     That you helped a single brother of the many that you passed?
Is a single heart rejoicing over what you did or said;
     Does the man whose hopes were fading, now with courage look ahead?
Did you waste the day, or lose? Was it well or sorely spent?
     Did you leave a trail of kindness, or a scar of discontent?
As you close your eyes in slumber, do you think that God will say,
     "You have earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today." 
If you Google the poem, you'll find several versions of it in circulation (this is a shortened version), and you'll also find that there's some dispute as to its author and title. The America's Best Value Inn version attributes it to John Hall. It's been attributed to John Kendrick Bangs. It's been credited to "anonymous" and has oftentimes appeared with no byline at all. To P&PC ears, it sounds exactly like the "people's poet" Edgar Guest (pictured here), and, indeed, it's most frequently attributed to him directly or metonymically via Guest's publisher the Detroit Free Press. (For more on Guest's amazing and ongoing presence in popular culture, see P&PC postings here, here, here, here, and here.) Over the years, it's appeared as "The Day's Results," "The Day's Work," "At Day's End," "Is Anybody Happier," and "Consider Today." In the world of popular poetry, such authorial confusion, editing, and re-titling is a common thing; see, for example, the poetry of Rod's Steakhouse upon which we, uh, ruminated several years ago.

In our estimation, "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow" is most likely by Guest, and while we haven't found the issue of the Detroit Free Press in which it perhaps originally appeared, it most likely dates to 1916 or 1917, and its publication history is a miniature portrait of just how widely such verse circulated. In January of 1917, it appeared in The Journal of Zoophily, "published monthly under the auspices of the American Antivivisection Society, combined with the Women's Pennsylvania Society for the Preservation of Cruelty of Animals." The Lather, put out by the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers International Union, printed it in 1918. The Los Angeles School Journal and The Bessemer Monthly (put out by the Bessemer Gas Engine Company) printed it in 1919. The Gospel Messenger, The Sabbath Recorder, and the Southern Telephone News printed it in 1920. The Chamber of Commerce and State Manufacturers Journal of Scranton, Pennsylvania, printed it in 1921, The Plasterer in 1922, Vision: A Magazine for Youth in 1932, The Railroad Trainman in 1935, and American Flint in 1950. It continues to be reproduced in books and on web sites today.

You get the idea: the poem going by the title "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" has appealed to a wide audience—labor unions, religious folk, youth, animal lovers, civic stakeholders, etc.—for a long time. All the same, after leaving North Platte, and as mile after mile of blacktop ran beneath the dignity of our (rented) minivan, we began to wonder if the version of the poem at America's Best Value Inn tell could tell us anything more about how popular the poem continues to be and how audiences today respond to verse that moves them. So when we got to D.C., we gave the Inn a jingle and talked for a while with the owner Dave.

Dave opened the Inn in 1988 and almost immediately posted copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" in each of the motel's 33 rooms. He doesn't remember where he found the poem, and he doesn't know anything about the author, and neither of those things seem to matter much to him. But he did tell me that, over the years, the motel has sustained an average annual occupancy rate of 60-70%. So, you can do the math by yourself at home: at an average of 22 rooms per day (65% occupancy), that means that at least 8,000 motel guests (a conservative estimate of only one person per room) have the opportunity to encounter the poem in a single year. Calculate that number over the 27 years the hotel has been open under Dave's management (the "poem era"), and you discover that more than 216,000 people have seen "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" just in the rooms of  America's Best Value Inn alone.

But—we began to think halfway through our conversation with Dave—just because someone in a hotel room has the opportunity to read a poem doesn't mean he or she has actually read it, or read it with any semblance of seriousness, right? That's when Dave spoke up, as if anticipating our question. Once or twice a day, he said, people walk in to the main office and ask for a copy of the poem; he's got a stack of them behind the desk to give out for free. What's more surprising than that—especially considering the poem's content—is that every day poems go missing from one to two of the motel's rooms, so frequently that the maid carts carry stacks of replacement poems alongside shampoo bottles and tissue boxes. So, once again, let's do the math. If someone steals a poem from the hotel room every day, that's 365 copies stolen over the course of the year—or nearly 10,000 copies that have been stolen since the beginning of the poem era at America's Best Value Inn! Combine those 10,000 copies with the 10,000 or more that Dave has given away at the front desk during that time, and you've got 20,000 copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" that people have read and considered closely enough in their motel rooms to take certain and definitive action. How's that for concrete evidence of the poem's continued appeal?!

So, Dave's inn has poems on the walls, poems on the maid carts, and poems at the front desk. He's given or lost 20,000 copies of that poem over the past 27 years, and over the phone he seems more than okay with it all, though he does say that, from time to time, someone will call or approach him because they've been offended by "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?," thinking that Dave was in some way prejudging them and telling them to be better hotel guests. But Dave says he's not judging them—not even the folks who steal copies, it seems. Rather, he says the poem's title isn't a judgment or warning but a question, just the way it reads. "I'm wanting them to ask it themselves," he says in that matter-of-fact way that Midwesterners have, like it's meat and potatoes for dinner again. Meat, potatoes, and poetry.

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.