Saturday, April 12, 2014

P&PC Correspondent Colleen Coyne Reviews David Rakoff's Novel-in-Verse "Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish"

Colleen Coyne (pictured here) lives outside of Boston in Ashland, Massachusetts, where she teaches writing and works as a freelance editor. She is the author of Girls Mistaken for Ghosts (forthcoming from dancing girl press), and her work has appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review, Crab Orchard Review, Cream City Review, Handsome, alice blue, Women's Studies Quarterly, Drunken Boat, and elsewhere. Read her P&PC review of Jess Walter's novel The Financial Lives of the Poets here.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish—essayist David Rakoff’s 2013 foray into fiction-as-poetry—flies through the twentieth century from stockyards to suburbs, from office parties to weddings and deathbeds, from Chicago to Burbank to San Francisco to Great Neck. Dipping into the lives of Margaret, Hirschl, Sally, Nathan, and Hannah, and lingering longer with Clifford, Helen, Susan, and Josh, we eventually come to understand how all these characters’ lives are, to varying degrees, connected. In turns devastating and hilarious, the characters commit, and commit to, the acts enumerated in the title, with the scales tipped toward some more than others: marry, for instance, doesn’t have much to recommend it, appearing in Helen’s reluctant hope for that elusive “cared-for existence,” and less endearingly in Susan’s insufferable pageantry. But while dishonor and perish seem to dominate, love also makes a strong showing.

At 113 pages, the book is relatively slim, and the characters, while compelling, aren’t as fully developed as they would be in a more substantial tome. This doesn’t detract from the book’s power, though; rather, Rakoff (pictured here) skillfully chooses to sustain selected scenes. He builds, by accretion, settings and contexts for characters’ significant moments, cataloguing the contents of a closet, the trappings of the nouveau riche, the decadence of the Castro, the gore of the slaughterhouse. Some characters are given their moment and are never heard from again; others reappear until their stories are done. Most compelling, at least to this reader, is Helen, who, by the end, we understand has a more significant role in the story than even she realized; she is “The Girl Who No One Wanted” and “The Girl Who Ruined Christmas,” a flickering candle of loneliness, but she’s also the glimmer of kindness and hope, the “present and vivid, alive” reminder of “what’s still to come.”

Perhaps Rakoff was familiar with Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 novel-in-verse, The Wild Party, a riotous account of a 1920s carousal that syncopates jazzily. But Rakoff’s lines, by contrast, tend toward anapestic tetrameter, a metrical pattern most commonly associated with Dr. Seuss and Clement Clarke Moore; occasionally, the lines break pattern and, one such time, echo radio jingles (one of which appears in Clifford’s childhood: “Takes recipes meager and renders them rich, / If eager for tender cakes, Mother should switch!”). This might seem an odd choice for a story that features rape, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, infidelity, and other difficult subjects. But don’t mistake Rakoff’s meter for comedy or lightheartedness. Whereas iambic pentameter (a seemingly more logical choice) might more closely mimic everyday speech or tie the poem more clearly to epic traditions, anapestic tetrameter resists easy assimilation and positions the text firmly in the realm of artifice. Rakoff continually draws attention to the form—but why?

In The Wild Party, the main players are “far too busy living first-hand / For books. / Books!” Real life—not the representation thereof—is the only thing that matters. But in LDMDCP, reproductions of famous artwork:
…filled Clifford with a near-physical need
To render as best as he could all he saw
The only desire Clifford had was to draw,
To master the methods the artist commands
That translate a thing from the eye to the hands. 
Manipulating the real world from a creative distance is a valuable way of experiencing that world; in LDMDCP, artifice, at its best, is a necessary outlet for the outcasts of the world. At the same time, it defines the relationships that bring both joy and heartbreak, such as the affair between Helen and her boss, during which “They walked arm in arm in some crude imitation / Of other real couples en route to the station.” Seeing the potential in this kind of constructed world, Rakoff never lets his readers forget that they are, in fact, reading; this way, readers can become invested in this world without becoming lost in it, remaining aware of the value of the book—as art—itself.

Sadly, this world lost Rakoff in 2012, when he died at 47, after his cancer, which had been in remission for two decades, reappeared. Published posthumously, LDMDCP may not be his greatest work, nor his most personal, but it’s possible to think of it as an unassuming but potent guide to living. Whatever kind of life we’re given—painful, joyous, unpredictable—Rakoff believes we can forge a path with “No secrets, no longing, no desperate hoping / Just reach out and grab from a world cracked wide open.” This may seem too glib or easy, but Rakoff rejects overt clichés, assigning that kind of thinking to characters like Susan (who renames herself Sloan, then Shulamit, as part of an unending identity crisis) who offers the fortune-cookie wisdom of “After all, it’s the journey, not the destination.” Rakoff doesn’t want us to admire Susan for this weak effort, but rather acknowledge that we need to push ourselves beyond these bumper-sticker slogans and ask ourselves the harder questions, which might lead to more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding, answers.

One question: what’s the difference between die and perish? Seemingly they are synonyms, and in a title with only six words, each must do a substantial amount of work to warrant a spot. In many ways, perish is more dire; though death is certainly a dire situation, perish suggests particularly desperate circumstances, wherein endings aren’t neat and tidy but rather fraught with destruction and damage. Beyond the obvious act of dying, we perish in our relationships, in our own self-doubt, in the ephemerality—and perhaps unreliability—of memory. Josh embodies this loss in a particularly Proustian moment when going through his father’s long-boxed-up things redirects him to a childhood scene—“He was there through some magical olfactory feat!”—but this distance from the memory, and from his father, also renders him “irrevocably lost.” It’s worth noting that perish has etymological connections to “to be shipwrecked, ruined, damned”—scenarios in which all is, irrevocably, lost.

It’s interesting that when discussing Rakoff’s book, some writers shorten the title to Love, and some to Perish; this choice may say more about the writer than about Rakoff or his book. In truth, the title’s words are all inextricably linked; one leads to the others, and none exists without the others. Rakoff perhaps best illustrates this in a particularly moving passage, where Clifford confronts his impending mortality (and which we can perhaps read as Rakoff’s acknowledgment of own his imminent death):
When poetic phrases like “eyes, look your last”
Become true, all you want is to stay, to hold fast.
A new, fierce attachment to all of this world
Now pierced him, it stabbed like a deity-hurled
Lightning bold lancing him, sent from above,
Left him giddy and tearful. It felt like young love. 
This mixture of pleasure and pain isn’t a new idea—but in Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, it’s made new in this moment, and we’re left with Rakoff’s encouragement to love all of this world, to cherish all we can before the inevitable becomes true, and we perish.

Friday, April 4, 2014

P&PC's New Acquisition: The Poetry of Motorola's TV Trays

The P&PC Office is certainly going to use them to serve hors d'oeuvres and other tasty treats at this weekend's National Poetry Month Black-Tie Benefit, but we wanted to give those of you who won't be on hand a preview of our most recent acquisition: a set of four promotional TV serving trays that were either sold or given away with Motorola televisions, phonographs, and other entertainment devices in the 1950s or 1960s. Each tray is about sixteen inches long with rounded corners, has a wood-grain veneer, features a colorful cartoon scene by commercial illustrator Vernon McKissack, and includes—what else?—a quatrain like the one accompanying the jazz scene pictured here:

Clap your hands and lift your feet
And dance around to that solid beat
This real gone jive that lets you laugh
Sounds groovy too, on a phonograph.

In addition to the simple fact of the poetry printed on 'em, we were initially attracted to these trays for how this particular one incorporates jazz-related slang for commercial purposes and (of course) for that super-spectacular pun on the word "groovy," which is used to describe both an immaterial social vibe as well as the material substance of the vinyl playback format. Listening to jazz is "groovy" in more than one way, ya dig?

While preparing our franks-in-blankets and deviled eggs, though, we've also become increasingly interested in how Motorola is using the trays to stage a media conversation between the phonograph, music, poetry and print, illustration, and even the television itself, as the television is (we think) simulated by the trays' wooden frames. Indeed, the original box pictured here—which has a cut-out television screen window through which one can view the top tray inside—suggests we are intended to read the rounded wooden tray frames as the rounded wooden frames of old televisions. In a sense, then, the "box" of that television ties together word, picture, music, and phonograph—a claim for the power and unique thrill of what was then the newest new medium of the twentieth century.

As Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin might describe it in their 1999 book Remediation: Understanding New Media, the jazz scene is characterized by what they call "the twin preoccupations of contemporary media": an interplay between the experience of "immediacy" and the experience of "hypermediacy." On the one hand, the tray (and by extension Motorola's phonograph and television) cultivates immediacy by promising to immerse us in the "live" moment of the improvised jazz performance, thus offering us a "transparent presentation of the real." On the other hand, we are (as Bolter and Grusin say) "challenged to appreciate the integration" of media forms—print, music, image, phonograph, and television—and thus enjoy not the representation but the "opacity of media themselves." That is, not entirely unlike the artist whom the poem tells us is looking "through the window" at the musician playing in the flat next door, we become immersed in the moment by looking through one medium or interface at another. But even here, as the poem explains, the enjoyment of immediate experience hinges on, is accompanied by, or is in a sort of inevitable relationship with a corresponding "opacity" suggested (like the pun on "groovy") by yet another pun: the "fidelity" of the poem's last line, which links the "high fidelity" of the audio playback experience with the authentic experience of live listening. Relying on the pun's cultivation of multiple meanings to direct our attention away from the transparent "content" or "message" and toward the pleasure of multiple media interconnections and media interplay, the tray uses the opacity or thickness of language as a medium to trope the opacity of media more generally, focusing our attention not on the "content" or the "message" being conveyed, but on media itself. (Why else use the triple rhyme of "melody" and "fidelity" if not to call attention to language itself?) Here's that poem:

This master piece will have to wait
Maybe until it's quite too late
Cause who can deny that vibrant melody
Coming through the window with such fidelity.

The lack of a question mark at the end of this verse turns query into fact: what comes "through the window"—a phrase that (for us) recalls the cut-out "window" on the box cover and thus also what comes "through the window" of the television screen or the invisible window of the phonograph—has more fidelity to reality (immediacy) than any of the other media taken in isolation. Like the sketches on the studio floor (or so the logic goes), all other media are incomplete or unfinished except for television and phonograph, which have the power to combine previous media in creating the most immediate of immediate experiences.

Based on this interplay between immediacy and hyper- mediacy, Bolter and Grusin argue that "Although each [new] medium promises to reform its predecessors by offering a more immediate or authentic experience, the promise of reform inevitably leads us to become aware of the new medium as a medium." Such is the case with the phonograph and television and Motorola's TV trays. For despite offering TV and the phonograph as more immediate or authentic experiences than the verbal, pictorial, or painterly, Motorola only simulates the phonograph and TV on the TV trays themselves; TV is only figured by, not actually present in, the box's cut-out window and the frame of cheap wood, and the phonograph is only mentioned by name, not pictured. Thus, we become aware of "the new medium as a medium" because of the difficulty of representing the phonograph or TV in any other media but themeselves. Oddly, by choosing this print-based format to "advertise" television and phonograph, Motorola is unable to actually dramatize the newness of those media, whether it be their immediacy or hypermediacy; we don't experience the media that Motorola wants us to buy but, instead, have to imagine them for ourselves—just like the child in the tray pictured here who has to look up and away from the media limitations of the book to imagine the scene it describes.

And maybe this is the whole point of the TV trays and the dynamic between immediacy and hypermediacy that the poems point us to and help to cultivate—not to replicate television or the phonograph, but to get us, as consumers, to imagine what the television and phonograph can do. If advertising is designed not to sell a product but to cultivate in a consumer the desire for a product, then the desire produced by the inability to experience television or phonograph via the simulation of older media (the cut-out window on the box, the wooden frame around the scenes, the puns on "groovy" and "fidelity") has an easy fulfillment: simply "grab a partner and do-ce-do" out to the store to buy the real thing.

Friday, March 28, 2014

P&PC at Joshua Tree National Park

P&PC has just returned to drizzly Salem from a brief Spring Break trip to L.A, where, among other things, we visited for three days with P&PC Consultant Drew Duncan. One of those days, hoping to get away from it all, we hightailed it out of town to Joshua Tree National Park, home to the famous Dr. Seussian forest of Yucca brevifolia. We drove around. We hiked the Lost Horse Mine trail in the miserably high winds that put Duncan's rock climbing plans on hold. And we figured that out there in the high Mojave we could put our poetry radar on hold. That's when we ran into longtime California resident Robinson Jeffers near the end of the small, one-mile Hidden Valley trail near the park's West entrance, who reminded us—in the last of a series of informational placards—that
Integrity is wholeness...
The wholeness of life and things,
The divine beauty of the universe.
Love that, not man apart from that.
It's always a strange and beautiful thing to come back to oneself so far from home. Thank you, Joshua Tree, and thank you, Mr. Jeffers, for helping us better center ourselves by first uncentering our minds from ourselves.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Poetry Out Loud State Championship!

This year, the Oregon state championship for Poetry Out Loud—the national poetry recitation contest sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts in conjunction with state and local art agencies—was held in the Hatfield Room of Willamette University's Hatfield Library. There, surrounded by the rather austere looking, glass-enclosed private library of former U.S. Senator and Bearcat alum Mark Hatfield, nine high school students from around the state recited their hearts out in hopes of heading on to the national competition being held in Washington, D.C., at the end of April.

As was the case in 2013, P&PC spent two weekends working with Poetry Out Loud this year. Alongside poet Stephanie Lenox and actor/professor Susan Coromel, we helped to judge the regional contest one weekend ago in Salem, and then yesterday at Bearcat central we served on a panel of judges that included current Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen, Eleanor Berry, and Wendy Thompson. Contestants—all of whom had succeeded at school and regional levels in making their way to the finals—met at W.U. in the late morning, where they had an intimate lunch with Petersen in an Eaton Hall seminar room and talked about the oral character of poetry and reasons for reciting it and reading it aloud. That's our Oregon Nine pictured above. From left to right, they are: Gypsy Prince of Springfield; Rosie Reyes of Portland; Rebekah Ratcliff of Medford; Sofia Gispert Tello of Hermiston; Stephanie Gordon of Bandon; the mostly-hidden McKinley Rodriguez of Portland; Kylie Winger of Medford; Maxwell Romprey of West Salem; and, rocking the pink hair, Jerika Fuller of Oregon City. (Two poetry superheroes whom you don't see in the picture are Deb Vaughn and Sarah Dougher of the Oregon Arts Commission who do all of the contest's coordination and legwork.)

As always, P&PC came away better, smarter, and happier for being involved. Fuller wowed us with her recitation of Stephen Crane's "In the Desert." Ratcliff introduced us to Paul Engle's "Hero." Rodriguez soared through Kevin Young's "Cadillac Moon." And Tello, a sophomore from Hermiston High School whom we had admired in the regional contest, wowed us with her understated version of "The Cities Inside Us" by Alberto Rios. When all was said and done, however, it was Rosie Reyes—last year's state champion, pictured here—who once again walked away with first prize. Her renditions of Sylvia Plath's "Blackberrying" and Emily Dickinson's "It was not Death, for I stood up" were superb, but it was her spellbinding performance of Alberto Rios's "The Pomegranate and the Big Crowd" that took the cake. Rosie is heading to Oregon State University next Fall to study physical therapy, but the P&PC Office hopes she sticks with the poetry thing as well—and that she kicks some butt in representing Oregon in D.C. Go, Rosie!

In the event that Rosie is for some reason unable to represent the Beaver state, that responsibility will fall to contest runner-up and West Salem resident Max Romprey (pictured here with his teacher Christina Eddy), whose folksy, aw-shucks demeanor won the crowd over with his versions of Bob Hicok's "After Working Sixty Hours Again for What Reason," Dick Allen's "What You Have to Get Over," and Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias." This was Max's first year in the contest, and because P&PC is headquartered in the Cherry City, we were particularly pleased to see a local performer do so well. Congratulations, Max, and congratulations to all of this year's finalists. We're crushing on you big time.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Boat Unloading: Edwin Markham / A Guest Posting by Joel Lewis

Editor's Note: Seventy-three years ago today, on March 7, 1940, poet Edwin Markham—author of "The Man with the Hoe," one of the most popular and widely distributed poems in American history—died at the age of eighty eight. To help mark the anniversary of Markham's death, P&PC is pleased to bring you the following remembrance in which New Jersey writer Joel Lewis (pictured here) reminds us of Markham's once-broad appeal and incredible career that included reading at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial at the bequest of Chief Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft and spending his 80th birthday at Carnegie Hall being acclaimed by President Herbert Hoover and delegates from 35 nations. (I know, right???)

Lewis, a social worker living in Hoboken, has written or edited eight books including Surrender When Leaving Coach and Learning from New Jersey. "For better or worse," he explains, he also initiated the New Jersey Poet Laureate position infamously occupied for a time by Amiri Baraka. This posting is an excerpt from Lewis's work-in-progress, "My Shaolin," a long poem about Staten Island written while commuting to and from work via the Staten Island Ferry. ("Shaolin," btw, is the name the Wu-Tang Clan gave to their hometown borough.) Hold on to your hats, dear readers; from "The Man with the Hoe" to streets, housing complexes, and schools now named in his memory, Markham's story is an amazing one.

When I was a social worker at a Truancy Center a few years back, one of my duties was to contact the guidance counselors of students who were too often found warming up a seat in our detention center. One afternoon, I was on the line with a harried sounding counselor at IS 51 in Graniteville, also known as the Edwin Markham School. After discussing the student in question's shaky school attendance at length, I asked the official, "Do you know who your school was named after?" After a little bit of silence, he responded to my question with a question: "Wasn’t he a principal?"

To most Staten islanders, the name Markham evokes images not of some well-liked school administrator but of the sort of urban squalor that many fled from in Brooklyn. The Markham Houses, located near my truancy center in West New Brighton, was the Island's own version of Chicago's Cabrini Green Houses. Originally built in 1943 for wartime shipyard workers along nearby Kill Von Kull, the Markham Houses were converted to public housing soon after the war. "There was a shooting here every night!" a coworker told me every time we drove past while she took me to the ferry. Eventually, the original Houses were torn down and replaced by Markham Gardens, a private development that proudly advertises its many amenities and a "green profile."

Although barely remembered today, except by local history buffs, Edwin Markham, from the time he moved to Staten Island to his death in 1940, was a cherished and revered figure on the island. A few years before his arrival, he published a poem called "The Man with the Hoe" that catapulted him from the obscurity of a minor California poet to an international literary figure. The poem, a semi-mystical plea for non-alienated labor with gentle overtones of both Social Gospel and Utopian Socialism, hit an American nerve in a period marked by labor unrest and a shifting national cultural character that was a result of both mass immigration and increasing urbanization.

First published in the San Francisco Examiner on January 15, 1899, "The Man with the Hoe" was soon republished in thousands of newspapers across the country and was eventually translated into 37 languages. It became a topic of sermons and editorials in newspapers and was a topic under consideration in college debating societies. It spurred hundreds of parodies, and there was even a contest sponsored by a robber baron-type looking for a "response" to the poem's humanism. The poem's impact was not unlike that of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" some 55 years later; in the earlier part of the 20th century, "The Man with the Hoe" was a poem that many knew and could often recite from memory, especially the opening stanza as it was taught in secondary schools during a period when the pedagogy favored the memorization of poems. The fees from the publication of the poem made Markham a rich man. He earned even more money lecturing around the country; he was a favorite of labor groups as his talks were free of socialist cant and could reach a potentiality sympathetic middle-class audience.

Markham's popularity also owed something to his modest background in an era when most major American writers came from upper class New England and attended Ivy League schools. Born in the Oregon Territory in 1852, Markham moved with his mother and siblings to rural California at age four. No doubt his early labors as a ranch hand helped form his hatred of drudge work and set in motion his plans for self-improvement. Against his mother's wishes, he attended college, earned a teacher's certificate, and began a career as an instructor and a school administrator. By the 1880s, he began placing his poems in local magazines and sought out Hamlin Garland and Ambrose Bierce as mentors.

Writing in the Dearborn Independent in 1925, Markham recalled the origin of his most famous poem. Giving credit to the French Utopian Charles Fourier for his notion of a society based on a union of labor and culture, he also notes that it was in 1886 that he first saw a reproduction (like the one pictured here) of Jean-Francois Millet's great painting The Man with the Hoe in an issue of Scribner's Magazine. "I was drawn and held by the terror of it: I saw in it the symbol of betrayed humanity," he writes. Immediately, he jotted down the first lines of his poem in a large notebook:

Bowed by the weight of the centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face
And on his back the burden of the world.

For the next 13 years, Markham worked fitfully on the poem, but "the cares of the world swept in" and the poem remained unfinished. In 1898, Markham settled in Oakland, California, to take a position at the Observatory School at UC Berkeley. During summer break, he came upon his unfinished draft of "the Hoe-poem" and with his new wife's encouragement, he continued on with the work.

During his Christmas break of that same year, while on a trip to a San Francisco art museum, Markham finally got an opportunity to see Millet's masterpiece in person. It was recently purchased by a wealthy San Francisco family and was on display in the U.S. for the first time. The poet stared at the painting for over an hour then returned back to Oakland and began writing the final version of the poem. "All the stanzas seemed to me more like gifts than creations," he wrote, suggesting the ultimate version of the poem came to him in something like a vision.

Markham's version of Ginsberg's Gallery Six reading was a San Francisco New Year's Eve party held at home of Carrol Carrington, a close friend of Ambrose Bierce. Given that the room was filled with "literary autocrats of the Far West," guests were asked to read something. As it was New Year's Eve, most read something light-hearted or humorous. Markham pulled out his typed copy of his cri de couer and read it. Bailey Millard, editor of the Examiner, was in the audience and declared, "That poem will go down the ages!" He then asked to print the poem, promising he would run it in a conspicuous type, in the middle of the editorial page, along with an editorial praising the poem. By the end of the year, Doubleday published Markham's first book Man with the Hoe and Other Poems. William Jennings Bryan noted, "There is a majestic sweep to the argument, some of the lines pierce like arrows." However, the acerbic Ambrose Bierce was less convinced: "As a literary conception it has not the vitality of a dead fish. It will not carry a poem of whatever excellence through two generations."

In the wake of the success of his "hoe-poem," Markham moved to the East Coast to commence with a full time career as a literary man. He first settled in Brooklyn but came to the Westerleigh section of Staten Island, living most of his life at 92 Waters Avenue in a house that still stands.

Markham's long white beard and equally long white hair made him stand out in a community mostly involved in the maritime trades. Despite his national celebrity, he never turned down an invitation to speak before local groups. In turn, the community made his April 23rd birthday a school holiday, with groups of schoolchildren coming to his home to cover his lawn with flowers. He frequently entertained guests at his home; special guests were invited to his enormous library, which he referred to as "the piggery."

Markham's literary output following the publication of "The Man with the Hoe" was relatively small in an era when there was a paying newspaper and magazine market for poetry. This trickle of poesy was a reflection of his busy life on the lecture circuit. He was also involved in the promotion of poetry itself and in 1910 helped found the Poetry Society of America and gave much of his time to promoting the organization.

Markham emerged once more in the public view in 1922 when Chief Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft invited him to read his 1901 poem, "Lincoln, A Man of the People," at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. The ceremony was broadcast on radio, and it marked the first time a program was carried simultaneously on a network of stations. A few months later, the Lee De Forest Studios issued a four-minute film using his pioneering sound-on-film Phonofilm process to show Markham reciting the poem in a recreation of the event.

Markham's literary reputation declined with the emergence of Modernism. In reviewing his 1920 volume The Gates of Paradise and Other Poems, Herbert S. Gorman wrote, "Markham became a poet when he wrote 'The Man with the Hoe' and when he penned the last line he ceased to be a poet." Ouch. Such critical opprobrium didn't prevent Markham from being elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters or from attending his 80th Birthday celebration held at Carnegie Hall. The audience, which included President Herbert Hoover and delegates from 35 nations, honored his accomplishments and proclaimed him one of the great artists of his era.

Markham died in 1940 after some years of declining health following a stroke. He willed his 15,000-volume library and his papers to Staten Island's Wagner College. The college library is in the process of making his over 6,000 letters available online and has been the primary source for the small trickle of Markham scholarship, which includes both a dissertation that was a critical biography of the poet and a volume of uncollected writings. There has never been a collected poems issued of Markham's work.

Despite his invisibility in American literary history, Markham's life and work still linger on the fringes of social culture. In Staten Island there are streets named Markham Court, Markham Drive, Markham Lane, Markham Road and Markham Place. And Staten Island parents bring their children to the Edwin Markham Day Care Center. Additionally, there are five schools named after him in California, with one school each named after him in Oregon, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

Amazingly, Markham's legacy continues into the twenty-first century. In 2002, his residence in San Jose, California, was moved from its original location across from the state university to the grounds of the city's History Park. The refurbished building became the home of the city's Poetry Center, and attendees at the dedication included then NEA chair Dana Gioia, San Francisco poet Jack Foley, and Francisco X. Alcaron, then California's poet laureate. The Markham House has a library of over a thousand books, something the poet would have certainly approved of. And to make sure that Markham doesn't suffer the fate of becoming an anonymous name on a public building, there is an exhibit that includes artifacts of the poet's life including his cane, copies of his books, and a signed copy of his ekphrastic big hit, "The Man with the Hoe." It was a Florida man named Shawn McAllister who willed Markham's artifacts to the House’s parent organization, History San Jose, feeling that his collection had found a permanent home at History Park.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"Poems Exploding Like Bombs: Casagrande and Poetry's Public Spheres" / A Guest Posting by Marsha Bryant

Editor's Note: In the following guest posting, one of P&PC's all-time heroes—Marsha Bryant, Professor of English at the University of Florida and author of Women's Poetry and Popular Culture—shines a spotlight on the Chilean art collective Casagrande, which, for more than a decade now, has been dropping millions of poems on cities around the world. In a stark reversal of the World War II practice of bombing soldiers with propaganda poems, Casagrande's helicopters and "poem clouds" reclaim the air as a site and source of cross-cultural communication, wonder, and cultural memory—simultaneous acts, Bryant argues, of remembrance, intervention, and reinvention. Read on, dear reader, to discover what happens when poems fall from the sky.

W. H. Auden's birthday is a fitting day to mark how one of our most compelling occasional poets can be occasionally prophetic. Indeed, the most notorious line from Auden's "Spain"—"To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs"—uncannily predicted what is now the largest-scale poetry event in the world. Written in 1937 to raise money for Medical Aid for Spain, this poetry for populist culture remains the most famous poem in English on the Spanish Civil War.

Like most artists involved in what some called "a poet’s war," Auden supported the Republic. He submitted his page proofs two days before the bombing of Guernica (Gernika), and Faber published "Spain" in pamphlet form in May. [NB: Auden would later rename the poem "Spain 1937."] The image of exploding poets strikes some as insensitive (even gratuitous) given the deaths of Federico Garcia Lorca (by execution) and John Cornford (in battle) during the conflict. And in a post-Hiroshima as well as post-Guernica world, Auden's fusion of poetry and bombardment proves even more unsettling. Yet the poet's posted-forward scenes of youthful energies, crowds, and public spaces find new meanings in Chilean art collective Casagrande's "Bombing of Poems" project. In 2004, Casagrande dropped 100,000 poems by Basque and Chilean poets over Guernica. 

I was fortunate to meet Casagrande member Cristobal Bianchi when he visited the University of Florida this year. (The other members are Joaquin Prieto, Santiago Barcaza, and Julio Carrasco.) Bianchi's comments reflected poetry's vital role in reorienting art's space in the public sphere—including the atmosphere. The Bombing of Poems began at Santiago's La Moneda Palace, which Pinochet destroyed in 1973. Triggering and transforming this cultural memory, Casagrande dropped poems by 40 Chileans over the site in 2001. 

The collective chooses traditional and experi- mental poems with a direct style, giving contem- porary poets an aerial space and mass audience. Using a helicopter, Casagrande has flown over five other cities that endured aerial bombardment: Dubrovnik (2002), Guernica (2004), Warsaw (2009), Berlin (2010), and London (2012). For these locations Casagrande printed bookmarks with the work of poets from Chile and the host city, translating each into the other's language. 

Evoking and recoding cultural memories of war leafleting as they fall from the sky, these fluttering objects take on a freighted and transient form of terrible beauty. As Bianchi describes it, "the poems compose an image—a bright cloud—in the sky" (Los poemas component una imagen—una nube brillante—en el cielo). Casagrande is well aware that the spectacular nature of these events is rife with contradictions. There is a "provocation in the event that is symbolic, and not just peace. There is ambiguity, ambivalence," Bianchi explains. "For example," he says, "there is a conflict of the Bombing of Poems as a space of remembrance of aerial bombardment as such, but it also relates to the more convoluted controversies and questions lying behind the destruction of those urban spaces from sky." (La provocación del evento is simbólica, no is un proyecto sobre la paz. Hay una ambiguedad y ambivalencia. Por ejemplo, existe un conflicto entre el Bombardeo de Poemas como un espacio de recuerdo del bombardeo aéreo, pero también sobre las controversias y preguntan que descansan detrás de la destrucción de esos espacios urbanos desde el cielo.

Floodlights on the ground heighten this effect, illumi- nating the arriving helicopter and falling poems. The event takes about half an hour. In London, the event's official name was "Rain of Poems," reactivating memories of Blitz poetry such as Edith Sitwell'sStill Falls the Rain” (1941), which entangles deathly stasis and prophetic momentum. For H.D., another scanner of London's aerial bombardment, poetry was "indelibly stamped on the atmosphere somewhere"—and poetic words could "hatch butterflies" (The Walls Do Not Fall, 1942). In the atmosphere, Casagrande's poem-clouds sometimes seem like spectral butterflies as they rain on crowds of people gazing up in wonder and remembrance, with smiles and tears. 

Disrupting the economy of war by offering poems as gifts, Casagrande designs bookmarks with a graphic for the event on one side, and a poem paired with its translation on the other. Here (to the left) is a bookmark from the Berlin Bombing of Poems, and two from London's Rain of Poems (the third has a poem by Chilean Marcela Parra). These bookmarks are artworks, not commercial spaces; they are free from advertising and other forms of publicity. The bookmarks are also spaces that bridge linguistic, cultural, and generational divisions. I find that Rodrigo Rojas's poem from the Warsaw Bombing of Poems beautifully distills these dynamics: 
Dickinson ordena: Split the lark 
and you'll find the music. Abran 
a los pájaros y encontrarán su música. 
Pelen las alondras con agua caliente. 
Con navaja trocen, abran sus carozos, 
descascaren, calen a los mirlos, con cuchillo 
zapallero saquen una a una las pepas al zorzal, 
hiervan, muelan a los tordos, abran, 
partan a los pájaros y encontrarán la música. 

Dickinson orders: Split the lark
and you'll find the music. Open 
the birds and you will find their music. 
Peel the larks with hot water. 
With a razor cut them up, open their cobs. 
Peel, soak the blackbirds, with a pumpkin 
knife draw one by one the seeds from the robin, 
boil, grind the thrushes, open, 
split the birds and you will find the music. 

—translated by Carolyn Bradley 
Split across its Warsaw bookmark in Spanish and Polish forms, Rojas's poem widens across North and South America by generating from Emily Dickinson. In splitting these differences, "Dickinson ordena" re-fuses individual and communal meaning of lyric utterance through songbirds, bridging the reputedly private world of a poet-recluse with a large-scale public event. Moreover, the violent images of creative cooking explode safely-sealed containments of domestic space—and of writing and reading spaces. This poem means to be opened wide. For in its explosion over Poland, Rojas's poem becomes an act of fusion, fission, and frisson

Each recent Bombing of Poems leaves Spanish behind in places that have forgotten or never learned it. But no bookmarks are left behind. As you can see in CNN’s London footage, spectators gather all they can—sometimes stopping to exchange bookmarks or to read their poems aloud. Casagrande's Bombing of Poems project is an act of war remembrance; it is an act of intervention; and it is an act of reinvention. Bianchi points out that this kind of poetry explosion "triggers a resignification of the place, which is bombed in a different way" (gatilla una re-significación del lugar, el cual es bombardeado de un modo diferente). In my book Auden and Documentary in the 1930s, I discuss how Auden's "Spain" is a transportable text that brings future readers into its historical event—bridging the Spanish Civil War with crises of our own time. Casagrande shares Auden's sense of a troubled present and uncertain future, gathering us into our violent pasts and making us partners in renewing cultural memory. 

1. Auden's "Spain" pamphlet from Marsha Bryant's collection.
2. Bombing of Poems photographs and bookmarks courtesy of Casagrande
3. Rodrigo Rojas's "Dickinson ordena" reprinted courtesy of Rodrigo Rojas; translated by Carolyn Bradley.
4. English and Spanish versions of Cristobal Bianchi's remarks by Cristobal Bianchi.