Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Heading to Texas: P&PC at MLA's Annual Convention

The good news is that, after five months of being based at the Library of Congress in the nation's capital, P&PC has finally and safely returned to its home office in Salem, Oregon. It's good to be home, and we're pretty exhausted, but as fortune would have it, we're promptly flying out later this week to attend and take part in the Modern Language Association's annual convention, being held this year in Austin, Texas. Here's what's on the docket:
Session 635: Poetry and Its Public(s)
Saturday, 9 January, 3:30-4:45 p.m.
Room 9A of the Austin Convention Center

Presiding: Alan Golding, University of Louisville

Speakers: Stephen Burt, Harvard University; Mike Chasar, Willamette University; Evie Shockley, Rutgers University, New Brunswick; Timothy Yu, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Session Description: Panelists address the public(s) for poetry, past, present, and future, as a cultural category and a human activity. We imagine a discussion in which we think about media, reception, audience, commentary, translation, and adaptation—and more—as ways of connecting to a public. How is our work as poets, teachers, historians, editors, and critics a public act?
As you can imagine, we're pretty stoked to be in such distinguished company, and so we spent a good portion of our cross-country road trip home thinking about what we might contribute and running ideas past the P&PC Office cats, both of whom were crated in the back seat of the car and thus convenient if not entirely voluntary sounding boards. And as of this morning we've finally got something of a rough draft worked up—a five point list of suggestions for how poetry studies can better (re)position itself to more thoroughly understand, account for, and engage the wide range of poetry's publics. P&PC faithful, never fear: we believe there will be at least one Rod McKuen reference. If all goes well, we'll post our remarks in these very pages at some point after the conference—so stay tuned!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

From the P&PC Vault: Getting Ready for Christmas—An Advent Calendar from Hallmark

It's not the first poem that P&PC ever encountered—that distinction probably goes to the quirky "I went to the animal fair" verse that dad used to recite—but it's pretty darn close. We're talking about the 24-line holiday poem printed verse by verse behind the 24 doors and windows of three brick houses featured in the tri-fold "Getting Ready for Christmas" Hallmark advent calendar pictured here. (That's panel one you see here; panels two and three follow in sequence below, concluded by a panoramic photo of the card completely opened up.)

Like the Hallmark Christmas card matchbook featured on P&PC about this time last year and pictured here, the advent calendar solicits an unusual amount of reader involvement to get at the poem; but unlike the matchbook, where the reader is invited to dismantle or deconstruct the poem matchstick by matchstick, the advent calendar asks the reader to help build the poem line by line and window by window in an act of constructive reading that runs parallel to, or perhaps even tropes, the houses that were built brick by brick to shelter them.

If you've spent any time around the P&PC office, the accentuated sequential nature of this window-by-window poem probably brings to mind the old rhyming Burma-Shave billboards that delivered poems in line by line (and sign by sign) units along American highways until the 1960s. Burma Shave's billboards awesomely staged the experience of the poetic line break by setting up signs/lines 100 feet apart from one another—thus letting the driver/reader ride in the exaggerated "white space" between individual lines for several moments. The advent calendar does the Burma-Shave poems one better, though. Because one is supposed to open one window or door every day for each of the 24 days leading up to Christmas, it effectively creates line breaks measured not in terms of seconds on the highway but in terms of days; that is, if the poem is read as intended, each line break in "Getting Ready for Christmas" is effectively 24 hours long!

As scholastically appealing as "Getting Ready for Christmas" is (we might go on to ask, for example, what sort of voyeuristic holiday experience Hallmark is asking us to have in opening all of these windows and doors as we let our fingers do the strolling, caroler-like, through the little neighborhood), we at P&PC value it more for reasons external to the card itself—for its family history. According to Mom (née Ann Salvatore), it was first given to her and her brother Jim in Cleveland, probably in the early 1950s. (Ann had it, or large parts of it, memorized if I remember correctly.) Then they sent it to my great-aunt Tillie Boye (née Matilda Danca) and her children in Lincoln, Nebraska, later that decade. Then the Boyes sent it back to Northeast Ohio for Ann to share with with my sister Trish and me (both Chasars) in the 1970s. Then Ann sent it to Tillie's son Alan and his Boye clan, living in Vermont, in 1988. Then Alan sent it back to the suburbs of Cleveland in the 2000s to share with Ann's grandchildren, my niece and nephew, Wayne and Julianna Grindle. Members of the Salvatore, Danca, Boye, Chasar, and Grindle families have thus been "Getting Ready for Christmas" via this poem for well over half a century.

This holiday season, we wish we could send the actual card to you—the extended P&PC family—as well. While we can't do that, we can give you the composite text of the 24-line poem here:

The guests are welcomed at the door
The gifts are piled upon the floor
The cook is making gingerbread
And all are waiting to be fed
The corn is popping almost done
Come and get it everyone!
A taffy pull is in full swing
Cheerful, merry voices ring
The stockings hang all in a row
Outside it has begun to snow
The younger tots have said their prayers
And now are fast asleep upstairs
But one sits by a candlestick to wait awhile for Old St. Nick
The older children laugh with glee and dance and caper 'round the tree
A train for Jack, a doll for Jill, a scarf for Anne and Gloves for Bill
Underneath the mistletoe Jane steals a kiss from her best beau!
Hot things to drink, good things to eat
For every child a special treat
The grown-up folks sit by the grate
The clock says that it's growing late
Everybody stops to spy the Christmas star up in the sky
The Christmas carols now begin
With everybody joining in
And all the doors are opened wide to welcome in the Christmastide!


Using your imagination, perhaps you can experience something of the thrill this advent calendar poem offered and, in the process, open a few doors and windows onto where P&PC comes from. Happy holidays all.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

From the P&PC Vault: Saint Nick and the Poetry of Santa's Ring Toss

Nothing dogs the Christmas season at P&PC so much as the clash between the holiday’s commercial and noncommercial aspects—between shopping and spirit, getting and giving, worldliness and wonderment, materialism and, well, something more. This clash dogs the season’s poetry, too, as the oftentimes utopian (or at least not uniformly materialist) sentiments voiced by the season’s popular verse forms get standardized, mass produced, boxed, wrapped, shipped, and sold in and on any number of greeting cards, ornaments, advent calendars, and novelty items like the funky oversized matchbook from Hallmark pictured here. For every excuse that the season offers to poetically express feelings one might view as suspect or inappropriate the rest of the year—you know, faith in ideals like love, peace, family, compassion, giving, forgiveness, and the pursuit of something other than the cynical status quo—there’s some Grinch waiting to package, market, and profit from it all. 

But because we all know that the commercial and noncommercial aspects of the holidays aren’t inevitably partnered with each other—that’s not the way is has to be, right?—the marketplace has to continually entangle and re-entangle them, making the contradictions between them seem natural (even at times, like, totally fun), or else so interweaving them that it becomes nigh impossible, as Frank Sinatra sang of love and marriage, to imagine one without the other: “Just try, try, try to separate them.” 

It’s easy, perhaps, to see this logic at work in the big picture (“Welcome to the Spirit of Christmas Online Store!”), but it’s remarkable how much it sometimes governs—to quote Robert Frost, who for nearly thirty years partnered with printer Joseph Blumenthal to make Christmas cards for friends and associates—in a thing so small as the little artifact pictured here: a Santa “ring toss” game issued as a holiday giveaway by Coca-Cola in the 1950s that contains the following poem on its handle: 
I am a Jolly old 
     “SAINT NICK”— 
So, if you want a Kick, 
Be the first to make 
     A “Hit – Smash” 
By swinging the Ring 
That’s on the String 
on Santa’s Mustache 
If you look closely, you’ll see that even though the verse is printed pretty clearly in red ink (it looks over-inked, in fact), some of that ink (especially in lines three and four) has been worn away, because, in order to play the game, one has to hold the handle in such a way that one’s thumb braces the toy just beneath Santa’s beard and thus covers up and, over time, starts rubbing out the poem. This little shell game—where one reads the poem one moment, then covers it up the next—illustrates in miniature how the ring toss operates more generally: look at it one way, and it’s a noncommercial, greeting-card-like wish for a happy holiday (“Seasons’ Greetings from your local Coca-Cola Bottler”); look at it another, and it’s an advertisement. One minute, the scripted logo “Coca-Cola” seems like the signature we expect on a holiday card from a friend, and the next it’s a standard-issue corporate logo. The details signify doubly, as the toy appeals to noncommercial expressive forms of the season to forward its otherwise commercial goal.

In fact, the whole idea of a ring toss itself seems designed to give us practice combining things that we normally wouldn’t think of combining, doesn’t it? In a sense, by doing what the poem tells us to do—“By Swinging the Ring / on Santa’s mustache”—we get to play around in a nonthreatening way with joining things that usually wouldn’t go together (a wreath on Santa’s mustache? C’mon), thereby experiencing the entanglement of the holiday’s commercial and noncommercial aspects as a game, not as the work of ideology. This is why P&PC thinks the ring toss instructions have to be in rhyme: pairing words based on what are really arbitrary acoustic similarities between them is a linguistic variation of the game as a whole: bringing “Ring” and “String” together in a playful, low-stakes way is another version of landing the wreath on Santa’s mustache. Both let the user simulate and view as natural the larger ideological project of entangling the commercial and noncommercial aspects of the holiday season. 

Not quite, uh, buying this yet? We could cite other aspects of the ring toss that combine seeming opposites in a similar manner. Note, for example, the sexual game of landing the (female) ring on Santa’s (phallic) mustache; or the toy’s contrasting images of floppiness (Santa’s hat) and rigidity (the tongue-depressor handle design); or even the invitation to get a “Kick” via one’s hands, not via one's feet, as line three suggests. But the most amazing pairing of disparities might be there in the poem’s use of the name “Saint Nick.” As we all know, “Nick” or “Old Nick” is actually a Christian nickname for the Devil dating back to the 1600s (possibly a shortened version of the word “iniquity,” and possibly informing the use of “nick” as British slang for stealing). In combining “Saint” and “Nick,” then, the larger Christmas tradition of which the ring toss is part has entangled the forces of good and evil that the toy puts in our hands and that the poem tells us in all capital letters is not Santa Claus or Kris Kringle, but—keeping with the overall logic of making contradictions seem, well, not contradictions at all—is SAINT NICK. (Is it possible, too, that "up to scratch" on the ninth match in the first picture above also conjures up the devil, long referred to as "Old Scratch" as well as "Old Nick"?) From the toy’s design that lets us physically practice reconciling the season’s contradictions, to the rhyme that invites and instructs us how to do so, all the way down to the oxymoronic name of its patron devil-saint, Coca-Cola’s ring toss so intertwines opposing forces in the service of partnering the commercial and the noncommercial that try, try, try as we might to separate them, it seems nigh impossible to do so. 

And yet, despite this conundrum, there’s a flaw or contradiction in Coca-Cola’s ring-toss—just as there is in every product of ideology— and that’s in the playing of the game itself. The P&PC interns have been passing it around the office for several days now, but do you know how often they’ve actually managed to get that wreath on Santa’s mustache and thus successfully resolve the clash between the holiday’s commercial and noncommercial aspects as Coca-Cola hopes? You got it—hardly ever. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Rhymes, Jingles, and Little Poems: The World War II Rumor Project Collection in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress

"Rumor," wrote Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 2, "is a pipe / Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures / And of so easy and so plain a stop / That the blunt monster with uncounted heads, / The still-discordant wavering multitude, / Can play upon it." We here at P&PC don't know about all of that, but we've certainly had our fair share of rumor-related surmises and conjectures of late, all stemming from our recent forays into the World War II Rumor Project Collection in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Our time in the nation's capital is quickly coming to an end, but now that the lion's share of our proposed research about Edna St. Vincent Millay's World War II-era poem The Murder of Lidice is done, we just couldn't pass up an opportunity to find out what folks on the street were saying sotto voce around the same time. And you know what? It turns out that many of them were talkin' poetry.

The World War II Rumor Project Collection is exactly what it sounds like it is. Worried that Axis agents were infiltrating the U.S. and spreading false rumors with the goal of damaging national morale and the unity of the war effort, a certain Dr. Eugene Horowitz working for the Office of War Information did a pilot study coordinating the collection of rumors for analysis and counteraction. He collected them in two main ways: via designated, already well-placed individuals (hair stylists, cab drivers, etc.) who reported what they were hearing in their communities; and via teachers and students at a select number of high schools and colleges.

Much of the project's collection consists of rumor reports obtained via the first method, and this was the material we initially targeted, thinking how awesome it would be to go back home to Oregon with a  handful of the juiciest, choicest rumors that grandmas and grandpas in the Beaver State were passing along. Well, it turns out that Oregonians didn't have much of a taste for rumor or (what's more likely) the federal government—or perhaps they couldn't get their ground game up and running in time. Because we found a grand total of two Oregon-generated rumors. That's right. Two.
We were about ready to sigh, pack it all up, and move on to something else, but that's usually the sort of moment when something happens for us. Indeed. Just to be thorough and make sure our bases were covered, we decided to check out the student responses—all contained in the last three narrow boxes of the collection. And what do you know. There, right at the start, we found a template "speech" that each teacher was asked to give when administering a "standardized" rumor collection in class—you know, the "always use a #2 pencil" type of thing—and part of that speech instructed students to "write down five jokes, anecdotes, puns, rhimes [sic], or 'cracks' about the war." Rhimes? You can imagine our ears pricking up, and not just because of the unconventional spelling. And sure enough, later on, the speech reminds students to write down "any kind of story, joke, pun, toast, or jingle about the war." Jingle? Now you're talking. And wouldn't you know it, the entire instructional concludes with yet another reference to poetry. "If you can't remember the exact words of a little poem or jingle, give it as near as you can. Please write these down now—let's not take too long over it."

Rhimes, jingles, and little poems? Who today would even think to ask for rhimes, jingles, and little poems when trying to assess "what passes by word of mouth ... things which often fail to appear in print"? So, we started reading, and you know what? There were rhimes, jingles, and little poems all over the place, from rhyming slogans ("Pay your taxes to beat the Axis") to full-on, multiple-stanza verses about everything from Hitler's nether regions to sugar and shoe rationing.

But wait, there's more—there always is. Each student response is anonymous (the study never asked for names), but at Dr. Horowitz's instruction, each form (almost each, at least) contains a notation identifying the respondent's year in school, gender (M or F), and race (W or C/N [Colored/Negro]). And as we first read through—quickly, without method or clear goal—we started to feel like the African American students reported rhimes, jingles, and little poems more frequently than white students. How very interesting, we thought. What little archive have we stumbled upon? How can we tally up the numbers? How do we crunch and analyze them, and what might they reveal to us? It turns out that Dr. Horowitz's project never got beyond the pilot stage, but could we, almost seventy-five years later, use the data he collected to say something about the relative importance or unimportance of popular poetry to African American and white students nearing mid-century and thus, presumably, to the communities from which they came? How would we then map gender onto this? How about age? And how would all of this data intersect with the poems themselves? Might there be discernible patterns in who reported what types of poems?

We're a long way from answering all those questions, dear reader, but by now much of the data has been recorded for transport back to Oregon. We couldn't have gotten this far without further support from folks at the Kluge Center, who loaned us a real-live intern to help: Cooper Kidd (pictured here), a sociology major at Montgomery College who's just returned from a summer studying social responses to AIDS in San Francisco, and who's spending the Fall semester doing LoC research on poverty and trans women of color. Pretty much side by side in the Folklife Center for the past three or so weeks, we've been making spreadsheets, talking through what we've been finding, and sharing more than just a few rhimes, jingles, and little poems with each other.

Really, we don't have much data to make public at this point, but we can dangle this little morsel in front of you (and in front of all of you granting foundations out there): of the 2,250 responses we've recorded, about half are from African American students, and half are from white students. (We think this is statistically sound.) The percentage of African American students who report rhimes, jingles, and little poems is 28%, and much higher than white students, who report poems 14% of the time. Our initial hypothesis confirmed, we now prepare to move on—Cooper back to school, P&PC back to Oregon, and both of us deeper into the data. Please wish us safe travels, and make sure to check back for more breaking news—well, breaking as of 1943, at least—about "the blunt monster with uncounted heads, / The still-discordant wavering multitude."