Sunday, September 28, 2008

Guest Posting: Poetry from the Prairie

Poetry & Popular Culture correspondent James Sullivan breezes in to report on poetry, festival broadsides, and the winds of change a-blowin' in the Land of Lincoln.

My small town of Delavan, Ilinois—near the middle of the state, on the wide open and wind-swept prairie—has a festival every Labor Day weekend, and I picked up a poetry broadside at one of the booths this year. This booth was staffed by people from Rail Splitter Wind Farm, a proposed but controversial wind farm project that will be going up soon within sight of town. The broadside takes a passage of a speech by Lincoln and chops it into verse:

Farming the Wind

‘Of all the forces of nature
the wind contains the largest amount
of motive power—

that is, power to move things.
Take any space of the earth’s surface—
for instance, Illinois—

and all the power exerted
by all the men, and beasts,
and running water,

and steam, over and upon it,
shall not equal the one hundredth part
of what is exerted

by the blowing of the wind
over and upon the same space.
And yet it has not,

so far in the world’s history,
become proportionably valuable
as a motive power.

As yet the wind is an untamed
and unharnessed force;
and quite possibly one

of the greatest discoveries
hereafter to be made
will be the taming
and harnessing
of the wind.’

The broadside they set up at their booth was 3’ by 4’, and the one I obtained from them is 8½” by 11”. It has, in the upper right, a reproduction of an old illustration of young Abe a-splittin’ rails; below that, the wind farm’s logo—propellers at the end of an ax handle; and a citation of the source at the bottom—a speech in Bloomington, IL, April 8, 1858.

Rail Splitter Wind Farm, LLC, is owned, though the broadside doesn’t mention this, by Horizon Wind Energy, LLC, of Houston, TX, which is in turn owned by Energias de Portugal (EDP), SA, the biggest utility in Portugal and a major player in the international renewable energy business.

Interesting little bit of propaganda in my hands here. While I am a proponent of wind power, myself, some of my neighbors dislike the idea of the view and (they fear) the sound. To mitigate the fear of technological progress and its impact on the life of our small town, this enormous international corporation turns, of course, to poetry.

As poetry, “Farming the Wind” has the flat-footedness of Edgar Lee Masters or Carl Sandburg at their most prosaic. That’s no coincidence. These are some of the local literary heroes in this part of Illinois. There’s nothing romantic and luscious about this sort of poetry. Spoon River Anthology, after all, took a clear-eyed view of small-town life, without sentiment or nostalgia. This is not some pretty, lilting evocation of sunset over the corn, but a vision of power. In fact, they bold and italicize several words—“motive power,” “valuable,” “untamed,” and “unharnessed”—that might add to the testosterone appeal of the text. The verse, then, in its stylistic evocation of local writers, suggests that the wind farm is not an imposition—some huge corporation descending upon us from Houston and beyond and forcing its will upon our beloved landscape—but rather a fulfillment of the potential inherent in the local.

And then there’s the other and stronger Central Illinois connection, one more evocative than any other: Lincoln. Ah, what a visionary! He saw and believed in this project before it had ever been conceived! Surely we must finish this work to which he called us!

James Sullivan is the author of On the Walls and in the Streets: American Poetry Broadsides from the 1960s. He teaches English at Illinois Central College and, among other things, raises llamas in Delavan.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Main Street Blues

Appeared in the Press-Citizen on September 24, 2008

Why is it when I
get into debt
no one buys me out
(at least not yet),

and my doctor friend
(hear how she groans)
wouldn't get their sympathy
if she failed her loans,

but the second we hear
executives shout,
George Bush and the Feds
go bail them out

with billions and billions
of taxpayer loot
and the only thing golden
is their parachute?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Palin Poetry Watch: Rhymes of the Times

While "Poetry & Popular Culture" has yet to hear from Palin or the Palin/McCain campaign about Palin's poetic preferences, it is clear that some folks are getting poetic in their opposition to the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate. On September 14, an "Alaska Women Reject Palin" rally was held in Anchorage in front of the Loussac Library and drew nearly 1500 people. According to some reports, it was the largest political rally ever held in Alaska and much larger than the previous pro-Palin gathering that attracted a lot more coverage from the so-called liberal media. One eye-witness reports:

"When I got there, about 20 minutes early, the line of sign wavers stretched the full length of the library grounds, along the edge of the road, 6 or 7 people deep! I could hardly find a place to park. I nabbed one of the last spots in the library lot, and as I got out of the car and started walking, people seemed to join in from every direction, carrying signs.

"Never, have I seen anything like it in my 17 and a half years living in Anchorage. The organizers had someone walk the rally with a counter, and they clicked off well over 1400 people (not including the 90 counter-demonstrators). This was the biggest political rally ever, in the history of the state. I was absolutely stunned. The second most amazing thing is how many people honked and gave the thumbs up as they drove by. And even those that didn't honk looked wide-eyed and awe-struck at the huge crowd that was growing by the minute. This just doesn't happen here."

Befitting its literary location in front of the public library, some of the homemade signs rhymed—reading "Hockey Mama for Obama" and "The Alaska Disasta," for example—and others like the raven image shown above were indubitably poetic (or Poe-etic) in origin. It seems that while Palin and the Palin/McCain campaign may be closed-lipped on the subject of her relationship to this blog's favorite genre, it's clear that her well-versed opposition is not.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Firing Up the Muse

Following what is now a national trend, the State of Iowa has for the most part gone smokeless. While our state legislature sees fit to allow smoking in Casinos (and in an isolated American Legion bar here and there), the majority of the state's restaurants and bars are now smoke free, save those establishments which have outdoor beer gardens and which don't serve food; in those cases—like The Picador, Martini's, or Joe's in Iowa City—a patron can (as The Picador advertised on a chalkboard propped outside its front door the day after the smoking ban went into effect) "come in and enjoy a relaxing smoke in our beer garden."

There has been no poetry I know of to celebrate the institution of this new law. Perhaps this is because poetry has, for many years, been on the side of smoking in bars—or at least on the side of having a relaxing smoke during happy hour or while enjoying a nightcap. Printed on matchbooks throughout the midcentury, these poems were funny and oftentimes given away as advertisements for bars and taverns themselves. Drinkers and smokers carried bits of verse around in their pockets or pocketbooks that contained all sorts of free if not useful bits of advice.

Take, for example, a sky-blue matchbook advertising the Trovillion Tavern owned by Glen and Sally of Vienna, Illinois, which provides a barometer by which to measure one's inebriation. Simply titled "Drunk," it reads in call capital letters:



The dimiter lines of the Trovillion Tavern's matchbook cast Glen and Sally's no-doubt smoking establishment—or at least the state of drunkenness—as a decidedly male space. They aren't alone in doing so. Consider the poem distributed on the inside of a matchbook advertising Jean and Bob's 21 Club in Buffalo, Wyoming:

The Bartender Knows

He knows all of our sorrows
And all of our joys
He knows every girl
That chases the boys
He knows all of our troubles
And all of our strife
He knows every man
Who ducks out on his wife

If the bartender told
All that he knows
He would turn all of our friends
Into bitterest foes
He would start forth a story
Which, gaining in force
Would cause all of our wives
To sue for divorce

He would get all of our homes
Mixed up in a fight
He would turn all of our bright days
Into sorrowful nights.
In fact he would keep
The whole town in a stew
If he told a tenth
Of all that he knew

So when out on a party
And from home you steal
Drop in for a drink

"The Bartender Knows" is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it's gratuitously printed on the inside of the matchbook, a space usually left blank because it would have required a separate press run to print the poem there and thus would have cost folks like Jean and Bob more money to purchase. Apparently, though, the cost of including "The Bartender Knows" was worth it.

"The Bartender Knows" is not just an advertisement for the 21 Club—"The Finest Club in Buffalo"—but for the culture of male drinking more generally. Establishing a divide between the female space of the home (from which one escapes) and the male space of the bar (where one seeks out the reassuring company of other men), "The Bartender Knows" is not only about a man (the bartender is identified as a "he") but spoken by a man as well ("all of our wives"). It's a paean to the homosocial space of the bar—the space where the average man finds his true confidante in the person of the barkeep. Indeed, the girl who chases the boys in lines 3 & 4 seems mentioned as a token gesture to heteroxexual relationships, one that is then subordinated if not repressed for the rest of the poem. Humorously, the bar becomes a center of Buffalo, Wyoming's information economy, with the bartender himself serving as an amalgam of godfather and Santa Claus—a figure who knows what you've been doing but promises to not punish you for it, a promise that nonetheless doubles as a constant threat of revelation that establishes and maintains the barkeep's seat of power.

The triangulated relationship between smoking, bars, and men opens up questions about how and where women—such as Sally of the Trovillion Tavern, or Jean of the 21 Club, or even the girl who chases boys in "The Bartender Knows"—fit into this homosocial economy. For years, critics of Virginia Slims' "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" ad have railed against how the cigarette company conflates the act of smoking with actual progress in women's rights. Following a chain of associations from cigarette to poetic matchbook to bar, one better understands the significance of that one Virginia Slim smokey treat: it not only represents a breaking of social taboos against women smoking, but it purports to allow women into the masculine discursive space of the tavern with its kept secrets, its inebriation, and its escape from the home. Virginia Slims doesn't just equate smoking with women's rights; it defines equal rights, one can argue, as men's and women's equal access to the smoking and drinking that takes place in the commercial space of the bar.

Of course, this access to the bar is only a conceptual one for, as these poems show, the actual space of the bar remained a masculine place where the "he" at Trovillion Tavern, for example, can fantasize about being out of the emasculating house when he can hoist a glass, lift a cigarette and, full of his manhood, "rise again."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Boy Doles Out Fake $20 Bills

Appeared in the Press-Citizen on September 15, 2008

Inflation and unemployment are high.
Freddie and Fannie are low.
Another month in Iraq goes by
And everyone's short on dough.

So when Georgie starts passing out cash
everyone's friends of his.
No one asks where he's hiding his stash
or what the boy's motive is.

They pocket the money and give him a grunt
but never look at the jack:
there's a picture of John McCain on front
and Sarah Palin on back.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Palin Poetry Watch: Palin Not Forthcoming

"Poetry & Popular Culture" is still trying to learn whether Sarah Palin has a favorite poem. Several readers of this blog have suggested Palin's preferences might run toward the classic religious verse "Footprints," but despite two weeks of phone calls and emails from "Poetry & Popular Culture," both the Palin and Palin/McCain offices have yet to respond. Perhaps they're too busy getting their tax statements in order to at least make them public?

"Poetry & Popular Culture" has called the following offices in Alaska & elsewhere, hoping to get in touch with the Governor to discover her poetic proclivities:

• Juneau at 907-465-3500
• Anchorage at 907-269-7450
• Fairbanks at 907-451-2920
• Kenai at 907-283-2918
• D.C. at 202-624-5858

• McCain office at 703-418-2008
• McCain office at 703-418-2008

• McCain campaign email at

To this point, however, "Poetry & Popular Culture" has encountered only a bridge to nowhere, and speculation is beginning to mount about Palin's tastes. Is she a fan of Robert Service's "Cremation of Sam McGee"—a popular Alaskan ditty even though Service himself is from Canada (a nation, like Russia, next to Alaska and hence a probable site of Palin's foreign policy experience)? Perhaps she prefers Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose"? "Poetry & Popular Culture" hesitates to publicize other speculations out of a committment to journalistic fairness, but this blog is nonetheless beginning to wonder if Palin's reticence to respond suggests, in fact, that she has something to hide...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

How Popular Is Popular? The Case of Vachel Lindsay

In 1913, Springfield Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay published "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" in Poetry magazine, and the poem quickly become a popular hit on the day's poetry-reading circuit. Audiences clamored for Lindsay's half-sung dramatic performance so much that Lindsay wrote to friend and Davenport, Iowa, lawyer Arthur Davison Ficke, "I have recited the General til my jaws ache—4444 times."

Here's the beginning of the poem (to be sung, Lindsay instructed, to the tune of "The Blood of the Lamb" with instrumental accompaniment):

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.”
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,
Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale—
Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—
Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

The publication of Lindsay's "The Congo" in Poetry a year later, however, earned Lindsay more fame than he'd ever bargained for. Response to "The Congo" was sensational among literary and popular audiences alike. Biographer Eleanor Ruggles reports that when Lindsay read "The Congo" at a Poetry event celebrating William Butler Yeats' visit to Chicago, "The audience burst into applause ... and there were bravos from Lindsay's fellow midwesterners, persuading him into reciting General Booth."

Around the same time, in the booming coal-mining metropolis of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1915, 1,500 people—nearly 5% of the population of what was then the 94th largest city in America—turned out to hear Lindsay read.

How popular is that, you might ask?

Well, for Lindsay to find a popular turnout nowadays, he would have to go to Chula Vista in San Diego County, California, now the nation's 94th largest city with a population of 210,000. To match, percentagewise, the size of the crowd that saw Lindsay perform in Wilkes-Barre in 1915, an audiences of about 10,000 people—10,000!—would have to turn out. Earlier this year, when Mary Oliver sold out a 2,500 seat venue in Seattle (consistently ranked as the most literate large city in the U.S. and much larger than Chula Vista), the event made national headlines. "Poet-mania," read one report headline, "Mary Oliver's sold-out appearance sparks a ticket frenzy on Craigslist."

Just imagine what the press would do if 10,000 people turned out in any city for a poetry reading today—or what the frenzy would have been like if Craigslist was around back in 1915.

Monday, September 1, 2008

"Poetry & Popular Culture" interviews son of poet Frank Marshall Davis

"My father's fondest dream"
Setting the record straight on Frank Marshall Davis

Reporting for the Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper back in April 2008, I wrote about one of Barack Obama's early influences, the poet and journalist Frank Marshall Davis who appears as "Frank" in Obama's autobiography Dreams from My Father. In the late 1940s, the FBI harassed Davis (and everyone else, it seems) for being a suspected commie. This past February, right-wing writers, including Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, or AIM, began resurrecting this paranoia in order to expose what they call Obama's "carefully concealed communist and foreign connections." These reports have called Davis (1905-1987) "a Communist pawn of Moscow" and "Obama's Communist Mentor."

I recently had a chance to catch up with Mark Davis, son of Frank Marshall Davis, who retired from a career in the U.S. Air Force in 1993. Mark has recently started a blog to counter what he calls the disinformation campaign being conducted by AIM. (See http://my. /page/community/blog/Kaleokualoha).

Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

MC: When did you first learn about Obama's relationship with your father?

MD: I believe it was only this past May, when my lovely significant other advised me that he was mentioned in Obama's book. She also mentioned that my father's background was becoming an issue. I went online and discovered thousands of hits connected to AIM's disinformation campaign.

MC: What did you think when you read "Dreams from My Father"?

MD: Obama's portrayal of my father corresponds quite closely with my own memories. I believe it actually reinforces the point that Obama did not consider him to be his mentor but merely a colorful character who provided some useful (and not-so-useful) advice. Obama recognized that despite (or due to) his wealth of experience, my father was "incurable" of his notion that the glass ceiling for African-Americans may be permanent. This is the central question of race relations. When writing "Dreams," Obama seems to have recognized that the glass ceiling was an anachronism.

It's unfortunate that my father didn't live long enough to see race lose so much value as a factor of success. While it may be true that African-Americans will always be perceived as black, or even as "niggers" to some, race is increasingly irrelevant to success in America. For an increasing share of America, racial prejudice is disappearing. Like MLK Jr., my father's fondest dream—that we could all be judged exclusively by the content of our character—may be at hand.

MC: What made you decide to personally fight back against Kincaid and AIM?

MD: When Kincaid claimed that Obama "developed a close relationship, almost like a son, with Davis," I said "Whoa!" Kincaid also absurdly claimed that my father's "values, passed on to Obama, were those of a communist agent who pledged allegiance to Stalin." I knew I needed to immerse myself in this fight to defend my family honor. From my background as an Intelligence Officer, I could see him mimicking a full-blown Soviet KGB "active measures" disinformation campaign.

For Kincaid, my father seems to be just "collateral damage" in a war against Obama. Although I may not have been as supportive of my family as I could have been while on active duty, I'll be damned if I allow the Kincaid Brigade to demonize my father in this dishonest campaign against Barack Obama—or anyone else.

MC: Your blog is run through Why did you locate it there, and is it an endorsement of Obama as well as a defense of your father?

MD: An Obama blog seemed most appropriate because not only was Obama a friend of my father but also the enemy of my father's self-declared enemy. AIM deliberately is misrepresenting their relationship as a scandal when there was no wrongdoing, and deliberately misrepresenting Obama's reference to him as just "Frank" (without further identification in Dreams) as a "cover-up" of their imagined scandal.

I abhor such injustice, especially when committed in the name of "fairness, balance, and accuracy in news reporting." Although such defamation can no longer directly hurt my father (may he R.I.P.), it is intended to injure Obama.

I feel it's my responsibility, as an officer and a gentleman, to protect both of their reputations against this disinformation campaign. I want to protect Obama not only to repay the trust and regard he displayed for my father but also to help ensure that these lies don't hurt the campaign of the best candidate for President of the U.S. provided a ready-made media vehicle to neutralize those lies.

MC: Were you aware, growing up, that the F.B.I. was assigned to investigate your father in the late 1940s?

MD: I was vaguely aware that he was investigated because of his past activism, but I don't recall him ever providing much detail. The vast majority of his activism was in the civil rights struggle. As a teenager, I recall his delight with King's "I Have A Dream" speech and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We had little discussion of international events other than the Vietnam War, where he encouraged me, for school projects, to research the underlying reasons beyond its media portrayal.

The fact that he did not try to indoctrinate me in any Marxist ideology, although I lived with him until the age of 18, makes me absolutely positive that he did not do so with Obama.

MC: What do you think of your father's poetry now?

MD: I have never been much of a poetry buff (perhaps due to a recessive gene?), but reading his work since the controversy reinforces my determination to disprove Kincaid's misrepresentation of his character.

A slightly different version of this interview appeared in the Press-Citizen on 31 August 2008.