Friday, October 31, 2008

In Search of the Bad Poetry File at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Earlier this week, "Poetry & Popular Culture" received a tip from Stephen Headley—Manager of the Magazines & Newspapers Department at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County—who said that a "bad poetry file" existed somewhere in the depths of that library's collection. Headley put me in touch with Bruce Sherwood, a reference librarian and 30-year veteran of the library, who confirmed that said archive does in fact exist but under the name of the "Auxiliary Poetry File," known as APF for short.

Sometimes, Sherwood told me, those with somewhat less appreciation for the cultural importance of popular poetry than "Poetry & Popular Culture" has, called the APF the "Awful Poetry File." I asked Sherwood if said negative elements had been purged from the library, but he didn't comment. Instead, he sent me this official description of the collection, which consists of an amazing 55 boxes of index cards:


APF: Auxiliary Poetry File (ca. 1900-1950)

A unique, home-grown index comprised of fifty-five boxes of yellowed index cards with author/title citations to poems culled from selected magazines, newspapers and grade school readers in the early part of the twentieth century. Presumably intended to augment Granger's Index to Poetry, this covers lesser poets or, "bards not sublime," published in non-literary periodicals such as Life and Stars and Stripes and includes many full-text poems from local newspapers -- hand cut and pasted by librarians on three-by-five cards.

Although limited in time and scope, this is an irreplaceable resource because there is no known index to newspaper and textbook verse. Selection is heavy on World War I-era patriotic verse. The APF is especially treasured by those of an earlier generation who wish to recall poems they once memorized from their McGuffey readers.

Affectionately referred to by staff as the "Awful Poetry File," perhaps because most of the poems are "awfully" hard to locate and a few are just plain "awful," the APF has been somewhat eclipsed in purpose, if not coverage, by the World Wide Web.

Sherwood then went on to gloss this description for me even further:

"Although the file has been largely supplanted by the Internet, it is also no doubt true that a large percentage of the entries will not be found elsewhere. It is arranged in a Granger's Index style, with entries for authors, titles, subjects, and first lines in one alphabet. Not all of the poems are 'bad,' nor do all of the 3" x 5" cards consist of pasted clippings from newspapers and magazines. Some entries are just locational notes (e.g., 'Wharton, E. -- Hunting song, Literary Digest, Vol 38, p. 816'), and some are cryptic, such as the title listing for 'A Hymn of Hate,' which is attributed to Dorothy Parker and shown as occurring in five nonsequential issues of Life magazine in the early 1920s.

"During my tenure in Literature and Languages and its predecessors (1980-2007), it was used mainly as a last resort in the years before World Wide Web searching became commonplace. That is, after following up all hunches and tediously checking the many volumes of Granger's, a meticulous search required a run through the APF. At that point the exhausted librarian could confidently tell the patron that he or she had searched EVERYWHERE.

"Before Google, the APF was a significant (if incomplete) source for ephemeral verse. In public libraries, poetry texts are frequently requested by the elderly, who are trying to remember a poem learned in the single-digit years. Then there are many who want the 'correct' text of a half-remembered poem they may have seen on a greeting card or wall plaque. If they could remember the first three words of the title or first line correctly, then the APF could sometimes help them."

I can't speak for the readers of "Poetry & Popular Culture," Bruce, but I will go to sleep happier tonight for knowing the APF exists. And I will hope that some affluent reader of this blog comes up with a cool fortune to help the library digitize & make searchable this amazing resource.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Burma-Shave Politics

Many thanks to Angela Sorby, Associate Professor of English at Marquette University and author of Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917, for alerting "Poetry & Popular Culture" to a recent tidbit at the Onion. In "McCain Blasts Obama As Out Of Touch In Burma-Shave-Style Billboard Campaign," the Onion depicts this year's Republican presidential candidate as being out of touch via an old-style advertising medium: the serial billboard poem made famous by the Burma-Vita Company's "Burma-Shave" campaign which dotted American highways from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Loved by Americans ranging from my mother-in-law to Gertrude Stein (who, in Everybody's Autobiography wrote "I wish I could remember more of them, they were all lively and pleasing.... I wish I could remember them I liked them so much”), the Burma-Shave signs have been called part of "the national vocabulary" and have been installed in the Smithsonian Institution as relics of our 20th Century past. At the height of the Burma-Shave campaign, over 7,000 sets of signs using 600 individual poems were maintained in 44 states and were seen by untold numbers of drivers. It’s possible that through the 1920s, the Depression, World War II, and the 1950s, Burma-Shave’s poems were the most public, widely read verse in America.

What the Onion doesn't suggest—in cartooning McCain as outta date—is how the model Burma-Vita pioneered is, in fact, still used as part of political campaigns today. Drive through central Illinois, and you'll see signs made by locals lambasting gun-control advocates or promoting soy bio-diesel as an alternative fuel. Four years ago, in my own town of Iowa City, several neighbors along Muscatine Avenue pitched in to post poetic signs in their yards supporting the presidential campaign of Howard Dean. Those signs read:

Feeling Bushed?
Lost your grin?
Cheer up folks:
The Doctor's In.
Caucus for Howard Dean.

And in 1996—so Bill Vossler reports in his history of the advertising campaign Burma-Shave: The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times—rhymster Republicans in Washington, D.C., experimented with serial anti-Clinton billboards to pitch that year's ticket:

If you’re tired of a White House
That’s always smokin’ hemp
Vote for our future
Vote Dole-Kemp!

This was not the first time that Bob Dole associated himself with Burma-Shave verse. For the 1990 reissue of Frank Rowsome Jr.'s book The Verse By the Side of the Road: The Story of the Burma-Shave Signs and Jingles (first published in 1965), Dole was asked to write a Foreword that concluded with his own original five-line ditty:

In politics
It's always safer
Not to make waves
It's not my style
I've had some close shaves

Not the best imitation of Burma-Shave poetry, to be sure. But what's worth noting—and what bodes well (or bards well?) for Barack Obama in 2008—is that, despite the billboard poets having their backs, neither Dean nor the Dole/Kemp ticket were successful in their presidential bids. That's not to say that "Poetry & Popular Culture," uh, bristles at the thought of Obama using poetry in his campaign. Just that he shouldn't at this point get cheeky.