"Poetry & Popular Culture" has just returned from a week in San Francisco, part of which was spent attending the 2008 convention of the Modern Language Association—the largest gathering of teachers and scholars in the humanities. There was admittedly some material of interest (a panel on Byron as popular culture, for example) but, as usual, we found ourselves wanting more scholarship addressing the intersections of our two favorite topics: poetry and popular culture. The fires of this perpetual craving were further stoked, however, by the city of San Francisco itself—the birthplace of Robert Frost, by the way—where we were assaulted by poetries of all sorts and on nearly all fronts.
The onetime haunting ground of Bret Harte gave us, of course, the San Francisco Renaissance and City Lights Bookstore—the first American publisher of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and center of the subsequent 1957 obscenity trial. If one looks hard enough in North Beach, one can even find Lawrence Ferlinghetti Way; poetry has become part of the city's literal map as well as its literary one. San Francisco State University is home to The Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, an amazing storehouse of audio recordings of poets reading their work. And the Mission District includes 826 Valencia, a rockin' pirate-supply store and after-school literacy tutoring center which offers—so a flier I picked up explains—a "Poetry Class for Teens." Open to 18 students, the class will be taught this March by Meghan Adler and Emilie Coulson. It carries the following description:
"Do you find yourself comparing the rain to a harmonica, your heart to your breakfast or some other unlikely noun? Do you scribble song lyrics in your science notebook? WARNING: you may be a poet. Join us to learn about new forms, practice old ones, and carve out a little time for poetry. Share your favorite poets and test-drive their best techniques. Bring those words you've been hiding in a diary out into the open! We will create our own literary journal/chapbook and have a poetry reading (berets are optional)."
If poetry is in San Francisco's history and bookstores and literacy programs, not to mention on its audiotapes and maps, it's also embedded in its sidewalks. The language around many storm drains not only reminds city dwellers to (re)consider what they toss into the sewers but does so in rhyme: "Only Rain / Down the Drain."
At risk of sounding too much like a homebody, "Poetry & Popular Culture" found itself overwhelmed by poetry within the hotel room as well. We flipped on the tv to watch Adrienne Shelly's 2007 film Waitress (starring Keri Russell) and encountered a character who composes spontaneous poetry in his wooing of one of the main character's best friends. We then flipped the channel to MTV, where the dating reality show Next is narrated in rhyme. We flipped the channel again—can you tell we don't have cable tv in the "Poetry & Popular Culture" office?—where Puffs Plus tissues were being pitched in rhyme; not to be outdone, a longer infomercial for Snuggies (the blanket with sleeves!) incorporated rhyme and was composed in a loose but indisputable four-beat iambic line.
In short, no matter where we went or where we looked in the city by the bay, poetry had not only gotten there first but was waiting for us. Which is exactly how we like it.