Friday, October 30, 2009

The Poetry of Extortion: The City Cab Co. of Hays, Kansas, & The 21 Club of Buffalo, NY

In his essay "Business and Poetry," Dana Gioia wonders why "[t]here have been many important American poets who supported themselves—either by necessity or choice—by working in business, but none of them has seen it as an experience fit to write about." T.S. Eliot didn't write about Lloyd's Bank of London. Wallace Stevens didn't write much about insurance. A.R. Ammons didn't write about being a salesman. James Dickey didn't write about working in advertising. Richard Hugo didn't write about working at Boeing, and Archibald MacLeish didn't write about his time as editor of Fortune. Gioia goes looking for office cubicles, interest rates, and quarterly profits, and when he doesn't find them, he concludes that "Business does not exist in the world of poetry."

Poetry & Popular takes umbrage with this notion, since a huge number of writers—ranging from Walt Whitman to Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Tillie Olsen, Muriel Rukeyser, Philip Levine and Robert Pinsky—have, in fact, written about business and money in America. Much of this poetry belongs to an American protest tradition that explores the lives of workers and trades, class inequalities, the exploitation of workers by business, and the business-based divides between rich and poor. We have ground that specific axe elsewhere and long ago, however. Here, we want to claim that a whole other realm of American poetry is also concerned with the business of making, getting, and spending money. Money—one of what Gioia calls the central "concerns of the average man"—is central to the world of popular poetry.

Money is so central to popular poetry—think of the enormous amounts of poetry that have been written for, or incorporated into, advertisements, for example—that it's impossible to cover all of its various manifestations and permutations in this one little posting. (If you're interested or can't get enough of advertising poetry, though, check out our previous postings focusing on Levi's, corsets, Blatz beer, Chocolove, Ex-Lax, and thread.) So here, for a moment, as Halloween approaches, we want to dwell on the poetry of extortion—the poetry of blackmail.

Consider the poem printed at the top of this posting, which appears on the back of a business card for the City Cab Company of that great metropolis, Hays, Kansas. Poems were commonly printed on business cards (see, for example, the business cards of Dr. C.B. Weagley, Veterinary Surgeon, or C.G. Blatt's Photographic Emporium), but this one is extra special for the threat it humorously levels against the passenger/client:

The taxicab driver sits in his car
And waits for calls from near and far;
He knows all the crooks and he knows all the rooks;
He knows all the bad roads; he knows all the nooks;
He knows our sorrows; he knows our joys;
He knows all the girls who are chasing the boys;
He knows all our troubles; he knows all our strife;
He knows every man who ducks from his wife;
If the taxicab driver told half that he knows,
He would turn all our friends into foes;
He would sow a small breeze that would soon be a gale;
Engulf us in trouble—land us in jail;
He would start forth a story, which gaining in force;
Would cause half our wives to sue for divorce;
He'd get all our homes mixed up in a fight;
And turn our bright days into sorrowing nights
In fact, he could keep the whole town in a stew,
If he told half of the things he knew.
So here we are—just pay us our fees,
We won't know a thing but our ABC's.

For Poetry & Popular Culture, this semi- colon-happy poem is not just a facetious reminder to pay up—an excessively verbose argument about the value of silence. It's also a poem in the tradition of wassailing and other extortionary lyrics that Leon Jackson illuminates in his great essay, "We Wont' Leave Until We Get Some: Reading the Newsboy's New Year's Address." For Jackson, poems like the carriers' addresses of 18th and 19th century America were not dominated in their distribution "by a single, market-based economy" but "were disseminated through a number of different economies—charity, patronage, gift-exchange, credit network, competitive writing, and so on," some of which carried threats of retribution or violence that challenged the way that money typically organized class relations. One of the examples he offers is the tradition of wassailing where "a group of poorer men would 'invade' a home at Christmas time, sing songs or perhaps perform a brief play, and then demand money or food. The wassailers would refuse to leave until they had been recompensed, and if they were forcibly ejected they would undertake a campaign of sabotage and destruction that often lasted for months at a time." Every act of wassailing thus contained an implicit threat: pay up, or face occupation.

The rhetoric of the City Cab Co. business card works in a similar way, revealing the cabbie to have a monopoly on a town's dirty laundry and blackmailing the customer into forking over some dough. When read in this context (and in a tradition of extortionary verse rooted in carriers' addresses, handbills circulated by people with disabilities, and the like), the second image above—a poem on the inside of a matchbook for the 21 Club, "The Finest Club in Buffalo"—reveals itself to be working in much the same way. Here, "The Bartender Knows" rehearses much of the same material as "The Taxicab Driver" and, at times, is a word-for-word repetition of the City Cab Company's business card, sans the excessive punctuation. This repetition is, btw, way intriguing for the P&PC office; we sometimes lie awake at night wondering about the original "source" poem from which these verses were cribbed.

The most significant difference between the two versions, however, is the fact that "The Bartender Knows" makes the threat of exposure implicit. So tight-lipped is the well-paid bartender, in fact—or so the logic of the poem goes—that even the activity of his blackmail goes unstated. Modern readers may read the poem's conclusion

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

as a gesture of friendship, solidarity, or male bonding, but contemporary verses such as "The Taxicab Driver" help us see that that is not the case at all. Don't be fooled. Friendship, solidarity, and male bonding are secondary developments of what is, first and foremost, an economic relationship grounded in an information economy where extortion—not your pint of Guinness—is the order of the day.

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