Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"This is a Year for Luck and Joy": New Year's Greetings from Poetry & Popular Culture

We here at the Poetry & Popular Culture Office like New Year celebrations a lot, in part because they make us remember the carrier's greeting or carrier's address—that rhyming summary of the year's events which 18th- and 19th-century newspaper printer's devils composed and handed out in search of some walking around money to take into the new year. If you don't know of this tradition, then you should check out the collection from the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays that Brown University has made available online. As you browse the 900 examples there, be sure to also take in the great introductory essays by Mary T. Russo and Leon Jackson, and consider for a moment how the year-end (Christmas) tip you leave for the people who deliver your newspaper or mail in fact has its roots in practices established more than two centuries ago.

The 1933 carrier's address presented here—an illustrated calendar that people could hang in their homes year-round (to the left)—is worth noting for a variety of reasons. (The month-by-month calendar is under the poem.) First, it suggests that the form, at least in name, extended further into the 20th century than most folks tend to think. The elaborate and sometimes epic accounts of the previous year's news-worthy events got shortened, greetings got more general, and the tip the delivery boy sought got rerouted through the circuits of commercial infrastructure. Greetings increasingly came from from the papers themselves, coming in the form of promotional materials that established the business/company name as the primary point of contact between producer and consumer (and not the names of specific printers' apprentices, once often included on the poems they authored and distributed but obscured here by the generic job title of "Your Carrier Boy").

In the process of this trans- formation, the wide- spread, compar- atively secular practice of sending New Year's greetings gradually got pulled into the orbit of the Christmas holidays, thus making the carriers' seasonal rhymes—and this is a second item of interest to note—part of the prehistory of the 20th-century Christmas card. (American Greetings was founded in 1906 and Hallmark in 1910; along with the automobile, the airplane, the x-ray, the machine gun and the safety razor, the commercially-produced greeting card is pretty much a modern invention.) We here at the P&PC Office see this publishing shift in fact being subtly acknowledged in the phrase "New cards are being dealt" in line five of the poem here.)

At the same time that the carrier's greeting was morphing in this direction, another ubiquitous and poetry-related print item, the farmer's almanac, began to change as well. As more and more people migrated to, or came within the easy reach of, urban centers, they still needed calendars but no longer needed the elaborate apparatus that almanacs usually offered—planting information, cycles of the moon, meteorological information, jokes, home remedies, bits and piece of useful information, etc. As this material dropped away, the poetry and calendar remained. Given the newly shortened form of the carrier's greeting and the simplified almanac—this is our third item of note—it was natural that the two would come together, at least for a time, to produce the sort of hybrid form that the Evening Star circulated. True, this specific greeting still retains its New Year's orientation, but there are others with Christmas-related messages (some of which were being delivered by postal workers who, in addition to delivery boys, were seeking seasonal tips). As the century went on, the two forms would eventually disentangle themselves from each other, leaving us with New Year calendars on one hand and rhyming Christmas cards on the other.

So as you go out and sing "Auld Lang Syne" by Robert Burns tonight, keep in mind the long tradition of American poetry that also ushered in the new year. As the recession carries on, it seems appropriate to look back to 1933 in welcoming 2010:

New cards are dealt, so let us play
Our hands for all they're worth, and say
"This is a year for luck and joy,
God bless us all—

Happy New Year from the the P&PC Office.