Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year from P&PC

Here at the P&PC Office, there's a New Year's Eve party in the works. The streamers are up. The kazoos are out. Pointy hats are stacked and at the ready. The bubby's chillin' on ice. Sally the stenographer has got her dancing shoes on and is flirting with Carl the copy guy. And some of the interns have been passing around this goodie from 1939: a promotional calendar issued by the Household Finance Corporation and featuring a year's-worth of poetry by the guy once known as the "people's poet"—longtime bard of the Detroit Free Press, perhaps the most prolific poet of twentieth century America, and a P&PC hero, Edgar A. Guest. "Here," writes Guest on the front of an accompanying folding flier (pictured below), "is my 1939 calendar which you asked me to send you. Both Household Finance and I appreciate your request very much. I hope that you will find the calendar useful and that the poems will give you many pleasant moments in the days ahead. Best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year."

The calendar begins with "It Couldn't Be Done," one of Guest's most popular and lasting verses and a poem that Poetry Out Loud recommends to students as a potentially successful recitation piece today. (It's also a poem, btw, that makes an appearance in Chapter Two of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, where we speculate on the vagueness of that "it" in the title especially as it functions in an age of "no ideas but in things.") Here is the rest of the year's sequence:

February: "When Father Shook the Stove"
March: "Home"
April: "The Package of Seeds"
May: "Compensation"
June: "The Stick-Together Families"
July: "Out Fishin'"
August: "Ma and the Auto"
September: "It's September"
October: "Autumn"
November: "Courtesy on Departure"
December: "On Going Home for Christmas"

We here at P&PC find "Compen- sation" (which is about looking for a way to pay "my debt to God for life divine") a particularly fitting bridge between Guest and his sponsor, the Household Finance Corporation. After all, the "Doctor of Family Finances"—which was founded in 1878 and by 1939 had branches in 152 cities in the U.S. and Canada—uses the calendar to address the subject of paying back debts as well. "When you are troubled by money problems a visit to your local Household Finance man may prove very helpful," the verbiage at the end of the calendar reads. "He has had years of experience finding ways out of family money worries."

While a reader might not get to that reminder—after all, you've got to flip all the way through the year to find it buried behind December—he or she is not likely to overlook the "How I got a Loan of $200" testimonial (pictured here) printed inside of Guest's introductory wishes for a "prosperous" new year. Our favorite part of this ad? It's gotta be how the homonym for "a loan" ("alone") in the heading previews the thrust of the subheading below it—"without co-signers or endorsers" (i.e., alone)—not to mention how that message is reinforced by the single hero of the poem "It Couldn't Be Done" on the calender who, despite "thousands to prophesy failure," finds success by working alone.

While readers today are likely to find it a little nauseating, the partnership of Guest and Household Finance makes a lot of conceptual sense beyond this discursive synchronicity as well, as they're both more or less in the same line of work: Guest helps us with our metaphysical debts, and Household Finance with our monetary ones. And what better time to bring them together than at the beginning of the new year when, as the month-by-month flipping design of the calendar suggests, we make resolutions to turn over all sorts of new leaves—to pay down the balance on our credit cards, to more responsibly repay the kindnesses we've been shown, and to attend to the bottom lines of our lives in general?

But that's enough cogitation for now—there's a party to prepare, and the interns have started doing the limbo in the other room. It's time, it seems, to welcome in 2013. On behalf of the entire P&PC Office, then, we hope that you find happiness, fulfillment, and the beginning of many new dreams in the coming year.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays from P&PC: The Grocer's Dream

Now that the P&PC Office has finally finished the last of its holiday shopping, barely managing to escape from the modern retail Hades of malls, long lines, and frantic customers, we thought it only fitting to give you the gift of this little advertising poem: a Christmas-Day dream featuring the Grinch of all Grinches—"a grocer, aged and grey" whose holiday fantasy is told in five eight-line stanzas on the back of a humbly produced, 3x5-inch trade card issued in the 1930s for Helwig & Leitch's "Majestic Sandwich Spread."

One in a long line of going-to-hell narratives from the early part of the century—not only did now-canonical poets like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Sterling Brown follow in the footsteps of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, but so did lots of popular poems (see the image here, for example), which had everyone from the Kaiser to FDR to Hitler going to (or getting kicked out of) the underworld—this poem takes place when an angel of God escorts the grocer to Heaven only to stop along the way for a view of Hades. And that view is the best Christmas present the grocer can get: "It's the hottest place in hell, / Where the ones who never paid you / In torment always dwell."

But instead of getting consigned to hell, or kicked out of hell, or managing to escape the Best Buy fires of Hades like P&PC did, the grocer chooses to stay. He grabs a chair and a fan, sits down, and starts to enjoy the show. The angel bids him go:

But [the grocer] was bound to sit and watch them
As they'd sizzle, singe and burn:
And as his eyes would rest on debtors
Whichever way they'd turn.
Said the angel: "Come on, grocer,
There's the pearly gates to see."
The grocer only muttered:
"This is Heaven enough for me."

It's kind of funny that Helwig & Leitch—a former patent medicine maker that filed federal trademark registration for Majestic on July 25, 1929, just weeks before the stock-market crash—would throw its middleman under the bus like this. According to records, though, Helwig & Leitch described its category of specialty as including the following: food-flavoring extracts, worchestershire sauce, horseradish, spices, vinegar, prepared mustard, mustard and horse-radish, fruit preserves, jellies, peanut butter, cherries in jars, olives, pickles, tomato catsup, mayonnaise dressing, barbecue relish of vegetables, sweet pimiento relish of vegetables, and sandwich spread of oil, eggs, vegetables, salt. In other words, it sounds like they'd mix, boil down, beat to a spreadable pulp, can, and preserve just about anything they could get their hands on—including the neighborhood grocer. Come to think of it, that's just about how P&PC feels after being processed by the mall this week. Here's to hoping that you've fared better than we have. Our best wishes for a happy, restorative holiday.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Jingle All the Way: Saint Nick and the Poetry of Santa's Ring Toss

Nothing dogs the Christmas season at P&PC so much as the clash between the holiday’s com- mercial and non- com- mercial aspects—between shopping and spirit, getting and giving, worldliness and wonderment, materialism and, well, something more. This clash dogs the season’s poetry, too, as the oftentimes utopian (or at least not uniformly materialist) sentiments voiced by the season’s popular verse forms get standardized, mass produced, boxed, wrapped, shipped, and sold in and on any number of greeting cards, ornaments, advent calendars, and novelty items like the funky oversized matchbook from Hallmark pictured here. For every excuse that the season offers to poetically express feelings one might view as suspect or inappropriate the rest of the year—you know, faith in ideals like love, peace, family, compassion, giving, forgiveness, and the pursuit of something other than the cynical status quo—there’s some Grinch waiting to package, market, and profit from it all. 

But because we all know that the com- mercial and non- com- mercial aspects of the holidays aren’t inevitably partnered with each other—that’s not the way is has to be, right?—the marketplace has to continually entangle and re-entangle them, making the contradictions between them seem natural (even at times, like, totally fun), or else so interweaving them that it becomes nigh impossible, as Frank Sinatra sang of love and marriage, to imagine one without the other: “Just try, try, try to separate them.” 

It’s easy, perhaps, to see this logic at work in the big picture (“Welcome to the Spirit of Christmas Online Store!”), but it’s remarkable how much it sometimes governs—to quote Robert Frost, who for nearly thirty years partnered with printer Joseph Blumenthal to make Christmas cards for friends and associates—in a thing so small as the little artifact pictured here: a Santa “ring toss” game issued as a holiday giveaway by Coca-Cola in the 1950s that contains the following poem on its handle: 
I am a Jolly old 
     “SAINT NICK”— 
So, if you want a Kick, 
Be the first to make 
     A “Hit – Smash” 
By swinging the Ring 
That’s on the String 
on Santa’s Mustache 
If you look closely, you’ll see that even though the verse is printed pretty clearly in red ink (it looks over-inked, in fact), some of that ink (especially in lines three and four) has been worn away, because, in order to play the game, one has to hold the handle in such a way that one’s thumb braces the toy just beneath Santa’s beard and thus covers up and, over time, starts rubbing out the poem. This little shell game—where one reads the poem one moment, then covers it up the next—illustrates in miniature how the ring toss operates more generally: look at it one way, and it’s a noncommercial, greeting-card-like wish for a happy holiday (“Seasons’ Greetings from your local Coca-Cola Bottler”); look at it another, and it’s an advertisement. One minute, the scripted logo “Coca-Cola” seems like the signature we expect on a holiday card from a friend, and the next it’s a standard-issue corporate logo. The details signify doubly, as the toy appeals to noncommercial expressive forms of the season to forward its otherwise commercial goal.

In fact, the whole idea of a ring toss itself seems designed to give us practice combining things that we normally wouldn’t think of combining, doesn’t it? In a sense, by doing what the poem tells us to do—“By Swinging the Ring / on Santa’s mustache”—we get to play around in a nonthreatening way with joining things that usually wouldn’t go together (a wreath on Santa’s mustache? C’mon), thereby experiencing the entanglement of the holiday’s commercial and noncommercial aspects as a game, not as the work of ideology. This is why P&PC thinks the ring toss instructions have to be in rhyme: pairing words based on what are really arbitrary acoustic similarities between them is a linguistic variation of the game as a whole: bringing “Ring” and “String” together in a playful, low-stakes way is another version of landing the wreath on Santa’s mustache. Both let the user simulate and view as natural the larger ideological project of entangling the commercial and noncommercial aspects of the holiday season. 

Not quite, uh, buying this yet? We could cite other aspects of the ring toss that combine seeming opposites in a similar manner. Note, for example, the sexual game of landing the (female) ring on Santa’s (phallic) mustache; or the toy’s contrasting images of floppiness (Santa’s hat) and rigidity (the tongue-depressor handle design); or even the invitation to get a “Kick” via one’s hands, not via one's feet, as line three suggests. But the most amazing pairing of disparities might be there in the poem’s use of the name “Saint Nick.” As we all know, “Nick” or “Old Nick” is actually a Christian nickname for the Devil dating back to the 1600s (possibly a shortened version of the word “iniquity,” and possibly informing the use of “nick” as British slang for stealing). In combining “Saint” and “Nick,” then, the larger Christmas tradition of which the ring toss is part has entangled the forces of good and evil that the toy puts in our hands and that the poem tells us in all capital letters is not Santa Claus or Kris Kringle, but—keeping with the overall logic of making contradictions seem, well, not contradictions at all—is SAINT NICK. (Is it possible, too, that "up to scratch" on the ninth match in the first picture above also conjures up the devil, long referred to as "Old Scratch" as well as "Old Nick"?) From the toy’s design that lets us physically practice reconciling the season’s contradictions, to the rhyme that invites and instructs us how to do so, all the way down to the oxymoronic name of its patron devil-saint, Coca-Cola’s ring toss so intertwines opposing forces in the service of partnering the commercial and the noncommercial that try, try, try as we might to separate them, it seems nigh impossible to do so. 

And yet, despite this conundrum, there’s a flaw or contradiction in Coca-Cola’s ring-toss—just as there is in every product of ideology— and that’s in the playing of the game itself. The P&PC interns have been passing it around the office for several days now, but do you know how often they’ve actually managed to get that wreath on Santa’s mustache and thus successfully resolve the clash between the holiday’s commercial and noncommercial aspects as Coca-Cola hopes? You got it—hardly ever. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Say What? A Poetry Glut?

Earlier this week, the Boston Review published "Glut Reactions: The Demographics of American Poetry," a piece that the Poetry Foundation has since called a "(wonderfully) long conversation" between P&PC and University of Georgia English professor Jed Rasula. Responding in a roundabout way to Marjorie Perloff's essay "Poetry on the Brink," which argued earlier this year that "the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety," Rasula and P&PC bat around some ways to better understand and assess what folks have called the apparently sudden "glut" of poetry, why they've responded as they have, and what new or different perspectives might be brought to bear on the subject.

How can one argue, in a world where there are way too many poems out there for any one person to read, that all of those poems are inevitably marked by moderation and safety? Why would lots of poems be a problem, and for whom? What happens to Official Verse Culture, the avant-garde, and other institutions of poetry when all of a sudden we start seeing poetry as P&PC tends to do—as a form that's been proliferating, not vanishing, over the course of the long twentieth century in so many ways and media, in the hands of millions of readers, and oftentimes in apparent cooperation with the expanding consumer economy, that it's impossible to fully track in terms of insides and outsides? Who is reading and writing and writing all of this poetry, why, and in what ways? Heck, what does "poetry" even mean in such a world?

If these questions intrigue you, find yourself an hour or so out of your busy day and head on over to BR to check out "Glut Reactions." Then go write or read another poem.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Everyday Reading Outtakes: The Bealor Family Poetry Scrapbook

On Wednesday of this week, P&PC was thrilled to learn that Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America has been nominated for a 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, and we would have celebrated by sending the office interns home early, except that they had already gone home early for Thanksgiving festivities with family and friends. Alone in the office, a single light bulb glowing from its chain in the middle of the room, the rain of the Oregon winter coming down on the dark streets, and a turkey awaiting our ministrations at home, we turned, as we not infrequently do in times of meditation, to one of the 175 or so old poetry scrapbooks that form the archive we consider in Chapter One of Everyday Reading, that are representative of a widespread American practice of cutting and pasting poems between the Civil War and World War II, and that we've written about from time to time on this blog (here, here, here, here, here, and here).

It's one of our regrets that Everyday Reading didn't give us enough space to focus on every one of our favorite poetry scrapbooks, because many of them are really provocative and moving. Take, for example, an album started by Minnie R. Shaw Bealor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on November 29, 1926—almost exactly eighty-six years ago. Between 1926 and 1938, Minnie would collect over seventy poems in her anthology, most of them cut out from newspapers but a few written longhand. A high concentration of poems from Edgar Guest's syndicated "Just Folks" newspaper column suggests that Minnie was a particular fan of the "people's poet"; she even pasted a picture of Guest on the album's inside front cover (pictured here). But we find others as well, like "In Flanders Fields" and "From an Oldtime Flapper" (see the next picture below) that also anchor Minnie in the modern world of World War I, the nineteenth amendment, the Roaring 20s, and the era of the New Woman. Here's "From an Oldtime Flapper" (a sonnet written in couplets by someone identified only as "Diana"):
I was a flapper in nineteen-two,
Big Pompadour and a big hat, too;
Habit-back skirts were then in date
And suited alluring out-curves great.
We smoked cigarets [sic] on the strict Q. T.,
And a cocktail or two never worried me!
Now I am a cheery blithe old dame,
While the habits of youth are just the same—
They devil their elders and kick their heels.
Old Fate smiles on as their doom she seals
With a ring and a book and a bridal veil,
A Harlem flat and an infant's wail—
Jazz along, girls, here's luck to you
From an old-time flapper of nineteen-two!
Was Minnie herself meditating on the "doom" of marriage, motherhood, and domestic life that Diana sees linking successive generations of women: "Old Fate smiles on as their doom she seals / With a ring and a book and a bridal veil / A Harlem flat and an infant's wail"? We think it's very likely. The first poem Minnie pastes in the album, for example, is "Our Mother" by children's author and poet Josephine Pollard, which concludes:
Better for us to be faithful and kind
To mother dear, while she is living;
Better for us when we bear in mind,
Kisses and sympathy giving,
Than after her presence is missed from the home,
And she's gone from this world to another,
To weep and lament, and with anguish repent
Of the way we neglected our mother.
Minnie uses several Guest poems—"The Good Wife," "My Wife and I," "Ma and I," "Picking Up After Him," "Ma and the Auto," "She Mothered Five," and "Babies"—to extend her theme, offering evidence not only of how scrapbooking provided readers with a way to meditate in an extended way on a topic, but also how important Guest might be to studies of women's poetry and twentieth-century women readers as well.

What's so moving about this scrapbook is not just Minnie's reflection, but that it witnesses to her death as well. About halfway through the album, Minnie has dated (Oct. 29, 1936), handwritten, and signed a poem of her own (pictured here)—the only time she includes her own verse. Here it is:
Where are all the thoughts we think and then forget?
They surely cannot melt away and never leave a trace.
Perhaps I'll find in later years they're close around me yet—
At least I'll find their history is written in my face.
Minnie's final words—which we can't help but read as an epitaph retooling Keats's famous line, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water"—are followed by a blank page and then a full-page notation (pictured here) handwritten and signed a year and a half later by Minnie's daughter, Margaret Jane Bealor: "This Scrap Book continued in Loving Memory of my Mother, Minnie Rebecca Shaw Bealor, This Twenty-fourth day of March, in The Year of Our Lord, Nineteen Hundred and Thirty Eight."

Margaret would go on to include 35 pieces of her own selection—poems and passages about grief and existential need such as "Consolation," "What Is Life About?," Kipling's "If We Only Understood" "The Lonely Road," "Is Life Worth Living?," "Fear," "Resolve," and "Courage." Was Margaret continuing her mother's album as a way of working through the anguish that Pollard identifies at the end of "Our Mother" quoted above—as an act of repentance? Had Margaret discovered, upon her mother's death, Minnie's private, twelve-year wrestle with the subject of motherhood and married life? Had she recognized the "doom" that they shared but likely never talked about—and was she now processing it in private, via the scrapbook, just as her mother had done? Was Margaret possibly thinking of her own daughter, or her future daughter, and how—as in "From an Oldtime Flapper"—she would live to see women's doom repeat itself at midcentury?

The silence—of the individual reader, but also the silence between mother and daughter—that themes the two parts of this album is moving, but it's not as moving as the horrible silence that ends it. Margaret's additions to the scrapbook end, like her mother's section, with a handwritten, epitaph-like passage beginning, "One reason our Lord gives for not worrying about the future is that we have nothing to do with it." Then, repeating the transitional motif she established halfway through the album upon the occasion of her mother's death, Margaret skips a page and writes:
September 3, 1939
     War in Europe Begins
December 7, 1941
     Japan attacked Pearl Harbor
December 8, 1941
     We entered the war against Japan, Germany + Italy.
May 7, 1945
     The War in Europe ended.
August 6, 1945
     The first Atomic Bomb was dropped by the U.S. in Japan
August 14, 1945
     The War ended.
The rest of the scrapbook—sixty pages—is entirely blank. P&PC flips page after page looking for something—some word, some gesture, some voice, some recovery from the war, some continuation of any type, but it's like there's nothing to say or do after the dropping of the atom bomb, no possible answer any longer to the question "Is Life Worth Living?" that the earlier poem of that title posed. It's a nuclear holocaust as figured by the scrapbook, a test pattern that is nothing but white on white. Margaret probably wouldn't have known who Theodor Adorno was, but it's her version of Adorno's famous statement, "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."

Friday, November 9, 2012

From the P&PC Vault: Remembrance Day & the Case of the $400,000,000 Poem

We here at the P&PC Home Office like to call it the four hundred million dollar poem—and not just because its first stanza appears on the back of the Canadian $10 bank note, a fact that, all by itself, may very well make "In Flanders Fields" the most reprinted and most widely circulated poem, like, ever. No, we call John McCRae's World War I-era verse the four hundred million dollar poem because, shortly after it appeared in the December 8, 1915 issue of Punch magazine, the Canadian government made it the central piece of its p.r. campaign advertising the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds, printing it, or excerpts from it, on billboards and posters like the one pictured above. According to Canadian Veterans Affairs, the campaign was designed to raise $150,000,000 but ended up netting—wait for it—over $400,000,000.

Whoever said that "poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper" clearly wasn't thinking of McCrae's rondeau, which is the centerpiece of Remembrance or Veterans Day (November 11) activities worldwide and turned the red or "Buddy" poppy into the day's icon, manufacture and sale of which has been a regular source of funding for disabled and needy VFW veterans, as well as for the support of war orphans and surviving spouses of veterans in the U.S., since 1923. It is memorized by schoolkids, recited at Remembrance Day events, has elicited all sorts of reply poems and been put to music, and resulted in the restoration of McCrae's birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, as a museum. (That's McCrae pictured above.) Heck, in Ypres, Belgium, there's a museum devoted just to the poem itself! Take that, Joyce Kilmer!

By most accounts, McCrae composed "In Flanders Fields" in 1915, the day after witnessing the death of his 22 year-old friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, though legend has it that McCrae ripped it out of his notebook and cast it aside amongst the blood-red poppies on the battlefield where it was rescued by an onlooker and sent to Punch, which printed it anonymously:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly.
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

By 1917, the Canadian government paired "In Flanders Fields" with the painting of a soldier standing in the poppy fields by British-born Canadian artist Frank Lucien Nicolet and was raising its millions of dollars in Victory Loan Bonds.

In the most famous piece of literary-critical commentary on "In Flanders Fields," Paul Fussell (see The Great War and Modern Memory) doesn't have too many good things to say about the poem, claiming that the "rigorously regular meter" makes the poppies of the poem's first stanza "seem already fabricated of wire and paper." Nevertheless, he finds the verse "interesting" for the way in which it "manages to accumulate the maximum number of [emotion-triggering] motifs and images ... under the aegis of a mellow, if automatic, pastoralism." In the first nine lines alone, Fussell explains, you've got "the red flowers of pastoral elegy; the 'crosses' suggestive of calvaries and thus of sacrifice; the sky, especially noticeable from the confines of a trench; the larks bravely singing in apparent critique of man's folly; the binary opposition between the song of the larks and the noise of the guns; the special awareness of dawn and sunset at morning and evening stand-to's; the conception of soldiers as lovers; and the focus on the ironic antithesis between beds and the graves 'where now we lie.'" But Fussell saves his most damning critique—what he calls "[breaking] this butterfly upon the wheel"—for the poem's final lines which devolve into what he calls "recruiting-poster rhetoric apparently applicable to any war." "We finally see—and with a shock—" he writes, "what the last lines really are: they are a propaganda argument—words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far—against a negotiated peace." (For another examination of the poem in relation to McCrae's Canadian national identity and the rondeau form, see Amanda French's paper "Poetic Propaganda and the Provincial Patriotism of 'In Flanders Fields'" first presented at the 2005 SCMLA conference.)

But Fussell's right, isn't he? As the slogan "If ye break faith—we shall not sleep" in the "Buy Victory Bonds" ad pictured at the top of this posting indicates, McCrae's poem was in fact pitch-perfect "recruiting-poster rhetoric," wasn't it? Well, almost. P&PC would submit that it's worth noting how the Canadian government didn't exactly quote "In Flanders Fields" word for word. Instead, it excised the four words ("with us who die") that separate "If ye break faith" from "we shall not sleep" in the original poem—an act that works to repress the war's human costs and thus redirect the expression of faith to its financial ones. That is, in staging itself as an act of remembrance, the Canadian advertisement actually erases the subject of the McCrae's memorial ("us who die"). In this bowdlerized version of the poem—and we use the term bowdlerize on purpose, meaning "to remove those parts of a text considered offensive, vulgar, or otherwise unseemly"—the poster sanitizes the war by silencing the voices of its dead, depicting war as a financial and not human struggle and thus making the "propaganda argument ... against a negotiated peace" that Fussell describes.

But the repressed has a way of returning, just like the dead do. Consider, for example, the awesome item (pictured here) that P&PC got its hands on recently—a used ink blotter with Canada's "Buy Victory Bonds" ad featured on front. On the reverse, the ink stains grimly read like blood stains. And on the front (where the pun asks us to also read it as the battle line of war), the artifact's owner Vivian Hogarth signed her name in the upper right corner and corrected Canada's version of the poem, restoring the phrase "with us who die" and thus—in an act of what we might think of as zombie poetics—effectively writing the dead back into existence. Thank you, Vivian Hogarth. That's the type of memorial we're keeping in mind this Remembrance Day.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Spectacle of Everyday Reading (and Coupon Codes) at the Modernist Studies Association

From October 18-21, P&PC participated in the Modernist Studies Association's annual conference, this year held at the airport-like Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and appropriately structured around the theme of "Modernism & Spectacle." Surrounded by everything we love, hate, love to hate, and hate to love about the Entertainment Capital of the World, P&PC presented on one panel ("Beyond Modernist Periodization"), chaired another panel ("Spectacular Language and Projected Verse"), hobnobbed with new and old friends and colleagues, and even got a chance to visit the center of Vegas home-brew activity, Aces & Ales. As you might assume from our lack of posting activity over the past two weeks, we've been trying to recover ever since. No, we didn't get a Mike Tyson tattoo on our face, nor did we meet up with Zach Galifianakis, nor did much happen that had to stay in Vegas. But the city's crush of bikini-clad dancers, artificial light and smell, slot machine chimes, overpriced everything, and lots of sloshed, overweight people staggering by on the sidewalks wearing balloon hats and fake grass skirts put us in a bit of a funk from which we're just beginning to emerge.

By far, for us, the most memorable part of this year's MSA was the first release of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, which Columbia University Press featured at its book table, which will hit warehouses in a week or two, and which P&PC got to hold for the very first time. It's beautiful—and it sold! Indeed, perhaps due to some shameless promotion on the part of this blog and its associates, it was Columbia's best-selling conference title; when we left for the airport, only one copy remained on the book table, and we've got our fingers crossed that that one went as well. Maybe Everyday Reading wasn't dressed up in a balloon hat or a fake grass skirt—can you imagine the gents on the book cover at Treasure Island or the Luxor?—but it found its own little place in the desert that we won't soon forget.

We're hoping that Everyday Reading might find a place with you, too. It found a happy home with SUNY Buffalo graduate student Margaret Konkol (pictured here), who got a copy and a personalized inscription for a consumer-friendly conference discount. And even if you weren't at MSA, P&PC has made sure that you can get a hefty discount if you order right from Columbia University Press as well. That's right: if you use the coupon code EVECHA, Columbia will—as a courtesy to P&PC readers and friends—give you a 30%-off discount. That brings the cost of Everyday Reading to under $20, or to just about the cost of printing four boarding passes ($5 each) at the Flamingo Hotel. We're not going to say that the opportunity to get out of Vegas isn't worth it—we were more than ready to go. But what's going to stick with you longer: the breakfast buffet at the Westin ($22.96), six coffees from Java Detour ($3.23 each), two rolls of quarters and an hour sitting at the slots, or the 302 pages of Everyday Reading? Hold on for a moment—is P&PC making a spectacle of itself? I guess maybe we learned something from Vegas after all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Once More Into the Fray: The Remediation of Poetry in Liam Neeson's The Grey

Anyone notice that—like G.I. Jane (1997) and The Expendables (2010)—the 2011 Liam Neeson flick The Grey ends with a poem? Yup: it's a four line verse titled "The Fray" that main character Ottway (played by Neeson, a trained hunter hired to protect oil workers from wolves in Alaska) remembers hanging in a frame over the desk in his father's den and that runs through his head (and in flashback on the screen) as he prepares to make a last stand against a wolf pack that has been pursuing him and systematically offing the other survivors of a plane crash in Alaska. (Check out the movie's last scene in the first video clip at the end of this posting; for some reason, btw, the scene has been transposed on the youtube clip so that the poem appears as a mirror image of the original and reads backwards [it reads forward in the original]; you'll get the idea nonetheless).

The Grey does G.I. Jane and The Expend- ables one better, though, as the poem (pictured here) doesn't just end the movie but provides the frame mechanism for the entire narrative itself (it's even quoted on the movie poster). Indeed, at the beginning of the film—during a heavy-handed montage that shows Ottway killing wolves, lying in bed with his wife whom we eventually learn has died, writing a final letter to her about how miserable his life has become, flashing back to what we eventually learn is his childhood, and making preparations to commit suicide—the poem's words run through his head as part of a voice-over, presumably a section of what he's writing in his final letter. At this point, though, we don't even know it's a poem. In fact, the clash of discursive registers between it and what he's thinking is a little confusing: "I want to see your face, feel your hands in mine, feel you against me. And I know that will never be. You left me. And I can’t get you back … I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t know what can come of it. I know I can’t get you back … I don’t know why this has happened to us. I feel like it’s me. Bad luck. Poison … And I’ve stopped doing this world any real good...," he writes. Ottway pauses, then adds the poem's first two lines, "Once more into the fray—into the last good fight I'll ever know." The camera shows Ottway putting a rifle muzzle into his mouth, and then we hear the poem's final lines, "Live and die on this day...  Live and die on this day..."

What we don't know at the beginning of the movie— that he's remem- bering a poem, that his father wrote it, that it hung above his father's desk in the den—gets cleared up partway through the film, after the plane crash, after lots of competition for the Alpha position among the crash survivors, and after the men seek shelter in the woods. There, around a campfire, as the wolves surround them in the darkness, and as one of their group is hallucinating in the process of dying from hypoxia, the men start sharing their stories—about sex, faith, family, and whatever source of inspiration keeps them fighting. Ottway, by this point established as the group's Alpha, tells part of his story and, in an extended scene, flashes back to his childhood. Here's what he says:
My dad, uh, my dad was not without love. But a clich├ęd Irish motherfucker when he wanted to be—drinker, brawler, all that stuff. Never shed a tear. Saw weakness everywhere. But he had this thing for poems—poetry. Readin' 'em, quotin' em. Probably thought it rounded him off. His way of apologizing, I guess. There was one that hung over his desk in the den. It was only when I was a lot older did I realize that he'd written it. It was untitled—four lines. I read it at his funeral: "Once more into the fray / Into the last good fight I'll ever know / Live and die on this day / Live and die on this day."
A clap of thunder sounds. Ottway concludes, "Storm clouds." And the men turn their attention back to the present.

So, by the last scene of the movie, then, we've heard the poem twice, and we've seen it—or at least the paper it's written on—several other times as Ottway has stored the letter in which it's written in his wallet and saved it from the plane's burning wreckage. Ottway is the only one left alive, and he's somehow managed to stumble into the wolves' den, metaphor that it is for all of his unresolved issues. Surrounded by bones, standing in the falling snow, and ringed by the wolf pack, he kneels down, makes a pile of all the wallets that he's been collecting from everyone who's died, and adds his own to the stack. He flashes back to the woman we saw him thinking about and writing to in the film's opening montage, and we realize now, for the first time, that she she didn't leave him but died, perhaps of cancer. Then he tapes a dagger to one hand, breaks a bunch of airplane liquor bottles against a rock so that they become weapons, and tapes them to his other hand. Thus armed for his final stand, he flashes back again to his dad's den where the poem hangs on the wall. (You get get it, don't you? Wolf den=dad's den?) He says, "Once more into the fray."

Then, as you can see for yourself in the backwards video clip below, the camera shows us the poem. But what's remarkable about this scene is that we don't see the typewritten poem clearly at first. Rather, in becoming a metaphor for his life, which has slowly come into focus over the course of the film, the poem is blurry at first and is brought into focus and made readable by the camera, letting the audience experience in miniature Ottway's journey toward clarity. With the poem newly readable, Ottway repeats it a final time:
Once more into the fray...
Into the last good fight I'll ever know...
Live and die on this day...
Live and die on this day...
When the camera takes us away from Ottway's father's den and back to the wolf den, we see Ottway still mouthing the words to the poem. We see him next as a boy sitting on his father's lap. We see the woods. We have a close-up on his eyes. We hear a growl that may come from him or from the wolves. Then Ottway leaps forward toward the viewer, and the camera goes black.

Back when we discussed G.I. Jane, P&PC argued that the last scene of that movie (in which the camera helped us to read and interpret an annotated print version of D.H. Lawrence's poem "Self Pity") positioned the film's director—and, by extension, the medium of film—as a type of literary critic better suited than the pencil, pen, or book to the interpretation of poetry in the age of new media. In the last scene of The Grey we see a similar thing happening all over again, as it's not the emotional content of the poem, per se, or the conclusions we as an audience come to about the significance of the poem via our own reading or someone else's annotations, but, rather, the film's treatment of the poem in its various forms that becomes the most important (or at least the most foregrounded) expressive and interpretive act, heavy handed in its metaphor though it may be.

It is, after all, the camera—a piece of technology whose multimodal capacities add to the emotion, interiority, and clarity of insight typically associated with poetry—that makes the verse readable, literally giving us a focus that we did not have previously. As the external manifestation of Ottway's internal state, the movie thus positions film (not the poem, letter, or typewritten document) as the most complete expression of the human psyche, able to bring together and synthesize Ottway's thinking (the memorized poem), speaking (the recited poem), writing (the letter to his wife), and typewriting (the version of the poem on the wall of Ottway's father's den) as no other medium can. That is, thanks to film, we can see the poem thought, spoken, written, and typewritten all at the same time.

You might be asking yourself, how can poetry compete with this tour-de-force and with all the resources that film has at its disposal? Well, we here at P&PC think that maybe that's the wrong question to be asking. As Henry Jenkins writes in his Introduction to Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, "[O]nce a medium establishes itself as satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within the larger system of communication options. Once recorded sound becomes a possibility, we have continued to develop new and improved means of recording and playing back sound. Printed words did not kill spoken words. Cinema did not kill theater. Television did not kill radio. Each old medium was forced to coexist with the emerging media....Old media are not being displaced. Rather, their functions and status are shifted by the introduction of new technologies" (14). In other words, maybe The Gray and films like it aren't in the process of disparaging or one-upping poetry (as we've previously argued) so much as they are grounding themselves and their own credibility in poetry and, in the process, opening new possibilities for experiencing poetry. Rather than experiencing the poem solely as a print artifact, for example, The Gray lets us experience it in many media simultaneously.

As a medium, poetry more than just survived the transition from oral culture to written culture (no one today would advocate for going back to a purely oral or spoken poetry). Then it more than just survived the transition from written culture to print culture (no one would advocate for abandoning printed books and going back to only handwritten poetry). Along its long history of remediation, poetry only got more and more complex and more and more aesthetically rich, retaining aspects of its previous media manifestations and mixing those with new ones. As obsessed with the past as Neeson's story in The Gray may be (Ottway's dead father, his dead lover, etc.), the film may nevertheless be pointing us to the future of poetry.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Reading #$%*&: Loren Glass Comments on the Poetics of Obscenity

Editor's Note: A few weeks back, P&PC came across the late nineteenth-century business card for Michigan hotelier Magnus Hallgren pictured here. While we admire his hipster 'stache—and while his attire makes us think of Robert Frost's "A Hundred Collars"—we haven't been able to find out much about Hallgren himself except that, in 1889 (according to Michigan Supreme Court records) he was appointed Street Commissioner of the City of Menominee, Michigan, after former commissioner William Campbell, who "graded and graveled a road on the town line" without city council permission, was "removed from office."

It's not Hallgren's style, occupation, or court appearance, but his taste in poetry, that got the attention of P&PC, however. Like Dr. C. B. Weagley Veterinary Surgeon, C.G. Blatt's Photographic Emporium, The Palace Saloon and Restaurant, and the City Cab Company of Hays, Kansas—Hallgren had a poem printed on the back of his business card (shown here). And what a poem it is! In five stanzas, "A Fair Bather" incorporates as many dirty words as it can, except that none of those words actually appear in print; instead, they're evoked by the poem's rhyme scheme, as in line two of the following example (stanza 3):

She would float on her side and for shells she would hunt,
And go through the motions of washing her
Clothes out so tidy and wringing them dry,
And hanging them out with a tired out sigh.

At its most clever, "A Fair Lady" makes sense both with and without the dirty words; in the passage above, for example, one can read from line 2 to line 3 ("washing her / clothes") and make sense, or one can mentally supply the dirty word and make another kind of sense.  Same goes for stanza 4:

She could dive like a frog and swim like a duck,
And showed by her actions that she knew how to
Frolic in water clear up to her chin,
Without being drowned as so many have been.

You can probably hear the entire P&PC Office snickering, right?

Still, despite all of our adolescent humor, we wanted to know more about how we might read "A Fair Bather," and so we turned to old friend, mentor, and University of Iowa English professor Loren Glass (pictured here). In addition to studying American literature and celebrity culture (see Authors, Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States [2004]), Glass is an expert on dirty words and the history of obscenity. He is co-editor of Obscenity and the Limits of Liberalism (Ohio State UP, 2011), and his new book, Counter-Culture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (forthcoming from Stanford UP, Spring 2013) traces the history of the anti-censorship publisher that printed—and was taken to court again and again for printing—such "obscene" books as Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer. (When you get a chance, check out Part I and Part II of the preview to Counter-Culture Colophon that Glass published in the Los Angeles Review of Books about a year ago.) In other words, if anyone could tell us about the poetics of obscenity in "A Fair Bather," Glass would be the one.

So, yes, we wrote to Glass. And here's what he had to say:

Dear P&PC,

In Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext, Garrett Stewart argues that "silent reading processes a text as the continuous inhibition of the oral" (2). Stewart has little to say about literary obscenity in this book—he is hunting for larger game—but the idioms in which he expresses the relationship between the phoneme (the smallest unit of spoken language) and grapheme (the smallest unit of written language) continuously evoke the process of censorship.

In addition to using "inhibition" in the passage I quote above, for example, Stewart specifies that "silent reading locates itself…in the conjoint cerebral activity and suppressed muscular activity of a simultaneously summoned and silenced enunciation" (1); he continues to explain that "inwardly, reading voices only as a concerted veto of sound. Where we read to ourselves is thus the place, always, of a displacement, a disenfranchisement of voice, a silencing" (2, italics mine). I couldn't help but think of Stewart's study when you sent me "A Fair Bather"—a poem that relies on the reader's unspoken knowledge of the sounds of the dirty words that are absent from the written rhyming couplets.

Indeed, reading "A Fair Bather" in terms of Stewart's provocative (and neglected) thesis reveals the logic, and the phenomenology, behind the most common methods of invoking forbidden speech in print. Conventionally, bad language is represented through the substitution either of a random series of typographic symbols (as in my title above) or in a series of dashes, occasionally preceded by the first letter of the suppressed word (hence f-bomb or c-word). This allows the reader to hear the word which has been suppressed from print, enabling both reader and writer to have it both ways: one submits to the censorship of print while evading it in (silent) speech. One hears what cannot be written.

But, of course, the reader must know these words in order to hear them, thus asymmetrically mapping this division between voice and print onto the distinction between childhood and adulthood. The mapping is asymmetric since the correlation is not between childhood and voice, on the one hand, and print and adulthood, on the other, though it is true that young children don't yet know how to read; rather, the distinction is between those old enough to have heard the concealed words and those too young to have become familiar with them. Thus a secondary acquisition of reading is added on to the primary one. This secondary acquisition is marked by a knowledge of the speech that is suppressed by the conventions used to represent bad language. Ultimately, then, this poem reveals that dirty words, unlike children, are heard but not seen.