Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Pausing on Christmas Eve

Back in the old days, when the senior members of the P&PC office staff were growing up in small-town Ohio, it was customary to give what we then called the mailman a Christmas gift—usually a little bit of walking around money left in the mailbox in the way of a tip to acknowledge how neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night had stayed him from the swift completion of his appointed rounds during the preceding year. This was undoubtedly an extension of, and eventually became a companion practice to, tipping the newspaper boy who, dating back to the 1700s, used New Year poems called carriers' addresses to remind readers in a more polite way than John Cusak's nemesis in Better Off Dead to, well, shell out some change. In whatever poetic style they took, such poems usually concluded with a reminder in one form or another of the social obligation to remember the poorest member of the newspaper staff. "[D]oubtless he is poor, and you / And I tonight can something do / To make his Christmas bright," concludes one long poem from 1897 about a newspaper staff sharing their life stories with each other on Christmas Eve and eventually emptying out their pockets for "the little lad" who "deserves it." (For a great archive of carriers' addresses and accompanying essays, btw, check out the online collection at Brown University's Center for Digital Scholarship.)

As the holiday card pictured here indicates, the tipping of postal carriers was also accom- panied by poetry, though it was not as directly purposed to reminding people to fork over some dough as carriers' addresses were. Here, on the left inside panel, the Reverend John Holland of WLS Radio—Holland led the Little Brown Church of the Air for twenty-two years beginning in 1933 and also published eight books including John Holland's Scrapbook of poems and other quotable morsels—is pictured reading at a microphone, the ostensible text of his broadcast printed above. And the right inside panel pictures a Christmas tree with a slit cut into it just wide enough to accommodate and anchor a folded bill (as pictured above) and maybe even a silver dollar. Here's the poem Holland is "reading":

The bells that chime at Christmas time
Bring gladness and good cheer;
Their joy was meant for sacrament
To last throughout the year.
To make the day a time for play,
And then, next day forget,
Is but to stage a sacrilege
And fill life with regret.

Only as love, sent from above,
Abides throughout our days,
Can we begin to enter in
To joy that always stays.
So let's extend the praise we send,
To God on Christmas night,
All through the year, to calm our fear,
And crown our heart's delight.

"Christmas all the Year" is a funky little poem—and not just because it starts with a line that appears to have been cribbed from an advertisement that appeared in the Roswell Daily Record on Christmas Eve in 1928 ("The bells that chime / At Christmas time / Wish you what's fine — / As in Auld Lang Syne"), or because the P&PC interns can't turn up any record of it via Google Books or a general Google search. No, we at P&PC think it's a funky little poem because of how it alternates between (on the one hand) very readable, easily-consumed, sing-songy passages without caesurae (pauses or stops in the middle of the line signaled in prosodic notation by a "//," as in the example shown above) and (on the other hand) passages in which caesurae are extremely prominent, not only interrupting the poem's established rhythm and drastically changing the syntactic style, but interrupting that rhythm almost gratuitously. Do we need the commas around "next day forget" in line six, for example? Not at all. Do we need them around "to calm our fear" in the penultimate line? Nope. Heck, we could even make an argument that the poem's other, more reasonably-used caesura (middle of line nine, the first line of stanza two) could be eliminated without hardly anyone noticing.

So—to use language appro- priate to the holiday and the purpose of the greeting card alike—what gives? Why all these apparently extraneous commas? Why all these unnecessary pauses? It is possible, we suppose, to argue that these are simply marks of poor writing that, intentionally or unintentionally, give "Christmas all the Year" a folksy, amateur quality entirely consistent with WLS Radio, which was known as "The Prairie Farmer Station." That is, just as President George W. Bush cultivated a down-home, aw-shucksness in his unique, uh, vernacular to purposely dim the sheen of his Yale education and thus blend in with the folk, so "Christmas all the Year" might be said to be professionally written greeting card verse in drag.

We think there's a more elegant explanation than that one, however. Almost the entire logic of the card—why not call it the card's poetics?—is geared toward the act of insertion: on the cover, the mailman is putting Christmas gifts into the mailbox; John Holland is broadcasting into your home where the Christmas tree is set up (can't you just imagine the radio in the corner?); and, of course, a dollar is supposed to go into the slot in the card. Given all of this, we'd propose that all of the gratuitous comma usage in "Christmas all the Year" also enacts this very logic at the level of language, where the commas give the appearance of phrases that have been "inserted" into the text as well. That is, via those commas, readers experience on a linguistic plane the very activity the card as a whole is designed to motivate. If at the same time one takes a moment to reflect—shall we say pause?—on the meaning of Christmas and how Christmas shouldn't, as the poem explains, be a one day break but should "last throughout the year," all the better. 

Indeed, the Rev. John Holland has bigger fish to fry than just the delivery of a buck to the mailman or a stack of Christmas gifts to loved ones, for all of this insertion ultimately tropes the spiritual conversion Holland is calling for—one in which, via "love, sent from above," we ourselves "enter in / To joy that always stays." It's no coincidence that that line is the only enjambed line of the entire stanza; when it comes to entering into God's love, neither Holland—outlined in white and glowing like the Christmas tree on the facing panel—nor "Christmas all the Year" is gonna go fooling around with gratuitously used commas and other pauses. Sermon complete. Now can we finally open up those gifts under the tree?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Singing the Body Electric: The Poetry of Reddy Kilowatt and Free Enterprise

When P&PC's office interns hear the term "political poetry," they typically think of poetry produced by the Left or for leftist causes, but there's a long and largely untold story of political poetry written and distributed to serve conservative political agendas as well. Take, for example, the flier pictured here, which features "The Story of Ten Little Free Workers" as an illustrated poem modeled on Septimus Winner's well-known 1868 song "Ten Little Injuns" and replacing Winner's Indian boys with a parade of workers (doctor, railroader, miner, steelworker, farmer, lawyer, grocer, salesclerk, and reporter) all led by Reddy Kilowatt—the longtime cartoon representative and corporate spokesman for private electricity in the U.S. (Reddy was first created by the Alabama Power Company in 1926.) Here, as the poem relates, Reddy is the first "free worker" to fall victim to American "socialists" seeking to expand the federal government's power (pun intended, right?). One by one and couplet by couplet, "Uncle" (as in Uncle Sam) takes over various private enterprises with the final stanza—seizing on the organizational rhetoric of "working together" across class lines that we might normally associate with leftist rhetoric—summing things up:

Ten little free workers—but they are no longer free.
They work when and where ordered, and at a fixed rate you see,
And it all could have been prevented if they'd only seen fit to agree
And work together instead of saying "it never can happen to me!"

We at the P&PC office appreciate how the flier takes advantage of the poem's stanza breaks for expressive purposes. At the beginning of the poem, as the little free workers march across and thus populate the stanza break, there is essentially no space between couplets, but as the government whittles away at workers' freedoms, the silence of those breaks becomes a more and more powerful representation of disappearing free enterprise. That growing silence or disappearing voice culminates in the final stanza where "the reporter son-of-a-gun" loses his voice or freedom of speech under a tyrannical system that has not only done away with free enterprise but that now won't allow him to "criticize the government" as well.

You'll see that the Otter Tail Power Company has "signed" the poem with a script-like font at the bottom of the flier, but despite the copyright note of 1961, the Minnesota-based company is probably not the author of "The Story of Ten Little Free Workers." The poem was in fact widely reprinted in newspapers across the country, oftentimes as an ad "signed" or endorsed by individual power companies like Paul Smith's Electric and Power Company of Au Sable Forks, New York, the Montana Power Company, the Potomac Light and Power Company of West Virginia, the Iowa Public Service Company, the Carolina Light and Power Company of North Carolina, the Montana-Dakota Utilities Company, Potomac Edison of Maryland, and the Kentucky Power Company. Most of these printings date to the first half of the 1960s, but the P&PC interns have found at least two ads—for the Montana Power Company and the Potomac Light and Power Company—that date to 1950. In other words, this was one heckuva widely distributed poem that, much to its distributors' chagrin, was (a la Ezra Pound) "news that stayed news."

"The Story of Ten Little Free Workers" wasn't Reddy Kilowatt's first or only appearance in poetry, however. As the comic panel pictured above illustrates, Reddy also talked in rhyme: "My name is Reddy Kilowatt! / You'd be surprised at all I've got / and all the things that I can do / if put to work by men like you!" It's as if, in singing his own body electric, Reddy's language generates more power via the dynamics of resistance and flow in poetic form. While we in the P&PC office can be many things to many people, we're not electricians, but we bet that an electrician could explain how the relationship between voltage, current, and resistance might map quite fittingly (syntax, line break, rhyme?) onto the poetics of Reddy's speech. Consider, if you will, the poem "Reddy Says," printed on the reverse side of a late 1950s or early 1960s package containing a glow-in-the-dark Reddy Kilowatt business card holder:

I'm a real live wire—
and I never tire,—
Yes Sir! I'm a
red hot shot.
I can cook your meals,—
turn the fact-ry wheels
'cause I'm
REDDY KILOWATT!

When you toast your toast—
or you roast your roast,—
it is I who makes 'em hot.
I'm in your TV set—
with ev-ry show you get,—
'cause I'm
REDDY KILOWATT!

I wash and dry your clothes,—
play your radios,—
I can heat your coffee pot.
I am always there—
with lots of pow'r to spare,—
'cause I'm
REDDY KILOWATT!

Were it not for the fact that he can "turn the fact-ry wheels," Reddy seems like the perfect little homemaker, doesn't he? He cooks, makes coffee, does the laundry, and makes sure that home appliances are up to snuff. But what intrigues us about "Reddy Says" more than its content is all the extra punctuation (the comma followed by a dash) at the line breaks as well as the elided letters in "pow'r," "ev-ry," and "fact-ry" that not only add a pleasing vernacular to Reddy's speech but also lend it a certain extra charge consistent with Reddy's self description as a "live wire." Are we crazy, or can we read Reddy's poetic lines as power lines as well? All those dashes certainly look like live wires to us.

From newspaper ad and flier, to business card holder and (see the image just above) souvenir stick-pin, Reddy's place in mid-century American life was brokered by poem after poem. To understand just how consistently this was the case, one only has to look at an April 18, 1947, bill for the Public Service Company of New Hampshire (pictured here) in which Reddy comes out of a wall socket to explain the "charge" for his services:

One full month I've labored
And this is all my pay
Divide this sum by thirty—
See how cheap I worked each day.

By portraying Reddy as a laborer, this rhyme in a sense returns us to the political agenda of "The Story of Ten Little Free Workers" presented earlier. Freed from the "fixed rate" imposed by the "socialist" government in "The Story of Ten Little Free Workers," Reddy demonstrates for Don Draper-types and their neighbors not just the benefits of private power companies and their cheap labor (Reddy makes about twenty cents per day) but also just how darn happy people can be when working for mere pennies a day. Of course, as we all know, converting the physical phenomenon of electricity into the jolly humanoid worker Reddy works to obscure all of the real people working at power plants and the subject of how much they actually get paid. For most of us, that tactic is not a surprise. What might be more, uh, shocking is the role that poetry played in the process.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

More Muppet Poetry: Two Poems by Rowlf

Forget the turkey, mashed potatoes, and football. We're on a Muppet kick here in the P&PC Office. Doesn't the first clip below—of Rowlf reading "Silence"—remind you of Season 4, Episode 7 of The Brady Bunch (1972) where Mike reads Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Day Is Done" as part of the Westdale High School's Family Night Frolics? And might that be Walt Whitman's famous cardboard butterfly coming to life in "The Butterfly," Rowlf's second poem below? Both "Silence" and "The Butterfly" are from Season One (1976) of The Muppet Show. Happy viewing!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tagging Mary Oliver

The one problem with working at the P&PC home office is that you can never really get all that far away from work. Take Sally the Stenographer, for example. There she was, shopping on her own in downtown Portland, thinking she had the whole day to herself without any interruption from a P or a PC. She needed a raincoat, a couple of sweaters, and maybe a new pair of tights. She wandered here and there from Lucy to REI, keeping in mind one of her favorite stores, Title 9, as her final destination. Sally likes the sporty, casual look at Title 9. She likes their clothes that women can "live in" while "doing their thing." She likes how the catalogs don't show models but picture real employees—sometimes holding chickens, or mountain biking, or rock climbing—accompanied by little interviews with them about what they've got in the fridge or what kind of food they love. Her face lights up when she walks through the door.

Then, as she's blissfully looking through a bunch of sweaters by prAna—the Carlsbad, California, outfit named after an ancient Sanskrit word for "breath, life, and vitality of the spirit"—Sally comes across the hang-tag pictured here where, along with a statement of prAna's company philosophy, there's a quotation from Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day": "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life." Sally paused, admiring the sandstone design and the way it makes the words kind of look like a petroglyph, and for a moment she did wonder, "What am I going to do with my one wild and precious life?" Then she realized she was holding the answer to Mary Oliver's question in her very hands. She bought the sweater, delivered its tag to the P&PC Office, and submitted the receipt for reimbursement as a work-related expense.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

From the P&PC Vault: The Great Diagraphic Corset

Check out this great, Victorian-era die-cut advertising sign for "The Great Diagraphic Corset"—a 10" tall, full-color display item that was designed to stand upright with the help of an "easel" leg that once attached to its reverse side. (You can see a remnant of that leg in the second image below.) As much as we here at the Poetry & Popular Culture office love this design concept, we like the punning product-packaging concept even more, as the hourglass shape of the vase tropes the va-va-va-voom hourglass form that the female body will supposedly take on with the help of a little whalebone and some minor shortness of breath. "It is our belief," the makers of The Great Diagraphic Corset state on the reverse side, "that no corset has yet been produced, uniting in so great a degree the qualities of support, ease and beauty."

Beauty indeed. How better to complete the web of cultural associations linking femininity, flowers and fashion than by throwing a poem—or, in this case, part of a poem—into the mix? As is often the case with advertising poetry (see P&PC's recent digressions on Poetry in Lotion or Ex-Lax, for example), it's never quite as simple as just throwing something into the mix, however. The makers of The Great Diagraphic Corset write "Our corset seems to embody the fancy of the Poet" and go on to quote four tetrameter lines witnessing to that fancy:

Now doth her bodice aptly laced
From her fair bosom to her shapely waist
Fine by degrees and beautifully less
The air and harmony of grace express.

If you're saying to yourself right now "Ah-ha! Those couplets ring a bell!" it's probably because you're thinking of "Henry and Emma," a fairly sizable dialogue poem about marital (in)fidelity written by everybody's favorite Augustan poet, Matthew Prior (1664-1721). But if you know your Prior well enough to place that quotation—and if you were able to recognize him as "the Poet" which the language on the die cut was referring to—you probably also know that the makers of The Great Diagraphic Corset are actually misquoting Prior's original text. The original, in fact, reads:

No longer shall the Boddice, aptly lac'd,
From thy full Bosome to thy slender Waste,
That Air and Harmony of Shape express,
Fine by Degrees, and beautifully less...

And, of course, if you recognized that The Great Diagraphic Corset was rewriting Prior, then you probably know that Prior's "Henry and Emma" had—and 'fessed up to having—its own source text: ye olde, anonymous, 15th-century poem, "The Nut-brown Maid." (Incidentally, the "Nut-brown Maid" became especially popular in the mid-18th century after Prior's death, when it was included in Thomas Percy's hit collection of ballads and popular songs, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765)—a collection that eventually inspired imitations of popular verse by wanna-be balladeers such as Colderidge and Wordsworth.)

All of this is to say, of course, that a half century of poetry lies behind the four lines printed on the back of The Great Diagraphic Corset advertisement—a seemingly simple puff that reveals itself to be a moment of extraordinary intertextuality in the consumer marketplace. Now that's the sort of literary historical hourglass that catches Poetry & Popular Culture's eye!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Fuzzy's Supper Club, "How to Get to Heaven," & the Case of the Missing "N"

In 1949, Arthur C. "Fuzzy" Rahill—son of Ray and Lillian Rahill who immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1907—went to work for a restaurant located at 1232 Classen Boulevard in Oklahoma City. He bought the business a year later and opened Fuzzy's Supper Club, which he owned and operated until 1983 when he retired and sold the joint to a Mr. Lobb who apparently spent $100,000 remodeling it to feature a "sports motif ... decorated with antique sporting equipment." Then, in a series of events that news reports don't fully explain, Rahill "took the business back through litigation" in 1984. P&PC can't discover when exactly Fuzzy's finally shut its doors—the place was still open in 1987 when people were instructed to go there to buy tickets to the Oklahoma City Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament—but Rahill died in 2003 at the age of eighty.

In the mid 1970s, then in his fifties, Rahill extended Fuzzy's to include Arthur's Prime Rib House—an attempt, according to one news story, to provide a "classier" dining experience that offered, among the usual steaks and other gustatory attractions, a Friday night seafood buffet at $14.95 per plate—and, as part of that expansion, he also had printed up a business card (pictured above) that included on back the poem pictured to the left, "How to Get to Heaven":

A man knocked at the gates of heaven,
His face was scarred and old,
He stood before the man of fate,
For entrance to the fold!

What have you done? St. Peter asked,
To gain admission here?
I've slaved away most of my life,
I've been a restaurateur!

The Pearly Gates then opened wide,
St. Peter struck the bell,
Come in, and choose your golden harp,
You've had your share of Hell!

It's impossible to figure what exactly motivated Fuzzy to feature "How to Get to Heaven." Business cards have long included poems (see here and here and here and here, for example), and perhaps Rahill thought that the classed-up Arthur's merited a poem to class up its business card. Or perhaps, we like to think, the ghosts of Rahill's birthplace in Springfield, Illinois, were speaking through him; by the time Fuzzy was born in 1922, "prairie poets" Edgar Lee Masters and Vachel Lindsay, both from the area, had put Sangamon County on the national poetic map.

As it turns out, "How to Get to Heaven" is an intriguing little poem. It's part of a going-to-heaven or going-to-hell poetic tradition that not only includes famous old epics and modernist masterpieces, but popular texts as well—like the Depression-era poem "Rejected" (pictured here), which tells the story of President Franklin Roosevelt being denied entrance to Hell, or "The Grocer's Dream," which was printed on the back side of an advertising trade card for Majestic Sandwich Spread sometime in the 1930s and that you can check out here. Unlike "Rejected" and "The Grocer's Dream," however, both of which leave their main characters in Hell (one unable to get in, and one unwilling to give up his seat), "How to Get to Heaven" features a protagonist who has already been to Hell and now appears, like Sterling Brown's hero in "Slim Greer in Hell," to converse with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

What intrigues us the most about "How to Get to Heaven" is not this narrative in particular, but what the poem appears to have left out. If you look very closely at the word "restaurateur" in the last line of stanza two, you'll see that the kerning (the space between letters) is a little off. There's more space between the "a" and the "t" of "restaurateur" than there is, for example, the "a" and the "t" of "Gates" in the fist line of the third stanza. This is the only time in the poem that the kerning is irregular, and we think it's the somewhat Derridean trace of a change made during the printing process when "restauranteur" (spelled with an "n") was changed to the more proper term "restaurateur" (without the "n").

What effect, if any, does this missing "n" have on the poem? Well, for starters, we think it's the very thing that gets the poem's main character into heaven. By using the correct but less frequently used term "restaurateur" instead of the more common but erroneous "restauranteur" to describe his occupation, the main character proves himself to be what he is in fact claiming to be; he is no pretender or impostor, but the genuine article who knows the difference between "restaurateur" and "restauranteur." Unlike the typical scene at the Pearly Gates, which—like the scene of Roosevelt trying to get into Hell in "Rejected"—involves enumerating why one deserves entrance into Heaven and St. Peter logging or checking those reasons in his giant book, "How to Get to Heaven" has no justification other than the proper vocabulary word. St. Peter would no doubt appreciate the proper terminology, but he would also hear embedded in "restaurateur" the word's origins in the Late Latin restaurator or "restorer" (as opposed to "restauranteur," which is derived from the more mundane word "restaurant"), thus making "restaurateur" an account of one's occupation, a sign of one's legitimacy, and a sort of password, prayer, code, or miniature argument linking the earthly restaurateur to the Restorer for whom St. Peter (the patron saint of bakers, butchers, fishermen, and harvesters, btw) so diligently serves as chief "rateur," if you will.

If that isn't awesome enough for you, then the extra space alerting us to the significance of the missing "n" alerts us to a feature of the poem's acoustic economy, as well, for eliminating the "n" also highlights the "ate" at the center of "restaurateur"—a morpheme that not only serves as a fitting metonym for the protagonist's career, but that echoes throughout the rest of the poem: in the "ate" of "gates" and "fate" as well as in the assonance of "face," "gain," and "slaved." Reading retroactively, in fact, it's hard not to see "How to Get to Heaven" announcing this acoustic theme from the very beginning, as the formatting of line one—which leaves "gates" hanging as a line break even though it's the middle of the poetic line—seems designed to call attention to this precise feature of the poem.

What brings the protagonist's acoustic past to an end, however, is St. Peter himself, whose very name transforms "ate" (past tense) into "eat" (present tense), thus offering the main character the very invitation that a restaurateur spends his life extending to other people. In fact, can we not hear in the sound of the bell St. Peter strikes in line two of the final stanza the sound of a dinner bell calling the poem's hero (and Fuzzy, too, on March 16, 2003) to his just reward: a heavenly feast?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Surprise Guest: Thoughts on Edgar A. Guest, Making Money with Poetry, and the Blind Spots of Modern Poetry Studies

So, P&PC just finished reading Edgar A. Guest: A Biography—Royce Howes's very swell, 1953 account of the one-time Detroit Free Press copy boy who went on, in Horatio Alger fashion, to become the most prolific and popular poet in U.S. history. We're certainly no stranger to Guest—check out an Edgar Guest Calendar here, Chrysler's Edgar Guest television spot here, and a scrapbook full of Guest's poetry here—but the biography stunned us nevertheless. Yes, in telling the story of how Guest's "ascent to fame has kept absolute step with Detroit's march from provincial city to industrial capital of the world," Howes is possibly even more saccharine than the "people's poet" himself was, but the facts are simply astonishing. Consider, for example:
  • Guest wrote a poem a day seven days a week for thirty years.
  • He lived in a mansion "staffed with servants, fine automobiles, the so-handy golf club [and] the big summer place at the Pointe."
  • He had radio, motion picture, and television contracts.
  • At one point, when his verse was syndicated to 250 newspapers, it was estimated that his poems had a circulation of about 10,000,000.
  • At one point, probably after World War II, Guest reported an annual income of $128,000—the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $1.6 million.
  • Guest's first two books (Home Rhymes and Just Glad Things) were self-published and printed by Guest's brother Harry in editions of 800 and 1,500 respectively, and on the basis of those books and his newspaper verse, Guest started getting wooed by the agents of Harper, Scribner, and William Randolph Hearst. Eventually, his publisher Reilly & Britton would print his books in editions of 100,000.
  • Guest couldn't go out on the streets of Detroit without getting hailed down by enthusiastic readers.
  • Guest was good friends with Henry Ford, who regularly gave the poet cars, beginning with a Model T and, many years later, a Lincoln.
  • Guest was pegged as a possible replacement for Will Rogers and even set up in Hollywood for $3,500 per week while studios tried to figure out how to use him.
  • A copy of Guest's poem "America" once sold for $50,000 as part of a war-bond fundraising event in 1942.
It's no wonder, really, that even though Guest maintains some of his popularity among people of a certain age today, he has been almost entirely written out of histories of modern poetry, because even though his life and career were propelled by the very forces of modernity that modernist studies scholars love to dwell on, his simple presence in a conversation contradicts all sorts of fantasies about the cultural marginalization of poetry in the twentieth century that those same scholars love to perpetuate: that poetry had a small readership; that no one could make money by writing poems; that poetry happened in bohemian enclaves and small cliques involving beret-wearing coffee drinkers and free lovers; that poetry primarily responded to the forces of modernity and consumer culture in an oppositional or counter-cultural way; that poetry was a print-based form inherently at odds with "new" and popular media forms like radio, tv, and film; that even if a poet were to make himself or herself available, consumer and popular culture would have no use for him or her. Yadda yadda yadda.

It's possible, we suppose, to explain away Guest's success as the exception that proves the modernist rule, but if you take even the smallest peek down the rabbit hole he opens up, you start seeing that that's not even the case. Not only was Detroit able to support one famous poet, for example, but it also supported a second: Anne Campbell, sometimes called "Eddie Guest's Rival," who for the crosstown Detroit News wrote a poem a day six days a week for twenty years, producing in the process more than 7,500 poems and making up to $10,000 per year from her poetry's syndication (that's about $140,000 adjusted for inflation, btw). Other poets like Helen Welshimer, Berton Braley, James Metcalfe, Ethel Romig Fuller, Don Marquis, and Walt Mason seemed to have little trouble making money off their verse as well.

Guest is not only compelling in his own right, then, but he's compelling because paying even a smidgen of attention to him opens up a window onto an entire sphere of literary activity that has been all but erased from the history books and that challenges almost every academic assumption about the cultural place and function of poetry in modern America. We look at Guest and see Campbell, Welshimer, Braley and crew, but then we also see that Guest's publisher—based in Chicago right down the street from Poetry magazine, that supposed center of all things modern in modern poetry—was also making a pretty good go of it; Reilly, for example, also issued Tony's Scrap Book, an annual print spin-off of Tony Wons's popular poetry radio show that sold over 225,000 copies in 1932 alone. (Wons, btw, reported making $2,000 per month including royalties from Tony's Scrap Book, which is the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $400,000 per year.)

When we figure in Reilly's activities and Tony's radio show, we start sketching out the parameters of a modern poetry landscape composed of affluent celebrity poets, for-profit poetry publishers, and multimedia distribution—a picture at odds with almost everything we imagine about the workings of poetry in the first half of the century. We here at the P&PC Office are stunned every time we think seriously about this, and we're convinced that, some day, scholars of modern poetry are going to start realizing the stories and archives awaiting them if they just take a moment to tune in.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Whistful Memories: Poetry Playing Cards

Is it possible that popular poetry's most companionable print platform from the modern era is not the book or little magazine but the card—the greeting card (more here), business card (more here and here), postcard, calling card, game card, stereoview card (more here and here), remembrance card, funeral card, cabinet card, arcade card, and advertising trade card (another here), all of which forms regularly featured poems ranging from sappy holiday wishes and elegies to self-promotional verses and, in the case of arcade cards and some business cards, naughty rhymes? Last week, P&PC brought you a set of poetry trading cards from the 1920s, and this week we're happy to present the "Game of Poems," an attractively illustrated deck of 52 playing cards issued by the Fireside Game Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1898.

From 1895 to 1905 or so, the Fireside Game Company (and its successor, the Cincinnati Game Company) issued more than 35 educational card games, most modeled on the game of whist, aimed at students and teachers seeking to mix pedagogy and play. Deck themes ran the gamut, featuring everything from "Wild Animals" to "Strange People" and "Fractions," and including a heavy nationalistic bent in sets like "Our National Life," "The Mayflower," "In the White House," "In Dixie Land," and "Trip Through Our National Parks." The "Game of Poems" is no exception in this latter respect, as players collect tricks based on whether or not they compile, over the course of the game, complete "books" of poets representing America, Ireland, England, and Scotland, each nation being composed of thirteen card-poems featuring verse by four of the "standard poets" of that respective nation plus one "National" card. Class A (America), for example, gets Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant, Eugene Field and Rodman Drake's "The American Flag"; Class B (Ireland) gets Thomas Moore, Thomas Davis, Samuel Lover, Samuel Ferguson, and William Drennan's "Erin"; Class C (England) gets Thomas Hood, Tennyson, Byron, Gray, and James Thompson's "Rule, Britannia"; and Class D (Scotland) gets Burns, Scott, Thomas Campbell, Robert Tannahill, and James Hogg's "Caledonia."

You can play this game just as you would any other trick-collecting game—detailed instructions are included in the leather carrying case—but P&PC likes the Fireside Game Company's suggestions for how to add a "literary feature" or type of "progressive play" to "the evening's enjoyment." Here's what the instructions describe:
Rules for playing in the progressive method can readily be adopted, the addition of a literary feature adding to the evening's enjoyment. A short programme of readings or recitations, made up of selections from the poets, or of gems from current literature, may be arranged, and its rendition expected at the hands of the players winning the least number of points in any particular play.
In other words, the loser's fate is to be subjected to the public recitation of poetry! This isn't a suggestion made once, but again in regard to the "fateful thirteen"—the odd card out, which won't be collected into a set of four and thus "will eventually remain in the hands of the loser." "To add to his misfortune," the instructions explain, the loser "may be required to recite the National Ode of the particular nation he is known to favor the least." Take that, Catherine Robson!

In the growing game industry of the turn of the century, the Fireside Game Company occupied—was perhaps even the leader in—a market niche devoted to what The School Journal called "education by play." Noting in 1902, that "unless innocent and useful pleasures be given children, they may find harmful ones for themselves," for example, The Educator-Journal praised the Fireside Game Company's products:
In recognition of this fact, The Fireside Game Company, several years ago, published a line of beautifully illustrated Educational Home Games. About twenty-five of these, covering various subjects, were issued. They had a wide distribution for home use, and a great many teachers also employed them in their schools. The play rules were generally those of the old game of Authors.
Some of the card sets—like the "Wild Animals" series created by Louis M. Schiel, Principal of the 23rd District School in Cincinnati—were designed by teachers, and Fireside reached out to both teachers and students, pitching its set of "52 beautiful illustrations of the most popular poems" and asking people to write to the company of their game-playing experiences. Fireside sponsored a contest awarding $200 in prizes to the four best essays written by teachers on the subject of education games "as exemplified by the games copyrighted by the Fireside Game Company" and also offered free decks of cards to the first five hundred students who "write us the best reasons for liking their favorite game." That free deck, btw, would have saved a student two bits—the equivalent, accounting for inflation, of six or seven bucks today.

So what do you say to a "Game of Poems" night at the P&PC Office one of these days? The interns have promised to hitch up your horses, fire up the gas lights, have popcorn and whiskey at the ready, and "suitable souvenirs" for all who attend (as recommended by the game's instructions). If you're not frightened off at the prospect of having to recite your least favorite national poem in front of the entire group, then give us a call!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Poetry Trading Cards

Back in the day, when the differences between Topps, Fleer, and Donruss baseball cards were crucial distinctions for some of us in the P&PC Office, and when were happy to do nothing more than spend hours and hours ordering, reordering, and moving our card collections from one government cheese box to another, a prize of any collection was the tobacco card—the slightly-bigger-than-a-9-volt-battery-sized card, usually from 1909 or 1910, usually with corners rounded from age and handling if not stints in between the spokes of some boy's bike, and originally given away for free with tobacco products.

We all held such cards with reverence, storing them—if we could somehow get our hands on them—between heavy, inflexible pieces of transparent plastic. Not only were they old, but each one tangibly linked us to the story of the T-206 Honus Wagner (pictured here): how the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop refused to lend his visage to the tobacco industry, how he righteously demanded that the American Tobacco Company recall all of his cards, and how the few cards that managed to sneak into circulation (some estimate between 50 and 200) went on to become the most rare, famous, and valuable cards in history (one card recently sold for $2.8 million). Every dusty box we came across in every attic or barn was, we never ceased believing, full of abandoned, mint condition tobacco cards. And among those cards was, we were certain, the T-206 Wagner.

Nowadays, when we think of them, those imaginary dusty boxes are more likely full of old books (especially an 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass) than they are baseball cards, but more likely than either of those scenarios is that we might come across something like a mixture between the two: like, for example, the set of 54 "Camera Studies" trading cards produced in 1926 by the British cigarette manufacturer Cavanders Ltd. and pictured here. What's remarkable about these cards is not the full and complete set that we have in our possession, nor the excellent condition they're in, but how each card features a scene from the British countryside on front and—wait for it—a quotation from a famous poet on the back.

Originally based in Manchester, Cavanders was founded in 1775 and lasted until 1961 when it was taken over by the Godfrey Philips cigarette company whose main factory is now in Mumbai. For a time in the early twentieth century, Cavanders was the UK's largest supplier of cigarette cards, issuing forty-one different series including a set of miniature stereoview cards complete with a Camerascope for viewing them. The "Camera Studies" poem series features handpainted photos—which means that every card is unique (think of all the labor that went into that)—paired with quotations on back related to the respective cards' subject matter. There's Shakespeare, Spencer, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Herrick and others. All are British, with a heavy representation of the Romantics, except for two cards that include Longfellow. The quotations are predominantly classic; Swinburne and Rupert Brooke are the only two authors in the set who lived into the twentieth century.

One card captioned "The Placid Stream," for example (pictured here), features a babbling brook paired with an excerpt from Shelley's "A Dream of the Unknown" (image below):

And nearer to the river's trembling edge,
There grew broad flag-flowers, purple prank with white.

Our quick Google searches don't turn up much on Cavanders, let alone anything about how many of these cards were eventually issued or how they were used: Were they traded? Collected in albums like American advertising cards were? Shared by cigarette-smoking men with their wives and children the way cigarette-smoking American men gave tobacco baseball cards to their kids? Is it possible that, in some British clubs, groups of men poured each other brandies, lit up together, and read the poems aloud? Is it possible that they swapped verses hoping to compile a complete set of their own? (Now that's something we want to see on Downton Abbey!)

We suspect that someone out there could make some interesting arguments about how these cards affected the place of the Romantics—if not poetry in general—in the cultural imagination, as they so closely link Shelley, Wordsworth, et al. with nature and not those authors' radical politics or social concerns. We also think there's something to be said for how Cavanders appealed to almost "timeless" pastoral and agricultural scenes immediately following World War I; the presence of Brooke, who was killed in the war, suggests that these cards may on some level be treating or at least responding to a national trauma by looking backward in time. But as the P&PC Board of Directors hasn't yet approved the addition of a British poetry specialist to our office of Americanists, we can't say for sure.

What we do know, however, is that you don't need a Honus Wagner T-206-like $2.8 mill to get your paws on a set of cards like these. Nor do you have to go searching your attic for an abandoned dusty box. Nope. We checked around in some price books and collector sites online, and the "Camera Studies" series is a lot more affordable. If you head over to eBay today, for example, you can in fact find individual cards listed for less than three bucks a pop (or best offer) as well as a listing for a complete set with a starting minimum bid of U.S. $2.32. Happy bidding.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

'Tis the Last Rose of Summer: LARC at WU

Folks in the P&PC Office have spent a good portion of the last two weeks revving up for the school year: we've been buying new magic markers, trying on the latest hip jeans and gym shoes, putting together our Trapper Keepers, designing syllabi for two classes focusing on the poetry of Walt Whitman, and wistfully reflecting on Thomas Moore's "last rose of summer / left blooming alone." School starts next week, and we're excited—don't get us wrong. But we also don't want to leave summer, because leaving summer means leaving our LARC summer research team—a grant-funded group of three Willamette faculty and four Willamette students who have been working independently and collaboratively on projects related to "The Age of Projection: Remediation, Reformation, and Revolution."

Every summer for three or four years now, Willamette University's Mellon-funded LARC (Liberal Arts Research Collaborative) program has been making it possible for faculty and students to do collaborative, interdisciplinary research in the humanities. Set up in part to discover potential models for humanities-based student-teacher research at small undergraduate universities, LARC provides funds for students (living space for the summer plus a stipend) and faculty to work in teams on proposed projects. And this year P&PC got a chance to take part. Along with Abigail Susik (Art History), Anna Cox (Spanish and Film Studies), and four students (Andrea Adachi, Hannah Brown, Emma Jonas, and Amy Snodgrass), we pursued projects based in some way on how projection- and other screen-based media affected literature, art, film, politics, and graffiti over the course of the twentieth century. (See our proposal and five others here.)

So what did we all do? Well, P&PC pursued its current fascination with the projection of poetry via magic lantern at the turn of the century—the first time in history, we believe, when people began to commonly experience reading as something that happens off of the handwritten or printed material page. (See a couple of our past postings on the subject here and here; that's an example of a lantern poetry slide pictured just above.) For us, this moment not only sets in motion an age of screen reading leading up to the computer and e-reader, but it also gives us a historical starting point to help nuance our discussions about the "death of print." As it turns out, the hegemony of print reading was coming under pressure long before digital media, and the fact that poetry—popular poetry, natch—was central to this phenomenon makes us rethink (for one) the roles poetry played in the development of modern life and (two) how poetry scholars might do well to better account for the proliferation of poetry in non-print media formats over the course of the twentieth century.

For their part, Abigail and Emma both studied the incorporation of projection into contemporary new media art and graffiti practices (they even attended the Elektra International Digital Arts Festival in Montreal); Anna and Hannah studied the aesthetic and political pressures that Spanish filmmakers faced under Franco's dictatorship (Hannah spent time in the Basque country for part of her project); and Andrea sort of partnered with all of us as she studied how the ephemeral poetic graffiti of Quito, Ecuador (such as the example pictured here) has found an unexpected permanence or afterlife via preservation and documentation online.

Just as Abigail worked closely with Emma, and Anna worked closely with Hannah, so P&PC worked especially closely with our seventh team member, Amy Snodgrass, who studied the the proliferation of new poetry reading and writing experiences enabled by digital and online media ranging from the programmed works of single authors to the group-generated haiku "discussions" of Craigslist. (Why someone hasn't yet written in a prominent way about the haiku "discussion forum" of every city's Craigslist is a wonder to us!) Check out some of the poems that Amy took as the initial objects of her study:

"Separation/S├ęparation" by Annie Abrahams
"Sooth" and other poems by David Johnston
"Soliloquy" by Kenneth Goldsmith
"The Sweet Old Etcetera," a set of e.e. cummings poems choreographed by Alison Clifford
"Toucher" by Serge Bourchardon, Kevin Carpentier, and Stephanie Spenle
"Fitting the Pattern" by Christine Wilks
"This is How You Will Die" by Jason Nelson

Our students will all be presenting their projects to the W.U. community this Fall, by which time summer will be mostly a distant image in the rear-view mirror. But make no mistake about it. Both our formal meetings and discussions (every member of the team led a three-hour group discussion about his or her research) and our informal gatherings and sharings were eye-opening, energizing, and inspiring, and we'll remember them and continue learning from them for a long time. Thank you, Mellon. Thank you, LARC administrators. And thank you, Abigail, Anna, Andrea, Emma, Hannah, and Amy. We loved every minute of it.