Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Popular Poetry: The Little Magazine

For years now, P&PC has desperately wanted to find a modernist-era little magazine to call its own. You know, something like Others, Blast, The Egoist, or Seven Arts except not devoted to the avant garde or Ezra Pound. Something that might help put the world of popular poetry on the radar screens of modernist studies scholars who do so looooove their little magazines. Something—and why not?—that might even get digitized by and included in the awesome Modernist Journals Project, which has as its slightly overstated tagline "modernism began in the magazines."

Well, it's possible that we've finally found it. After lo these many years of searching, we recently came across this single, solitary issue (Volume 1, Number 8) of Popular Poetry, issued out of Cincinnati, Ohio, in March of 1931 by the people who were at that time already bringing Writer's Digest to the world. We don't know much about Popular Poetry yet; an initial query to Writer's Digest revealed that current editorial staff don't know anything about it and don't have any idea whether or not there's a company archive boxed up in some warehouse somewhere that could shed some light on who started it, why, how, and what eventually came of it once the 1930s—the decade during which what Joseph Harrington called the "poetry wars" established a serious split between "high" and "low" in the world of American verse—came to a close.

Until we find those answers, we'll be repeatedly reading this issue, which bills itself as being "modern without being modernistic and mid-way between the classic and the popular." True enough: from the poems "City Streets" and "Traffic in Hearts" listed on the cover, to the little editorial "Poetry Offshoots: The Commercial Side of Verse" pictured here, Popular Poetry does not appear to have been a throwback to the nineteenth century's genteel dreams of the fireside and family homestead but, like the New Verse more generally, incorporates and engages with the spirit of modernity. We dig Ruth Rukin's "Poetry Offshoots" a lot, which tries to find a home "for a rhyme with reason" that isn't "a page of formless verse in jerky ecstatics," on one hand, and that doesn't "[die] a horrible death on the battle-field of technique" on the other. "Standardization is the very last and least thing wanted in verse," Rukin writes, "but compromise with the needs of your market is desirable—if you're writing to sell."

What Rukin ultimately advises aspiring writers is what teachers still tell their students hoping to publish today: study the publications to which you're sending before you go sending your poems out. She makes her case by quoting, of all things, Tristan Tzara's Dadaist poem "Toto Vaca" and explaining that poems like it have a place in the "artistic journal, published for the sole purpose of encouraging new forms of literature" but not necessarily in the mainstream press. Here is Tzara's verse (and that's TT pictured here):



ka tangi te kivi

ka tangi te moho

ka tangi te tike
ka tangi te tike


he poko anahe
to tikoko tikoko
heare i te hara

k ote taoura te rangi

me kave kivhea

a-ko te take
take no tou

e haou
to ia

to ia ake te take
take no tou

What's kinda compelling about this example is how Tzara's avant-garde poem—which, according to Rukin, first appeared in "the lately suspended transition, an American-English magazine published in Paris"—is finding new audiences via Popular Poetry, which reprints it without irony and with full awareness of the editorial state of transition as a peer-level journal; in other words, Popular Poetry is situating itself in a world of modernist literary magazines not only without disparaging the competition but by educating the audience of Popular Poetry about it as well. "The reading aloud of this poem may give you some hint of its purpose," Rukin writes. "The syllabic arrangement is very musical and rhythmic when intoned." Once we find specific circulation figures for Popular Poetry, we'll let you know how many readers Tzara's poem reached and then think more coherently about the possible debts that the avant garde little magazines might owe to the world of popular poetry!

It would have been interesting to have Rukin weigh in on the conversation that P&PC recently had with Jed Rasula over at the Boston Review ("Glut Reactions: The Demographics of American Poetry"), because Rukin acknowledges late in her article that a poetry "glut"—the jumping-off point for the BR piece—is nothing new in American poetry. As P&PC argued, it in fact "isn’t a glut so much as a fundamental condition of poetry in the long twentieth century, a period when—thanks in part to the emergence and maturation of the culture industries, the development of mass media as well as personal communication technologies, and the expansion of consumer capitalism and the consumer marketplace—more poetry was written, distributed, circulated, and consumed than at any other time in history." Indeed, Rukin writes, "There are, generally speaking, more writers of poetry than markets for it. This naturally overcrowds the usual markets—the magazines—with salable offerings. However, there are certain by-products of poetry in our commercial era of writing for the poet. Among these are song poems, greeting card verses, advertising jingles, and humorous verse. The latter finds markets in such humor journals as Life, Judge, College Humor, Film Fun." We wonder: could that list of journals be a dissertation table of contents in the making?

One of the more entertaining parts of Popular Poetry is a section called "Borderliners" (pictured here), which contains a list of "poems not acceptable for publication" along with brief, Twitter-like critiques of those poems. Ethel Whipple Crooks of Kansas, for example, has her poem rejected with the editorial comments, "You have a nice, rhythmical sense, but no outstanding ideas behind it." Kinda harsh, right? Mildred Marsh Rankin of Iowa doesn't fare much better; her poetry has "too much dawn-and-pussy-dear sentiment" in it. Grover Wilson Morgan's poetry is "Not quite up to snuff." Edmund Kiernan is "too pedantic." And poor Virginia Brookhart of Pennsylvania: "Your poems stop short of being good." Seriously, this is pretty fun reading—we haven't seen anything like it—and there's five pages of it just in the March number alone!

But what of the poetry in Popular Poetry? We're not ready to comment on all of it yet, but we'll leave you with our favorite so far—Bernice G. Anderson's "Gypsy Fortune Teller":

She was picturesque in her flowered skirt
That puffed at the dust and flipped the dirt,

And her orchid waist was hung with strings
Of coins and coral beads. Bright rings

Adorned each finger; and her tawny head
Was draped with a blazing scarf of red.

I gazed at her while she read my hand,
And I knew she'd far from understand—

Not think it even slightly funny
That I should cross her palm with money

Merely to sit and read her face
There in that rug-hung, mystic place.

If anyone out there knows anything about Popular Poetry, please let us know! We'd love to learn more about our new favorite little magazine.