Sunday, December 20, 2015

From the P&PC Vault: Getting Ready for Christmas—An Advent Calendar from Hallmark

It's not the first poem that P&PC ever encountered—that distinction probably goes to the quirky "I went to the animal fair" verse that dad used to recite—but it's pretty darn close. We're talking about the 24-line holiday poem printed verse by verse behind the 24 doors and windows of three brick houses featured in the tri-fold "Getting Ready for Christmas" Hallmark advent calendar pictured here. (That's panel one you see here; panels two and three follow in sequence below, concluded by a panoramic photo of the card completely opened up.)

Like the Hallmark Christmas card matchbook featured on P&PC about this time last year and pictured here, the advent calendar solicits an unusual amount of reader involvement to get at the poem; but unlike the matchbook, where the reader is invited to dismantle or deconstruct the poem matchstick by matchstick, the advent calendar asks the reader to help build the poem line by line and window by window in an act of constructive reading that runs parallel to, or perhaps even tropes, the houses that were built brick by brick to shelter them.

If you've spent any time around the P&PC office, the accentuated sequential nature of this window-by-window poem probably brings to mind the old rhyming Burma-Shave billboards that delivered poems in line by line (and sign by sign) units along American highways until the 1960s. Burma Shave's billboards awesomely staged the experience of the poetic line break by setting up signs/lines 100 feet apart from one another—thus letting the driver/reader ride in the exaggerated "white space" between individual lines for several moments. The advent calendar does the Burma-Shave poems one better, though. Because one is supposed to open one window or door every day for each of the 24 days leading up to Christmas, it effectively creates line breaks measured not in terms of seconds on the highway but in terms of days; that is, if the poem is read as intended, each line break in "Getting Ready for Christmas" is effectively 24 hours long!

As scholastically appealing as "Getting Ready for Christmas" is (we might go on to ask, for example, what sort of voyeuristic holiday experience Hallmark is asking us to have in opening all of these windows and doors as we let our fingers do the strolling, caroler-like, through the little neighborhood), we at P&PC value it more for reasons external to the card itself—for its family history. According to Mom (née Ann Salvatore), it was first given to her and her brother Jim in Cleveland, probably in the early 1950s. (Ann had it, or large parts of it, memorized if I remember correctly.) Then they sent it to my great-aunt Tillie Boye (née Matilda Danca) and her children in Lincoln, Nebraska, later that decade. Then the Boyes sent it back to Northeast Ohio for Ann to share with with my sister Trish and me (both Chasars) in the 1970s. Then Ann sent it to Tillie's son Alan and his Boye clan, living in Vermont, in 1988. Then Alan sent it back to the suburbs of Cleveland in the 2000s to share with Ann's grandchildren, my niece and nephew, Wayne and Julianna Grindle. Members of the Salvatore, Danca, Boye, Chasar, and Grindle families have thus been "Getting Ready for Christmas" via this poem for well over half a century.

This holiday season, we wish we could send the actual card to you—the extended P&PC family—as well. While we can't do that, we can give you the composite text of the 24-line poem here:

The guests are welcomed at the door
The gifts are piled upon the floor
The cook is making gingerbread
And all are waiting to be fed
The corn is popping almost done
Come and get it everyone!
A taffy pull is in full swing
Cheerful, merry voices ring
The stockings hang all in a row
Outside it has begun to snow
The younger tots have said their prayers
And now are fast asleep upstairs
But one sits by a candlestick to wait awhile for Old St. Nick
The older children laugh with glee and dance and caper 'round the tree
A train for Jack, a doll for Jill, a scarf for Anne and Gloves for Bill
Underneath the mistletoe Jane steals a kiss from her best beau!
Hot things to drink, good things to eat
For every child a special treat
The grown-up folks sit by the grate
The clock says that it's growing late
Everybody stops to spy the Christmas star up in the sky
The Christmas carols now begin
With everybody joining in
And all the doors are opened wide to welcome in the Christmastide!


Using your imagination, perhaps you can experience something of the thrill this advent calendar poem offered and, in the process, open a few doors and windows onto where P&PC comes from. Happy holidays all.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

From the P&PC Vault: 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 commercial and noncommercial 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 commercial and noncommercial 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.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Rhymes, Jingles, and Little Poems: The World War II Rumor Project Collection in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress

"Rumor," wrote Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 2, "is a pipe / Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures / And of so easy and so plain a stop / That the blunt monster with uncounted heads, / The still-discordant wavering multitude, / Can play upon it." We here at P&PC don't know about all of that, but we've certainly had our fair share of rumor-related surmises and conjectures of late, all stemming from our recent forays into the World War II Rumor Project Collection in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Our time in the nation's capital is quickly coming to an end, but now that the lion's share of our proposed research about Edna St. Vincent Millay's World War II-era poem The Murder of Lidice is done, we just couldn't pass up an opportunity to find out what folks on the street were saying sotto voce around the same time. And you know what? It turns out that many of them were talkin' poetry.

The World War II Rumor Project Collection is exactly what it sounds like it is. Worried that Axis agents were infiltrating the U.S. and spreading false rumors with the goal of damaging national morale and the unity of the war effort, a certain Dr. Eugene Horowitz working for the Office of War Information did a pilot study coordinating the collection of rumors for analysis and counteraction. He collected them in two main ways: via designated, already well-placed individuals (hair stylists, cab drivers, etc.) who reported what they were hearing in their communities; and via teachers and students at a select number of high schools and colleges.

Much of the project's collection consists of rumor reports obtained via the first method, and this was the material we initially targeted, thinking how awesome it would be to go back home to Oregon with a  handful of the juiciest, choicest rumors that grandmas and grandpas in the Beaver State were passing along. Well, it turns out that Oregonians didn't have much of a taste for rumor or (what's more likely) the federal government—or perhaps they couldn't get their ground game up and running in time. Because we found a grand total of two Oregon-generated rumors. That's right. Two.
We were about ready to sigh, pack it all up, and move on to something else, but that's usually the sort of moment when something happens for us. Indeed. Just to be thorough and make sure our bases were covered, we decided to check out the student responses—all contained in the last three narrow boxes of the collection. And what do you know. There, right at the start, we found a template "speech" that each teacher was asked to give when administering a "standardized" rumor collection in class—you know, the "always use a #2 pencil" type of thing—and part of that speech instructed students to "write down five jokes, anecdotes, puns, rhimes [sic], or 'cracks' about the war." Rhimes? You can imagine our ears pricking up, and not just because of the unconventional spelling. And sure enough, later on, the speech reminds students to write down "any kind of story, joke, pun, toast, or jingle about the war." Jingle? Now you're talking. And wouldn't you know it, the entire instructional concludes with yet another reference to poetry. "If you can't remember the exact words of a little poem or jingle, give it as near as you can. Please write these down now—let's not take too long over it."

Rhimes, jingles, and little poems? Who today would even think to ask for rhimes, jingles, and little poems when trying to assess "what passes by word of mouth ... things which often fail to appear in print"? So, we started reading, and you know what? There were rhimes, jingles, and little poems all over the place, from rhyming slogans ("Pay your taxes to beat the Axis") to full-on, multiple-stanza verses about everything from Hitler's nether regions to sugar and shoe rationing.

But wait, there's more—there always is. Each student response is anonymous (the study never asked for names), but at Dr. Horowitz's instruction, each form (almost each, at least) contains a notation identifying the respondent's year in school, gender (M or F), and race (W or C/N [Colored/Negro]). And as we first read through—quickly, without method or clear goal—we started to feel like the African American students reported rhimes, jingles, and little poems more frequently than white students. How very interesting, we thought. What little archive have we stumbled upon? How can we tally up the numbers? How do we crunch and analyze them, and what might they reveal to us? It turns out that Dr. Horowitz's project never got beyond the pilot stage, but could we, almost seventy-five years later, use the data he collected to say something about the relative importance or unimportance of popular poetry to African American and white students nearing mid-century and thus, presumably, to the communities from which they came? How would we then map gender onto this? How about age? And how would all of this data intersect with the poems themselves? Might there be discernible patterns in who reported what types of poems?

We're a long way from answering all those questions, dear reader, but by now much of the data has been recorded for transport back to Oregon. We couldn't have gotten this far without further support from folks at the Kluge Center, who loaned us a real-live intern to help: Cooper Kidd (pictured here), a sociology major at Montgomery College who's just returned from a summer studying social responses to AIDS in San Francisco, and who's spending the Fall semester doing LoC research on poverty and trans women of color. Pretty much side by side in the Folklife Center for the past three or so weeks, we've been making spreadsheets, talking through what we've been finding, and sharing more than just a few rhimes, jingles, and little poems with each other.

Really, we don't have much data to make public at this point, but we can dangle this little morsel in front of you (and in front of all of you granting foundations out there): of the 2,250 responses we've recorded, about half are from African American students, and half are from white students. (We think this is statistically sound.) The percentage of African American students who report rhimes, jingles, and little poems is 28%, and much higher than white students, who report poems 14% of the time. Our initial hypothesis confirmed, we now prepare to move on—Cooper back to school, P&PC back to Oregon, and both of us deeper into the data. Please wish us safe travels, and make sure to check back for more breaking news—well, breaking as of 1943, at least—about "the blunt monster with uncounted heads, / The still-discordant wavering multitude."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

P&PC in Beantown

P&PC is thrilled to be heading to Boston tomorrow for a busy four days at Framingham State University and the Modernist Studies Association's annual conference. The trip to Framingham has a particularly sentimental edge, as we return to the city of our birth—Dad C. was stationed there in the Army—to deliver "From Baraka to Rihanna: Legacies of the Black Arts Movement" as part of Framingham State University's "Stasis & Change" lecture series. After that, on Thursday, we head downtown to serve as chair for the panel "Feeling Revolutionary/Revolutionary Feeling: Sentiment and Affect in Feminist Poetry," which features three of our favorite scholars in the world: Melissa Girard, Linda Kinnahan, and Dee Morris. Then, on Friday, we deliver a paper alongside Donal Harris and Loren Glass as part of the panel "After the Program Era." (Check out the whole MSA program here.)

It's all a wonderful convergence of P&PC networks. You know Girard from her P&PC posts here, here, and here. You know Glass from his P&PC post here. The Morris effect is everywhere in our world, as she chaired our dissertation back in the day at the University of Iowa. Kinnahan is editor of A History of Twentieth-Century American Women's Poetry forthcoming from Cambridge and including an article on popular women's poetry by P&PC staff members. The Framingham visit is being coordinated by longtime P&PC friend but not-yet-contributor Bart Brinkman, and on Saturday we get to spend the day with Heidi Bean, our dear friend and co-editor of Poetry after Cultural Studies. Were it not for the fact that, living on the West Coast most of the time, we don't get to see these people in person very often, we might be a little nauseated by all the good (if not revolutionary) feeling. (Um, yeah, did we mention that we also have social plans with P&PC contributors Marsha Bryant and Erin Kappeler?) But after living in the cold and unforgiving Library of Congress archives for the past three or four months, we're going to give in and enjoy it. Why don't you come join us?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Poetry of Dave the Potter

If P&PC has seemed a bit distant of late, well, that's because it's true. We admit it. We've been negligent, distracted, and otherwise occupied, turning our attention primarily to several longer-form projects that haven't lent themselves as easily as we might have liked to postings of this ilk. Those projects have been fun and sometimes frustrating. Some are finished and in the mail. Some are still in progress. Some are new—like, as of this very week. And given the limited amount of time we've got at the Library of Congress, we've pretty much buried our noses in the materials here. But that doesn't mean you're not on our mind, dear readers. We thought of you the other day, for example, when, as we went strolling through the National Museum of American History's "American Stories" exhibition, we discovered the work of poet-potter David Drake, whose story and work have somehow managed to escape our notice until now.

In some ways, it's difficult to say something about the incredible Drake that hasn't already been said—to much acclaim, we might note, by Leonard Todd, and also by folk and decorative arts scholars like those who contributed to I Made This Jar: The Life and Works of the Enslaved African-American Potter Dave—but maybe this posting can get get you to check out what they and others have written so far. (Be sure to also pick up Laban Carrick Hill's award-winning "picturebook poem" Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.) Born around the year 1800, Drake was a talented, enslaved South Carolina ceramicist who, in addition to frequently signing his name "Dave," also inscribed his pots with short poems—a remarkable and daring move at a time when slave literacy was illegal and when South Carolina was enacting particularly harsh laws punishing slaves who read or wrote. (Here's a collection of Dave's extant verses.) We here at P&PC are particularly taken with the two-line poem on the jar featured in the "American Stories" exhibition, the last one Dave inscribed in 1862 before emancipation:
I—made this Jar all of cross
If you don't repent, you will be lost.

Among other things, we like the couplet's gnomic character; the relationship drama staged in slant rhyme between the "I" and the "you"; the poetic contract or blackmail; the slightly Emily Dickinsonian character of the dash and the capital letter "J"; the ways that words like "Jar" and "cross" resonate with various meanings that "cross"-fertilize and increase the poem's density; and especially how the association of "cross" with wood—how does one make a jar "all of cross"?—asks for a reading of the poem that pressures the relationship between Christ's (wooden) cross and Dave's (clay) jar as analogous sites of suffering.

Thus far, we haven't turned up any literary types who have studied Dave's verses seriously and at length as poems. (The enslaved poet George Moses Horton, also from South Carolina, has gotten more ink.) Most people—those not particularly trained in the mysterious and magical ways of literary critics—read Dave's poems as biographical markers or as small windows onto slave life. That is, they read the poems as informational pieces, rather than as the valuable literary or poetic pieces of art they are. And when we say they're valuable, we're not joking. The Smithsonian paid something like $40,000 for its jar, and we bet that other major museums like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, both of which have Dave's pots in their collections, ponied up similar sums.

We here at P&PC oftentimes wonder about the value of poetry in non-artistic terms—remember the case of the $400,000,000 poem?—and a $40,000 jar starts raising a number of such questions. How much of that $40,000 can be attributed to the poem, for example, and how much to the jar? In other words, if the poem weren't on the jar, how much would the jar sell for, and is the difference between that and $40,000 one way of figuring out the "value added" contribution of Dave's poem? We don't think that would be a horrible approach, though we will admit that, minus the jar, the poem itself probably wouldn't sell for much, so the poetic value and the ceramic value reinforce one another. But we also think that a $40,000 price tag on a jar produced by an enslaved poet-potter should also raise the larger and less theoretical question as to who is continuing to profit off of Dave's uncompensated labor? Dave didn't see a dime from his pots when he made them, of course, let alone the cool $40 G's that the Smithsonian's pot-poem went on to fetch. And the poem-pot wasn't returned to him after emancipation to sell or otherwise do with as he wished.

We in the P&PC Office are not in any way experts on the subject of reparations, but Dave's poem-pots seem like a perfect example of how and where the logics of reparations make easy and total sense. Dave made the pot. Dave wrote the poem. Dave deserves a significant chunk of the profit restored to him. We would like to think that the person or group who sold the pot to the Smithsonian did in fact turn around and give the profit it made to organizations focusing on some aspect of African American literacy or the arts. Did they? P&PC doesn't have the slightest idea how to find out. Did the Smithsonian—or the Philadelphia Museum, or the Museum of Fine Arts—make its purchase contingent on just such an agreement? We have no idea how to find that out, either. But perhaps the uncomfortable nature of such questions is one reason why people don't read or "value" Dave's poetry as carefully or as seriously as they might. To read it is to hear within the physical object a voice reminding us not only of the human labor that went into it as well as the conditions of that labor—"I made this Jar all of cross"—but of the still unfulfilled conditional in line two: "If you don't repent, you will be lost." Did Dave mean for these words to ring true 150 years later? We think so. Why else would he have put them in stone?

Friday, September 11, 2015

From Cowboy to Classic: The Poetry of Longmire (Season 2, Episode 12)

We here at P&PC have long suspected that there's an undercover army of poets in Hollywood and that, cloaked in the Mackintosh of Nielson ratings and prime-time broadcast slots, they've been sneaking all sorts of poems into people's everyday lives via tv shows ranging from Gunsmoke to Breaking Bad. Well, now we've got some hard evidence to back it up: Season 2, Episode 12 of the I'll-cling-to-my-traditional-honorable-manhood-in-an-ever-changing-world-because-what-that-ever-changing-world-needs-more-than-ever-is-traditional-honorable-manhood Western cop show Longmire. If you're getting the impression that we don't totally love Longmire, well, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. We're through the end of Season 2, and we're tired of the old-man-driven plot generally speaking. We don't like the show's treatment of the Cheyenne Indians all that much. And, truth be told, we wish the show were told from the point of view of deputy Vic or Henry Standing Bear and not Sheriff Walt Longmire. But whatever, right? We've watched it this far and, as the following's gonna explain, there's no way we're gonna stop now.

First aired August 19, 2013, Season 2, Episide 12 telegraphs its literary ambitions via the allusion to Flannery O'Connor in its title ("A Good Death Is Hard to Find") and is then very neatly bookended by two poems, one a cowboy poem, and one a classic. And wouldn't you know it? It was written by real-life poet Tony Tost, author of the poetry collections Complex Sleep and Invisible Bride. Tost (pictured in the ball cap here) is a regular writer for Longmire and first caught our eye with his allusion to Emily Dickinson in the title of Season 2, Episode 6 ("Tell It Slant"), which he also wrote. So, to a certain extent we could tell that the poetry of "A Good Death Is Hard to Find" was coming, and we've been keeping a lookout for it ever since. And now that we've found it, we're looking for more. Indeed, given both Tost's inclination to the poetic and Longmire's first name (Walt), we're fully expecting to get a Whitman reference somewhere on down the line, which would be, like, totally awesome, as it would allow us to tie Longmire to Breaking Bad and Mad Men in a series of three contemporary shows—indubitably a pattern!—all using variously brooding Whitmans to process their threatened masculinity.

"A Good Death Is Hard to Find" opens with what a banner hanging in the back- ground calls the "Absaroka County Cowboy Poetry Slam" taking place at Henry's bar, the Red Pony Saloon ("and continual soiree"), which you can watch in the first clip below. The poem is by the town's sorta corrupt retired former sheriff, and some humorous scenes throughout the episode show him composing or practicing his poetry. And the episode closes—the second clip below—with a scene in which Longmire quotes the Iliad in a downright poetic "get-out-of-town-before-sunrise" ultimatum he gives to Vic's stalker. So, the episode gives us two sheriffs, both with poems in their mouths: one a writer, one a reader; one sorta corrupt, the other of impeccable honor; one trading in popular poetry, one trotting out the classics. We don't really like how the popular-poetry math works out in this regard, but we'll nevertheless raise our glass—a toast for Tost!—and hope that Tony gives us that Whitman reference we're looking for to help make up for it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Stealing Poetry in North Platte, Nebraska

The P&PC Office has been a little bit ... let's say ... irregular in the frequency of its postings of late, but there's good reason for that, dear reader: we've been in the process of temporarily relocating our offices to Washington, D.C., where we'll spend the Fall 2015 semester doing research at the Library of Congress thanks to the generosity of a five month-long Kluge Fellowship and, of course, Willamette University, which granted us a semester-long leave. (You'll no doubt hear more about the nature of our research in the coming weeks, but you can get the gist of it here, in a posting we wrote while doing preliminary research on site last Fall.) So, the past month or so has been full of details details details having to do with the move: staffing the office in Oregon, finding new digs in D.C., and embarking on a six-day, five-night, 2,800-mile road trip with a (rented) minivan full of essentials, non-perishables, and the two P&PC Office cats. It was a long ride—kind of like doing the Oregon Trail in reverse but without all the wagons, dysentery, and barrels of salted pork—featuring stops in Boise (Idaho), Rock Springs (Wyoming), North Platte (Nebraska), Iowa City (Iowa), and Bowling Green (Ohio) and made somewhat more bearable by the fact that we've been watching Hell on Wheels and, for much of the trip, riding along the route of the transcontinental railroad including passing Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah. But now we're finally in D.C., settled in to our awesome pad across the street from Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill, and more or less installed at our work space in the Kluge Center. The picture of the capitol you see above is the last sight on our daily commute before we disappear into the Library to work.

While stopping in the booming metropolis of North Platte on the way here, we had the pleasure of staying at America's Best Value Inn, an independently owned, 1950s-style motel that we'd recommend to anyone passing by not just because of its cleanliness, affordability, and level of hospitality, but because of the poem "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" (pictured here) that they've got tacked to the wall in each of the motel's 33 rooms. Here's the text of that verse:
Is anybody happier because you passed his way?
     Does anyone remember that you spoke to him today?
The day is almost over, and its toiling time is through;
     Is there anyone to utter now a kindly word of you?
Can you say tonight, with the day that's slipping fast,
     That you helped a single brother of the many that you passed?
Is a single heart rejoicing over what you did or said;
     Does the man whose hopes were fading, now with courage look ahead?
Did you waste the day, or lose? Was it well or sorely spent?
     Did you leave a trail of kindness, or a scar of discontent?
As you close your eyes in slumber, do you think that God will say,
     "You have earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today." 
If you Google the poem, you'll find several versions of it in circulation (this is a shortened version), and you'll also find that there's some dispute as to its author and title. The America's Best Value Inn version attributes it to John Hall. It's been attributed to John Kendrick Bangs. It's been credited to "anonymous" and has oftentimes appeared with no byline at all. To P&PC ears, it sounds exactly like the "people's poet" Edgar Guest (pictured here), and, indeed, it's most frequently attributed to him directly or metonymically via Guest's publisher the Detroit Free Press. (For more on Guest's amazing and ongoing presence in popular culture, see P&PC postings here, here, here, here, and here.) Over the years, it's appeared as "The Day's Results," "The Day's Work," "At Day's End," "Is Anybody Happier," and "Consider Today." In the world of popular poetry, such authorial confusion, editing, and re-titling is a common thing; see, for example, the poetry of Rod's Steakhouse upon which we, uh, ruminated several years ago.

In our estimation, "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow" is most likely by Guest, and while we haven't found the issue of the Detroit Free Press in which it perhaps originally appeared, it most likely dates to 1916 or 1917, and its publication history is a miniature portrait of just how widely such verse circulated. In January of 1917, it appeared in The Journal of Zoophily, "published monthly under the auspices of the American Antivivisection Society, combined with the Women's Pennsylvania Society for the Preservation of Cruelty of Animals." The Lather, put out by the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers International Union, printed it in 1918. The Los Angeles School Journal and The Bessemer Monthly (put out by the Bessemer Gas Engine Company) printed it in 1919. The Gospel Messenger, The Sabbath Recorder, and the Southern Telephone News printed it in 1920. The Chamber of Commerce and State Manufacturers Journal of Scranton, Pennsylvania, printed it in 1921, The Plasterer in 1922, Vision: A Magazine for Youth in 1932, The Railroad Trainman in 1935, and American Flint in 1950. It continues to be reproduced in books and on web sites today.

You get the idea: the poem going by the title "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" has appealed to a wide audience—labor unions, religious folk, youth, animal lovers, civic stakeholders, etc.—for a long time. All the same, after leaving North Platte, and as mile after mile of blacktop ran beneath the dignity of our (rented) minivan, we began to wonder if the version of the poem at America's Best Value Inn tell could tell us anything more about how popular the poem continues to be and how audiences today respond to verse that moves them. So when we got to D.C., we gave the Inn a jingle and talked for a while with the owner Dave.

Dave opened the Inn in 1988 and almost immediately posted copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" in each of the motel's 33 rooms. He doesn't remember where he found the poem, and he doesn't know anything about the author, and neither of those things seem to matter much to him. But he did tell me that, over the years, the motel has sustained an average annual occupancy rate of 60-70%. So, you can do the math by yourself at home: at an average of 22 rooms per day (65% occupancy), that means that at least 8,000 motel guests (a conservative estimate of only one person per room) have the opportunity to encounter the poem in a single year. Calculate that number over the 27 years the hotel has been open under Dave's management (the "poem era"), and you discover that more than 216,000 people have seen "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" just in the rooms of  America's Best Value Inn alone.

But—we began to think halfway through our conversation with Dave—just because someone in a hotel room has the opportunity to read a poem doesn't mean he or she has actually read it, or read it with any semblance of seriousness, right? That's when Dave spoke up, as if anticipating our question. Once or twice a day, he said, people walk in to the main office and ask for a copy of the poem; he's got a stack of them behind the desk to give out for free. What's more surprising than that—especially considering the poem's content—is that every day poems go missing from one to two of the motel's rooms, so frequently that the maid carts carry stacks of replacement poems alongside shampoo bottles and tissue boxes. So, once again, let's do the math. If someone steals a poem from the hotel room every day, that's 365 copies stolen over the course of the year—or nearly 10,000 copies that have been stolen since the beginning of the poem era at America's Best Value Inn! Combine those 10,000 copies with the 10,000 or more that Dave has given away at the front desk during that time, and you've got 20,000 copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" that people have read and considered closely enough in their motel rooms to take certain and definitive action. How's that for concrete evidence of the poem's continued appeal?!

So, Dave's inn has poems on the walls, poems on the maid carts, and poems at the front desk. He's given or lost 20,000 copies of that poem over the past 27 years, and over the phone he seems more than okay with it all, though he does say that, from time to time, someone will call or approach him because they've been offended by "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?," thinking that Dave was in some way prejudging them and telling them to be better hotel guests. But Dave says he's not judging them—not even the folks who steal copies, it seems. Rather, he says the poem's title isn't a judgment or warning but a question, just the way it reads. "I'm wanting them to ask it themselves," he says in that matter-of-fact way that Midwesterners have, like it's meat and potatoes for dinner again. Meat, potatoes, and poetry.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday, June 21, 2015

P&PC Correspondent Catherine Keyser Reviews Francesco Marciuliano's "I Could Pee On This: And Other Poems By Cats"

Editor's Note: Usually the P&PC office cats show little interest in our regular postings and office politics. Sure, they appreciated our analysis of the poetry printed on the packaging for Purina's Friskies Crispies Cheese Flavor Puffs, but—not unpredictably—they were more interested in the puffs themselves. Our posting about the poetry printed on the reverse side of an old "Rat On Toast—For Dinner" stereoview card met with relative indifference, and while we thought our "Stray Cat Ethics of Poetry Criticism" was pretty damn charming, they (Athens and Bella, pictured here) felt it was pretty much common sense.

Thus, when Athens and Bella came to us with paws outspread suggesting that Francesco Marciuliano's new collection I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems By Cats would be excellent material for a posting, we had no choice but to oblige. So we turned to longtime P&PC friend and correspondent Catherine (Cat) Keyser, hoping that she and her housemates Buffy, Spike, and Dorothy Parker (Dottie) might be inspired to write a few lines on the subject of feline purr-sification. An Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, Keyser (pictured here with Dottie) is the author of Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture (Rutgers UP, 2011). Quite fittingly, then, she locates I Could Pee on This in a long tradition (a literary cat-egory, perhaps?) of magazine, newspaper, and popular modernist poetry that includes T.S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Deems Taylor, and Don Marquis. Read on, dear reader, to discover which litter boxes Marciuliano's Twitter-era internet celebrities have inherited from those literary lions—and which ones they've broken in on their own.

Letter from Columbia, South Carolina

Dear P&PC,

Before tendering the commissioned review for I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats, this correspondent must acknowledge that her deskmate Buffy (pictured here) harbored significant reservations about this reviewer's expertise on feline versification. (Subsequently, your loyal correspondent realized that Buffy's efforts to interpose her body between keyboard and screen may have been a bid for food rather than a verdict on the review.)

Francesco Marciuliano, the author (amanuensis?) of I Could Pee on This, is the heir to a long line of cat poets before him. Perhaps most famously, T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939) features the prestidigitation, tom(cat)foolery, and grand larceny of lovable rogues such as Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer, and Rum Tum Tugger. The original edition (pictured here) included a cover illustration by the poet. The kitties shimmying thereon forecast the choreographic feats of the Cats that would grace the stage of the Winter Garden throughout the 1980s.

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats embraced many features of light verse—broad rhymes, rollicking rhythms, nonsense words, tonal grandiosity and thematic deflation, and ironic twists. Ever the modernist, however, favoring inscrutability and interiority, Eliot insisted that cats have a "name that no human research can discover— / But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess." Cats in popular print culture confessed rather more, as in Don Marquis's newspaper column "archy and mehitabel." In a 1927 column, Mehitabel, a cat who claimed to be Cleopatra reincarnated (pictured here), complained that her kittens rather cramped her style:
just as I feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens
it is not archy
that I am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them
If Eliot's jellicle cats played feline flâneurs, Mehitabel flaunted her flapperdom. (She would later be played by Eartha Kitt in a short-running musical by Mel Brooks called Shinbone Alley [1957]).

Cats also resembled columnists: they kept nocturnal hours, liked to doze on couches, and never knew where their next meal was coming from but trusted that someone else would pick up the tab. Composer, music critic, and light verse writer Deems Taylor insisted that he turned to Broadway songwriting because someone had to support his cat, Mrs. Higgins. In a 1912 Smart Set poem called "Jack of All Trades," Taylor offered to get his cat in on a double act: "I can play a jig, or dance it; / I can teach a cat to hurdle through a hoop," for "well, you know, a fellow's got to eat." When Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote humor columns for Vanity Fair under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd, the magazine introduced her alter ego with a cat compatriot (pictured here), whose vantage point above the shoulder seems both inspirational and editorial.

If the cats of interwar light verse seemed like magazine columnists, Marciuliano's cats are decidedly bloggers. They write in free verse, not pesky ballad forms. Each poem is illustrated, not with a cartoonish line drawing, but with a close-up photograph of Instagram ilk. These cats are hyper-aware of their mediated lives, knowing their hijinks are likely to become memes: "But you took that special moment / You posted it online / Now forty million people think / I bark like a dog." They document the minutiae of their daily routines ("I lick your nose / I lick your nose again"). They observe shared occasions (In "O Christmas Tree": "The tree looks better on its side"). They confess their insecurities: "I thought I saw something / I forgot what it was / Now everyone is staring at me."

If the Internet is made of cats, it is perhaps cats who can best show us, not merely their native habits—though the catalog that Marciuliano offers, from keyboard-sitting to faucet-licking, is impressively complete—but also our media habits. These poems uncover the proximity between cats' OCD and ours, their distractibility and our longing for distraction. From the modern period to the digital age, cat light verse expresses the desire shared by cats and their humans to be elevated and adored, tempering that aspiration with the recognition that poetry, like all media, is ephemeral and transitory, dependent, above all, on audience:
In ancient Egypt
We cats were gods
We ruled the heavens
We reigned on earth
So kneel before me
I said come to me
Uh, listen to me
How about just a treat then?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Penny Dreadful: "All sad people like poetry"?

We here at P&PC haven't yet seen the Showtime series Penny Dreadful—"a psychologically dark adult drama filled with intense mystery and suspense"—but the little "Sound Bite" pictured here and appearing in the June 12 issue of Entertainment Weekly has certainly caught our interest. "All sad people like poetry. Happy people like songs," says Vanessa, an "enigmatic, composed, driven woman" who (according to Wiki) apparently "fears little, until the witches' power begins to pick at her strength." Add it to our queue—right after Grimm, True Blood, Crossing Lines, Broadchurch, Witnesses (Les témoins), and Justified? You bet.

Friday, May 29, 2015

1910-1920: The Golden Age of Poetry at the Movies?

The P&P summer interns have been knee-deep in the 1910s of late, as P&PC has been assembling and studying archives for an essay that editor and Northern Illinois University English professor Mark W. Van Wienen has asked us to write on "Popular Verse" from 1910-1920 for Cambridge University Press's decade-by-decade American Literature in Transition series. We're discovering that the 1910s were a special time in the world of popular poetry, a decade when everyone—including the Packers Fertilizer Company of Cincinnati—seemed to be reading and writing poetry. The Packers promotional notebook you see pictured here was bookended by calendars for 1911 and 1912 and contained the poem "Packers Fertilizer (By Almost Truthful James)" in which the "tall" fence posts of the final stanza gesture to the "tall tale" genre which the poem is clearly channeling:
You crowbar your potatoes out,
This fact you won't be doubtin,
Your very fence posts grow up tall
Well, you can hear us shoutin,
Everything grows, save mortgages,
And that's the reason why, sir,
We're selling such an awful lot
Of Packers Fertilizer.
How popular was poetry in the 1910s? Well, writing for the North American Review in 1911, poet and lawyer Arthur Davison Ficke wrote, "just now there appear to be more writers of verse than there have been at any time in the history of literature." A decade later, in her New York Times article "Poetry as a Major Popular Sport," journalist and social commentator Helen Bullitt Lowry wrote, "Not only gentlefolk are now urged to compose their own, but shoe clerks and manicurists, school teachers and bootblacks, policemen, reformers and flappers." And in 1931, considering the damage Modernism had done to the poetry-reading public, H.L. Mencken would look back on the 1910s with nostalgia. "In the last heyday of the craft—say in 1915 or thereabout—" he wrote, "[people] bought poetry so copiously that a new volume of it often outsold the latest pornographic novel." So what if Mencken was creating a bit of a tall tale of his own about poetry before Modernism; the fact that he set his "golden age" of poetry in the 1910s is good enough for us.

Perhaps the most amazing thing we've discovered about the decade of 1910-1920 so far, however, is the number of poems that were adapted to film. Yes, poems in the short and silent film era were regularly made into movies. This is new to us—almost totally brand new. Did you know, for example, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith" was adapted to the screen six times between 1898 and 1936—and that Frank Capra and John Ford each directed a version in 1922? Or that John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller" found its way to screen five times between 1909 and 1928? Or that Tennyson's "Enoch Arden" was adapted ... wait for it ... in 1911, 1914, 1915 and 1916?

Why haven't we seen anything about this before? Has someone written about it, and where? 'Cause we think this is pretty huge, folks. Like, for starters, it's awesome evidence of how supposedly outdated "genteel" poetry helped broker the new medium of film. It allows poetry scholars to bring adaptation theory—and film theory in general—to poetry studies and vice versa. It gives us examples of poem inter-titles and thus a chance to think about how people were reading poetry on screen. It helps us reconceptualize the binary between "popular" and "literary" poetry—since Longfellow and Tennyson, for example, are considered "literary" but appear in a "popular" medium. It furthers the claim that poetry scholars gotta stop looking only at the page—damn the hegemony of the book and the little magazine!—if they want to understand just how big of an impact poetry had on modern life. And it gives us a huge new archive to study, beginning with the Internet Movie Database.

When we search the IMDb for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for example, we find, among other writer credits, the following:

The Village Blacksmith (1897)
Hiawatha (1903)
The Village Blacksmith (1905)
Evangeline (1908)
The Village Blacksmith (1908)
Hiawatha (1908)
Hiawatha (1909)
The Courtship of Miles Standish (1910)
The Death of Minnehaha (1910)
Evangeline (1911)
The Flaming Forge (1913)
Hiawatha (1913)
Hiawatha (1913)
His Mother's Birthday (1913)
King Robert of Sicily (1913)
The Village Blacksmith (1913)
The Children's Hour (1913)
Evangeline (1914)
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1914)
The Village Blacksmith (1917)
Evangeline (1919)
The Village Blacksmith (1922)
The Village Blacksmith (1922)
The Courtship of Myles Standish (1923)
A Woman's Secret (1924)
The Wreck of the Hesperus (1926)
The Wreck of the Hesperus (1927)
Evangeline (1929)

And here's a partial list of films that give Tennyson writing credit:

After Many Years (1908)
Dora (1909)
Dora (1910)
The Golden Supper (1910)
Maud (1911)
Enoch Arden (1911)
Lady Godiva (1911)
Dora (1912)
The Lady of Shalott (1912)
Lady Clare (1912)
A Day That Is Dead (1913)
The Gardener's Daughter (1913)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1914)
Break, Break, Break (1914)
The May Queen (1914)
Sweet and Low (1914)
Enoch Aden (1914)
The Gardener's Daughter (1914)
The Lady of Shalott (1915)
Enoch Arden (1915)
Dora (1915)
Naked Hearts (1916)
The Lady Clare (1919)
A Dream of Fair Women (1920)
The Vanishing Hand (1928)
Balaclava (1928)

Just mull that over for a moment. Mull some more. If these movies were good enough for the likes of John Ford, Frank Capra, and D.W. Griffith (Griffith directed a 1911 version of Enoch Arden, wrote for the 1915 version, and anchored The Avenging Conscience [1914] in Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee"), shouldn't they be good enough for us to take a look at too? Unfortunately, space is too limited for us to do much with this in the "Popular Verse" chapter of the American Literature in Transitions essay that we're currently writing for Cambridge, but check in with that essay when it's published to see what we make of this phenomenon. In the meantime, start watching. And if you're a graduate student or teacher of graduate students, just think about what a great dissertation this-all would make. It's yours for the taking.