Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Robert Frost's Christmas Cards

Like many establishments this time of year, “Poetry & Popular Culture” recently held its annual Christmas office party. Over a couple of pints at our favorite local watering hole, Shakespeare's Bar & Grill, we exchanged seasonal rhymes and reflected on the state of holiday greeting card verse. Indeed, my kitchen table still has a stack of cards waiting to be posted. The poetry in them isn't pretty either, and even "Poetry & Popular Culture" staff members (particularly Polly the Paper Shredder and Carl the Copy Boy) found it hard not to shudder at lines such as these inside an American Greetings card:

the best time to remember
the nicest people
in the warmest way

Or consider this next example, inside a Hallmark card that features a skiing penguin dressed in stocking cap and scarf jumping joyfully off an icy slope:

great joy
good cheer
all yours
all year!

This quatrain isn't entirely unremarkable. We kind of like how lines 1 & 2 are tied together by the alliteration of "great" and "good" just as 3 & 4 are linked by "yours" and "year." Even more, we like how those alliterative couplets get broken by the rhyme of "cheer" and "year" between lines 2 & 4—an abcb rhyming pattern that makes us think of the common measure of many hymns, which is quite appropriate given the season's religious orientation. Nevertheless, the poem left us definitely underwhelmed—not a very common experience here at "Poetry & Popular Culture."

All of this made me think of Robert Frost and printer Joseph Blumenthal. For nearly 30 years (from 1935 to 1962, at least), Frost and Blumenthal partnered up to produce finely-printed, delicately-illustrated Christmas cards featuring Frost's poetry, such as the 1961 card pictured to the left. Blumenthal, who ran the Spiral Press of New York from 1926 to 1971—the press for which the typeface now known as Emerson was first designed—made it a practice to work with well-known writers such as W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, William Carlos Williams, Robinson Jeffers and Franklin Roosevelt. So it was with Frost, though it's probably more accurate to call the Frost-Blumenthal productions holiday "greetings" rather than "cards," since many of them were in fact small, saddle-stapled chapbooks and not cards as such.

Some of the greetings reprinted well-known poems such as "The Wood-Pile" (which first appeared, in book form, in North of Boston [1915]) but many others purported to present "a new poem by Robert Frost." This performance of newness—the unveiling of a new poem just in time for Christmas—must have appealed to the people who bought the cards & sent them out, the patrons of Spiral Press and thus patrons of Frost. For not only did Frost send them to his own friends and family, and not only did Blumenthal send them to express his season's greetings, but the Spiral Press printed them for other parties as well. As you can see from the greeting page to the left, Blumenthal left space so he could personalize each card—here in a different color ink—which was no doubt a major selling point for the consumer, who could claim in a roundabout way partial responsibility for the poem's coming-into-being.

Spiral Press worked with a number of artists over the years, each of whom produced designs that go beautifully with Frost's work despite the frequent disconnection of those designs from overtly seasonal themes (see the very cool atomic motif decorating the cover of "Some Science Fiction" to the left, for example). Nowadays the cards are collectors' items you can find on eBay and elsewhere—$25 a pop for some, up to $500 for others that have been signed. We here at "Poetry & Popular Culture" have seen our fair share of them thanks to the nice collection housed in the Special Collections division of the University of Iowa's Libraries. We look forward to piecing together a more complete history of the cards. Who initiated the collaboration? What was the annual press run? Did the press have a list of subscribers committed to buying a set every year, and how much money did Blumenthal and Frost eventually make off of the limited editions?

There is a special link between Frost and Christmas in the American mind, one that Frost and his publishers weren't afraid to play up. Take, for example, Frost's Snow to Snow, a 1936 chapbook issued by Henry Holt & Company which presents twelve of Frost's well-known verses, each one corresponding to a month of the year and ending with December's Christmassy "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." The singular importance of "Stopping By Woods" is established by a facsimile of the handwritten manuscript placed prior to the table of contents. Thus, while the book ends in Christmas, it also begins there as well.

Did Frost write with the potential marketability of Christmas-related items in mind? The poem "Christmas Trees"—first printed in Mountain Interval (1920) and four years later on the broadside seen just above—suggests maybe so. Interestingly, this broadside version of "Christmas Trees" leaves off the subtitle that Frost appended to the poem: "A Christmas Circular Letter." Indeed, while he may not have been thinking of Christmas cards as early as 1920, this subtitle suggests he was well aware of the special communicative moment that holiday greetings might afford a poet who remained open to its possibilities.

Seasonal Meter Readers: Bartlet's Book of Iambic Verse

In Season 1, Episode 10 of Aaron Sorkin's television drama The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet takes several members of his staff Christmas shopping at a rare book store in D.C. Walking down an aisle with best friend and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, Bartlet finds a book he recognizes, and the following exchange takes place.

President Bartlet: Ooh! The Fables of Phaedrus—1886, first edition, red leather label, gilt lettering, engraved frontis. Phaedrus, you know—who was a slave but later granted his freedom by Augustus—wrote his animal fables in iambic verse.

Chief of Staff McGarry: Well, nothing says Christmas like animal fables in iambic verse.

President Bartlet: That's what I say.

"Poetry & Popular Culture" couldn't agree more. Season's greetings, all.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

News Flash: Paging Edgar Guest...

In the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon is on record saying, "I myself make no distinction between 'light' verse and—what?—heavy verse."

Muldoon was speaking about Roger Angell's year-end poem "Greetings, Friends", one of the last remaining instantiations of the Carrier's Address—a retrospective ditty distributed by tip-seeking newspaper boys in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

If you want to see examples of Carriers' Addresses done up the old-school way—long, rhyming, stand-alone recaps of the year's events oftentimes penned and printed by newsboys themselves—check out the amazing collection maintained by the Brown University Center for Digital Initiatives.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Radio Rhymesters? An Interview with "Irving Toast, Poetry Ghost"

A couple of weeks back, news broke in Iowa City that the local public radio station WSUI would no longer commit to broadcasting visiting authors reading from their work on "Live from Prairie Lights." When literary luminaries such as Marvin Bell and current Poet Laureate of Iowa Robert Dana started getting all hot and bothered over the apparently dismal future of radio poetry, it got "Poetry & Popular Culture" wondering about how other poetry radio shows are also faring. So we went a-looking. Turns out, we didn't have to look (or listen) all that far. Just down the road from Iowa City, radio poetry appears to be doing just fine on KRUU 100.1 Fairfield.

Every Monday and Sunday, KRUU airs “Irving Toast, Poetry Ghost” with host Rustin Larson, who features live readings and interviews with new and established poets. "Poetry & Popular Culture" managed to catch up with Larson and chat a little bit about radio, poetry, “Live at Prairie Lights,” and the mysterious KRUU muse—Fairfield’s turn-of-the-century poet laureate Irving Toast.

Chasar: When did you first think "Aha! I need to put poetry on the radio in Fairfield," and how did you make that happen?

Larson: I said "Aha!" in April 2008. In years past I'd attempted to create a venue for poets through a magazine called The Contemporary Review. That lasted a few years and had maybe 80 subscribers at its peak. Even cheaply produced magazines cost more than what they bring in, so I eventually lost heart and gave up the project.

But I still wanted to create some sort of showcase for writers. James Moore, KRUU’s station manager, had for a long time wanted to get me on board with a show. He told me I could do whatever I wanted, so I told him I wanted to do this poetry reading/interview show. I'd made lots of contacts over the years, and my first interview was in mid-April 2008.

Chasar: What happens to poetry when it's on the radio?

Larson: Many things can happen. In a phone interview the distorted sound of a voice on the line can make a poem sound even more elegiac, kind of like a long lost love speaking from the other side. Face to face in the studio, poets give their all. They produce better than regular readings—maybe because they know it's not live but a pre-recorded show; it's almost like they’re creating short recorded books. Since it's also an interview program there isn't this sense of floating aimlessly in space. I'm there to help channel the flow of ideas.

Chasar: Was there really a Fairfield poet named Irving Toast?

Larson: Irving Toast is the true spirit of poetry that lives in the hearts of all people. In some cultures he may go by a different name, but in my household he is known as Irving, and he has a robust imaginary history I hint at in my blogs.

Chasar: The true spirit of poetry? Didn't that go out with the Edsel?

Larson: What's an Edsel? I'm kidding. The spirit of poetry is alive. There’s so much interest in poetry here in Fairfield. A fellow here has created a kind of dinner theater out of poetry at a local cafe. The Maharishi University locksmith is a poet, and quite a good one. The bookstores and coffee houses are wonderful about hosting readings, open mics, and concerts. It's not just here, though. I have nearly 1000 Facebook contacts from all over who are into poetry; many of them have literary presses or host podcasts or radio shows too. Some have appeared on my show (archived and downloadable at

Chasar: How can you make a go of it when WSUI and “Live from Prairie Lights” can't?

Larson: I'm sad "Live from Prairie Lights" was canceled. It did great things for writing, and it really created an event rich in atmosphere each time folks gathered for a reading. But as my station manager says, KRUU is Local Public Radio, not National, so we're not beholden to NPR for sponsorship, consultants or dictates. We don't have any specific formula for how each slot must bring in X amount of money or listenership.

We are who shows up, and our mission is to give voice to the community—to empower folks to ask questions and create programming themselves. We have 100 people producing 80 shows a week, have logged 60,000 volunteer hours, draw 100,000 visitors to our web site, and last year had an entire operating budget of $24,000. We do it without shoestrings—via listener support, underwriting, benefit concerts, small grants, partnerships and donations.

Chasar: Has Garrison Keillor called you yet?

Larson: No, but it would be great to talk to him! I think his Writer's Almanac is another great example of the spirit of poetry being alive. I don't know how many hits his web site gets, but I bet it's a bunch. It's a resource I've used to find poems myself.

A version of this interview appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on Wednesday, December 17, 2008.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chicago Politics

Appeared in the Press-Citizen on December 12

You say you like the North side best?
We’ll say we like the South.
Talk badly to the press of us?
We’ll slug you in the mouth.

Send our guy to the hospital?
Yours will show up dead.
Brag your books are in the black?
We’ll cook ’em till they’re red.

Hope to hold your convention here?
We guarantee you’ll fail.
And your guy goes to Washington?
Another goes to jail.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Punxsutawney Poetry

It's a blustery, cold and icy day here in Iowa City, the sort of day that leaves "Poetry & Popular Culture" wishing for either the end of winter or a swanky winter home in Boca Raton—or both. But finding neither, we turn for solace to one of our favorite movies about the end of winter, the 1993 Harold Ramis film Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a cranky, self-centered misanthrope doomed to repeat the same day over and over until he finally learns to love humanity and thereby earns the affections of his producer Rita, played by Andie MacDowell.

In 1996, Groundhog Day earned a spot on the United States Film Registry as a "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" film. Could it have been for all of the poetry in the movie? "Poetry & Popular Culture" thinks maybe so. Over the course of the story, after all, Connor learns to love humanity by learning to properly love poetry as well. In an early attempt to land Rita in the sack, for example, he quotes a verse from the French poet Jacques Brel. Later, he quotes a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem. And toward the end of the movie, as Rita dozes by his side, he is shown holding Harriet Monroe's Poems for Every Mood and reading aloud to her (Rita, not Harriet) from Joyce Kilmer's "Trees." Far be it from "Poetry & Popular Culture" to underestimate the kismetic qualities of Kilmer; when Connor wakes up the next morning, Rita is still by his side, the curse is broken, and Connor begins the rest of his life as a new man.

Our favorite scene here at "Poetry & Popular Culture," however, comes early in the movie before Phil begins the self-improvement program that sets himself on the road to existential recovery. In that scene, Rita and Phil are sitting at a table at the Tip Top Cafe where Rita watches Phil hedonistically embrace his newfound immortality by stuffing himself with rich, calorie-laden foods. A buffet of flapjacks, donuts, and frosted cakes stretches between them, and Rita stares in disbelief as Phil drinks straight from a pitcher of coffee. Here's part of their exchange.

Rita: Don’t you worry about cholesterol, lung cancer, love handles...?

Phil [lighting a cigarette]: I don’t worry about anything ... anymore.

Rita: What makes you so special? Everybody worries about something

Phil: That’s exactly what makes me so special. I don’t even have to floss.

[Here, much to Rita's obvious disgust, Phil stuffs an entire piece of frosted cake in his mouth. A dab of frosting sticks to his cheek where it remains for the rest of this exchange.]

Rita: Uh!

Phil: What?

Rita: The wretch concentered all in self,
living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And doubly dying shall go down
to the vile dust from whence he sprung
unwept, unhonor'd, and unsung .... Sir Walter Scott.

[Murray laughs]

Rita: What, you don’t like poetry?

Murray: I love poetry. I just thought that was Willard Scott. I was confused.

For those of you who are curious, Rita is quoting from the sixth canto of Scott's The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Apparently, those French poetry majors—not to mention Ramis and his Hollywood collaborators—know their British poetry pretty well too.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Business Bards: The Serial Shillers

"Poetry & Popular Culture" continues to showcase the small-business poets of yesteryear—such as Dr. C.B. Weagley Veterinary Surgeon and C.G. Blatt's Photographic Emporium—who hawked their services, wares, and varying levels of expertise via poetry. Relying on their bardness to take care of their bidness, these inglorious Miltons participated in the project of America's free enterprise if not the freeing of its verse.

Today's first card (pictured here) comes to us from The Palace Saloon and Restaurant of 16 Public Square, Hagerstown, MD. Perhaps printed up around the turn of the century to advertise a change of ownership (the card notes "Formerly Bruce's" and lists David A. Wilson as the new man in charge), the pocket-sized ad also goes out of its way to appeal to the finer sex by noting the saloon includes a "Private Dining Room For Ladies."

Turn the card over, however, and the guise of family respect- ability disappears with "The Woodpecker," a bit of verse that hearkens back to the days of bawdy street ballads to not only pitch The Saloon but to inform local elbow-benders that they would find "Theo R. Helb's Celebrated Lager always on draught." If the front of the card secures a space for the ladies, then this Number 3 in a series of bawdy rhymes one could collect is used to announce The Saloon as the #1 choice for the guy's night out. Here's "The Woodpecker" in its entirety:

A wood-pecker flew in a School-house yard,
And pecked and pecked till his pecker got hard,
So he lit on the sill, just about the door,
And he pecked and pecked till his pecker got sore,
And when he looked at his pecker his countenance fell.
For no more could he peck till his pecker got well,
And now when he thinks of the School-house yard,
His head gets red and his pecker gets hard.

Admittedly, "The Wood- pecker" appeals to my adolescent sense of humor, but it also interests me because both poetry and popular poetry have long been gendered as spaces for female literacy and female supervision. Women were often charged with taking care of education, were responsible for selecting family reading matter (even though pops might have then taken it upon himself to read it aloud), and engaged in the practice of poetry scrapbooking more often than men did. Ezra Pound no doubt had a hand in the characterization of poetry as female when he derided popular and nineteenth-century verse alike as the kind of "emotional slither" that "Aunt Hepsy liked." A poem like "The Woodpecker," however, suggests a parallel tradition of guy poetry as well—less your angel in the household and more your lug in the pub.

"The Woodpecker" is made even more suggestive for me when I compare it to the second business card featured in this posting, pictured to the left, which advertised the Schenk Publishing Company of Keokuk Iowa, just down the road from where I write. Far from appealing to the street tradition of ballad slinging and bawdy broadsides, much less to a shot or two of rye, F.J. Schenk ties the fortunes of his business to the turn-of-the- century temperance movement that would eventually result in U.S. prohibition. Like all the social movements of Progressive-Era America—women's suffrage, the cleanliness movement, Muscular Christianity, etc.—the temperance cause inspired and was accompanied by lots of poetry like "The Booze Fighter Poem" on Schenk's card.

Like the ad for The Palace, "The Booze Fighter" is part of a series of cards that potential customers could collect, except that Schenk's card doesn't offer a poem in its entirety but just the last two stanzas which are introduced as the "Continuation and End" of the poem. Readers hoping to obtain access to the complete narrative would have had to keep a special eye peeled for more of The Hawkeye Poet's work and even swap with friends to assemble a complete set. Unfortunately, I can't give you the start of the poem—if you find it, please send it in!—but "The Booze Fighter Poem" concludes:

Then he had the tremens,
And he tackled the rats and snakes,
First he had the fever,
Then he had the shakes;
At last he had a funeral,
And the mourners had the blues;
And the epitaph carved for him was—
He blamed it on the weather,
But he never blamed the booze.

An odd couple of business bards, Wilson and Schenk not only attest to the regular presence of poetry in the turn-of-the-century's business world but to the diversity of causes that that poetry served. Whether you were pouring a tall one or hoping to ban it, poetry would have been a go-to genre, not just for Aunt Hepsy, but for the entire—and extended—family.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Good News About "Good Bad Poetry"?

Imagine the surprise over here at "Poetry & Popular Culture" to learn that one of this blog's favorite terms—"good bad poetry"—is now being bandied about by the folks over at the Poetry Foundation which, in its own words, "exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience." On the Foundation's blog "Harriet," Javier Huerta begins "Mcgonagalls All" with the November 29 declaration, "More and more I am convinced that what we need now is a revival of bad poetry" and goes on to try to distinguish between "good bad poetry or bad bad poetry."

Now, far be it from "Poetry & Popular Culture" to take particular umbrage at the Poetry Foundation's use of the term "good bad poetry"–despite the fact that Huerta doesn't cite the essay "Writing Good Bad Poetry" that appeared in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine and that was excerpted on this blog back in October. No, I repeat, there is no umbrage taken, in part because the term "good bad poetry" is an adaptation of George Orwell's term "good bad fiction." While the Poets & Writers essay did acknowledge the Orwellian origin of "good bad poetry," it's perhaps no surprise that the folks at the Poetry Foundation want to make it seem like the term originated there—in the million-dollar Chicago offices of the nation's oldest and most prestigious little magazine. After all, it's Poetry's own standard-bearer T.S. Eliot who famously quipped that while good writers borrow, great ones steal—a quip Eliot himself cribbed from Oscar Wilde.

No, "Poetry & Popular Culture" takes no offense at this, nor even at Huerta's own description of bad poetry as "a value neutral category of writing that involves the affected, the hyperconventional, the ornamental, the anticlimactic, the disproportionate." What does rankle "Poetry & Popular Culture," however, is how quickly Huerta's posting reduces the expansive category of "good bad poetry" to humorous poetry. Barely 75 words into his blog posting, and immediately after distinguishing between "good bad poetry" and "bad bad poetry," Huerta brings up the International Society for Humor Studies and, from there on out, "good bad poetry" and "humor" become inseparable. The specters of Ogden Nash, Mark Twain, and William McGonagall are raised to debate the intentionality or unintentionality of humor, while the larger category of poetry that "involves the affected, the hyperconventional, the ornamental, the anticlimactic, the disproportionate" goes entirely unexplored.

While it's nice to see the term "good bad poetry" gain some currency, it's a shame—though admittedly predictable, too predictable—to see its simultaneous devaluation at the hands of the Poetry Foundation. If the Foundation really is "committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture" as it says it is, then it should be wary of such mischaracterization and explore, instead, the many other ways that good bad poetry—and its ornament and convention—might do more than just provide a chuckle or two for the folks in the Windy City.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Thankful for What?": A Scrapbook for Thanksgiving 2008

Between the Civil War and World War II, Americans were fanatical scrapbookers, cutting and pasting their way through all of print culture—magazines, newspapers, trade cards, advertisements, greeting cards, playbills, almanacs, broadsides, booklets, brochures and the like—and archiving any and all material of interest or even potential interest. Families sat down to scrapbook together. Louisa May Alcott said she read "with a pair of scissors in my hand," and her literary brothers and sisters kept pace: Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Jack London, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Amy Lowell, Lillian Hellman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carl Sandburg, Carl Van Vechten, and Vachel Lindsay all kept scrapbooks of various sizes, stripes and sophistication.

Of course, less celebrated Americans kept scrapbooks as well, and one of the more surprising things to learn about American scrapbooking is that it very often included poetry. Not just included, but centered around, focused on, and devoted itself to good, bad and ugly verse of all kinds. Americans sometimes maintained these personal anthologies for years, sometimes from generation to generation, sometimes working in concert with other scrapbookers. The resulting albums are fascinating artifacts from America's literary past.

Over the past several years, I've managed to collect about 100 such poetry scrapbooks, some of which are beautiful, some of which are falling apart, some of which are 200 or 300 pages long, and some of which I've been able to post online for your viewing pleasure at Poetry Scrapbooks: An Online Archive. As Thanksgiving approaches, however, I thought I'd shine an autumnal light on one poetry scrapbook in particular, a veritable cornucopia of clippings which was likely assembled during the Depression or World War II and which contains the page pictured to to the left and the two pages which follow. (Just click on the images for larger, more readable versions.)

This scrapbook takes the months of the year as its organizing rubric, perhaps borrowing that structure from the farmer's almanacs that had been a regular part of American life since the 1800s. (Think of the almanac in Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Sestina," for example.) It begins with poems about Valentine's Day, then features a page spread on March which is followed by poems about April and a short illustrated narrative in verse titled "An Easter Eggs-ploit." The section on Thanksgiving consists of seven illustrated poems spread out over the space of the three pages seen here.

Even taken out of context, these pages display many of the hallmarks of poetry scrapbooks more broadly speaking. For starters, the material included here crosses literary "brow" lines, ranging from apparently trite or sentimental popular verse to "A Tribute to the Pilgrims," written by then-Poet Laureate of England, John Masefield. Also, poems that appear to be unpolitical or not at all socially engaged oftentimes acquire a degree of social engagement by virtue of their relation to other poems: the piece by Masefield, for example—in which the settling of New England is described as "the sowing of the seed from which the crop of modern America has grown"—pulls the surrrounding poems about farming and nature (such as "Harvest Time," "Sumac," and "Flight South") into a larger discourse about U.S. history and identity. Lastly, as with many scrapbooks put together during the Depression, certain financially-oriented figures of speech such as

Flowers and sunrises, stars and rainbows,
Health and strength and friendship's ties,
Join in balancing life's budget,
For that Roll Call in the skies.

invite particular speculation about how inspirational or sentimental poetry functioned during times of economic crisis to both help people process the nature of that crisis and identify value systems other than capital by which they could orient their lives.

Scrapbooking is undoubtedly a nineteenth- and twentieth-century version of commonplace book-keeping—a literary activity in which people hand-copied passages from books into their own personal journals or ledgers. Over the years, the word "commonplace" has changed in meaning, going from a term that suggested a particular, even extraordinary value to a term that now usually means "ordinary" or even "trivial." At times, the popular verse in poetry scrapbooks—and especially Depression-era poetry scrapbooks—uncannily performs this etymological history in reverse: seizing on the ordinary and promoting it as extraordinary. The poem "Thankful for What?," for example, is a litany of thanks "just for little things" and concludes:

[Let me be thankful] For little friendly days that slip away,
With only meals and bed and work and play,
A rocking-chair and kindly firelight—
For little things let me be glad tonight.

In a sense, this poem asks for the power to be thankful for the commonplaces in life, not just in literature—for the valuable parts of living that have become, like their literary antecedents, ordinary or trivial over time. That is, in a sense, this poem wishes to extend the literacy practice of commonplacing or scrapbooking into a sort of philosophy of living in which the apparent scraps of life have unanticipated or unrecognized value. That's not a bad thing to think about this November 27 as we teeter on the edge of another depression and wonder where, oh where, the next bailout will come from.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Put Readings on YouTube"

Here's the skinny on what's been happening literature-wise in Iowa City of late. After several years of application-making, bell-ringing, and horn-tooting, Iowa City was named a UNESCO "world city of literature," joining Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia as the only other cities in the world with that designation. Check out the press release yourself here. Way to go, Iowa City.

At the same time, as it was becoming clear that Iowa City would indeed achieve "world city of literature" status, Iowa Public Radio announced that it would be dropping "Live From Prairie Lights" from its programming schedule. For as long as most people remember, "Live From Prairie Lights" has broadcast visiting poets and fiction writers reading, well, live from Prairie Lights Bookstore in downtown Iowa City. Apparently, though, a number of forces conspired to drive listeners away. The show's host was boring. The readers (like many readers) didn't perform their work with any particular flair. And the show ran once or twice on air which, as you and I both know, simply ain't gonna fly in an age of YouTube and podcasts. Are you gonna rearrange your schedule, wait until 8 pm, then tune in your crystal set to listen to a boring reading followed by an even more boring set of questions? "Poetry & Popular Culture" sure isn't.

But the old-time codgers here in Iowa City—many of whom haven't listened to "Live From Prairie Lights" in ages (and many of whom would privately admit that the show actually is pretty boring)—have been lamenting the passing of the wireless torch and the demise of the radio show. How horrid, they say, that on the eve of being designated the world's third city of literature Iowa City should strip away its literary radio programming. Some heavies like former Iowa Poet Laureate and Writers' Workshop teacher Marvin Bell and current Iowa Poet Laureate Robert Dana have weighed in on the controversy.

And what follows is Mike Chasar's take on the topic, a view officially endorsed by "Poetry & Popular Culture."

Appeared in the Press-Citizen on November 25, 2008

Put Readings On YouTube

Congratulations, Iowa City, for being designated UNESCO's third City of Literature. Via the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the International Writing Program and other innovative and historically significant literary efforts, you have changed the way writing happens in the United States and around the world.

It is now time to remember that history, stop lamenting the disappearance of "Live from Prairie Lights" from Iowa Public Radio and seize on that disappearance as an opportunity to reimagine what such broadcasts might look and sound like in a digital age where podcasts and YouTube reach a much larger audience than WSUI and Julie Englander ever could.

Radio poetry history

Literature has long been a part of public and commercial radio programming. In the 1920s, poetry radio shows emerged as popular parts of the media landscape. Some shows -- like Ted Malone's "Between the Bookends" and Tony Wons's "R Yuh Listenin'?" -- were broadcast nationwide and had large, avid audiences who not only waited by their sets to hear poems read aloud to live organ music, but who flooded the studios with fan mail as well.

At the height of his popularity in the 1930s, Malone's show received more than 20,000 fan letters per month. Much as I hesitate to mention that other state university north of Ames, you can go there and read some of these fan letters yourself, which are now in the Arthur B. Church Papers in the Special Collections Department of that university's Parks Library.

Malone and Wons weren't the only ones to dazzle first generation radio audiences with poetry. A.M. Sullivan's "New Poetry Hour" on WOR (New York) strove to broadcast poetry of only the highest literary quality. Eve Merriam's Out of the Ivory Tower on WQXR (New York) featured Leftist poets reading their work. Ted Malone was known for showcasing "amateur" poetry sent in by his listeners, but he also read poetry by Shakespeare, Keats, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot.

And on the eve of World War II -- when radio was the major source of up-to-the-moment news for many Americans -- NBC broadcast Edna St. Vincent Millay's book-length propaganda poem "The Murder of Lidice" to a nationwide audience of millions. It was performed by Hollywood actor and two-time Academy Award nominee Basil Rathbone and was accompanied by a chorus of singers. Not only was that broadcast shortwaved to England and Europe, but the poem was translated into Spanish and Portuguese and beamed to South America as well.

Finding today's audiences

Those days may be over, but audiences still await -- though they're not sitting in Prairie Lights, nor, apparently, are they sitting by their radios diligently tuning in to Iowa Public Radio.

Instead, they are online watching "The Daily Show" and Tina Fey impersonate Sarah Palin on YouTube. They are downloading podcasts. They tune in at their convenience, but they do so in enormous numbers.

"Live from Prairie Lights" should find a model in President-elect Barack Obama, who recently gave the weekly Democratic radio address not just on radio, but also for the first time on YouTube.

If, as one university official claimed, "Live from Praire Lights" is a "standard-bearer" for Iowa City's literary culture, then it should not be constrained by the time tables of either a bookstore or a public radio schedule. It should be recorded in video and audio formats. It should be posted online for listeners to access at their convenience -- at a coffee shop, at work, or even (anachronistic as it might sound) at a fireside.

The readings of Iowa City's writers and visiting writers should be posted on YouTube where people not just in Iowa City, but around the world, can access them. Imagine the global audiences who might tune in to hear participants in the International Writing Program read from their work.

If "Live from Prairie Lights" really is the "gem" that people say it is, then why not share that wealth with as many people as possible? That would not only be a move in keeping with Iowa City's leadership and innovation in arts and letters, but the mark of a true world city of literature as well.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Thus you in Chouder always must begin": From the Poetry & Popular Culture Mailbag

Kevin Lindamood of Healthcare for the Homeless in Baltimore and an amateur poetry sleuth in his own right writes in:

Saw this poem re-printed from the Sept. 23 1751 edition of the Boston Evening Post and thought of you. Doesn't this fit with your thesis in some way? Earlier time period to be sure, but still, it proves your point.

Published in the Boston Evening Post
September 23, 1751

Meant to educate and delight, this poem was the first recipe for chowder to appear in this country. Its musicality and rhyming may have made it easy to remember, as many colonists never learned to read.

First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning,
Because in Chouder there can be no turning:
Then lay some Pork in Slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crosswise very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak'd some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel:
For by repeating o're the Same again,
You may make Chouder for a thousand Men.
Last bottle of Claret, with Water eno' to smother 'em
You'll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather 'em.

Poetry & Popular Culture Responds:

With its fourteen lines of rhyming couplets, this fishy sonnet is indeed a delight, although "Poetry & Popular Culture" has its suspicions about any poem claiming to be "the original" or "the first" of anything. However, more than one history of chowder cites the poem as originary, so I'll not, ahem, stew over that aspect of the recipe for now.

What intrigues me about "The Original Fish Chowder" is its print history. To begin with, I wonder why the recipe needed to be printed by the Boston Evening Post in the birthplace of chowder in the first place. Was there a chowder duel that this poem attempted to resolve? A longstanding feud about to boil over? Was some chowdery flash-in-the-pan marketing his or her new brand of soup and thus threatening to eclipse the original? Indeed, by harnessing the Augustan heroic couplets of poet-essayist Alexander Pope (who died seven years before the recipe was published), the poet of "The Original Fish Chowder" affords this particular recipe a certain authority it wouldn't perhaps have in prose.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that "The Original Fish Chowder" has been reprinted in Martha Stewart Living of all places—a fact that you, dear correspondent, neglected to mention in your missive to "Poetry & Popular Culture." Why did you clam up so? Were you ashamed to admit that you've been dallying in these pages? Why the hush, puppy? It appears that Martha's in touch with our favorite side of American literary history, and for that, I hoist a tall one in her name.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pedestrian Poetry

A few weeks back, my friends over at Vowel Movers were crowing about a perfect pair of poetry pumps from Nine West that went perfectly with their Sylvia Plath dresses. Ever on the lookout for new and interesting footwear, "Poetry & Popular Culture" is happy to call attention here to the "Poetic License" brand line featuring lyrically trendy styles such as "Romance," "Tranquility," "Venom," and the "Breathless" Mary Jane pictured to the left. Hopefully now, Vowel Movers, you'll finally be able to work those Gertrude Stein slacks—or your Elizabeth Barrett Browning hoop skirt, or that Edna St. Vincent Millay twin-set, or even your Beowulfian bodice—into a complete outfit to take on the town. Carrie Bardshaw, eat your heart out.

While "Poetry & Popular Culture" is hardly in the business of dispensing advice on matters sartorial, it nevertheless can offer a poetry pamphlet, "The Shoe Day of Judgment," in the way of a gentle cautionary tale. Produced in 1900 by the St. Louis Wertheimer-Swarts Shoe Company, manufacturers of Clover Brand Shoes (not Joshua Clover Brand Shoes), the pamphlet is a warning for those who might all-too-casually slip "Venom" or "Romance" onto their hoofers and go about their daily lives, wearing those shoes hither and thither, willy-nilly through sleet and snow and city and countryside with little consideration for the well-being, care, and feeding of the shoes themselves.

"The Shoe Day of Judgment" begins with a short preface, "Abuse of Shoes," explaining the man- ufacturer's complaint and appealing for "some sense": too many people hold a shoemaker responsible not for flaws in workmanship but for the consumer's irresponsible misuse. "There is nothing," Wertheimer-Swarts proposes, "that clothes mankind so much abused, and yet is so unreasonably expected to continue Perfect in Fit, Style, Workmanship and Service, as are its Shoes. We appeal to a fair-minded, thinking public to give a few facts their consideration. No two persons wearing the same grade and make of shoes will realize the same service. Leather will wear out. Gritty soil, briars, rocky and rough surfaces, Scuff and Peel soft, velvety uppers. Fine mellow tannages of leather in footwear exposed to extremes of weather, to Heat and Cold, to Mud and Slush, will crack. Seams put to such tests Rip. Failure to care properly for your shoes, by frequent cleaning, oiling and dressing, exposes them to rapid destruction and decay."

"Such abuses," the shoe company goes on, "are the burden of our song." And what a song it is! In 35 ballad stanzas, "The Shoe Day of Judgment" tells of a shoemaker who falls asleep and dreams of a day when shoe-abusers get their comeuppance for unfairly holding manufacturers responsible for every crack, rip, or tear caused by misuse. A farmer who puts his shoes against the fire and redeems them for a new pair the following day is sent to hell. A boy who tears his shoes on "gravel, brick and stone" is sentenced to twelve months of study without vacation. A teamster—not yet part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters—has his "foolish head" soaked. Another man is sent to a thousand years in jail because he returned his shoes:

I bought them small, I must confess,
To make my feet look smaller,
Yet soon returned them by express,
Marked 'C.O.D. $1.00.'"

While calling attention to the particular pleasure of rhyming "smaller" with "$1.00," "Poetry & Popular Culture" also wishes to direct attention to the similar fate of the maid, which may be of special interest to those smiling yet careless misses seeking out Nine West's Poetry pump or any of the Poetic License products currently on the market:

Then came a maid, a smiling miss,
Whose action naught condones,
Who careless ran, that way and this,
And walked on glass and stones.

Back to the dealer with an air
Of injured worth she went:
"I'll have to have another pair;
These are not worth a cent!"

Oh, when the Judge encountered this,
His mien was most severe.
"You'll have to go, my careless miss,
Barefooted for a year!"

While "The Shoe Day of Judgment" may be a harrowing tale, its use of poetry as both a tool for advertising and instruction in the consumer marketplace is not unusual, as virtually every product was hawked via verse at one time or another during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Back then, poems were employed for their prestige or entertainment values. Nowadays, though, at least to judge from Nine West and Poetic License, the title of Poetry is grafted directly onto the product itself, because what can be more reassuring in our uncertain age than knowing that what we buy—indeed, even the very act of buying—is where, in fact, the poetry's at.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

At the Foxhead on Election Night

Appeared in the Press-Citizen November 7, 2008

How to say it except to say it straight?
I saw things on Tuesday night that I
never expected to see and which I’ll try
to tell to my grandkids, who’ll say I exaggerate:
the first black man elected president
amidst fears of war and economic depression;
McCain delivering a genuinely touching concession;
a white man from Alaska, his head bent,
crying after hearing Obama speak;
Chicago’s million-strong all-nighter;
and, to cap off a night of dreaming, a writer
walking into the bar as usual, except this week
his date was a life-size doll of Uncle Sam,
and he was giddy and smiling, and it wasn’t a sham.

More on Good Bad Poetry:

"Writing Good Bad Poetry"
"My Poetic License"
"OMG! Buddhist Nun Texting Novel"
"Dinosaur Descendant to be Dad at 111"
"Cat Chasing Mouse Leads to 24 Hour Blackout"
"Man Faces Jail for Smuggling Iguanas in His Prosthetic Leg"
" 'Lingerie Mayor' Vows to Stay in Office"
"O.J. Simpson Questioned in Vegas Incident"

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

At the Border with William Carlos Williams

'Twas New Year's Day in 2005. I'd spent a great Christmas in Vegas, had seen and hiked the Grand Canyon for the first time, and had driven down through Arizona to visit friends in and around Tucson, falling in love with the landscape and the saguaro cacti. Preparing to cross from the U.S. into Mexico at Nogales, Arizona, with my wife and two friends on January 1—my first time south of the border—I came to stand before this marble monument etched with an excerpt from the poem "At Night" by William Carlos Williams:

The stars, that are small lights—
now that I know them foreign,
uninterfering, like nothing
in my life—I walk by their sparkle
relieved and comforted.

Mind you, the border at Nogales is not easy on the eyes, nor is its landscape a particularly poetic one—at day or night. A huge corrugated steel fence topped with razor wire runs as far as the eye can see up the hill in both directions, decorated on the Mexico side with artistic memorials for those who've died trying to make the cross.

Not easy on the eyes. Not easy on the soul. And not easily poeticized. Indeed, what sort of relationship between the U.S. and Mexico was the U.S. border guard trying to enact by erecting the excerpt from "At Night" (first published in Matthew Josephson's avant garde magazine Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts in 1923)? How are we supposed to read the stars of the poem—"foreign, / uninterfering"—in this border context? Is it supposed to be descriptive of Mexico? Is it a fantasy about the way the U.S. would like Mexico to be? Is it comparing the idealized stars, "like nothing / in my life," to the actual state of border politics which is anything but uninterfering? Is the focus on the stars rather than on real circumstances a wish to wash away the reality of border violence? It's not entirely clear how we're supposed to read "At Night" in this borderland, but "Poetry & Popular Culture" can't help but find the desire to be "relieved and comforted" a fatuous one on the part of U.S. border police.

This is made all the more confusing by the fact that Williams has been chosen as this border's bard. As we all know, the Good Doctor was born in, and lived most of his life in, New Jersey—far from the Mexico/Arizona border. While Hispanic in origin, the "Carlos" in his name does not come from Mexico as the monument's placement suggests, but from Puerto Rico where his mother was born. Despite the bilingual English/Spanish translation of the marbleized poetry, Williams's Hispanic roots themselves have little to do with Mexico or this part of the U.S.

As a poetic ambassador intended to ease—or get people to ignore—the pains of the border fence and the separation of families and loss of lives that that fence represents, this monument is as grotesque a failure as the corrugated steel and razor wire itself. Leave it up to the politicos to not only attempt to beautify or distract us from the ugliness of their policies, but to then confuse the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico with the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico—lumping all Spanish speakers into one idealized "foreign, / uninterfering" group of people! The Good Doctor must be rolling in his grave.

Friday, October 31, 2008

In Search of the Bad Poetry File at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Earlier this week, "Poetry & Popular Culture" received a tip from Stephen Headley—Manager of the Magazines & Newspapers Department at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County—who said that a "bad poetry file" existed somewhere in the depths of that library's collection. Headley put me in touch with Bruce Sherwood, a reference librarian and 30-year veteran of the library, who confirmed that said archive does in fact exist but under the name of the "Auxiliary Poetry File," known as APF for short.

Sometimes, Sherwood told me, those with somewhat less appreciation for the cultural importance of popular poetry than "Poetry & Popular Culture" has, called the APF the "Awful Poetry File." I asked Sherwood if said negative elements had been purged from the library, but he didn't comment. Instead, he sent me this official description of the collection, which consists of an amazing 55 boxes of index cards:


APF: Auxiliary Poetry File (ca. 1900-1950)

A unique, home-grown index comprised of fifty-five boxes of yellowed index cards with author/title citations to poems culled from selected magazines, newspapers and grade school readers in the early part of the twentieth century. Presumably intended to augment Granger's Index to Poetry, this covers lesser poets or, "bards not sublime," published in non-literary periodicals such as Life and Stars and Stripes and includes many full-text poems from local newspapers -- hand cut and pasted by librarians on three-by-five cards.

Although limited in time and scope, this is an irreplaceable resource because there is no known index to newspaper and textbook verse. Selection is heavy on World War I-era patriotic verse. The APF is especially treasured by those of an earlier generation who wish to recall poems they once memorized from their McGuffey readers.

Affectionately referred to by staff as the "Awful Poetry File," perhaps because most of the poems are "awfully" hard to locate and a few are just plain "awful," the APF has been somewhat eclipsed in purpose, if not coverage, by the World Wide Web.

Sherwood then went on to gloss this description for me even further:

"Although the file has been largely supplanted by the Internet, it is also no doubt true that a large percentage of the entries will not be found elsewhere. It is arranged in a Granger's Index style, with entries for authors, titles, subjects, and first lines in one alphabet. Not all of the poems are 'bad,' nor do all of the 3" x 5" cards consist of pasted clippings from newspapers and magazines. Some entries are just locational notes (e.g., 'Wharton, E. -- Hunting song, Literary Digest, Vol 38, p. 816'), and some are cryptic, such as the title listing for 'A Hymn of Hate,' which is attributed to Dorothy Parker and shown as occurring in five nonsequential issues of Life magazine in the early 1920s.

"During my tenure in Literature and Languages and its predecessors (1980-2007), it was used mainly as a last resort in the years before World Wide Web searching became commonplace. That is, after following up all hunches and tediously checking the many volumes of Granger's, a meticulous search required a run through the APF. At that point the exhausted librarian could confidently tell the patron that he or she had searched EVERYWHERE.

"Before Google, the APF was a significant (if incomplete) source for ephemeral verse. In public libraries, poetry texts are frequently requested by the elderly, who are trying to remember a poem learned in the single-digit years. Then there are many who want the 'correct' text of a half-remembered poem they may have seen on a greeting card or wall plaque. If they could remember the first three words of the title or first line correctly, then the APF could sometimes help them."

I can't speak for the readers of "Poetry & Popular Culture," Bruce, but I will go to sleep happier tonight for knowing the APF exists. And I will hope that some affluent reader of this blog comes up with a cool fortune to help the library digitize & make searchable this amazing resource.