Monday, August 4, 2008

Projected Verse

Long before Charles Olsen wrote "Projective Verse" (1950), Americans were projecting their own poetry onto walls, sheets, movie screens, and other backdrops via magic lantern projectors and glass slides such as the one shown here. These lanterns and slides were precursors to the projectors that kept us hostage to family vacation shows in our childhoods or art history courses in undergraduate school; instead of hot-burning bulbs, they ran on kerosene lamp oil and an open flame, but the technology was otherwise fairly similar, offering an in-home or portable quasi-cinematic experience. In some cases, the slides were industrially manufactured, and in other cases people were encouraged to make them at home by sandwiching transparencies between two pieces of glass. "By carefully following the directions," an instruction manual from 1882 reads, "your Magic Lantern will give you much pleasure."

This pleasure included poetry as well. In an age where poetry was read aloud at home, recited in school, encountered on the lecture and Chautauqua circuits, and performed regularly as part of civic events, it's no surprise to learn that a technology enabling people to project it textually would be popular as well. The lyrics to popular songs were projected so people could follow along; cartoon verses preceded feature attractions in movie theaters; some magic lantern slide sets contained only the illustrations for poems—sometimes ballads, sometimes nursery rhymes—presuming the text itself would be read aloud. The 1882 manual I've referenced above ("Home Entertainments, or Evenings with the Magic Lantern") includes, for example, a poem called "The Lazy Ant," and another called "Crossing the Ferry." The instructions for "Crossing the Ferry" read: "Our next picture will show you a ferry scene, and while we are crossing we will relate to you the conversation between the little lovers before us. (Here let a little girl and boy take the part of the young lovers, and recite the poem.)" What would Walt Whitman say to that?!

That same brochure has a page titled "Five Popular Poets" and explains, "I will now show you the pictures of five of our most popular poets." The page no doubt served as a sort of script, containing biographical information on, and excerpts from, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and Alfred Lord Tennyson—a core of Fireside Poets that drove American poetry in the 19th century and who were familiar faces in the American home. Indeed, when Jean Toomer in "Bona and Paul" from Cane (1923) writes "Art sat on the piano and simply tore it down. Jazz. The picture of Our Poets hung perilously," he is referring to the portraits of Fireside Poets that Americans hung on the walls at home.

The Magic Lantern slides remind us that poems are not just produced, but are always used for one thing or another—for family entertainment, advertising, preaching, etc.—as well. That is, the "life" of a poem doesn't stop when the author publishes it. In fact, a poem's social life may become more interesting once it leaves the author's desk and begins to socialize with other poems on magazines pages, in anthologies, on web sites, as it gets excerpted, quoted, reviewed, so on and so forth. Take, for example, the slide I've included here: a poem written in 1848 by one of "Our Poets," Oliver Wendell Holmes, who then published it in the December 1859 Atlantic Monthly as part of his "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" column—a role he'd reprise later as Professor at the Breakfast Table and Poet at the Breakfast Table. (Holmes was not only a physician who coined the term "anesthesia" and the popular author of "Old Ironsides" [1830], but he developed what would become the most popular design for the stereoscope as well—an interest in entertainment technology that must have made him pleased to have his verse become part of magic lantern culture.) This poem concluded Holmes's contribution for December 1859, and he introduced it with the following words:

"And so my year’s record is finished. Thanks to all those friends who from time to time have sent their messages of kindly recognition and fellow-feeling. Peace to all such as may have been vexed in spirit by any utterance the pages have repeated. They will doubtless forget for the moment the differences in the hues of truth we look at through our human prisms, and join in singing (inwardly) this hymn to the Source of the light we all need to lead us and the warmth which can make us all brothers."

No matter how much Holmes (1809-1894) wanted his readers to join him in "singing (inwardly)" this hymn, American audiences did just the opposite: they proceeded to put it to music and sing it outwardly! In so doing, they made it one of the most popular hymns of the 19th and 20th centuries. Says the Cambridge History of English and American Literature, the resulting hymn "belongs to the slender anthology of sacred songs that are indubitable poetry."

I purchased the slide shown here at Kensington's Portobello Market in London, pulling it from a collection once owned by a British church that had no doubt found it necessary to update its technology. Most of the slides were pictures—in fact, most magic lantern slides are pictures, with no more than a small percentage containing song lyrics and poems—but there were 6-8 hymns that were probably projected in front of the congretation in lieu of hymnals. (You can see cues in the margins directing certain parts of the congregation—men and women, women, chorus, pastor—when to sing.) I picked out "Lord of all being, throned afar" as a souvenir. It struck me as important, not just for the combination of poetry and singing there, but for the fact that I was finding it in England. Usually, when we think of the 19th century, we think of America importing British poetry (Tennyson especially) not the other way around, but the Holmes slide suggests how the literary trade routes ran both ways.

Magic lantern poetry seems important to me—and relevant to our current age—for another reason as well, as it helped to transition Americans' reading and entertainment practices away from from the human and domestic scene of the fireside and toward a piece of projection technology and its script. This transition heralds the age of the cinema, radio and tv, an age which would see the replacement of the 19th century hearth by projection and broadcast technologies on a colossal scale. Poetry—and especially the revered poetry of "Our Poets"—helped to provide a sense of continuity for readers encountering and no doubt struggling with the new ways of relating to each other that the new technologies required. With Our Poets at the helm, though, how could this transition be bad?


Jenna said...

Fascinating, Mike. The Methodist church I grew up attending recently installed a large movie screen in the nave. At funerals, poems and photos are projected there; during Sunday service, hymns and scripture. When the thing was installed, some members were so outraged they left the church. Some stayed, figuring they didn't HAVE to look at the screen (the pastor hadn't yet removed the "paper" bibles and hymnals from the pews). Still others joined. Last Christmas, almost in lieu of a sermon, the minister projected lengthy scenes from It's a Wonderful Life.

Pat said...

On a recent trip through Bed Bath & Beyond I noticed a new trend ... mirrors and other decorative elements adorned with words. Most of them were just platitudes or something out of a "successories" catalog, but it reminded me of my freshman year at college. I didn't have any posters, so I decorated my portion of the room with hand-written song lyrics. My roommate was more than a little freaked at my strange taste, but I felt the poetry of those lyrics expressed my state of mind far better than the usual poster. As your post illustrates so well, poetry can be a powerful visual experience.