Friday, July 25, 2008

Cheeni Rao's "In Hanuman's Hands"

Here's a hilarious excerpt from "In Hanuman's Hands: A Memoir of Recovery and Redemption" by Srinivas (Cheeni) Rao, in the process of being published by HarperOne (an imprint of HarperCollins) and soon to make its way to a bookstore near you:

"So, rather than waste my time going to classes ... I spent most of my time getting high and playing poker. I would walk in on the days of the tests for my premed classes, scribble my answers down as fast as possible, then race out to find something better to do with my time. I was also taking a poetry-writing class, but I'd been writing for a long time before I came to college as a way of dealing with my internal chaos, and so though the poems I created were sorry jumbles of cliche, they at least showed an understanding of basic poetic forms. The instructor was perpetually grumpy, either pissed that getting tenure didn't excuse him from having to teach poetry to a bunch of hacks, or that people only recognized him as the weirdo who had somehow gotten a poem with the last lines 'Put down your flamethrower, honey / you know I always loved you' into the Norton anthology. Since a couple of the students felt it was a class requirement that they talk more than the professor, even if it was only a monologue about the secret meaning of the poem they had scribbled before class, I soon stopped going to that class too."

Now who out there in our home audience can identify the author of "Put down your flamethrower, honey / you know I always loved you"?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Whatever You Wish To Give (Part 2): An Inglorious Milton?

Written and distributed by James Boon Cheatham around 1880, this 20-stanza carrier's address ("Sympathize with the Blind!") incorporates some of the same rhetorical strategies as "A Railroad Boy's Appeal" and "The Wounded Soldier's Appeal" which I've highlighted below: an expressed (though frustrated) desire to labor for one's living as able-bodied Americans do, and appeals to not only Christian charity but to earning one's place in the afterlife. The railroad boy, for example, ends his poem "by-and-by may all we meet / In realms just over there," punning on the word "just" to indicate not only the proximity of that afterlife but the justice he expects to experience when distinctions between abled and disabled are no longer operative. If things are "just over there," then the poem implies that things are not so just over here and that a small donation will help—at least in the short term—to remedy that; the acts of earning capital and earning salvation are parallel if not overlapping endeavors. Indeed, as a quotation in the upper right-hand corner of Cheatham's broadside explains, "Lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven."

In the poem, Cheatham—after imploring his reader "to buy this poem, every line"—explains:

But I'm blind, I cannot see
The beauty of your loving face,
Be true and grateful and He will be
A loving Saviour of His grace.
But there is a day God's saints shall see
And God will give me light,
When Christian friends shall meet above
Where the blind receive their sight.

As with "A Railroad Boy's Appeal," this poem appeals to ideas of justice and equality in the afterlife in order to encourage people on earth to acts of charity. Cheatham relies on the poetic form to impress this as well, using the linebreak in line three to remind people of the reciprocity in the Christian, not-by-faith-alone, contract for salvation: "Be true and grateful and He will be [as well]". Even more interesting is the implication that able-bodied people are rewarded with salvation for leading good lives while the blind are rewarded with sight; there are two sets of rewards. For the able-bodied, faith alone is not good enough to get one into heaven, but for the disabled, faith—and the pain of enduring the world without sight which that faith makes possible—is enough (especially if they serve as town criers for God). Indeed, Cheatham makes this distinction later in the poem when he writes:

I love my Saviour's welcome voice
His word is my delight;
In early life make him our choice
And battle for the right.

A moral compass, the blind person ("I") can hear and delight in the Saviour's "voice"—an act of revelation that privileges sound over sight—but it's the sighted person who has the responsibility (and power) to "make him our [collective] choice" and lead the "battle for the right." The contractual nature of salvation differs depending on one's physical abilities, and the corresponding cultural economics of ability—at least as they are rhetorically positioned—are in the end more complex and more morally entangled than simply flipping two bits to a blind guy.

The prevalence of poems like "Sympathize with the Blind," "A Railroad Boy's Appeal" and "The Wounded Soldier's Appeal" in the 19th century popular print landscape would seem to offer the field of disability studies a rich entryway into that period's discourses about ability and disability and the ways that disabled individuals harnessed not just a genre but an entire rhetorical constellation in surviving an inhospitable world via their wits and linguistic capacities. It should also offer literary critics another way to think about how poetry was used within popular culture; it was not just easy reading.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Poetry for Sale

In writing about the culture of tipping surrounding 19th century carriers' addresses, I was reminded of this photo of "Poetry for Sale" that I snagged off of eBay some time back. I didn't win the auction, but did find that "Curly Shingles" and "Tramp Star" were pseudonyms for Methodist minister Carl Wilson of Brown County Indiana. In 1941, Tramp Starr wrote what is now his most noted work—a volume titled "Population 359" which is set in the town of Milan, Indiana, home to the Milan High School basketball team of the 1986 movie Hoosiers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Whatever You Wish To Give: The Popular Culture of Carriers' Addresses in the 19th Century

When people refer to "carriers' addresses," they usually mean the 19th century New Year's poem-greetings delivered to people's doorsteps by newspaper printers' devils—apprentices who usually were not paid for their work—who were seeking a tip to help pay their room and board for the coming year. These were (typically) clever, sometimes fairly lengthy poems summarizing the previous year's events, often authored by the printers' devils themselves, and frequently ended with an appeal to the homeowner such as the following from an 1870 address "To the Patrons of The Daily Picayune" in New Orleans:

From the fulness of your cheer,
Give to him a little share,
To lighten burdens he must bear—
And may those blessings held most dear,
Be yours throughout the glad New Year,
Gladdening your days forever here,
the Carrier prays.

For more carriers' addresses, see the very nice exhibit hosted by Brown University at Also check out Leon Jackson's "We Won't Leave Until We Get Some: Reading the newsboy's New Year's address" at

But in the 19th century, printers' devils weren't the only ones carrying poems around. Take, for example, the postcard reproduced above: "A Railroad Boy's Appeal." Crippled in an accident, the card's bearer is now selling his "song" to sympathetic passengers or passers-by. The poem concludes:

And now, dear friends, I'm as you see
Poor, helpless and alone;
No other way to buy a limb—
Will you please buy my song?
And may God bless you all,
This is my heart-felt-prayer;
And by-and-by may we all meet
In realms just over there.

Signed "C.E.H.," the postcard has a footer that reads "PRICE.—Whatever you wish to give."

In the more elaborate broadside pictured to the left, "The Wounded Soldier's Appeal," bearer David Gingry, Jr. relates how he was permanently wounded while fighting for the Confederate side in the Civil War. Lest there be any misinterpretation while reading the poem, however, the piece begins with a little prose testimony: "The undersigned, a brave soldier of the army of the Potomac, asks the aid of the people to enable him to support A WIFE AND FIVE CHILDREN, who have no other means of subsistence. He lost his left hand at Petersburg, besides being wounded in his other arm, in his right leg and in the head. Being so crippled, therefore, he is unable to do the day's work of an ordinary laboring man, and the only means left to him to make an honorable living is in selling the following original poem, which he hopes all will be kind enough to buy. He is commended to the generosity of the public generally."

That "original poem" reads, in part:

And, shot in arm, in leg, in head,
In that most fearful, bloody fray,
And left upon the field for dead,
Was he who asks your aid to-day.

But, thanks to God! he lives to see
His wife and children once again,
Though to that wife and children he
Is more a burthen than a gain.

His hand is gone; and thus to aid
Those loved ones in their day of trial,
He sells this little serenade,
And hopes to meet with no denial.

Printed in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the broadside is priced "Ten Cents Each Side." The reverse, in a humorous gesture at a little con, is blank.

Both of these pieces are "carriers' addresses" of a different sort than the ones originating with newspapers; instead of recounting the events of the past year, they recount the bearer's story. Both types stand to remind us of the popular portability that poetry offered before the "slim volume" and "little magazine" became default media for poems. Is there an equivalent today?