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.