Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"This is a Year for Luck and Joy": New Year's Greetings from Poetry & Popular Culture

We here at the Poetry & Popular Culture Office like New Year celebrations a lot, in part because they make us remember the carrier's greeting or carrier's address—that rhyming summary of the year's events which 18th- and 19th-century newspaper printer's devils composed and handed out in search of some walking around money to take into the new year. If you don't know of this tradition, then you should check out the collection from the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays that Brown University has made available online. As you browse the 900 examples there, be sure to also take in the great introductory essays by Mary T. Russo and Leon Jackson, and consider for a moment how the year-end (Christmas) tip you leave for the people who deliver your newspaper or mail in fact has its roots in practices established more than two centuries ago.

The 1933 carrier's address presented here—an illustrated calendar that people could hang in their homes year-round (to the left)—is worth noting for a variety of reasons. (The month-by-month calendar is under the poem.) First, it suggests that the form, at least in name, extended further into the 20th century than most folks tend to think. The elaborate and sometimes epic accounts of the previous year's news-worthy events got shortened, greetings got more general, and the tip the delivery boy sought got rerouted through the circuits of commercial infrastructure. Greetings increasingly came from from the papers themselves, coming in the form of promotional materials that established the business/company name as the primary point of contact between producer and consumer (and not the names of specific printers' apprentices, once often included on the poems they authored and distributed but obscured here by the generic job title of "Your Carrier Boy").

In the process of this trans- formation, the wide- spread, compar- atively secular practice of sending New Year's greetings gradually got pulled into the orbit of the Christmas holidays, thus making the carriers' seasonal rhymes—and this is a second item of interest to note—part of the prehistory of the 20th-century Christmas card. (American Greetings was founded in 1906 and Hallmark in 1910; along with the automobile, the airplane, the x-ray, the machine gun and the safety razor, the commercially-produced greeting card is pretty much a modern invention.) We here at the P&PC Office see this publishing shift in fact being subtly acknowledged in the phrase "New cards are being dealt" in line five of the poem here.)

At the same time that the carrier's greeting was morphing in this direction, another ubiquitous and poetry-related print item, the farmer's almanac, began to change as well. As more and more people migrated to, or came within the easy reach of, urban centers, they still needed calendars but no longer needed the elaborate apparatus that almanacs usually offered—planting information, cycles of the moon, meteorological information, jokes, home remedies, bits and piece of useful information, etc. As this material dropped away, the poetry and calendar remained. Given the newly shortened form of the carrier's greeting and the simplified almanac—this is our third item of note—it was natural that the two would come together, at least for a time, to produce the sort of hybrid form that the Evening Star circulated. True, this specific greeting still retains its New Year's orientation, but there are others with Christmas-related messages (some of which were being delivered by postal workers who, in addition to delivery boys, were seeking seasonal tips). As the century went on, the two forms would eventually disentangle themselves from each other, leaving us with New Year calendars on one hand and rhyming Christmas cards on the other.

So as you go out and sing "Auld Lang Syne" by Robert Burns tonight, keep in mind the long tradition of American poetry that also ushered in the new year. As the recession carries on, it seems appropriate to look back to 1933 in welcoming 2010:

New cards are dealt, so let us play
Our hands for all they're worth, and say
"This is a year for luck and joy,
God bless us all—

Happy New Year from the the P&PC Office.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Hooverized Xmas Greetings from the Poetry & Popular Culture Office

A year ago, the Poetry & Popular Culture Office took a look at the fine-art Christmas cards that Robert Frost and master printer Joseph Blumenthal made for friends and patrons for nearly thirty years from 1935 to 1962. Those cards are now the subject of an exhibition running from December 2-January 16 at Poets House library and literary center in New York. We wish we could be on hand to help celebrate.

Since we can't be there, we're going to offer a subject for next year's holiday exhibition at Poets House: the Hooverized Christmas card (pictured above). Printed on unrefined card stock and bound with a piece of twine, this 1918 product of New Jersey's Campbell Art Company satirizes Herbert Hoover not for anything Depression-related (that was still to come), but for Hoover's actions as Woodrow Wilson's head of the U.S. Food Administration during World War One. Believing that "food will win the war," Hoover led all sorts of efforts to curtail American food consumption and organized shipments of food to starving portions of Europe—acts that made him respected and even beloved around the world and that paved the way for his 58% to 40% shellacking of Al Smith in the 1928 Presidential election. (For more on the poetry of World War One food rationing, check out Chapter 4 of Mark W. Van Wienen's Partisans and Poets: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War.)

The rhyme on the Campbell Art Company's card (pictured to the left) is clever and timely, printed in the same red ink as the cover. In these lines, Hoover's plea to be economical finds expression not only in a scaled-back lifestyle but in the abbreviated language of the poem itself: the "+" instead of "and" used in line one, the "X" instead of "Christ" in "Xmas," the use of M.C. and H.N.Y., etc.:

I've Hooverized on Pork + Beans
And Butter cake and Bread
I've cut out Auto-riding
And now I walk instead.
I've Hooverized on Sugar,
On Coal and Light and Lard
And here's my Xmas Greeting
On a Hoover Xmas Card

I wish you a very
M.C. and a H.N.Y.

Ultimately, though, what's so funny about this card is its actual excess, which is perhaps a particularly American way of expressing anger at having to ration or cut back. Not only does the card use eight lines of poetry to explain the actual two-line holiday greeting, but its twine "binding" is entirely gratuitous, as the card—simply a piece of cardboard folded in half—has no immediate use for it. The Campbell Art Company doesn't stop there, however, but amplifies the joke by captioning the binding "Camouflaged Ribbon"—a Saussurian move that resonates with the red bird that is captioned "Bluebird" here and that also seems to anticipate Rene Magritte's famous pipe (The Treachery of Images) which wouldn't not be for another ten years.

With that said, then, H.H. from the entire P&PC Office, and B.W. for a H.N.Y.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How Can Santa Claus Make a Profit?

—Appeared in the Salem Statesman-Journal on December 21, 2009, the Tallahassee Democrat on December 24, 2009, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen on December 25, 2009

Early on in his career
he asked that question too—
hooked Rudolph up to a circuit board
until the red nose blew,

packaged reindeer meat for sale
and billed it as organic,
and had the elves work every day
in a constant state of panic.

He brought in scabs to break the unions
and raised insurance fees.
He said there needed to be more jobs
then sent them overseas.

Then he looked at himself in the mirror.
He was old and fat.
Making a profit had turned him grey
and the reindeer called him "Rat!"

During the stroke he saw the light
and vowed to take up giving.
He doesn't make a profit now.
Instead, he makes a living.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Spending for Vast Returns: Colleen Coyne Reviews Jess Walter's Novel "The Financial Lives of the Poets"

Poetry & Popular Culture Correspondent Colleen Coyne writes in from Minneapolis where she is completing an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Minnesota. Self-identifying on Facebook as "Optimistically Agnostic," she ultimately finds something in The Financial Lives of the Poets that readers can believe in. That and an investment tip or two.

Earlier this winter, Chicagoland publisher Sourcebooks, Inc. launched PoetrySpeaks, a website selling text, audio, and video of individual poems for $0.99-$1.99 a pop. (Think iTunes for poetry.) Call me cynical, but as much as I want it to be, poetry is rarely profitable. Despite conventional wisdom, PoetrySpeaks is betting on a huge audience of willing and eager, iPod-toting poetry-purchasers to pony up the big bucks—or at least enough dough to keep 'em afloat.

Only a fool would take that wager. But in Jess Walter’s latest novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, former business journalist Matt Prior has done just that, literally betting the whole house on his pipe-dream, a website that delivers financial news via poetry—with disastrous and hilarious consequences.

We first meet 46-year-old Matt, slipper-clad and sleep-deprived, on a midnight 7-11 milk run. He’s out of a job; he’s pretty sure his wife is cheating on him; he’s a caretaker to his two little boys and dementia-ridden father; and he’s a week away from losing his house because of the categorical failure of his “money lit” website. With little time to make everything right, what’s a guy to do? Hook up with some local stoners and become a drug dealer, of course—all in the name of salvaging his marriage, saving his house, and bringing his life back from the brink of ruin.

Matt is responsibility gone rogue, a “creepy old guy” trying to grapple with the lingo and social cues of a totally alien drug subculture. In his most insightful moments, he takes on American entitlement and gluttony, suggests his own complicity in the current sado-masochistic financial kink-fest, and questions our Web-centric need for instant gratification. During a brief hopeful moment, he wonders: “is it possible to fall in love with your own life?” We readers are inclined to say no, having watched so many people over the past year lose jobs and homes. But flawed as our lives can be, we fight for what we want and will do anything—anything—to save ourselves and the people we love. That’s one reason we like our anti-hero—he’s flawed, but he’s a fighter.

And because we like him, we watch Matt’s many dubious decisions with hands half over our eyes, as if we’re watching a slasher flick. (Don’t go through that drug-dealing door, Matt!) He’s surrounded by other characters spanning the hapless spectrum: Chuck, the balding lumber salesman who’s putting the moves on Matt’s wife; Monte, ruler of the local pot plantation (a.k.a. “Piggy, Drug Lord of the Flies”); Dave, futilely cautious lawyer for all major drug transactions; Richard, his financial planner who’s “predictable as coffin shopping”; and a host of others who, like Matt, are desperately trying to make the best of their broken worlds. We can’t bear and yet can’t wait to watch the disaster unfold. Although the story is somewhat predictable—like that slasher flick—it’s told with such wit and insight that we don’t want to put it down.

Beyond his characters, Walter’s strength is the novel’s form. Much as Matt himself lives multiple lives, The Financial Lives of the Poets takes on multiple generic and formal conventions, sliding from sitcom territory to the realm of crime thrillers as lists, screenplay dialogue, and poetry all work in concert to reveal the hidden, ignored complexities of everyday life and the challenge of conveying them through literature. If there is a major fault in The Financial Lives of the Poets, it may be that the premise is completely unconvincing. How could a man who made his living as a business reporter think that would be a fiscally sound investment? He’d be either incredibly dumb or incredibly naïve (and evidence for both abounds). Or perhaps it's too great a leap of faith. Can either Matt or Watler really believe this is what poetry can or should do?

Matt's a mediocre poet, but if he were better at it, we probably wouldn't like him as much. We read his blank verse, villanelles, and haikus alongside more familiar, deliciously appropriated bits. Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams all make cameos (“so much depends upon the red Camaro," for example). Matt initially began, he tells us, because “investment poetry would…open the door for a literary discussion of the thing that most of us spent so many days thinking about: our money.” Perhaps only in such a discussion could we begin to make sense of the great mess we’ve gotten into and begin to get out of it.

While reading The Financial Lives of the Poets, I couldn’t help but think of Williams’s famous lines

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Matt’s downfall is triggered partly by a lack of interest in poetry—really, a lack of interest in humanity—and Matt continually reminds us how important poets and poetry are in these fragmented, implosive times:

The truth is that anything you try to own ends up owning you. We’re all just renting…. The poets were supposed to remind us of this, to regulate the existential and temporal markets (Let be be finale of seem. / The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.) and to balance real estate with ethereal state (One not need be a chamber to be haunted, / One need not be a house.) Hell, we don’t need bailouts, rescue packages and public works. We need more poets.

Amen to that.

In this tale of our current financial crisis and our long and compli- cated relationship with po'try, Jess Walter’s creation is hilarious and poignant, sardonic and wise. While indicting our money-obsessed consumer culture, Walter crafts his characters with empathy and care, and we identify with them at their lowest and highest moments. It’s a story of forgiveness and redemption, of triumph and spirit, balanced with a bit of raunch. Though timely and topical, The Financial Lives of Poets will stick around because the cultural crisis of this book—how to make poetry matter, how to get people to care about their own lives and about each other—is timeless. And despite the despair of Matt’s situation, and our own, Walter provides us with some hope, reminding us that while “the edge is so close to where we live….It’s okay. Just keep moving forward. Don’t look back. It’s okay.” And we believe it.

And for those of you lit-entrepreneurs who’ve been thinking “Financial poetry? Brilliant! I could do that...”? Well, Matt’s ill-fated domain,, is still available. Snatch it up and live the dream.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Limericks, Stereoview Cards, and Popular Precedents to Marcel Duchamp

One of the many yet-to- be-fully- explored facets of poetry's history in American everyday life is its relationship to the stereo- scope—the common entertainment device that allowed millions of people 3-D viewing experiences between the 1850s and 1930s. As with most viewing technologies, the stereoscope has a long and varied history that Poetry & Popular Culture can't rehearse in full here except to remind everyone that the most common and affordable type of hand-held viewfinder (pictured above) was in fact invented by a poet—the American physician and author of "Old Ironsides," Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

With a few very interesting exceptions (which the Poetry & Popular Culture Office is keeping under wraps for the time being), most stereoview cards had images, not poems, printed on front, so that few Americans were presented with the opportunity to read in 3-D, however tantalizing the experience might seem to us today. This isn't to say that popular poetry in general was a book-based or print-based experience. From magic lantern slides, which projected poems onto walls or screens, to poetry choruses, which featured group recitations, popular poetry was part and parcel of a range of off-page entertainment activities. For some reason, though, the prospects of viewing poems in 3-D never seemed to catch on.

Many reverse sides of stereoview cards are largely blank, perhaps containing information on the card's publisher or its position in a series. But sometimes manufacturers took advantage of the blank side and printed poetry there—a move that complicated the viewing experience in all sorts of ways. Poems asked viewers to move from 3-D viewing to 2-D reading, from poem to image and back again. They implicitly proposed a relationship between poem and image, though the nature of that relationship was never spelled out, creating an opportunity for the reader to critically assess the relationship between the two. We here at the P&PC Office have seen all sorts of poems printed on stereoview cards—everything ranging from Byron, Wordsworth and John Greenleaf Whittier to patriotic hymns and short, two-line quotations.

For example, the back of "Dreaming— A Shady Nook, A Quiet Brook" (an image of a woman in a blue dress reclining poolside, pictured above) offers a pair of linked limericks:

There was a young woman of Frisco
Who went fishing way up on the Cisco.
She disrobed by a pool
Just to keep herself cool
And fell asleep. What a risk, O!

She dreamed that each fish was a man,
That she hooked them as fast as they swam.
She awoke with a bite
(Her skin was a fright)—
Twas mosquitos, she surely said "sugar"!

Bawdy both in what they ask the reader to picture and say, these naughty limericks are an exercise in dream theory (there is a causal and thus manageable relationship between the state of the woman when she falls asleep and the content of the dreams she subsequently has) and an argument for the unnaturalness of female sexual activity (she is punished by nature, via the disfiguring mosquito bites, for what she should have been able to control). Most intriguing, though, is the relationship between the limericks and the image on the card's reverse side. For rather than ask us to imagine a naked woman in the abstract, these verses ask the viewer to mentally disrobe a specific woman—the woman in blue on the other side.

Part peep-show and part morality tale, this card is the stereoscopic version of Marcel Duchamp's 1946-66 assemblage/installation Étant donnés, which presents viewers with a peephole in a cabin door through which to view a naked woman (see the image here). In fact, if the stereoview card's title "Dreaming—A Shady Nook, A Quiet Brook" could serve as a subtitle for Duchamp's piece, it could also describe the viewer's activity too, as he or she—prompted by ten lines of poetry—peers at the woman in the blue dress and dreams of seeing her naked. Now that's what we call a naughty limerick.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Poetry by the Foot: A Review of Nicholson Baker's "The Anthologist"

Poetry & Popular Culture correspondent Jeff Charis-Carlson writes in from Iowa City, Iowa, where he is still the Opinion Page editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Among other things, he's been working hard to get poetry back where it belongs: in newspapers.

When I made it through the first chapter of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, my main questions were:

* If I were teaching a course on prosody, would I have my students read this novel at the beginning of the semester, so they would be exposed early on to the idea that someone could take all these terms and techniques so personally?

* Or would I wait until the end of the course, so the students would understand fully the poetic theories espoused by the novel’s main character, Paul Chowder, and thus be inspired not only to write their own poetry, but also to come up with their own ideas about how poetry works and why it matters?

As I kept reading, however, I eventually started to question just how advanced my students would have to be if they were going to appreciate The Anthologist as a text at all.

For they would already have to be invested in the notion of iambic pentameter as a lofty poetic form if they were going to be sufficiently intrigued by Chowder’s pet theory that pentameter isn’t about a five-beat line at all. (It’s really about a three-beat waltz with rests on the end of every line. That’s why Chowder says the enjambments give him the “willies.”) And they already would need to worship at the altar of modernist and postmodernist obscurity and indeterminacy. Otherwise, they wouldn’t grasp the real radicalism behind the straightforward connection Chowder draws between music and poetry—how the heavy beats that come with rhyme echo in the silent rests that end each line.

Chowder, and presumably Baker, takes to task any academic who tries to complicate this holy trinity of poetry—rhyme, rhythm and rest. He also praises the casual reader of poetry and pop-music for having a much better sense of meter than…well…anyone taking a poetry class at the college level (a fact I can attest to after teaching my share of Interpretation of Literature classes).

“The real basis for English poetry is in this walking rhythm right here,” Chowder writes as he tries to explain the good news of his gospel—true poetic freedom from the inscrutable and artificial difficulty found in most contemporary free verse.

But Chowder, while a charismatic evangelist, is also a buffoon. Before he can give his intended example from Edward Lear’s “The Pelican Chorus,” he clumsily drops the Sharpie he was going to use to underline the accents.

Chowder is also a buffoon in his personal and professional life. His girlfriend leaves him and his publisher starts hounding him for much the same reason: he can’t seem to finish the poetic anthology he is amassing throughout the novel. Chowder is quick to advise would-be poets against waiting until they can write a whole poem in one sitting—lest they never write the poem at all—yet he is perpetually delaying writing the introduction to his planned anthology. And even if he were to finish, the publishing of this book would do nothing to improve the quality of Chowder’s life, nor would it enhance his relationship with anyone—or anything—other than poetry.

The conceit, of course (if Chowder would allow me to use that more academic sounding term rather than just say, “The joke, of course...”) is that Chowder’s first chapter functions as the very introduction that he views as such an impossible task. Readers, even students in prosody classes, quickly recognize that Chowder is speaking from experience when he writes, “Put it down, work on it, finish it. If you don’t get on it now, somebody else will do something similar, and when you crack open next year’s ‘Best American Poetry’ and see it under somebody else’s name you’ll hate yourself.”

And Baker, being a careful stylist, manages to imbue Chowder’s celebrated “walking rhythm” into the very sentence announcing it: “The real basis for English poetry is in this walking rhythm right here.” Although there is no rhyme, Chowder’s prose above enacts that rhythm; reading the sentence aloud in four-four time requires a syncopation that allows the speaker to slip and slide through individual syllables so long as the whole thing ends on the necessary rest.

And that blend of sophistication and buffoonery is exactly why The Anthologist would be so dangerous to use as a text for a course in which the bulk of students are casual readers of poetry and pop songs. Because Chowder is such a buffoon, student readers couldn't really be sure the degree to which he is uttering poetic truth and the degree to which his poetic theories are used to further characterize him as a buffoon. Because most of the students would be desperate for some sort of academic validation of their poetry, they'd have no choice but to start arguing against Chowder, hoping that Baker—the author—is secretly on their side, snickering at anyone who takes Chowder’s pronouncements at face value.

A good teacher—or a good reviewer—can only respond to such arguments by asking, “Who cares if Baker agrees with Chowder or not?” After all, this call for clarity in contemporary poetry is long overdue. American poetry, as a whole, would improve greatly if poets actually could read Chowder’s anthology and put his poetic theories into practice. Which, of course, they can’t do, because it exists only in fiction.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Asshole, and the Haiku of Fight Club

Last week, Poetry & Popular Culture tried—via some amateur and possibly dubious ornithological sleuthing—to argue for the singular importance of John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" in understanding Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Make no mistake: the P&PC Office wasn't allowed to carry off this claim unchallenged. Some respondents contended that whether or not the nightingale in the park scene was actually a nightingale makes no difference and that, in that scene, "bird" is understood to signify "nightingale" simply enough. Other whistle blowers argued that Jekyll's transformation into Hyde wasn't precipitated by poetry at all all but by the fact that Jekyll witnessed a cat eating a bird; observing an instinctual predator at work hailed Mr. Hyde and prompted his manifestation. Still other naysayers argued that Victor Fleming's 1941 remake is more sophisticated than P&PC gave it credit for being even though Fleming axed Keats from the script and left Jekyll whistling a song he first heard, as Hyde, in the company of Ivy.

Fair enough, we say, while nevertheless sticking to our guns: the fact that Jekyll's first-ever involuntary transformation into Hyde occurs immediately after he addresses a poem to another creature makes that moment particularly significant. It suggests that the re-appearance of Hyde has less to do with the return of the repressed than it does with either 1) the ability (or inability) to communicate to the proper auditor, or 2) the gap between reality and the world imagined by poetry. It's not poetry, per se, that the film associates with Jekyll's propriety, or with learning, or with class, or with culture, but, rather, the activity of saying or thinking about poetry as a way of relating to the specifics of this world.

Admittedly, part of our obstinacy in this matter is due to temperament, but part stems from the fact that one of the most recent Jekyll-and-Hyde movies—David Fincher's 1999 Fight Club starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton—also suggests the central importance of poetry to the destabilization of the self. Fight Club centers on two characters, played by Pitt and Norton, who begin an underground amateur fight-club scene as a way of recruiting disaffected men into a terrorist network intent on breaking the power of financial institutions, especially the credit system and its record of debt. Pitt plays Tyler Durden, the impulsive, charismatic Hyde to Norton's nameless, conservative, insomniac Jekyll. As the movie develops [SPOILER ALERT], we discover that Norton's character is a delusional schizophrenic and that Tyler is really his alter ego with a six pack full of wish fulfillment. (At one point, his girlfriend Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter, describes Norton as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Asshole" to sum up her feelings of being mistreated by both his selves.) How Norton ultimately untangles himself from himself—how he even discovers himself within himself—is the primary "fight" at the center of Fight Club.

There's a scene in the middle of the movie where Norton's heretofore cautious character begins to embrace Tyler's life philosophy in earnest; he detaches himself from the mind-numbing trappings of consumerist America in order to experience LIFE in all of its brutal vitality. He goes to work with blood on his shirt. He smokes cigarettes in his cubicle. You know, productive, radical stuff. In a little poetic series of voice-over I statements accompanying this change, he explains:

I was the Zen master.
I became the calm little center of the world.
I wrote little haiku poems.
I emailed them to everyone.
I got right in everyone's hostile little face.

That's not the poetry, however. As Norton is explaining this, we get a close-up view of his computer screen where he is in the process of word processing one of those "little haiku poems" that symbolizes his new attitude. Here's that haiku:

Worker bees can leave
Even drones can fly away
The queen is their slave

Unlike Dr. Jekyll in the 1931 film, who becomes a performer of the Keats poem prior to his trans- formation, Norton's character becomes an author. And the haiku may be the perfect poetic form to bring his two selves into some sort of alignment: it's as lean as Tyler's six pack and has the sort of Spartan ethos Tyler would advocate, yet its regular 5-7-5 form would appeal to the structure Norton's other half needs. And it's a poetic form as at home in the iconoclastic, seventeenth-century, world-renouncing hands of Basho as it is in the the 21st-Century American cubicle. (See how Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster has been writing haiku in lieu of error messages to help police disruptive activity on the online site.) Rather than separating Norton from his alter ego, as it does with Jekyll, poetry appears, however uneasily, to synchronize the two.

All of this isn't to say that Jekyll's recitation of "Ode to a Nightingale" in 1931 and Norton's composition of seventeen syllables in 1999 are equivalent acts. Far from it. While both do occur at a significant moment of transformation from Jekyll to Hyde—or from Jekyll to Mr. Asshole—those transformations are complicated by the nature of authorship (Norton is an author, Jekyll is not), the media entailed (Jekyll uses his voice, Norton uses email), their respective cultures (Jekyll is in 19th-century Britain, Norton is not), etc. That is, if the 1931 flick is about the birds (the Nightingale), then the 1999 film is about the bees (drones, workers, queens). But the simple fact that this Jekyll-Hyde transformation is articulated in both cases via poetry should be enough to create some buzz—if not give one something to sing about.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and John Keats

Poetry hit the big screen in some big and lasting ways in the 1930s. James Whale, for example, opened 1935's Bride of Frank- enstein by staging a discussion between Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley about the nature of Mary's horror story which Whale himself had brought to movie theaters in 1931. (That's Byron, who in the film calls himself "England's greatest sinner," pictured above.) Then, in 1936, Frank Capra made small-town poet Longfellow Deeds (played by Gary Cooper) the center of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a story which pitted the values of earnest, small-town poetries against the cynicism and condescension of New York and its literati. If we think of Bride of Frankenstein—with its campy black humor and extravagant hair-dos—as an unpredictable sequel to the 1931 flick, then we could do worse than think about Mr. Deeds Goes to Town as a sort of Depression-era warm-up for Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life.

Before Whale and Capra, however, there was 1931's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, brought into being by director Rouben Mamoulian and starring Frederic March as the famous doctor who morphs back and forth between respectably professional Jekyll (he of the pent-up aching rivers who is kept from the affections of his fiance Beatrix by a future father-in-law who insists on postponing the marriage) and lustful, simian Hyde who abusively takes out Jekyll's sexual frustrations on a local dancer named Ivy.

Three-quarters of the way through the film, Jekyll swears off his addiction to Hyde. He destroys the bubbly potion. He gets rid of the key that allows him secret, back-door, after-hours entrance into his laboratory. He heads off to a social event at which his impending nuptials with Beatrix will be announced, but then disaster strikes. The potion is still in his bloodstream. Jekyll is unable to control its effects. He transforms into Hyde, misses the social event, kills Ivy, transforms back into Jekyll, denies himself his fiance's love, turns into Hyde again, clubs his future father-in-law over the head with a cane, and leads the police on a chase through London that ends at his laboratory and with his death.

But there's more to the story than that. There's also the poetry of John Keats. As the resolute, newly sober Jekyll heads off to meet his fiance at the social event celebrating their impending marriage—and before he loses control and turns back into Hyde—he walks through a park where, hearing a bird singing, he stops to contemplate life and death and the possible meanings of the bird's song. If Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were a musical, this is the moment when the good doctor would launch into song. But this isn't a musical, and so he launches into a poem instead, quoting the first two lines of stanza seven from Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale":

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down...

No sooner does Jekyll thoughtfully repeat that first line then he sees a black cat lurking in the tree. He watches the cat slink down a branch. "Oh no! No!" he cries as he watches the cat kill and eat the bird. He again repeats, "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird" and immediately morphs into Hyde.

Like Jekyll's high spirits and resolution, the romantic moment is fleeting. Perhaps appropriately so because life in the bird world is different from life in the human world. Not only does everything go pear-shaped for Jekyll from there on out, but the Keats quotation itself disappeared from the story in 1941 when Victor Fleming remade the film with Spencer Tracy playing a far inferior Jekyll, Ingrid Bergman playing Ivy with a mixture of accents, and Lana Turner playing Jekyll's fiance. (In 1941, instead of quoting Keats in the park, Tracy goes a-whistling down the boulevard only to be interrupted by his gullet-clutching transformation into Hyde.)

As brief as it is, the moment is a spectacular articulation of the film's central tragedy, for while Jekyll quotes "Ode to a Nightingale" correctly, he quotes it to a bird that is not—not as far as the amateur ornithologists in the P&PC office can tell, at least—a nightingale. (Elsewhere in the movie, Jekyll, appearing as Jekyll, calls Beatrix a "starling," so it's not unreasonable to think the "nightingale" in the park was, in fact, a starling). In the act of speaking Keats to the wrong bird, Jekyll inadvertently queers what have been—up to that point at least—two separate discourses, and it is the queering or misapplication of these discourses and their respective subject positions that precipitates the identity crisis that leads to his own demise. That is to say that his loss of control and subsequent breakdown occurs in the realm of language before it does in body or mind. It's as if in misapplying or misidentifying the referent of the Keats poem, the walls separating the dichotomies of his life—Beatrix and Ivy, body and mind, man and ape, sexual appetite and social bearing, starling and nightingale, Hyde and Jekyll—come tumbling down as well. He is, for better or worse, unable to integrate these aspects of his experience into a new subject position: the "sole self" of the poem's final stanza.

Mamoulian's movie was made before the full enforcement of the Production Code and contains a surprising if not shocking amount of skin, violence and sexual content. To quote my nephew, "It's a little bit scary." When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer remade Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1941, most of this material was cut—a cinematic repression analogous to Jekyll's repression of his sexual desire early on in the movie. But the 1941 film cut out Keats as well. Could it be that poetry is a sort of Mr. Hyde for the 1941 version? A human experience that, once given voice, precipitates all sorts of crises demanding the disintegration and reconstruction of the self? A dangerous tool in the hands of people who might misapply it, who might ask "do I wake or sleep" at the wrong time and thus see the world around them anew? We are not Keats scholars here at P&PC. Nor are we ornithologists or film critics or linguists or Lacanian psychoanalysts, but we can't shake the feeling that Mamoulian's use of "Ode to a Nightingale" is not only a sophisticated reading of the poem—an act of literary criticism taking place in Hollywood—but that other scholars and specialists would find this moment of poetry in popular culture to be rich and provocative as well, as so many are.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Limbaugh to Judge Miss America Pageant

—Appeared in the Salem Statesman-Journal November 1, 2009

The studio is quiet now.
The staff has all clocked out.
The issues have been flogged to death.
There's no room left for doubt.

He turns the "On Air" sign to "Off."
The microphone is too.
Yet he stays in his seat and thinks.
There's still work left to do.

He judges right and wrong all day,
heroically and hurried.
But judging a beauty pageant leaves him,
frankly, rather worried.

For what does he know of beauty—
of fields of stars or flowers?
He is the star, fielding incoming calls
every day for hours.

He deals with pageantry all the time.
He's got some talent there.
He practices his scowl and then
a very studied stare.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Poetry of Extortion: The City Cab Co. of Hays, Kansas, & The 21 Club of Buffalo, NY

In his essay "Business and Poetry," Dana Gioia wonders why "[t]here have been many important American poets who supported themselves—either by necessity or choice—by working in business, but none of them has seen it as an experience fit to write about." T.S. Eliot didn't write about Lloyd's Bank of London. Wallace Stevens didn't write much about insurance. A.R. Ammons didn't write about being a salesman. James Dickey didn't write about working in advertising. Richard Hugo didn't write about working at Boeing, and Archibald MacLeish didn't write about his time as editor of Fortune. Gioia goes looking for office cubicles, interest rates, and quarterly profits, and when he doesn't find them, he concludes that "Business does not exist in the world of poetry."

Poetry & Popular takes umbrage with this notion, since a huge number of writers—ranging from Walt Whitman to Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Tillie Olsen, Muriel Rukeyser, Philip Levine and Robert Pinsky—have, in fact, written about business and money in America. Much of this poetry belongs to an American protest tradition that explores the lives of workers and trades, class inequalities, the exploitation of workers by business, and the business-based divides between rich and poor. We have ground that specific axe elsewhere and long ago, however. Here, we want to claim that a whole other realm of American poetry is also concerned with the business of making, getting, and spending money. Money—one of what Gioia calls the central "concerns of the average man"—is central to the world of popular poetry.

Money is so central to popular poetry—think of the enormous amounts of poetry that have been written for, or incorporated into, advertisements, for example—that it's impossible to cover all of its various manifestations and permutations in this one little posting. (If you're interested or can't get enough of advertising poetry, though, check out our previous postings focusing on Levi's, corsets, Blatz beer, Chocolove, Ex-Lax, and thread.) So here, for a moment, as Halloween approaches, we want to dwell on the poetry of extortion—the poetry of blackmail.

Consider the poem printed at the top of this posting, which appears on the back of a business card for the City Cab Company of that great metropolis, Hays, Kansas. Poems were commonly printed on business cards (see, for example, the business cards of Dr. C.B. Weagley, Veterinary Surgeon, or C.G. Blatt's Photographic Emporium), but this one is extra special for the threat it humorously levels against the passenger/client:

The taxicab driver sits in his car
And waits for calls from near and far;
He knows all the crooks and he knows all the rooks;
He knows all the bad roads; he knows all the nooks;
He knows our sorrows; he knows our joys;
He knows all the girls who are chasing the boys;
He knows all our troubles; he knows all our strife;
He knows every man who ducks from his wife;
If the taxicab driver told half that he knows,
He would turn all our friends into foes;
He would sow a small breeze that would soon be a gale;
Engulf us in trouble—land us in jail;
He would start forth a story, which gaining in force;
Would cause half our wives to sue for divorce;
He'd get all our homes mixed up in a fight;
And turn our bright days into sorrowing nights
In fact, he could keep the whole town in a stew,
If he told half of the things he knew.
So here we are—just pay us our fees,
We won't know a thing but our ABC's.

For Poetry & Popular Culture, this semi- colon-happy poem is not just a facetious reminder to pay up—an excessively verbose argument about the value of silence. It's also a poem in the tradition of wassailing and other extortionary lyrics that Leon Jackson illuminates in his great essay, "We Wont' Leave Until We Get Some: Reading the Newsboy's New Year's Address." For Jackson, poems like the carriers' addresses of 18th and 19th century America were not dominated in their distribution "by a single, market-based economy" but "were disseminated through a number of different economies—charity, patronage, gift-exchange, credit network, competitive writing, and so on," some of which carried threats of retribution or violence that challenged the way that money typically organized class relations. One of the examples he offers is the tradition of wassailing where "a group of poorer men would 'invade' a home at Christmas time, sing songs or perhaps perform a brief play, and then demand money or food. The wassailers would refuse to leave until they had been recompensed, and if they were forcibly ejected they would undertake a campaign of sabotage and destruction that often lasted for months at a time." Every act of wassailing thus contained an implicit threat: pay up, or face occupation.

The rhetoric of the City Cab Co. business card works in a similar way, revealing the cabbie to have a monopoly on a town's dirty laundry and blackmailing the customer into forking over some dough. When read in this context (and in a tradition of extortionary verse rooted in carriers' addresses, handbills circulated by people with disabilities, and the like), the second image above—a poem on the inside of a matchbook for the 21 Club, "The Finest Club in Buffalo"—reveals itself to be working in much the same way. Here, "The Bartender Knows" rehearses much of the same material as "The Taxicab Driver" and, at times, is a word-for-word repetition of the City Cab Company's business card, sans the excessive punctuation. This repetition is, btw, way intriguing for the P&PC office; we sometimes lie awake at night wondering about the original "source" poem from which these verses were cribbed.

The most significant difference between the two versions, however, is the fact that "The Bartender Knows" makes the threat of exposure implicit. So tight-lipped is the well-paid bartender, in fact—or so the logic of the poem goes—that even the activity of his blackmail goes unstated. Modern readers may read the poem's conclusion

So when out on a party
And from home you steal
Drop in for a drink

as a gesture of friendship, solidarity, or male bonding, but contemporary verses such as "The Taxicab Driver" help us see that that is not the case at all. Don't be fooled. Friendship, solidarity, and male bonding are secondary developments of what is, first and foremost, an economic relationship grounded in an information economy where extortion—not your pint of Guinness—is the order of the day.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lines Encountered at the New Moon Restaurant in Olympia, Washington

If you came upon a chinchilla in Chile
And shaved its beard willy-nilly,
You could honestly say
That you've just made
A Chilean chinchilla's chin chilly.

More about the New Moon Cafe here, chinchillas here, Chile here, and a little about Roberto Ampuero (cute as a chinchilla and from Chile) here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Is That a Poem in Your Pocket?

We submit for your contemplation this week two little men. One (pictured to the left) is a rosy-cheeked U.S. sailor produced in 1941 by Calambra Products of Alhambra, California. The other (pictured below) is a drop-drawered "Bull Clinton" made and distributed as part of the "Meanies" satirical doll collection. One says "Hello." Saith the other, perhaps, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." They've been propped up on the P&PC Office coffee maker for awhile now, and so we share them with you.

With an Edgar Guestian folksiness even Clinton himself might admire, Joe Sailor reads:

I'd like to be with you awhile
And hear about the folks,
I'd like to sit and see you smile
At the same old jokes,
But since you are so far away
I cannot hope to go,
I'll just send this little token
Just to say—HELLO!

Joe Sailor's weren't the only wartime greetings expressed in poetry, of course, as verses long and short, complicated and not-so-complicated, crisscrossed the oceans on and in postcards, pin-up girly pictures, letters, souvenir pillows, handkerchiefs, chapbooks, newspaper clippings, and the like. Frank Capra's Private Snafu military training videos were narrated in verse. Cary Nelson has reminded us how propaganda poems were shot across enemy lines in capsules specially made to open, mid-air, in order to shower enemy combatants with poetry. Even the Communist Party got in on the action, publishing Victory Verses for Young Americans (pictured above). In Partisans & Poets: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War, Mark W. Van Wienen records the many uses to which poetry was put during World War I. P&PC is waiting for someone to write a companion book about the political work of poetry in World War II.

The specter of poetry's various applications has dogged Bill Clinton, too, especially in the wake of news reports tracking how he once greeted Monica Lewinsky by giving her a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. He isn't the only one that the Meanies series has lampooned in verse; one wonders what history of the 1990s could be written via the limericks attached on each doll's tag:

Bull Clinton is "full of it" they say.
His "staff" couldn't get out of the way.
He's in and out of courts
Cause of his fallen shorts.
He leans to the left, so they say.

Bull's toothy smile hearkens back in at least one way to the era of our little sailor, as editorial cartoons often showed F.D.R. with a grin like this one. (There was a fair amount of anti-F.D.R. verse in circulation back then too.) The puns in this poem are most appropriate for Bull, however, as their double meanings parody the political equivocations and doublespeak common in the beltway. Not so for Joe, though, whose boyish charm and blond crew-cut are certified legit by the earnest rhymes and the "little token" that fills at least our hearts.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Poetry & Popular Culture Heroes: An Interview with Tessa Kale, Editor of The Columbia Granger's Index To Poetry

Perhaps no single book testifies to the vast amounts of poetry produced and consumed in the 20th-century U.S. more than Granger's Index to Poetry. Since its first edition in 1904, Granger's has tracked and charted only a fraction of America's total poetic activity—mostly poetry in books and anthologies—but what a fraction it's been. That 1904 edition included over 30,000 titles culled, editor Edith Granger explained, from "the contents of three hundred and sixty-nine volumes, comprising standard and popular collections of poetry, recitations (both prose and verse), orations, drills, dialogues, selections from dramas, etc." By 1918, Granger's would list 50,000 titles. By 1940 the Index would list 75,000 titles and bill itself as a "Practical Reference Book for Librarians, Teachers, Booksellers, Elocutionists, Radio Artists, Etc." (Note how "Literary Critic" is not on that list.) Now available in electronic formats, The Columbia Granger's Index to Poetry is in its 13th edition and offers users access to 250,000 full-text poems and 450,000 citations organized under 6,000 subject headings.

For over a century, Granger's has been a standard reference book on the shelves of libraries small and large across the U.S., but as far as the P&PC Office can tell, there is no history of the book, nor much in the way of information about the woman who lent the book her name. We're keeping our interns busy researching those matters, but we also had a chance to catch up with Tessa Kale, current editor of the Index and author of the novel Daphne Underground. Here's what she had to say.

P&PC: What's the job description for "The Editor" of The Columbia Granger's Index to Poetry?

Tessa Kale: The tasks are too numerous to risk boring you by enumerating.

P&PC: Try me.

TK: Keeping vigilant about the best new anthologies coming out is impor- tant when we're not actually indexing them for the next print edition. Then, in order to do that indexing, we have to have all the right machinery in place, which can also handle the work that is done for the web site: this involves a decided slice of time for development of editorial management systems. For the web site, full text of the poems must be found, permission sought, and keyed in XML, and commentaries of the poems and biographies of the poets must be edited with links added throughout to all the many wonderful features on the site.

P&PC: Your talk of "management systems" and "XML" makes me think Granger's has changed a little bit over the years?

TK: The web site is the biggest change. Before that, there were CDs in that time of transition before the web became the way of the world.

P&PC: I write poems for the local newspaper. How can I get my poems indexed in Granger's?

TK: Sorry, our business is to index anthologies.

P&PC: That hasn’t always been the case, has it?

TK: No, for a time we also indexed poems in Collected and Selected Volumes. It was an additional enhancement we thought we'd try out.

P&PC: Why stick to anthologies?

TK: The idea is to help people locate a poem they are looking for, though they may, for instance, not remember the title or the author, but have a sure idea of the first line. So the poem they've got in mind is probably already well-known. That's the business of anthologies—gathering up the best, according to the editors, and making the poems known to an ever-growing readership.

P&PC: How does one measure the success of something like Granger's?

TK: Most likely the same way success is measured elsewhere in publishing: the financial gain.

P&PC: How many copies of the latest edition (the 13th) have been sold?

TK: 2,636 copies so far.

P&PC: How many subscribers does the electronic version have?

TK: We have approximately 500 subscribers through our own platform and reach an additional 100 subscribers through the Ebsco host. It's a little tough to gauge just how many people we reach at major public library systems. New York Public Library, the National Library of Singapore, Chicago Public Library, and the Auckland City Public Library are examples of large subscribers. In 2008, we recorded approximately 237,000 sessions. So far this year, we've recorded over 200,000 sessions. Our daily average has increased from 650 sessions a day to 733.

P&PC: Who was this Edith Granger who got the whole thing rolling?

TK: Edith Granger was a stunning, bespectacled redhead who, after graduating from Smith College, worked in a Chicago bookstore and hit upon the brilliant idea of indexing the titles and first lines of poems—for which librarians all over the country will be forever deeply grateful.

P&PC: A stunning, bespectacled redhead?

TK: It's nice to think so. I hear "Edith Granger" and I think Rita Hayworth, with glasses.