Thursday, April 9, 2009

Poemulations: Emily Dickinson, James Metcalfe & Chum Frink

On October 17, 1851—as Virginia Jackson notes in her great book Dickinson's Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading—Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to her brother Austin that ended with a "poem" that Dickinson did not cut into standard poetic lines but that she presented, instead, as rhyming prose. So far as Poetry & Popular Culture can discern from the facsimile in Jackson's book, that poem read:

"There is another sky, Ever serene and fair, and there is another sun-shine, tho it be darkness there—Never mind faded forests, Austin, never mind silent fields—Here is a little forest, whose leaf is ever green; here is a brighter garden, where not a frost has been; in its unfading flowers I hear the bright bee hum; prithee, my brother, into my garden come!"

Editors of Dickinson's work, Jackson goes on to note, published "There is another sky" as prose in 1894, 1924, and 1931, but beginning with Thomas H. Johnson's The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Including variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts (1955) it began to be printed in conventional lines:

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields—
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,

Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum;
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

The history of "There is another sky" raises a number of questions for Jackson about when the poem in fact became a poem. "Was it never ... a poem," she wonders at one point, "since it was never written as verse? Was it always ... a poem, because it could always have been read as verse? Or was it only ... a poem after it was printed as verse?" Later on, she continues with related questions: "In view of what definition of poetry would Dickinson's brother have understood the end of his sister's letter to him as a poem? Did it only become a poem once it left his hands as a letter? According to what definition of lyric poetry did Dickinson's editor ... understand a lyric poem to be if it was not the passage at the end of the 1851 letter? Can a text not intended as a lyric become one? Can a text once read as a lyric be unread? If so, then what is—or what was—a lyric?"

These and similar questions drive Jackson's inquiry into the historicity of the "lyric" as a sub-genre of the genre of poetry; people in the 19th century, she reveals, didn't understand the genre of the lyric anywhere near the way they do now, and we can gain a greater understanding of Dickinson's verse if we in fact recover what people thought about the lyric "back then" rather than imposing we what we've come to think of as the lyric over the course of the 20th century. The Poetry & Popular Culture office likes Jackson's line of questioning a lot, although, as always, we'd prefer to start off with a different question: "What, if anything, does a study of popular poetry have to tell us about Dickinson and verses like 'There is another sky'?" As it turns out—betcha couldn't see this coming—it can tell us quite a bit.

A look at popular verse forms supports the Poetry & Popular Culture position that Dickinson never intended for "There is another sky" to be cut into lines and that, moreover, Dickinson's brother Austin would have recognized full well that his sister's writing was, in fact, meant to be read as a type of poem in its own right—as what Sinclair Lewis would later call a "poemulation." It was not at all uncommon for newspapers to print rhyming prose just like "There is another sky." We've seen such poems saved in poetry scrapbooks and would turn the reader's attention, for an example, to a little booklet of poems by James Metcalfe, titled Portraits (pictured to the left), which collects verses that Metcalfe published in a column of the same name that appeared daily in The Times (billed as "Chicago's Picture Newspaper") in 1946. We cite "Going Out" here as a sample of Metcalfe's writing which is printed as prose with ellipses substituted for linebreaks:

When we get ready to go out ... It is not long before ... My hat is in my hand and I ... Am standing at the door ... I call my wife and she declares ... That she is nearly through ... And in another minute now ... She will be ready too ... So I go out and start the car ... And get all set to go ... But after while it seems my spouse ... Is just a little slow ... I honk the horn and she replies ... That it will only be ... A tiny second more until ... She will be joining me ... But seconds pass and minutes fade ... I feel my patience snap ... And shutting off the motor I ... Decide to take a nap.

You may be asking yourself round about now, Well just how "not uncommon" was this sort of verse? It's hard to say for sure, but it was common enough for novelist Sinclair Lewis to capitalize on it in his portrayal of T. Cholmondeley (Chum) Frink, the poet in Babbitt (1922) and "the author of 'Poemulations,' which, syndicated daily in sixty-seven leading newspapers, gave him one of the largest audiences of any poet in the world." When we first meet Chum, in fact, his work is explicitly described as "lyric" poetry, though Lewis was likely using "lyric" in a more general and expansive sense than the specific sub-genre of poetry that interests Jackson in Dickinson's Misery. "Two hours before [meeting Babbitt]," Lewis writes, "Frink had completed a [Prohibition Era] newspaper lyric beginning:

I sat alone and groused and thunk, and scratched my head and sighed and wunk, and groaned, 'There still are boobs, alack, who'd like the old-time gin-mill back; that den that makes a sage a loon, the vile and smelly old saloon!' I'll never miss their poison booze, whilst I the bubbling spring can use, that leaves my head at merry morn as clear as any babe new-born!" (Italics in the original)

Later in the novel, as Babbitt is speaking before the dinner of the Zenith Real Estate Board, he incorporates one of Frink's poemulations into his talk and situates it among other popular poets and popular reading practices of the time. Babbitt prefaces Frink's verse by saying, "I always like to remember a piece that Chum Frink wrote for the newspapers about his lecture-tours. It is doubtless familiar to many of you, but if you will permit me, I'll take a chance and read it. It's one of the classic poems, like 'If' by Kipling, or Ella Wheeler Wilcox's 'The Man Worth While'; and I always carry this clipping of it in my note-book." Like Frink's lyric cited above, the poem Babbitt quotes is composed entirely in the rhyming, metered verse that both Metcalfe and Dickinson use in their own work.

Dickinson, as Jackson and other scholars have observed, collected all manner of artifacts from print culture of her time, sending clippings to friends, composing on scraps of paper, and perhaps even incorporating this material into the surround or various "backstories" of her poems. How possible is it, then, that Dickinson was in fact writing a prose-poetry, newspaper-style lyric or "poemulation" to her brother Austin in October of 1851? Very possible, say we in the Poetry & Popular Culture office. Very possible indeed.