Monday, May 18, 2009

Football Frolics & Gargling Oil: From the Poetry & Popular Culture Mailbag

The Poetry & Popular Culture office receives a fair amount of correspondence from people interested in the lives that poetry leads outside of college classrooms and other certifiably poetic haunts like cafes and the avant-garde. This week, we bring you a letter from a reader in Salem, Oregon, who asks a fairly common question about the poetry of popular culture. Our response follows.

Dear Poetry & Popular Culture:
What's, like, the relationship between song lyrics and poetry?
Desperately Seeking Salem

Dear Desperately,

Thanks for asking! I suppose there are still some crusty old fogies out there who'd maintain that there's some measurable, qualitative difference between poems written in rhyme and meter and song lyrics written in rhyme and meter, but Poetry & Popular Culture does not number itself among them. After all, a historically- informed reader discovers that the distinction between poetry and song lyrics—indeed, the very need to distinguish between the two—is in fact a relatively recent one and that Americans have long imagined poetry as song lyrics (or potential song lyrics) and vice versa. Let's take a little tour of the subject beginning with a songster put out in 1889 to advertise "Merchant's Gargling Oil" (pictured to the left).

Like the farmer's almanacs of the nineteenth century, this songster contains a number of different elements between its covers. In stating the book's "primary intention of advertising Gargling Oil and Worm Tablets," the product's makers then go on to summarize its other contents: "a calendar for practical use, and for amusement the latest Popular Songs and a concise summary of the principal points upon which the so-called Science of Palmistry is based." Of special note, perhaps, is the fact that the song lyrics are printed without musical notation (pictured to the left). With the exception of the chorus notation, "The Toboggan Slide" thus looks and reads like any ol' poem that might have appeared in a daily paper from the time.

Why, you might ask, is the musical notation left out? Did the folks at Merchant's assume audiences already knew the tune to "The Toboggan Slide"? Would go ahead and make up their own tune? Would sing it to the tune of an already-existing song, replacing that song's original lyrics with the lyrics of "The Toboggan Slide"? Odds are, the regular meter of "The Toboggan Slide" meant that the song (if it wasn't written to music) could be easily adapted to already existing tunes; that is, the tunes of many popular songs became templates on which to graft new lyrics—a form which privileges, say we at the Poetry & Popular Culture office, the content of the individual lyric. This is the general method of the I.W.W. Songbook as well, a twentieth-century, pro-labor songster issued by the Industrial Workers of the World in order "to fan the flames of discontent." Leafing through the book, one encounters lefty lyrics written to well-known tunes such as "Auld Lang Syne," "Onward Christian Soldiers," "Tipperary," and "The Shade of the Old Apple Tree." This not only made it easier for people to learn the songs, but it no doubt parodied the originals as well; could one very well sing the I.W.W's version of "A Little Talk with Jesus," for example—

The preachers, cops and money-kings were working hand in hand,
The boys in blue, with stars and stripes were sent by Uncle Sam;
Still things were looking blue, 'cause every striker knew
That weaving cloth with bayonets is hard to do.
John Golden had with Mr. Wood a private interview,
He told him how to bust up the "I double double U."
He came out in a while and wore the Golden smile.
He said: "I've got all labor leaders skinned a mile."
John Golden pulled a bogus strike with all his "pinks and stools."
He thought the rest would follow like a bunch of crazy fools.
But to his great surprise the "foreigners" were wise,
In one big solid union they were organized.

—without comparing the song's original content with the new one? All in all, this strikes us as a particularly poetic endeavor.

Or consider the item pictured to the left—a four-page announcement advertising a "Football Frolic" held in Detroit, Michigan, probably in the 1940s or 50s (there's no date on the flier). For the grand admission fee of 35 cents—with proceeds apparently going to the Junior Alliance of St. Andrew's Paris—one would get an evening's-worth of probably highly- chaperoned dancing. The three remaining pages of the advertisement are, like the songster distributed by Merchant's Gargling Oil, a mixture of song lyrics and classified ads for local businesses including the Moderne Corset Shop (operated by C.C. Szemborski and located at 7341 Michigan Avenue), Dr. Frank J. Czapski a local dentist, and The Martin Bar ("The Popular Place for your Favorite Drink").

Again, the song lyrics are presented without musical notation, though in some cases readers probably couldn't avoid singing the tunes at least inwardly, as is the case with "Over the Rainbow" written for, and made popular by, The Wizard of Oz in 1939 and pictured here. Still, even with that soundtrack playing in our minds, we can't shake the fact that reading "Over the Rainbow" printed as a poem is a different experience than listening to it. Even if "Over the Rainbow" isn't a poem when broadcast, we contend it certainly becomes one when printed here and that there's a certain kind of interference or static that happens when one is asked to re-adjust one's attention to read what one normally hears—the kind of defamiliarization with language that a lot of modern poetry cultivates.

As much as the ads for Merchant's Gargling Oil and the Football Frolic suggest that song lyrics were printed as poetry, that doesn't necessarily mean that readers actually linked poetry and song in their own minds. For evidence of that, let's turn to our final example—a large, three inch-thick scrapbook of poetry and song lyrics assembled during World War II. Here we do encounter musical notation that differentiates song ("A Sabbath Day's Work") from poem ("The Old Scotch Church"). The album is an interesting one: it contains songs, lyrics, and poems having to do with a range of ethnic and regional identities and includes poems from popular writers as well as "literary" authors like Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Edgar Lee Masters, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

However, the distinction between song and lyric suggested by the page above doesn't hold throughout the collection. Here—a detail from a larger page "themed" around the subject of African-Americans and the American South—the scrapbook's compiler has pasted some of the lyrics to "Dixie" just above a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Perhaps there is a difference between the two, but that difference is a relatively small difference between poetic forms—one poem includes a chorus, one does not—not a substantial difference in genre. Otherwise, both poems are printed in lines, both are metered and rhymed, both give the reader elocutionary cues (one a soundtrack demanding a certain pitch and tune, the other the phonetics of dialect), and both ask the reader to inhabit a first-person person voice that is essentially vicarious in nature (one wishes to get back to Dixie, the other is a dying wish).

So, Desperately Seeking, that iPod you carry—with its mixture of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Duran Duran—is a portable poetry player, a 21st-century version of the scrapbook pictured above. Whether the poetry you listen to is good or not is not for Poetry & Popular Culture to say. But we'll go, well, on the record saying it is, in fact, poetry.


Poetry & Popular Culture