Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Chocolove: From the Poetry & Popular Culture Mailbag

Thinking about poetry and popular culture is an infectious activity. This week, Ernest Hilbert (editor a few brows higher over at the "best damn poetry review online") writes in about a sweet discovery he made while picnicking with friends over the most recent Memorial Day weekend. As usual, a response from the Poetry & Popular Culture office follows.

Dear Poetry & Popular Culture,

On Memorial Day, my wife Lynn and I, along with our friend Keith, an NPR-affiliate DJ, had a modest picnic on the Brandywine Battlefield just outside of Philadelphia. The battle, a decisive victory for the Red Coats, took place in September, 1777, and sent the still-gangly colonial army, under the command of George Washington, scattering for dear life over the hills while abandoning most of their cannons. Afterward, the Continental Congress gave up on Philadelphia as a capital, and, on September 26, 1777, British forces marched into the city of brotherly love unopposed.

We enjoyed some Negronis (gin, Campari, and grapefruit juice in place of vermouth), German beers, whiskey, blueberries, strawberries, five cheeses, prosciutto, smoked mackerel, kalamata olives, four kinds of hummus, and salami. To top it all off, we shared a bar of "Cholocove"—a candy bar with a poem printed on the inside wrapper. Ours (pictured here) was a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (XII from Sonnets from the Portuguese). I was immediately delighted by the notion of a poem in a candy bar. The bar in question was loaded with crunchy orange peels and arrived in squares, each bearing an impression in the shape of a small heart. I immediately thought of Poetry & Popular Culture and snapped some photos for the P&PC office.



Dear Ernest,

How sweet of you to think of Poetry & Popular Culture! We were so taken by the image of you unwrapping canonical poetry on a battlefield where canons were once abandoned that, in an effort to repay your kindness, we've been trying to contact Chocolove in the hopes of discovering more about that company's, um, poetic tastes. There are lots of things we'd like to know: When did Chocolove start using poems? How many have they used? Is there an in-house editorial board? What qualities does a poem have to display in order to be deemed worthy of Chocolove endorsement, and is there a process by which individual poems are paired with individual chocolate flavors? Why, for example, did ChocoLove select Browning's Sonnet XII to pair with that particular bar?

But, alas. Despite a couple of emails and phone calls, we've received not a single calorie in the way of an answer from Chocolove headquarters, and so we're left for the moment with what we can find on Chocolove's web site, which raises even more questions. In the site's "Frequently Asked Questions" section, for example, we find the query "Can I submit poetry to Chocolove?" followed by the answer: "
We do not take poetry submissions but we appreciate your interest. Our poetry has to be in the public domain, which is free and clear of any rights. We have fairly narrow parameters for what we print and we do not use any modern day poetry."

Poetry & Popular Culture
can't help but wonder how many queries the company received from would-be ChocoLorcas before it felt moved to make this a FAQ? Did would-be ChocoLarkins send in poems, and what were those poems like? That is, what pool of poetic talent is going untapped by ChocoLove's decision to use only poems in the public domain, and what does it suggest about the relationship between chocolate and poetry that it's so easily disrupted by the inconvenience of copyright restrictions? Doesn't chocolate—like love—know no such bounds, and is there anything else about "modern day poetry" that, as a whole, wouldn't fit the unstated but nonetheless "fairly narrow parameters" of the company's editorial rubric? That is, are modern love and modern poetry in some way fundamentally incompatible?

However, Ernest, we at the Poetry & Popular Culture office don't want to send you away entirely empty-handed, for there is something of a tradition of wrapping together poetry and chocolate that isn't immediately evident in ChocoLove's packaging. Take, for example, the "For Mother" poem pictured to the left which adorns the front of an undated cardboard candy box issued by Schrafft's Chocolates of Boston, Massachusetts—a city which, like Brandywine Battlefield, saw its own share of Revolutionary War activity. Like the "poemulations" of Emily Dickinson, Chum Frink, and James Metcalfe, this is rhyming poetry printed as prose with linebreaks signaled by little designs and ornamented capital letters.

Or consider the tin box pictured here, which was probably manu- factured by the Artstyle Chocolate company— also of Boston—a bit later in the 20th century. Both boxes offer poems to mother, but the Artstyle poem does Schrafft's one better by including a byline; this is verse by Mary Grey Robinson, about whom P&PC knows very little except that she wrote the words for a 1920 songbook titled Babykin. Her poem "Mother" reads:

Every age and every tongue
Of Mother love has fondly sung
And from my heart I want to add
A glowing tribute just as glad
For never could love more wonderful be
Than you, dear Mother, have you given to me.

Both of these items are clearly products of an American culture of "Momism" that saw similar verse printed on pillows, plates, table runners, wall hangings, letter purses, and handkerchiefs—possibly even on picnic baskets like the one you no doubt took to Brandywine Battlefield. What is the connection, you might be wondering about now, between these pro-mother poems from earlier in the century and the romantic poem inside the ChocoLove bar which you shared with your wife? That depends, Ernest. How do you feel about your mother?


Poetry & Popular Culture