Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Other Side of Pin-Up Poetry

About a year ago, Poetry & Popular Culture spent some time thinking about the fact that poetry was oftentimes printed on pin-up posters like the Vargas-girl centerfolds that were a standard feature of Esquire magazine in mid-century America. Esquire wasn't unique in printing verse next to airbrushed, half-clad hotties, however. Poetry was a regular part of girly-picture culture more generally, escorting co-eds on postcards, ink blotters, playing cards, arcade cards, and matchbooks (such as the one pictured to the left)—a fact that intrigues Poetry & Popular Culture for a bunch of relatively compelling reasons which, if you take a journey back to last year's posting, you can discover for yourself.

Crucial to our curiosity, though, is the fact that the poetry accompanying the leggy lassies and sexy schoolmarms oftentimes seems to trouble the heteronormative masculine subject position that we assume these pin-ups both appealed to and helped to reinforce. It's almost as if, under the cover of ogling some busty babe—a sort of elaborate, Cold War-inspired drag performance of all-American maleness—guys found a freedom to explore alternate sexualities and sexual subject positions. And it was the poetry that was absolutely crucial to this queering of male sexuality, as from one pin-up to the next, the American male found the nature of his relationship to the image recast or re-rhymed in a variety of different ways.

Poetry & Popular Culture has just come into possession of a perfect example of this: the matchbook advertising Gosh's Burr Oaks "Modern Cabins" pictured above that has a poem printed down the length of its inside. On the front, the clever double entendre "Ready to Serve" plays right into the sort of masculine fantasy we expect pin-up pictures to cater to and reproduce. But when we turn to the inside, this is the poem we find:

If in this world there were but two,
And all the world were good and true,
And if you know that no one knew—
Would you?

If you dreamed in Pajamas Blue
Of two strong arms embracing you,
And if you really wanted to—
Would you?

If all the world were nice and bright,
And if I stayed with you all night,
And if I turned out all the lights—
Would you?

If we were in a certain place,
And we were sleeping face to face,
Nothing between us but a little lace—
Would you? Kiss me Good-Night!

Sure, by the end of the poem we realize (via that "little lace") that the poem's speaker is most likely a woman, but until then Poetry & Popular Culture feels that the verse clearly cultivates the fantasy of a male-male union and "of two strong arms embracing you." It's not an understatement, I think—given the hypothetical questions and the unrealistic world that is described (where all are "good and true," where no one would know, where you 'fessed up to wanting to, etc.)—to describe this scene as utopian. Of course, by returning the reader to the female and normative heterosexuality at the end, the poem reveals all of this speculation to be, in fact, precisely the fantasy that it is. But until then, the verse's vague language, conditional tense, and unidentified speaking voice let the American male drift from the moorings of his conventional masculinity and explore another side—not just of a matchbook, but of his desire.