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.