Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Limericks, Stereoview Cards, and Popular Precedents to Marcel Duchamp

One of the many yet-to- be-fully- explored facets of poetry's history in American everyday life is its relationship to the stereo- scope—the common entertainment device that allowed millions of people 3-D viewing experiences between the 1850s and 1930s. As with most viewing technologies, the stereoscope has a long and varied history that Poetry & Popular Culture can't rehearse in full here except to remind everyone that the most common and affordable type of hand-held viewfinder (pictured above) was in fact invented by a poet—the American physician and author of "Old Ironsides," Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

With a few very interesting exceptions (which the Poetry & Popular Culture Office is keeping under wraps for the time being), most stereoview cards had images, not poems, printed on front, so that few Americans were presented with the opportunity to read in 3-D, however tantalizing the experience might seem to us today. This isn't to say that popular poetry in general was a book-based or print-based experience. From magic lantern slides, which projected poems onto walls or screens, to poetry choruses, which featured group recitations, popular poetry was part and parcel of a range of off-page entertainment activities. For some reason, though, the prospects of viewing poems in 3-D never seemed to catch on.

Many reverse sides of stereoview cards are largely blank, perhaps containing information on the card's publisher or its position in a series. But sometimes manufacturers took advantage of the blank side and printed poetry there—a move that complicated the viewing experience in all sorts of ways. Poems asked viewers to move from 3-D viewing to 2-D reading, from poem to image and back again. They implicitly proposed a relationship between poem and image, though the nature of that relationship was never spelled out, creating an opportunity for the reader to critically assess the relationship between the two. We here at the P&PC Office have seen all sorts of poems printed on stereoview cards—everything ranging from Byron, Wordsworth and John Greenleaf Whittier to patriotic hymns and short, two-line quotations.

For example, the back of "Dreaming— A Shady Nook, A Quiet Brook" (an image of a woman in a blue dress reclining poolside, pictured above) offers a pair of linked limericks:

There was a young woman of Frisco
Who went fishing way up on the Cisco.
She disrobed by a pool
Just to keep herself cool
And fell asleep. What a risk, O!

She dreamed that each fish was a man,
That she hooked them as fast as they swam.
She awoke with a bite
(Her skin was a fright)—
Twas mosquitos, she surely said "sugar"!

Bawdy both in what they ask the reader to picture and say, these naughty limericks are an exercise in dream theory (there is a causal and thus manageable relationship between the state of the woman when she falls asleep and the content of the dreams she subsequently has) and an argument for the unnaturalness of female sexual activity (she is punished by nature, via the disfiguring mosquito bites, for what she should have been able to control). Most intriguing, though, is the relationship between the limericks and the image on the card's reverse side. For rather than ask us to imagine a naked woman in the abstract, these verses ask the viewer to mentally disrobe a specific woman—the woman in blue on the other side.

Part peep-show and part morality tale, this card is the stereoscopic version of Marcel Duchamp's 1946-66 assemblage/installation Étant donnés, which presents viewers with a peephole in a cabin door through which to view a naked woman (see the image here). In fact, if the stereoview card's title "Dreaming—A Shady Nook, A Quiet Brook" could serve as a subtitle for Duchamp's piece, it could also describe the viewer's activity too, as he or she—prompted by ten lines of poetry—peers at the woman in the blue dress and dreams of seeing her naked. Now that's what we call a naughty limerick.