Friday, December 31, 2010

Extra, Extra! A Happy, Happy New Year from P&PC

A year ago, P&PC took some time to muse on the cultural significance of the "Carrier's Greeting" tradition of New Year poems and then directed you to check out the 900 or so digitized examples in the great Brown University Library collection. By now—downloading and reading at the pace of 2-3 per day—you've probably been able to make your way through that archive and can thus make several immediate observations about the greeting shown here: compared to the poems that Brown has put online, it's small (about 4 inches high and 3 inches wide), short (only 14 lines), vague in its language, and new (most people associate the carrier's greeting with the 18th or 19th century, not with the advent of the 20th).

It's tempting to see the shortness of this 1900 New York Star address as evidence of the genre's dwindling cultural purchase. And that's not a bad estimation. Yet, with its deckle edges, judicious use of ornament, convenient size, and decorated initial capital letter, isn't it rather elegant as well? Sleek, efficient, easy to save, sonnet-like in both length and rhetorical structure, it strikes the P&PC office as a thoroughly modernized carrier's greeting. Compare it, for example, to the carrier's address (pictured to the left) issued by the Sunday News just eleven years earlier, in 1889. At 11 inches high and 4 inches wide, not only is the News greeting an awkward size to save and read—printed on a floppy card stock, it's also got what book-arts people would call horrible (or at least totally unpleasing) "action"—but it's got those unnecessarily ornate borders cluttering things up as well. Then, compare the language of the two poems. Here's an excerpt from the News version:

Fifty two have come and gone.
Weeks of the old, old year.
Weeks of sunshine and weeks of storm.
With their burdens of joy and fear.

Weeks that have brought to the town of Z
Changes fair and foul, I ween.
But through it all, sunshine and storm,
Faithful the "Carrier Boy" has been.

In these stanzas and elsewhere, the poem is full of unneeded information, abstraction and generalization, hyperbole, redundancy, archaic diction and forced rhymes. In comparison—or so we "ween"—the Star's tetrameter sonnet is more coherent, more to the point, and even more elegant in its standard request for an end-of-year tip. Sure, it's perhaps a bit too padded with adjectives, but in some ways that's consistent with the discourse of the trade—it's the same impulse that puts an extra "extra" in the famous cry, "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!"—and so seems forgivable if not entirely appropriate. And so it is in the spirit of the Star's anonymous poet that we here at P&PC don't just wish you and yours a Happy New Year, but a Happy, Happy 2011.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Warm Holiday Greetings from Poetry & Popular Culture

For the past two years, the P&PC office has marked the holiday season by bringing you the poetry of greeting cards. Last year, we shed some light on the abbreviated Hooverized greetings being sent during the Great Depression. The year before that, we brought you some of the fine-art Christmas cards that Robert Frost produced over the course of a 30-year collaboration with printer Joseph Blumenthal. We're going to continue this tradition in 2010, but we're going to give it a small generic twist. Many aspects of the mid-century object pictured here—the folding design, the "Merry Christmas" greeting, the poetic message contained inside, and the familiar Hallmark imprimatur on back—ask us to consider it a holiday greeting card. Which it is. In a way. With a small difference.

One quickly discovers, however, that the holiday greeting doubles as a giant matchbook about 3 inches wide and 4 inches high featuring a fiery, pun-filled poem written line by line on the individual matchsticks. (The match heads have been removed, we presume, for purposes of safe storage.) Way totally cool, right?

It is, admittedly, one of the funkiest (dare we say most innovative?) objects that P&PC has come across of late—in fact, we had a hard time convincing the office interns to wait until the holidays to share it with readers—but we think it also raises some questions for poetry scholars more generally. It's not difficult to find poetry critics who champion poetry as the genre that pays most attention to what folks call "the materiality of language." In The Textual Condition, for example, Jerome McGann writes:
Poets understand texts better than most information technologists. Poetical texts make a virtue of the necessity of textual noise by exploiting textual redundancy. The object of the poetical text is to thicken the medium as much as possible—literally, to put the resources of the medium on full display, to exhibit the process of self-reflection and self-generation which texts set in motion, which they are.
McGann is not necessarily wrong, but, for him, the poets and poems that best exemplify his claims—here and elsewhere—are folks like William Blake, Ezra Pound, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe, and so on. (That's a section of Howe's "Thorow" pictured to the left.) A lot of the street cred of 20th-century avant garde, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and post-avant poets and poetries comes from this place: that these writers and their texts "thicken the medium" of language, make the material aspects of language evident, and, in so doing, help in some way to save language from exploitation by the marketplace or affiliated parties who use language instrumentally—that is, as a transparent vehicle for conveying information.

Given these types of claims, what should one make of Hallmark's holiday production which—in its amalga- mation of Christmas card, matchbook, and poem—can certainly be said to put "the resources of the medium on display" while making a virtue of double meanings and puns that, by their very nature, truck in the excess meanings or "noise" present in all linguistic activity? Should we give snaps to Hallmark for its inventiveness—for the DADA-inspired, performance aesthetic a user enacts as he or she slowly picks apart the poem and burns it up, thus putting on display the essential ephemeral nature of all human communication? Or, should we cry foul for this very reason, since Hallmark invites us to envision a totally instrumental purpose for its poem: a reader sacrificing it, line by line, in order to perform the mundane task of lighting a candle? (Think, for example, if Hallmark issued a companion matchbook edition of Emily Dickinson and encouraged readers to light their candles by burning its pages!)

With the interns all gone home early and an episode of Mad Men or Fringe awaiting us at home, we don't have time to linger over these questions any more tonight. You might say we're, uh, burning to get on the road. So from the whole P&PC Office, we wish you the warmest greetings for your holidays. May they be full of joy, companionship, music and good food. And, of course, some poetry.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Going Nuts Over Tax Cuts

This afternoon, President Barack Obama will sign an $858 billion tax bill into law. Extending the Bush-era tax cuts for another two years, the bill will also cut the estate tax for the most super-mega-ultra-filthy-dirty-rich Americans—a provision that Republicans demanded be included if they were to also approve the bill's extension of unemployment benefits for 2 million people currently out of work. In short, Republicans delayed support for those 2 million until the wealthiest Americans—those who have estates of more than $5 million per individual or $10 million per couple—benefited from the deal as well. How many people were the Republicans fighting for, you ask? Forbes reports that, as a result of Republican advocacy, fewer than 4,000 people will pay a federal estate tax next year. No one can blame the Republicans for betraying their own.

Which is why, come the annual office Christmas party, P&PC will be handing out the helpful object pictured here—a poetic Squirrel Dimesaver issued by the Calvert Savings & Loan Association in the early 1940s (the date on the Mercury head dime in the squirrel's paw on the cover pictured above is 1941). We figure that if the P&PC staff is going to be among those 4,000 wealthiest Americans some day, we'd better get started now. As the poem printed inside advises:

Like our friend make Savings Pay,
Start with a dime in this folder today
For it's steady savings in small amounts
That add up fast in your saving account.

The P&PC office doesn't yet have an accounting intern to do the calculations for us, so forgive us if our math is wrong. As far as we can figure, though, the reduced estate tax kicks in at $5 million per person ($10 million per couple). So, if we use this Calvert Savings & Loan "steady savings" mechanism—which collects $3 worth of dimes when completely full—we will only have to fill it 1,666,667 times before we die in order to meet the $5 million threshold (or $3,333,333 times per couple) that will put us among the wealthiest 4,000 people whose estate tax rates have just gone down.

That shouldn't be all that hard, should it? I mean, if we live another 50 years, we'll only need to fill this dime saver about 33,333 times per year—or just about 91 times per day. Admittedly, we'll probably get a pretty serious case of carpal tunnel syndrome along the way, and our thriftiness might be called unpatriotic. But that's nothing our good old American bootstrapping heirs will have to worry their pretty little heads about now, is it?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Now at the Boston Public Library: The Public Life of Poetry

From now until January 31, 2011, the Boston Public Library is hosting The Public Life of Poetry: Whitman, Dickinson, Longfellow, and Their Contemporaries—an exhibition that pulls together a wide range of 19th-century temperance poetry, abolitionist poetry, broadsides, ephemera, occasional verse, poetry scrapbooks, and books and manuscripts relating to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Because of recent budget cutbacks, P&PC was unable to score a plane ticket and make it to Boston to give you a first-hand report. However, we did get a chance to catch up with Nadia Nurhussein (next picture below), the show’s primary organizer and Assistant Professor of English at University of Massachusetts at Boston. Here’s what she had to say.

Poetry & Popular Culture: How did this exhibition take shape?

Nadia Nurhussein: Last semester, I taught a class on public poetry in the U.S. The students and I met once a week at the Rare Books Room of the Boston Public Library (pictured above), where we would select from among the surprisingly impressive collection’s manuscript and printed poems ones that we wanted to examine closely. After the course was over, we organized some of our more interesting discoveries into this exhibit

P&PC: What’s your favorite part of the show?

NN: One of the exhibit’s most exciting cases is devoted to Longfellow parodies. My favorite is Bret Harte’s “Excelsior”—an 1877 versified advertisement for the popular Sapolio soap brand. As Gary Scharnhorst has pointed out, Harte (pictured here) turned to advertising when his famed literary career was collapsing, selling “Excelsior” to Enoch Morgan’s Sons for $50. Unlike Longfellow’s hero, who carries a banner and summits a mountain with “Excelsior!” as his motto, Harte’s “youth…bore, through dust and heat / A stencil-plate, that read complete—‘SAPOLIO!’” He finds space to hawk Sapolio on crowded fences, alongside similar ads for Bixby’s Blacking and Mustang Liniment.

P&PC: If only he could have put up billboards like Burma- Shave did.

NN: That wouldn’t have been good enough for him. He is so thoroughly a product of late 19th-century advertising that, with stencil in hand, he comically defaces even the natural landscape with the language of commerce. Not satisfied with fences, he manages to get paint to stick to a snow bank and paints every rock on White Mountain, where tourists “to their dismay, / …read that legend strange, always—‘SAPOLIO.’ Finally, he even paints the tourists’ luggage when they get to the top of the mountain!

P&PC: That doesn’t seem to be the best p.r. campaign for the advertising industry, does it?

NN: It’s incredible that Enoch Morgan’s Sons would use a poem that deplores the ubiquity and inescapability of advertising. But, then again, Harte’s “Excelsior” wasn’t permitted to stand alone. Alternating with Harte’s poem are pages of more straightforward advertising, including the imperative to “SCOUR POTS, KETTLES, PANS AND ALL BRASS AND COPPER UTENSILS WITH SAPOLIO.”

P&PC: Were there other Longfellow parodies?

NN: The most parodied Longfellow poem was probably The Song of Hiawatha—and Longfellow was well aware of the parodies. In an 1877 letter addressed to Karl Knortz (who translated Hiawatha into German), Longfellow replies to Knortz’s request for the titles of Hiawatha parodies with which he is familiar. Knortz initially names four parodies, but Longfellow comes up with two more.

P&PC: Why Hiawatha?

NN: Hiawatha’s easily recognized meter (modeled after the Finnish epic The Kalevala) probably inspired amateurs to imitate it. One parodist admits as much, claiming that “already afloat upon the rhythmical flow of the Hiawathan verse, his thoughts yielded to the alluring current and took ‘the form and pressure’ of the occasion.” James W. Ward’s 1868 parody, The Song of Higher-Water (pictured to the left) was written only three days after Hiawatha was published. One review accurately describes The Song of Higher-Water as “just such a brochure as a clever writer might readily throw off for the amusement of a circle of friends; it is scarcely adapted to the dignity of print.” It is, the reviewer concludes, “an excellent work to give away.” In fact, Ward himself claimed that the poem was “chiefly issued for private distribution” and was published only because “some person, from motives, the rectitude of which is not self-evident, has surreptitiously published an imperfect edition of it, which, I am informed, he is selling for his own account.”

P&PC: Tell me about the poetry scrapbooks in the show. (The page pictured here is from Anne Sexton's scrapbook.)

NN: There are some amazing scrapbooks at the BPL. One of my students found one by a man named Julius L. Brown. There was no further information about him in the card catalog, but my research leads me to believe that he was the same Julius L. Brown whose father was Joseph E. Brown, an unpopular governor of Georgia during the Civil War, when this scrapbook was compiled. He was an eccentric graduate of Harvard Law School and was described by the New York Times as a "collector of the rare in all things."

Another interesting scrapbook, elaborately bound and formally titled Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill 1775-1875, was compiled by Mellen Chamberlain, a 19th-century BPL librarian. As the title suggests, he was interested in collecting material related to Revolutionary War battles, including poetic treatments of these battles by Holmes, Whittier, and Emerson (pictured below). We are displaying a fair copy of Emerson's "Concord Hymn," accompanied by a letter by Chamberlain explaining how he came into possession of the manuscript. He writes that Mrs. Charles Porter, Emerson's cousin, offered to "prevail upon Mr Emerson to transcribe his battle hymn into the volume" if Chamberlain would travel with her to Concord. Chamberlain also notes that Emerson, whose "health was considerably broken," died soon after.

P&PC: What do you mean by occasional verse? Does "Concord Hymn" qualify?

NN: "Concord Hymn" does qualify as occasional verse: it was written and performed at the dedication of an obelisk erected to commemorate the battles at Lexington and Concord. The Mellen Chamberlain manuscript is in the scrapbook case, but the occasional verse case includes a print copy of the poem (donated to the library by the family of William Lloyd Garrison) that was circulated at the event apparently for the purpose of audience participation.

Another interesting bit of occasional verse is a poem written by Holmes for the laying of the cornerstone of the BPL's McKim Building in 1888. On the underside of the cornerstone, two pieces were cut out to accommodate copper boxes that served as time capsules commemorating the ceremony, and Holmes's poem was one of several items placed inside.

P&PC: When I think of Dickinson, I don’t necessarily think “public.” How does she fit into the show?

NN: The exhibit focuses mainly on the marketing of Dickinson immediately after her death. Some of the correspondence between Dickinson editors Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd surrounding the first and second "series" of Poems is displayed, along with the books themselves. One of these letters talks about the cover illustration of an Indian Pipe—a rare white flower that seems to have been chosen to evoke the sense of reclusiveness that was already associated with Dickinson. Her strangeness and reclusiveness were part of the marketing strategy; the preface to Poems, for example, calls her "a recluse by temperament and habit, literally spending years without setting foot beyond the doorstep."

The "public" Dickinson is also reflected in two poems published during her lifetime, probably without her permission: "The May-Wine" (known as "I taste a liquor never brewed") in The Springfield Republican, and "Success" (known as "Success is counted sweetest") in A Masque of Poets. Both were published anonymously. The exhibit also includes a letter from Lavinia Dickinson, thanking Higginson for "giving Emilies wonderful letters to the world"—in other words, for making her public.

P&PC: If you were to do a companion exhibit on the public life of 20th-century poetry, where would you start?

NN: That's a good question! This exhibit actually does extend a bit into the early 20th century, with a case of dialect poetry that includes James Whitcomb Riley's 1908 Orphant Annie book and Paul Laurence Dunbar's 1901 Candle-Lightin' Time. (That's Dunbar pictured to the left.) But, of course, the popularity of dialect poetry didn't last very far into the century. There are also three mid-century photographs related to 19th-century poets. One depicts an event at the Longfellow House for the 1957 sesquicentennial of his birth. Over 2,000 visitors gathered there, and there was even a live television broadcast. (It's hard to imagine such a turnout to celebrate, for instance, Robert Frost, less than 150 years after his birth.)

Perhaps a companion exhibit could begin with the Beat movement, which I think penetrated popular culture in a way that no other 20th-century poetry movement did. I remember watching cartoons that made fun of "beatnik" readings. And apparently Herman Munster was a Beat poet, as Angela Sorby wrote about for P&PC! Even today, the depictions of poetry readings in popular culture usually correspond to those stereotypes of Beat readings.

P&PC: What’s the feedback been like so far?

NN: I've heard from the staff at the BPL that visitors to the exhibit seem to be spending more time looking around than they have with exhibits in the past, which is encouraging to hear. Susan Glover, who holds the title of Acting Keeper of Prints, Rare Books, Manuscripts and Archives at the BPL, suggested that I try to include more visual materials, and I suspect that that has made a difference. Even people interested in books don't necessarily want to look at cases and cases of print! So, items like the broadside of Whittier's "Our Countrymen in Chains!," with its striking wood engraving of a supplicant slave captioned "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" (the central image of the anti-slavery movement), show how verse and images were integrated—in this instance, to make the strongest possible argument against slavery. The exhibit will be up until the end of January, so I hope that P&PC readers who have plans to be in Boston during the holidays will stop by!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Perfect Strangers—Poetry in Motion

Aired on Sunday, November 15, 1989

Season 5, Episode 6 Summary: Larry and Balki discover that Lowell Kelly, a famous poet, used to live in their apartment and that an unpublished poem of his is hidden there. They search for it, but Balki doesn't know that Larry—who discovers the manuscript might be worth thousands of dollars—plans to sell it.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Report from Victoria

Twice—twice!—at this year's Modernist Studies Association conference in Victoria, British Columbia, P&PC heard people with no official connection to this blog sincerely and with no apparent malicious intent drop the name of the "people's poet" Edgar Guest. Sure, folks dropped it casually and quietly, as if they were testing the waters to see whether it really would disturb the universe if the author of A Heap O' Livin and Just Folks were mentioned in the same breath as Mina Loy and Ezra Pound and the politics of modernist salons. P&PC is happy to report that the universe is in stable condition.

What surprised P&PC more than all this Eddie Guest name-dropping, however, was the complete silence in regard to Robert Service (1874-1958)—the "Bard of the Yukon" and author of such classics as "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." Known as "the Canadian Kipling," Service is perhaps as much an illustration of "Modernist Networks" (the conference theme) as anyone else: he was born in Scotland, moved to Canada at age 21, worked as an ambulance driver and war correspondent during World War I, married a Parisian in France, and fled Europe for the U.S. with the outbreak of World War II. Wouldn't it have been interesting to put his poems about the Boer War ("The March of the Dead") and World War I (Rhymes of a Red Cross Man) into a modernist context and see what happens? Especially for a conference taking place in Canada?

In fact, the only mention of Service we encoun- tered during our three-day stay in B.C. was as we were doing our standard poetry-related research at the local pub and came across this ad for Service Scottish Ale (pictured at the top above) which is locally brewed by the Phillips Brewing Company of Victoria. The poster defines "service" in chiefly economic terms that make us uncomfortable—we'd like to think one could be celebrated for services of a less capitalist nature, for example—but given that the M.S.A. failed to offer much in the way of an alternative, we'll side, at least for the moment with Phillips. Join us for a drink?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

MSA 2010: The Networks of Modernism

Later this week, P&PC carpools up I-5 and ferries over the Salish Sea to Victoria, British Columbia, in order to attend the 12th annual Modernist Studies Association conference. This year, the conference is organized around the special theme "The Networks of Modernism," and you can catch P&PC live and in action on Friday morning from 8:30-10 a.m. as part of the panel "Modernist Patronage: Corporate and Academic Evolutions." Here's a preview of that throw-down:

Modernist Patronage: Corporate and Academic Evolutions

Modernism witnessed a revival of traditional literary patronage, but it also saw the development of other patronage systems, ranging from the new network of Carnegie Libraries to women's social clubs and local Rotary clubs. This panel examines corporate and academic evolutions of patronage which created new markets and audiences for modernist creative work, from poetry to photography. These three presentations disclose relationships that were sometimes fraught, but that ultimately benefited both artist and "patron." Further, these presentations trace the development of relationships providing models for later patronage of the arts. All three also demonstrate how modernist work sometimes evolved both in content and style partly due to interactions between author/artist and patron.

Mike Chasar ("From Vagabond to Visiting Poet: Vachel Lindsay and the Prehistory of the Program Era") focuses on the financial and institutional patronage of poets by American universities which culminated after World War 2 in what Mark McGurl has called "The Program Era." Modernism saw the invention of the Writer-in-Residence position, the development of a nationwide university-to-university reading circuit, and the invention of the "Visiting Poet." With assistance from Baylor University English professor A. Joseph Armstrong, the poet Vachel Lindsay began visiting schools in the South and West that other modern poets didn't believe would support their work. Lindsay thus established a circuit that Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg and others would follow, simultaneously dislodging New England as the center of American arts and letters. Lindsay also pioneered a rhetorical justification allowing iconoclastic poets to cultivate relationships with the conservative world of academia without becoming sellouts.

Brenda Helt ("The Making and Managing of American Modernists: Norman Holmes Pearson and the Yale Collection of American Literature") examines the role of Yale professor Norman Holmes Pearson, who used his personal connections with authors like H. D., Bryher, Pound, and Stein to acquire major collections of their work for Yale. Reciprocally, Pearson used his authoritative position to further interest in and obtain publishers for the work of these modernists, securing their reputations for posterity and enabling some of their best work. Based in part on Pearson’s unpublished letters, Helt’s presentation focuses primarily on Pearson’s role as academic patron of H.D. and Pound. Pearson worked tirelessly as H.D.’s tactful editor, as well as her literary advisor and (unpaid) agent, roles that significantly affected the quantity and quality of her late work. Pound’s WW 2 politics and consequential incarceration at St. Elizabeth’s garnered many enemies, but Pearson promoted Pound’s work apart from his political involvements, helping to prevent it from being “disappeared.”

Donal Harris ("On Company Time: Agee in the Office") examines corporate patronage, exploring how Time, Inc. underwrote a vast amount of poetry, literature, photography, and film by bringing novelists and poets into the journalistic fold. He argues that “Time-style”—the idiosyncratic syntactical form that articles in the eponymous journal took—can also describe the process of systematizing how a stable of experimental artists produced their texts. By recasting “Time-style” in terms of modernist patronage, Harris foregrounds the professionalization of certain protocols of modernist aesthetics under the auspices of mass-market journalism. Harris grounds this larger argument in a reading of James Agee's famously strained relationship with Time, Inc. and the publishing history of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, initially an article for Fortune.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Private SNAFU

Between 1943 and 1945, Warner Brothers animation studios produced a series of black and white, sometimes rhyming instruc- tional shorts for the U.S. Armed Forces that starred Private SNAFU—a bumbling, cautionary tale of a character created by Frank Capra, sometimes written by Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), and voiced by Mel Blanc. Hard to imagine American troops being trained via rhyme? Check out these examples.

Rumors (1943)

Spies (1943)

The Chow Hound (1944)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

200 Toasts from Mlle. Mixer

From Blatz to bourbon and mead to martinis, a drink or two can loosen the tongue of even the most reluctant rhymer, helping in the process to produce all sorts of non-pragmatic rhythms and language play ranging from dirty limericks to national anthems.

It's no surprise, therefore, to come upon an anthology like 200 Toasts—the little 4 x 6 paperback pictured to the left and copyrighted by Mlle. Mixer in 1917. Here are some highlights from the Mix Mistress so that you're not left tongue-tied at your next soiree:


God made man as frail as a bubble,
God made love, and love made trouble,
God made wine, and is it a sin
For a man to drink wine to drown trouble in?


Let schoolmasters puzzle their brains
With grammar and nonsense and learning.
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives learning a better discerning.


The Frenchman loves his native wine,
The German loves his beer;
The Englishman loves his 'alf and 'alf
Because it brings good cheer.
The Irishman loves his whiskey straight
Because it gives him dizzyness;
The American has no choice at all,
So he drinks the whole d--- business.


Laugh at all things, great and small,
Sick or well, at sea or shore.
While we're quaffing, let's have laughing,
Who the d--- cares for more?


While beer brings gladness, don't forget
That water only makes you wet.


Here's to we two and you two; if you two love we two,
As we two love you two, then here's to we four;
But if you two don't love we two, as we love you two,
Then here's to we two, and no more!


Here's to our wives and sweethearts;
May they never meet.


The world is filled with flowers,
The flowers are filled with dew;
The dew is filled with love,
For you, and you, and you.


Beggars who walk, princes and queens who hide,
In skull-and-bone land saunter side by side.


Here's lovers two to the maiden true,
And four to the maiden caressing;
But the wayward girl, with lips that curl,
Keeps twenty lovers guessing.


There is a riddle most abstruse,
Canst read the answer right?
Why is it that my tongue grows loose
Only when I grow tight?


If on my theme I rightly think
There are five reason why men drink;
Good wine, a friend, because I'm dry,
Or lest I should be, by and by,
Or any other reason why.


Love is sweet, but oh! how bitter
To love a girl and then not git her.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Magic Song Restorer

In a sense, the Norton Anthology of Poetry is not just a collection of great poems but an aviary as well. From Percy Shelley's skylark to John Keats's nightingale, Emily Dickinson's bobolink, Edgar Allan Poe's raven, and William Butler Yeats's falcon, English poetry is part field guide if not tutorial in birdwatching and even the skill of birding by ear. "Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop" calls the hermit-thrush from the pine trees of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." Robert Frost's ovenbird "makes the solid tree trunks sound again." And Gerard Manley Hopkins records the lark's "rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score / In crisps of curl..."

If birdwatching has long inspired poets, who see or hear their own singing more clearly in relation to "the thing with feathers," then it's a pleasure to see poetry—at least on the Magic Song Restorer tin of bird food pictured here—returning the favor. The prose directions on the side of the Depression-Era tin read: "Fill the treat cup daily with this song food. If the canary is run down or feeling out of sort feed this food exclusively in the regular food cup." But the prose isn't where the magic is. The magic, of course, is in the poetry printed on the back of the tin:

Magic cures him when he's sick
Magic cheers him when he's well
Makes his feathers smooth and slick
And his voice just like a bell

A little chant or incantation calling forth the forces of healing and recovery in a way that prose cannot, this quatrain also visualizes the canary getting better, narrating a process of recovery—curing, cheering, smoothing feathers—which is signaled as complete by (what else?) birdsong.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

This Just In: John Ashbery More Accessible than Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser and the subject of poetic "accessibility" have gone hand in hand for a long time. The Poetry Foundation reports, for example, that the former U.S. Poet Laureate (pictured here avec chiens) "is known for his honest, accessible verse." James H. Billington of the Library of Congress has praised Kooser's ability "to touch on universal themes in accessible ways." A reader posting a comment on Amazon admires Kooser "for writing poetry that is accessible, inviting, familiar and ordinary in a most extraordinary way." Even Kooser thinks about himself in this manner; asked in the recent (October/November 2010) issue of The Writer's Chronicle to account for the ongoing sales of his book Delights & Shadows, he explains, "My poems are accessible to a broad general audience."

Here at the P&PC Home Office, we suspect that accessibility is most often measured in the way that Justice Potter Stewart once measured obscenity (i.e., we know it when we see it). But curious nonetheless about the popularity of this yardstick, we decided to put Kooser's accessibility to the test and determine, once and for all, just how accessible his poetry is. So, using the online calculator available here, we subjected the five sample Kooser poems presented alongside his interview in The Writer's Chronicle to three common readability tests: the Flesch Reading Ease Test, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test, and the Gunning fog index.

All three tests measure "reada- bility" by using mathe- matical formulae taking into consi- deration word count, sentence length, and word complexity. On the Flesch Reading Ease Test (and according to Wikipedia), a score of 90-100 indicates a text is "accessible" to the average 11 year-old student; a 60-70 suggests a text is understandable by 13-15 year-old students; and a 0-30 score indicates a text best understood by university graduates. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test articulates the Reading Ease Test in terms of specific grade levels, as does the Gunning fog index. All three tests, while incomplete or limited in design, have social imperatives; if the average newspaper is supposed to be written at the literacy level of an 8th grader, for example, tests like these are supposed to be able to help make news and information available—er, accessible—to as many people as possible.

So you're no doubt wondering by now, how did Kooser's poetry fare when plugged into these tests? Well, it turns out that Kooser is a fairly accessible poet but—in receiving grade-level scores that range from 5th grade through advanced graduate school—the poems are not nearly, completely, or constantly as accessible as Kooser himself and others would have us believe (not based on the results of our limited 5-poem set at least). Here are the scores for the five pieces:

"The Very Old"
Reading Ease Score: 73.7
Grade Level: 8.1
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 11.2

"After My Grandmother's Funeral"
Reading Ease: 72.6
Grade Level: 11.1
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 15

"Flying at Night"
Reading Ease: 80.2
Grade Level: 5.3
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 7

"There is Always a Little Wind"
Reading Ease: 72.1
Grade Level: 12.4
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 15.9

"Porch Swing in September"
Reading Ease: 54.9
Grade Level: 19.3
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 22.7

As you can see, the Gunning Fog test consistently places Kooser's poems at a higher grade level than the Flesch-Kincaid index. Even so, one can't discount the fact that the Flesch-Kincaid test places three of Kooser's poems at, near, or above, twelfth-grade level. That is, Kooser's poems are accessible, but not as accessible as a regular newspaper would be. "Flying at Night" stands out as being especially accessible—a newspaper-level poem—and "Porch Swing in September" stands out as being particularly inaccessible. Go read "Porch Swing in September" and check for yourself; it might be hard to imagine how Kooser could take the topic of a country swing and turn it into a poem that places at the Ph.D. level in both Grade Level metrics, but that's just what he's managed to do.

After studying Kooser via these readability tests, we started to hanker after a larger frame of reference. How would other poets fare when subjected to the same battery of tests? How would Kooser fare in comparison to those poets? What might we learn about American poetry and "accessibility" if we expanded our study to consider a wider segment of the poetry-writing world, and especially poets who are considered to be as inaccessible or as downright obscure as Kooser is considered to be accessible and familiar? So, in search of some answers, we plugged John Ashbery (pictured here) into the three tests, and we were shocked by what we learned.

John Ashbery is more accessible than Ted Kooser.

Hands down.

It's not even close.

To keep things as fair or constant as possible, we ran five Ashbery poems— "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape," "The New Higher," "Syringa," "Daffy Duck in Hollywood," and "For John Clare"—through the Flesch, Flesch-Kincaid, and Gunning Fog machines. And the data was, to put it mildly, very surprising, as Ashbery not only scored as more accessible more consistently than Kooser did, but consistently scored below a 9th-grade reading level on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test as well!

Here are the scores for Ashbery's poems:

"Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape"
Reading Ease: 78.5
Grade Level: 6.2
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 9.4

"The New Higher"
Reading Ease: 92.2
Grade Level: 3
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 6.4

Reading Ease: 75.4
Grade Level: 7.4
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 10.5

"Daffy Duck in Hollywood"
Reading Ease: 67.7
Grade Level: 8.4
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 12.1

"For John Clare"
Reading Ease: 83.3
Grade Level: 6.3
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 9.5

This Kooser/ Ashbery experiment is, we imagine, just the start of a new method of assessing and measuring contemporary American poetry via the concept of "accessibility" and according to metrics that other spheres of academia have used for some time. The P&PC Office is thrilled about what lies in store—how we might help to reveal the obscurity of heretofore "accessible" poets like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and also shed light on the accessibility of "obscure" poets like Charles Bernstein and Jorie Graham. We thank you for your support as we move forward with this endeavor.

Friday, October 1, 2010

From the Poetry & Popular Culture Vault: The Financial Lives of the Poets

As part of its public service imperative, the P&PC office makes an effort to stay current on all things poetic and popular. We spend long hours doing investigative research. We comb the news and chart trends. We network with movers and shakers. And we keep on reading Entertainment Weekly, which recently reported that Jess Walter's "amusing book" The Financial Lives of the Poets—reviewed here ten or so months ago by P&PC correspondent Colleen Coyne—is now out in paperback. To mark that event, we reprint Coyne's review (though not in paperback) here:

Earlier this winter, Chicagoland publisher Sourcebooks, Inc. launched PoetrySpeaks, a website selling text, audio, and video of individual poems for $0.99-$1.99 a pop. (Think iTunes for poetry.) Call me cynical, but as much as I want it to be, poetry is rarely profitable. Despite conventional wisdom, PoetrySpeaks is betting on a huge audience of willing and eager, iPod-toting poetry-purchasers to pony up the big bucks—or at least enough dough to keep 'em afloat.

Only a fool would take that wager. But in Jess Walter’s latest novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, former business journalist Matt Prior has done just that, literally betting the whole house on his pipe-dream, a website that delivers financial news via poetry—with disastrous and hilarious consequences.

We first meet 46-year-old Matt, slipper-clad and sleep-deprived, on a midnight 7-11 milk run. He’s out of a job; he’s pretty sure his wife is cheating on him; he’s a caretaker to his two little boys and dementia-ridden father; and he’s a week away from losing his house because of the categorical failure of his “money lit” website. With little time to make everything right, what’s a guy to do? Hook up with some local stoners and become a drug dealer, of course—all in the name of salvaging his marriage, saving his house, and bringing his life back from the brink of ruin.

Matt is responsibility gone rogue, a “creepy old guy” trying to grapple with the lingo and social cues of a totally alien drug subculture. In his most insightful moments, he takes on American entitlement and gluttony, suggests his own complicity in the current sado-masochistic financial kink-fest, and questions our Web-centric need for instant gratification. During a brief hopeful moment, he wonders: “is it possible to fall in love with your own life?” We readers are inclined to say no, having watched so many people over the past year lose jobs and homes. But flawed as our lives can be, we fight for what we want and will do anything—anything—to save ourselves and the people we love. That’s one reason we like our anti-hero—he’s flawed, but he’s a fighter.

And because we like him, we watch Matt’s many dubious decisions with hands half over our eyes, as if we’re watching a slasher flick. (Don’t go through that drug-dealing door, Matt!) He’s surrounded by other characters spanning the hapless spectrum: Chuck, the balding lumber salesman who’s putting the moves on Matt’s wife; Monte, ruler of the local pot plantation (a.k.a. “Piggy, Drug Lord of the Flies”); Dave, futilely cautious lawyer for all major drug transactions; Richard, his financial planner who’s “predictable as coffin shopping”; and a host of others who, like Matt, are desperately trying to make the best of their broken worlds. We can’t bear and yet can’t wait to watch the disaster unfold. Although the story is somewhat predictable—like that slasher flick—it’s told with such wit and insight that we don’t want to put it down.

Beyond his characters, Walter’s strength is the novel’s form. Much as Matt himself lives multiple lives, The Financial Lives of the Poets takes on multiple generic and formal conventions, sliding from sitcom territory to the realm of crime thrillers as lists, screenplay dialogue, and poetry all work in concert to reveal the hidden, ignored complexities of everyday life and the challenge of conveying them through literature. If there is a major fault in The Financial Lives of the Poets, it may be that the premise is completely unconvincing. How could a man who made his living as a business reporter think that would be a fiscally sound investment? He’d be either incredibly dumb or incredibly naïve (and evidence for both abounds). Or perhaps it's too great a leap of faith. Can either Matt or Watler really believe this is what poetry can or should do?

Matt's a mediocre poet, but if he were better at it, we probably wouldn't like him as much. We read his blank verse, villanelles, and haikus alongside more familiar, deliciously appropriated bits. Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams all make cameos (“so much depends upon the red Camaro," for example). Matt initially began, he tells us, because “investment poetry would…open the door for a literary discussion of the thing that most of us spent so many days thinking about: our money.” Perhaps only in such a discussion could we begin to make sense of the great mess we’ve gotten into and begin to get out of it.

While reading The Financial Lives of the Poets, I couldn’t help but think of Williams’s famous lines

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Matt’s downfall is triggered partly by a lack of interest in poetry—really, a lack of interest in humanity—and Matt continually reminds us how important poets and poetry are in these fragmented, implosive times:

The truth is that anything you try to own ends up owning you. We’re all just renting…. The poets were supposed to remind us of this, to regulate the existential and temporal markets (Let be be finale of seem. / The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.) and to balance real estate with ethereal state (One not need be a chamber to be haunted, / One need not be a house.) Hell, we don’t need bailouts, rescue packages and public works. We need more poets.

Amen to that.

In this tale of our current financial crisis and our long and compli- cated relationship with po'try, Jess Walter’s creation is hilarious and poignant, sardonic and wise. While indicting our money-obsessed consumer culture, Walter crafts his characters with empathy and care, and we identify with them at their lowest and highest moments. It’s a story of forgiveness and redemption, of triumph and spirit, balanced with a bit of raunch. Though timely and topical, The Financial Lives of Poets will stick around because the cultural crisis of this book—how to make poetry matter, how to get people to care about their own lives and about each other—is timeless. And despite the despair of Matt’s situation, and our own, Walter provides us with some hope, reminding us that while “the edge is so close to where we live….It’s okay. Just keep moving forward. Don’t look back. It’s okay.” And we believe it.

And for those of you lit-entrepreneurs who’ve been thinking “Financial poetry? Brilliant! I could do that...”? Well, Matt’s ill-fated domain,, is still available. Snatch it up and live the dream.

Colleen Coyne writes in from Minneapolis where she is completing an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Minnesota.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Putting the Ale in Salem

From noon to 10 pm this coming Saturday, September 25th, Gilgamesh Brewing and Wandering Aengus Cider Works will be hosting Salem's first Beer & Cider Festival at the Mission Mill Museum located at 1313 Mill Street, just a hop (ahem), skip and a jump from the campus of Willamette University. The P&PC Office is excited. Sure, we took a field trip to the 24th annual Oregon Brewers Festival this past July where we sampled our fair share of the more than 80 craft beers that were on tap in that well-established, world-renowned frothy juggernaut of a fest. But there's something particularly special about Salem's startup, and not just because it's taking place, somewhat audaciously, in the shadow of Portland's hipster paradise and in a capital city that gets short shrift in all the guidebooks. Maybe—just maybe—it also has to do with a certain poetic element that's been in the Salem beer mix, along with all those locally-grown hops, going on for nigh 100 years.

Take the acrostic pictured to the left, for example: a May, 1911 advertisement issued by the Salem Brewery Association, which came across our desktops via a mysteriously anonymous blogging friend (and purveyor of the fascinating and arcane) over at Capital Taps. It's a clever bit of acrostic puffery in which the vertically-oriented phrase "Salem Beer" becomes the grammatical subject of virtually every line even as its component letters begin those lines. That is, the letters in "Salem Beer" are being put to three separate uses: as (ahem) the capital beginning each line, as the aggregate subject of each statement about beer's healing powers, and as a sort of bold-faced neon light for "Salem Beer" that signifies independent of the poem as it's printed vertically down the page. This is how an acrostic is supposed to work, right? It's a poetic form that exploits the tendencies of language to serve multiple purposes simultaneously and, in revealing embedded texts and encoded messages, encourages us to read against the page's grain if not between the lines.

Once licensed to read this way, readers will find the "Salem Beer" ad to be an unex- pectedly rich verbal habitat. For example, who can mistake that the first word one comes to when reading down the page is the "Sale" going on in "Salem"—a perfectly appropriate description of the result that the ad seeks to effect? In fact, the very alcoholic bevvie which is the subject of the local market transaction—ale—is itself embedded in the city's name, so that by the time the "M" in Salem finally comes around, the Salem Brewery Association has more or less encapsulated its core message in five letters: it's a sale on ale in Salem. Mind you, this sort of creative play in which meanings melt—or should it be malt?—into one another isn't unique to this ad. A more recent local movement to "Keep Salem Lame" has more or less read the city's name in the same way but to different results; just as the Brewery Association saw its product inherent in Oregon's capital, so some locals see the city's true identity there as well.

What we like even more about this ad, however, is the homonym for "ale"—that is, "ail"—which the acrostic poem itself takes up as the very problem for which Salem Beer is a purported remedy. Once we begin reading horizontally through the acrostic—with the grain—we come upon the healing powers that Salem Beer supposedly has: it invigorates, lends strength to the weak and wearied physique, is a cure for the nervous ills of life, restores people to full strength, etc. In short, Ale is the cure for what Ails you. It might strike some as a crazy claim for the Brewery Association to make, but in an age when alcohol was the primary ingredient in most patent medicines and snake oil cures, the mythical healing powers of alcohol were well embedded in the cultural psyche, not just in the word "Salem."

There's at least one more, likely uncon- scious, effect that the Brewery Associ- ation's acrostic would have had on its 1911 audience, however. As Leon Jackson reminds us in his awesome study The Business of Letters: Authorial Economies in Antebellum America (2008), acrostics were a popular "if juvenile, form of courtship poetry" in the antebellum U.S. It's no surprise, for example, that the 19th century advertising trade card pictured here—showing a dashing lad wooing his beloved by handing her a packet of B.T. Babbitt's soap—contains an acrostic on back (see below) constructed via the name of the company's flagship product "BT Babbitts Soap." That acrostic, titled "The Man" and extolling the virtues of the esteemed Mr. B.T. Babbitt himself, begins:

B right golden day, that ever gave
T he world a man who cared to save
B etimes the toil of womankind;
A man with an ingenious mind,
B estows a real gift to us,
B ecause experience proves it thus.

Capitalizing on the cultural association of acrostic poetry with courtship— an association that the illustration on the card is designed to trigger—Babbitt's Soap effectively casts the producer-consumer relationship as a romantic one and the act of shopping as a lovemaking endeavor more broadly. It may seem a stretch to say that the Salem Brewery Association is following in Babbitt's acrostic footsteps by sexing up the prospective buyer of Salem beer. But in its promise of "restor[ing] man to fulness of strength and activity," doesn't this beer ad sound a bit too much like a male sexual enhancement product to dismiss the notion out of hand?

Mind you, we here in the P&PC Office aren't saying that this weekend's beer festival promises anything of the sort. We're going simply for the "wholesome beverage" and "good fellowship." Why don't we all continue the conversation there?