Monday, January 4, 2010

Did Dashiell Hammett Hate Poetry?

We here at Poetry & Popular Culture might offer a sawbuck for hard evidence to prove it, because we think he did—hated it like a private dick hates a glass that's half empty or a heart that's too full. And if Hammett didn't hate it, then the hard-boiled Continental Op of Hammett's fictional San Francisco Continental Detective Agency sure did. Which makes sense—as much sense as a skirt in heels and the flatfoot hot on her tail. After all, what use does a private eye have for poetry—the genre that obscures, covers its tracks, revels in riddles, and deals in metaphor? A dick deals in facts, untangles riddles, sorts out mystery. He may have gum on his shoes, but he doesn't need his toenails to twinkle.

Poetry and the P.I., it would seem, are as incompatible as a chili dog and a just-pressed shirt. Exhibit A: Red Harvest from 1929, in which the Continental Op is hired to clean up Personville, a town so corrupt that most people know it as Poisonville. Seems that Personville's original gangsta—Old Elihu Willsson, who owns the bank, newspapers, a senator and the governor—is losing ground in his old age. The Op is reluctant to stick around and do the dirty work, so Old Elihu appeals to the Op's manhood. "I'll talk you your sense," he says. "I want a man to clean this pig-sty of a Poisonville for me, to smoke out the rats, little and big. Its a man's job. Are you a man?"

But the Op retorts:

What's the use of getting poetic about it? If you've got a fairly honest piece of work to be done in my line, and you want to pay a decent price, maybe I'll take it on. But a lot of foolishness about smoking rats and pig-pens doesn't mean anything to me.

In the Op's calculus, the values of money and honesty overlap with clear speaking; foolishness, rats, and pig-pens, on the other hand, line up with poetry.

Exhibit B: The Dain Curse, also from 1929, in which the Continental Op returns to investigate a string of mysterious deaths that follow Gabrielle Leggett wherever she goes. The people using Gabrielle as cover explain to her that her bad luck is the product of a family curse, an explanation Gabrielle buys but which the Op thinks is a bunch of hooey—about as real as a peroxide blonde. Check out this exchange with Fitzstephan, a novelist interested in psychoanalysis who becomes the Op's drinking acquaintance and sounding board:

Fitzstephan drank beer and asked:

"You'd reduce the Dain curse, then, to a primitive strain in the blood?"

"To less than that, to words in an angry woman's mouth."

"It's fellows like you that take all the color out of life." He sighed behind cigarette smoke. "Doesn't Gabrielle's being made the tool for her mother's murder convince you of the necessity—at least the poetic necessity—of the curse?"

"Not even if she was the tool, and that's something I wouldn't bet on."

In hindsight, this passage becomes even more damning of poetry (not to mention psychoanalysis) when it turns out that Fitzstephan himself is actually the murderer who's been framing Gabrielle. So not only does poetry come up short because it's not the "tangible, logical, and jailable answer" that the Op seeks, but in The Dain Curse it's the very language of criminal activity. Even novelist-criminals speak it!

It's clear that the Continental Op's factual, logic-based approach to solving crime extends to language as well. When he reports in The Dain Curse, for example, that "Her face didn't tell me anything. It was distorted but in a way that might have meant almost anything," he's talking about the act of reading—the inability to read. And regardless of whether he's reading poetry or a suspect's face, distortion and indeterminacy almost always get in his way. The irony of all this, of course, is that the Continental Op's own language is so colorful at times that he himself could be called downright poetic. In fact, one character in Red Harvest calls him on this. "My God!" she exclaims, "for a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy, you've got the vaguest way of doing things I ever heard of." What happens to this truth teller? It's no surprise to P&PC that she ends up dead as a doornail.


Larry Jaffe said...

I loved this piece. Being a poet and loving Hammett are not exclusive, at least in my case.

Pico Alaska said...

You seem to be having fun with this and may not be serious. In any case, Hammett not only liked poetry, he wrote the stuff himself (at least early in his career). He also read it. When he was out on the Aleutians he asked Lillian Hellman to send him works by Milton and Donne. If you read his letters, you'll see he was a gifted writer with wide tastes and interests. ... A new play centered on Hammett--not as a poet but as a soldier editing an Army newspaper in the Aleutians in World War II--opens this week in Anchorage. It's called "Wind Blown and Dripping" (

irvingprime said...

I'm a poet and a lover of Hammett's work, so the title drew me right in.

I've always found the language of hard boiled detective fiction (Hammett, Chandler, etc) to have a kind of poetry to it, but it's not the kind that's well thought of in the world of poetry. It's not considered literary, I guess.

This brings up the possibility that the character was responding more to the (allegedly) unpoetical nature of his work than to all poetry all the time.

Or, since an earlier commenter pointed out that Hammett wrote poetry himself, it could simply be that he was that great a writer, that his main character had views that contradicted Hammett's own.

J said...

Noir may have certain poetic qualities, but as Hammett realized (most likely), stale poetic metaphors, whether of gangstas or the gentry, do not count for much in the real world of cops, robbers, ho's, high finance. And what's Keats compared to some drama hatched by some molls, miners and mobsters in the cribs of Butte, jake?

Hammett also had a rather keen awareness of politics, even a marxist sensisibility which the usual narcissist-college-lit types...don't.

A book like Red Harvest or M-Falcon reduces most cafe-poeticizing, even the hepcat beat sort, to mostly eloquent noise... ah believe (tho' DH did pen some crap, or near-crap like the Thin Man soft-porn melodramas....). Same for Ray Chandler's best, though Chandler was not so averse to anglo-literary prose when needed (or at least his street-speak, say of Marlow, while...quite powerful at times --say, Red Wind, or Farewell my Lovely...seems slightly contrived)

artifacts said...

I think your premise needs to take into consideration the magazine poetry of the 1920's and how important it was to Hammett that his narrative tone avoid the poetic conventions of the day. Poetry was a much more broadly accepted part of popular culture in the age of magazines (20's) and radio (30's & 40's) and Hammett knew it well enough to craft his style with a distinct absence of what readers would recognize as poetic content. Interesting that after his own fiction writing stalled he dove into the playwriting of Lillian Hellman and the language of American theatre. His ear for the spoken word is perhaps the gift Dashiell Hammett is most unappreciated for and with it an innate sense of poetry.

hema said...

You seem to be having fun with this and may not be serious.

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