Friday, May 28, 2010

A Picture of Our Poets

Awhile back, one of the P&PC office interns was reading Cane—the 1923 Jean Toomer book that mixes poems and prose to become what many people would call a "novel" but which we're going to call a collection of poems interspersed with prose—and wondered about a detail in part three of the "Bona and Paul" section (Chapter 28) where Art Carlstrom plays the piano.

In that scene, Art and his friend Paul (who is not only "cool like the dusk, and like the dusk, detached" but also the story's point of view) are picking up Helen and Bona for a double date in Chicago. While they wait for the girls, Art is asked to play the piano. Here is that passage:

"Come right in, won't you? The young ladies will be right down. Oh, Mr. Carlstrom, do play something for us while you are waiting. We just love to listen to your music. You play so well."

Houses, and dorm sitting-rooms are places where white faces seclude themselves at night. There is a reason...

Art sat at the piano and simply tore it down. Jazz. The picture of Our Poets hung perilously.

What in the world, our intern wondered, is "the picture of Our Poets"? Is it possible that at one point in U.S. history people actually purchased and displayed pictures of American poets in their homes? Or is Toomer making some sort of metaphor here—exercising some sort of, well, poetic license?

We can't say whether or not Toomer had one himself—it's not visible in the office scene above, at least—but we can say that yes, at one point in U.S. history people actually purchased and displayed pictures of American poets in their houses. In fact, we finally purchased one (pictured here) for the P&PC Home Office! It's small—just over a foot long and five inches high—and features (left to right) little oval portraits of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The existence of "Our Poets" doesn't mean that Toomer wasn't using the framed piece of home or dormitory sitting-room decor just literally, though, for when Art tears it down at the piano, the sounds of a modern African American art are enough to make the foundations of white American literary history tremble (even when—or especially when?—played by Paul's "red-blooded Norwegian friend"). And is it just us, or is Walt Whitman implicated here as well, as Toomer's "Houses and dorm sitting-rooms" sounds like a jazz riff on "Houses and rooms are full of perfumes" from the beginning of Whitman's "Song of Myself"? All in all, it's a part of Cane that makes us want to dance.


Unknown said...

I have a picture almost the same but not the same order. I was wondering how much it's worth? let me know. thank you tony

Unknown said...

I wonder if tony has an image of his picture. Thank You

Unknown said...

We also have a picture that is close to the same but also with different order and wanted to know the same thing, what is it worth.