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.

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