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.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fiske Matters: P&PC Goes on Tour

In early June, the Poetry & Popular Culture office will be sending a delegate to Fiske Matters: A Conference on John Fiske's Continuing Legacy for Cultural Studies, which is taking place in Madison, Wisconsin, June 11-12.

Our delegate will team up with three other scholars—two of whom you've met at this site before: Catherine Keyser, who in 2009 wrote about
lingerie, nursery rhymes, and the new woman, and Melissa Girard, who recently weighed in on the cultural politics of slam poetry—for a panel cryptically titled "Poetry & Popular Culture":

Here is a preview of that panel:

Panel Overview

Linking poetry studies and popular culture studies is not the most intuitive scholarly move, as the two fields rarely seem to overlap and even, at times, appear to have an openly hostile relationship with each other. In the most extreme cases, poetry is presented as an antidote to a debased low or popular culture, and popular culture is offered as a democratic cure to the cartooned elitism of poetry and high culture. However, as we hope to show in this panel, the two fields can do more than simply oppose each other; pairing them can be a provocative and productive endeavor that sheds light on and expands the histories and purviews of both in challenging ways. Indeed, in some cases, poetry is not just a relay point or magnifying glass for issues central to popular culture studies—the culture industries, celebrity, usability, audience participation, reception, etc.—but is a ground upon which popular culture was in fact built.

Poetry has intersected with every medium and facet of popular culture from Hallmark to Hollywood and Vanity Fair to Paris Hilton, and yet, because it is attributed a distinctive identity as a seat of genuine expression, it remains at the same time somewhat separate—a uniquely commodified moment when commodification supposedly gives way to uncommodified utterance. As a historically active site of popular activity, and as a singular discourse within that activity, poetry would seem to be a productive site of critical investigation for scholars of poetry and popular culture alike. This panel offers four examples of what that investigation might look like, each of which draws inspiration for its focus or method from John Fiske’s writing and/or critical legacy.

1) The Arbiters of Paste: Poetry Scrapbooking and Participatory Culture
by Poetry & Popular Culture

John Fiske defined “popular culture” as that culture which “is made by the people at the interface between the products of the culture industries and everyday life.” One of the central challenges that scholars face is in assessing popular culture in this formulation is amassing evidence of that interface—measuring and recording the types of activities consumers actually do, as well as the various ways that audiences transform the largely homogenized materials of mass culture in the course of everyday life. In this paper, I want to present a largely unknown archive of poetry scrapbooks which offers a material record of this process: evidence of how readers in the first half of the twentieth century artistically and critically repurposed mass-produced poems in large albums of verse that not only served as their age’s version of the mix tape, but that helped establish some of the dynamics of participatory culture that mark popular activity today.

Of particular concern to me is the relationship between ideology and resistance in the activity of poetry scrapbooking. On the one hand, in compiling their personal poetry anthologies, people were encouraged to imagine the activity as an accumulation of literary property that led to middlebrow cultural legitimacy; in fact, the textual act of keeping an album was regularly couched in terms of maintaining and keeping a house—both practices that fostered and relied on the centrality of the bourgeois self. At the same time, given the license to repurpose mass-produced poems, readers constructed albums that empowered critical thinking and challenged social conventions in any number of ways. This is especially the case with albums assembled by women readers, who found in their anthologies a freedom and privacy—a room of their own, as it were—in which to experiment with and explore the new subject positions of modernity.

2) Light Verse, Magazines, and Celebrity: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker
by Catherine Keyser
University of South Carolina

In 1928, Time magazine observed that “for ten years, smart young women have been trying to rival with their versification Edna St. Vincent Millay.” This comment connects reader and poet, public and celebrity, as both use poetry as an emblem of public self-fashioning. John Fiske addressed the contemporary female celebrity and her sexualized body in his essay on Madonna in Reading Popular Culture (1989). The contradictions he recognized in Madonna, a celebrity whose persona conveys both objecthood and agency, resemble the ambiguities that cultural historians trace in the flapper. Emulating Fiske’s attention to traces of domination and resistance in the presentation and reception of celebrities, I analyze poets Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker as emblems of modern womanhood within mass-market magazines.

With women moving into cities and entering the professions at unprecedented rates, Millay’s light verse about sexuality and mobility became enormously popular in the 1920s. Dorothy Parker cited Millay’s influence on her own career, claiming that she had been “following in the exquisite footsteps of Edna St. Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers.” This language of “exquisite”-ness also suggests the vexed link between body image, fashion choices, and professional autonomy in the magazine fantasy of the urbane modern woman. I examine two magazines, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, that provided readers with a vision of modernity and class mobility. Both magazines featured rhetoric prizing smartness, graphics promising luxury, and light verse presenting sexuality and femininity.

I argue that the magazine’s pages demonstrate the iconic roles that Millay and Parker played in the cultural imagination. I use the advertisements and cartoons that variously picture and address the poets’ readers to analyze the kinship proposed between young single women working in the city and modern female poets writing about it. Both Millay and Parker were prominent writers of light verse, a genre found in newspapers and magazines and characterized by formal conventionality, simple diction, and (often) rollicking rhymes. This genre emblematized the energy and insouciance of youth culture, as well as the rebellion and flirtation of the flapper. The simplicity of the genre and its covert aggression—the punch-line or twist at the end of the poem—invited the common reader’s participation and indeed self-invention.

Poetry for Pleasure: Hallmark, Inc. and the Business of Emotion at Mid-Century
by Melissa Girard
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

In the 1960s, Hallmark, Inc., purveyor of greeting cards, entered the book publishing industry. Their diverse offerings went far beyond mere gift books; throughout the decade, they issued a variety of highly readable anthologies focusing on Japanese haiku, African American poetry, popular love poems, limericks, and children’s verse, as well as canonical figures such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and T.S. Eliot. Hallmark’s capacious vision stood in stark contrast to their New Critical contemporaries, who, at mid-century, were overwhelmingly preoccupied with narrowing the poetic canon. At a moment when the literary academy had abandoned popular poetry and popular readers almost entirely, Hallmark preserved and fiercely defended what they termed a “democratic” poetics. “The way to read a poem is with an open mind, not an open dictionary,” the editors insist in the 1960 anthology Poetry for Pleasure.

My paper takes Hallmark’s poetics seriously as a democratic alternative to the elitism of the mid- century American academy. I am attentive not only to Hallmark’s poetry anthologies but also to their innovative marketing and advertising campaigns, which placed these attractively packaged and affordable books in supermarkets and drugstores. In so doing, I argue that Hallmark played a vitally important, populist role throughout the 1960s, advocating on behalf of poetry and actively attempting to broaden its readership. At the same time, my paper also explores the complex ramifications of Hallmark’s corporate sponsorship of poetry. While Hallmark undoubtedly empowered the average reader, they also sought to strengthen their brand and, concomitantly, to profit from Americans’ increasing poetic literacy. This “emotion marketing,” as Hallmark terms it, belies their “democratic” agenda. My paper recovers this largely forgotten historical struggle between the academy and corporate America for the hearts and minds of poetry readers.

Poetry vs. Paris Hilton: Who’s On Top?
by Angela Sorby
Marquette University

In 2007, Paris Hilton read a poem on Larry King Live that she had supposedly written in prison. The poem, which turned out to be plagiarized from a fan letter, prompted a media scandal that raises implicit questions about how poetry works, or fails to work, as a popular cultural medium. In Understanding Popular Culture, John Fiske argues that, to be popular, a text or commodity must be relevant: it must be functionally available to consumers who make it a meaningful part of their daily lives. In this essay, I will twist Fiske’s thesis to argue that poetry is a functional medium because people are not comfortable using it in their daily lives.

Through an analysis of the Paris Hilton poetry scandal, and of subsequent poems written to (and against) Hilton, I will suggest that precisely because poetry is not “relevant” to most consumers, it arouses strong reactions (disciplinary scorn, passionate defense) when it appears in mass cultural contexts. Poetry, in this case, prompts a breakdown in the ideological unity of an icon such as Paris Hilton, whose popular subjectivity relies on hyper-legibility and relevance.