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.