Friday, December 30, 2011

Enter the 2011 Poetry & Popular Culture Blurb-Writing Contest Today

At the end of 2010, in the interest of transparency and accountability where outcomes assessment rubrics and measurements are concerned, the P&PC Office made public its first Year-End Report full of statistics and milestones that we used to reassure the P&PC Board of Directors that all is well, that we don't need a bailout from the federal government, and that the blog's C.E.O., office staff, and national correspondents are earning every last cent of their paychecks.

We are currently in the process of assembling P&PC's 2011 Year-End Report, which will be similarly chock full of information—like how the number of unique visitors increased from 29,300 in 2010 to 36,300 in 2011. Or how postings featuring the poetry of zombies, G.I. Jane, geocaching, and The Expendables led the year's most popular reads (in terms of sheer numbers of visitors). Or how we expect to log our 100,000th unique visitor in early 2012.

All that bodes well for the success of our report, of course, but last year the P&PC Board of Directors responded particularly positively to the anecdotal evidence we provided in the form of blurbs from satisfied readers like former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, Harvard English Professor Stephen Burt, Princeton English Professor Meredith Martin, and Sally the P&PC office stenographer. So this year we'd like to provide the Board with a similar data set—and that's where you come in.

We're having our first-ever blurb-writing contest.

Sure, we expect some cynics out there will view this as a shameless plea for affirmation, or as a crass ploy to artificially inflate and misrepresent the public's interest in poetry and popular culture, or as evidence that P&PC has simply reached a new low generally speaking.

To which we respond with an emphatic "fie!" The culture of popular poetry and popular literature has included poetry-related contests for decades if not centuries now. Leon Jackson studies some of these nineteenth-century contests in his great book The Business of Letters: Authorial Economies in Antebellum America (Stanford, 2007), for example. Near the turn into the twentieth century, Ivory Soap held annual poetry-writing contests that elicited tens of thousands of submissions including Charles S. Anderson's "Farmer Jones" (pictured here) which placed eighth out of 27,388 entries in 1893.

Likewise, the Burma-Vita Company held jingle-writing contests every year to generate the Burma-Shave poems that advertised the company's shaving cream until the 1960s. And if a 1909 promotional flier or ink blotter (pictured here) is any indication, the Hamilton Brown Shoe Makers Company of St. Louis followed the same strategy, announcing, "We will give a watch each to the ten boys and girls who send us, before July 1st, 1909, the best verse about Security Shoes and Security Watches." In fact, it may well be that this contest history is one of the more obscure foundations for today's poetry slam scene, which regularly features competitions and awards ranging from cold hard cash to white elephant prizes.

So it's not just fitting but perhaps imperative for P&C to at least once dovetail itself with this history. And so it is that we announce the 2011 Poetry & Popular Culture Blurb-Writing Contest—in which the best two blurbs praising P&PC will each win a copy of Poetry after Cultural Studies, a "searching" eight-essay collection from the University of Iowa Press that studies "an astonishing range of poetic practices" including wartime postcard poetry, the poetry of the early U.S. environmental movement, political working-class poetry from nineteenth-century England, the verse of MySpace and avant garde music, and the writing of Sylvia Plath, Edouard Glissant, and James Norman Hall.

A $39.95 value, this set of original essays by Edward Brunner, Alan Ramon Clinton, Maria Damon, Margaret Loose, Cary Nelson, Carrie Noland, Angela Sorby, and Barrett Watten has been described by Stephen Burt as "an important part of debates about what poets do, what their poems are good for." We here at P&PC believe no library is complete without it.

So here's the drill:

1) Write the most poetic, creative, inspired, and provocative blurb that you can about P&PC, its value in the world, and/or its general awesomeness. It's not mandatory that your blurb be in poetic form, but it may be if you choose.

2) Then by Friday, January, 13, 2012, submit your blurb about P&PC, its value in the world, and/or its general awesomeness, to P&PC in one of two ways: either post it (and some sort of contact information) in the comments section of this posting, or email it to

3) The P&PC Office in Salem, OR, will judge, selecting what we deem to be the two best blurbs to headline our 2011 Year-End Report to the Board of Directors. The writers of those blurbs will each receive a copy of Poetry after Cultural Studies and special feature on the blog.

On behalf of the entire P&PC Office, we wish you all the best in the new year, and we look forward to hearing from you by January 13. Happy blurbing!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Getting Ready for Christmas: An Advent Calendar from Hallmark

It's not the first poem that P&PC ever encountered—that distinction probably goes to the quirky "I went to the animal fair" verse that dad used to recite—but it's pretty darn close. We're talking about the 24-line holiday poem printed verse by verse behind the 24 doors and windows of three brick houses featured in the tri-fold "Getting Ready for Christmas" Hallmark advent calendar pictured here. (That's panel one you see here; panels two and three follow in sequence below, concluded by a panoramic photo of the card completely opened up.)

Like the Hallmark Christmas card matchbook featured on P&PC about this time last year and pictured here, the advent calendar solicits an unusual amount of reader involvement to get at the poem; but unlike the matchbook, where the reader is invited to dismantle or deconstruct the poem matchstick by matchstick, the advent calendar asks the reader to help build the poem line by line and window by window in an act of constructive reading that runs parallel to, or perhaps even tropes, the houses that were built brick by brick to shelter them.

If you've spent any time around the P&PC office, the accentuated sequential nature of this window-by-window poem probably brings to mind the old rhyming Burma-Shave billboards that delivered poems in line by line (and sign by sign) units along American highways until the 1960s. Burma Shave's billboards awesomely staged the experience of the poetic line break by setting up signs/lines 100 feet apart from one another—thus letting the driver/reader ride in the exaggerated "white space" between individual lines for several moments. The advent calendar does the Burma-Shave poems one better, though. Because one is supposed to open one window or door every day for each of the 24 days leading up to Christmas, it effectively creates line breaks measured not in terms of seconds on the highway but in terms of days; that is, if the poem is read as intended, each line break in "Getting Ready for Christmas" is effectively 24 hours long!

As scholastically appealing as "Getting Ready for Christmas" is (we might go on to ask, for example, what sort of voyeuristic holiday experience Hallmark is asking us to have in opening all of these windows and doors as we let our fingers do the strolling, caroler-like, through the little neighborhood), we at P&PC value it more for reasons external to the card itself—for its family history. According to Mom (née Ann Salvatore), it was first given to her and her brother Jim in Cleveland, probably in the early 1950s. (Ann had it, or large parts of it, memorized if I remember correctly.) Then they sent it to my great-aunt Tillie Boye (née Matilda Danca) and her children in Lincoln, Nebraska, later that decade. Then the Boyes sent it back to Northeast Ohio for Ann to share with with my sister Trish and me (both Chasars) in the 1970s. Then Ann sent it to Tillie's son Alan and his Boye clan, living in Vermont, in 1988. Then Alan sent it back to the suburbs of Cleveland in the 2000s to share with Ann's grandchildren, my niece and nephew, Wayne and Julianna Grindle. Members of the Salvatore, Danca, Boye, Chasar, and Grindle families have thus been "Getting Ready for Christmas" via this poem for well over half a century.

This holiday season, we wish we could send the actual card to you—the extended P&PC family—as well. While we can't do that, we can give you the composite text of the 24-line poem here:

The guests are welcomed at the door
The gifts are piled upon the floor
The cook is making gingerbread
And all are waiting to be fed
The corn is popping almost done
Come and get it everyone!
A taffy pull is in full swing
Cheerful, merry voices ring
The stockings hang all in a row
Outside it has begun to snow
The younger tots have said their prayers
And now are fast asleep upstairs
But one sits by a candlestick to wait awhile for Old St. Nick
The older children laugh with glee and dance and caper 'round the tree
A train for Jack, a doll for Jill, a scarf for Anne and Gloves for Bill
Underneath the mistletoe Jane steals a kiss from her best beau!
Hot things to drink, good things to eat
For every child a special treat
The grown-up folks sit by the grate
The clock says that it's growing late
Everybody stops to spy the Christmas star up in the sky
The Christmas carols now begin
With everybody joining in
And all the doors are opened wide to welcome in the Christmastide!


Using your imagination, perhaps you can experience something of the thrill this advent calendar poem offered and, in the process, open a few doors and windows onto where P&PC comes from. Happy holidays all.

Friday, December 9, 2011

From the Poetry & Popular Culture Vault: Robert Frost's Greeting Cards (Originally Posted December 24, 2008)

Like many establishments this time of year, “Poetry & Popular Culture” recently held its annual Christmas office party. Over a couple of pints at our favorite local watering hole, Shakespeare's Bar & Grill, we exchanged seasonal rhymes and reflected on the state of holiday greeting card verse. Indeed, the kitchen table still has a stack of cards waiting to be posted. The poetry in them isn't pretty either, and even "Poetry & Popular Culture" staff members (particularly Polly the Paper Shredder and Carl the Copy Boy) found it hard not to shudder at lines such as these inside an American Greetings card:

the best time to remember
the nicest people
in the warmest way

Or consider this next example, inside a Hallmark card that features a skiing penguin dressed in stocking cap and scarf jumping joyfully off an icy slope:

great joy
good cheer
all yours
all year!

This quatrain isn't entirely unremarkable. We kind of like how lines 1 & 2 are tied together by the alliteration of "great" and "good" just as 3 & 4 are linked by "yours" and "year." Even more, we like how those alliterative couplets get broken by the rhyme of "cheer" and "year" between lines 2 & 4—an abcb rhyming pattern that makes us think of the common measure of many hymns, which is quite appropriate given the season's religious orientation. Nevertheless, the poem left us definitely underwhelmed—not a very common experience here at "Poetry & Popular Culture."

All of this made me think of Robert Frost and printer Joseph Blumenthal. For nearly 30 years (from 1935 to 1962, at least), Frost and Blumenthal partnered up to produce finely-printed, delicately-illustrated Christmas cards featuring Frost's poetry, such as the 1961 card pictured to the left. Blumenthal, who ran the Spiral Press of New York from 1926 to 1971—the press for which the typeface now known as Emerson was first designed—made it a practice to work with well-known writers such as W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, William Carlos Williams, Robinson Jeffers and Franklin Roosevelt. So it was with Frost, though it's probably more accurate to call the Frost-Blumenthal productions holiday "greetings" rather than "cards," since many of them were in fact small, saddle-stapled chapbooks and not cards as such.

Some of the greetings reprinted well-known poems such as "The Wood-Pile" (which first appeared, in book form, in North of Boston [1915]) but many others purported to present "a new poem by Robert Frost." This performance of newness—the unveiling of a new poem just in time for Christmas—must have appealed to the people who bought the cards & sent them out, the patrons of Spiral Press and thus patrons of Frost. For not only did Frost send them to his own friends and family, and not only did Blumenthal send them to express his season's greetings, but the Spiral Press printed them for other parties as well. As you can see from the greeting page to the left, Blumenthal left space so he could personalize each card—here in a different color ink—which was no doubt a major selling point for the consumer, who could claim in a roundabout way partial responsibility for the poem's coming-into-being.

Spiral Press worked with a number of artists over the years, each of whom produced designs that go beautifully with Frost's work despite the frequent disconnection of those designs from overtly seasonal themes (see the very cool atomic motif decorating the cover of "Some Science Fiction" to the left, for example). Nowadays the cards are collectors' items you can find on eBay and elsewhere—$25 a pop for some, up to $500 for others that have been signed. We here at "Poetry & Popular Culture" have seen our fair share of them thanks to the nice collection housed in the Special Collections division of the University of Iowa's Libraries. We look forward to piecing together a more complete history of the cards. Who initiated the collaboration? What was the annual press run? Did the press have a list of subscribers committed to buying a set every year, and how much money did Blumenthal and Frost eventually make off of the limited editions?

There is a special link between Frost and Christmas in the American mind, one that Frost and his publishers weren't afraid to play up. Take, for example, Frost's Snow to Snow, a 1936 chapbook issued by Henry Holt & Company which presents twelve of Frost's well-known verses, each one corresponding to a month of the year and ending with December's Christmassy "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." The singular importance of "Stopping By Woods" is established by a facsimile of the handwritten manuscript placed prior to the table of contents. Thus, while the book ends in Christmas, it also begins there as well.

Did Frost write with the potential marketability of Christmas-related items in mind? The poem "Christmas Trees"—first printed in Mountain Interval (1920) and four years later on the broadside seen just above—suggests maybe so. Interestingly, this broadside version of "Christmas Trees" leaves off the subtitle that Frost appended to the poem: "A Christmas Circular Letter." Indeed, while he may not have been thinking of Christmas cards as early as 1920, this subtitle suggests he was well aware of the special communicative moment that holiday greetings might afford a poet who remained open to its possibilities.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Different World: The Power of the Pen

Originally aired on February 18, 1990, this hilarious episode of the Bill Cosby-created show A Different World—in which Dwayne Wayne is visited by the ghost of Shakespeare who has been "roused from my sleep, sleep that knits the raveled sleeve of care, to, uh, discuss your apathy toward poetry"—is a classic in the P&PC television archive.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Breaking P&PC News for Thanksgiving 2011: Edgar Guest Meets Chrysler

As you're watching today's Lions-Packers game, keep an eye out for the latest video ad (find your preview below) from the Portland-based advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy—the folks who created the engaging, if problematic, pairings of Levi's and Walt Whitman, Levi's and Charles Bukowski, and Nike and Maya Angelou. In their newest project, W+K bring together Chrysler and longtime Detroit-based newspaper poet Edgar Guest (a P&PC fave), all set to a Muddy Waters soundtrack.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Economic Lessons of "The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay'"

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894) wrote "The Deacon's Masterpiece, or The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay'" in 1858. Around 1876, the noted Philadelphia carriage builders, D.M. Lane & Son, reprinted the poem inside a small cardboard pamphlet (pictured here) advertising their company's "Large Stock of Light and Heavy Carriages, of the Newest Designs and Finest Finish"—coaches, coupes, rockaways, bretts, phaetons, buggies, drags, and Jenny Lind carriages including the 1876 Centennial Road and Speed Wagon featured on front.

Holmes (pictured here) was nationally known, of course; a physician-professor at Harvard, writer of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table essays that first ran in The Atlantic Monthly, and author of "Old Ironsides," he was one of the six Fireside Poets whose picture graced the hearths of homes around the country. D.M. Lane & Son was no slouch either, as it turns out. If people were setting Holmes's picture on the mantle, then it was likely that many of them sat themselves in vehicles made or designed by the Lane establishment.

After the death of his father "Captain" Lane—who had started out as a blacksmith, had led a group of one hundred men to fight in the Civil War, and who died suddenly in 1882—son Millard (ahem) took the company's reigns and presided over a period of rapid innovation and expansion in carriage construction and design. In 1893, Millard was appointed President of the Carriage Builders' National Association, praised for his progressive attitude and business methods as well as the company's "splendid factory and spacious ware-rooms." "Mr. Lane is a man," Carriage Monthly wrote, "of fine personal appearance, with a measure of dignity in his bearing that does not interfere with his frank and genial manners." Hub magazine agreed. "He is an energetic, painstaking business man, to whom work is a pleasure ... In social life he is equally popular, and his fitness and ability have led to his connection with various local organizations."

Millard would helm the family business until his own death in 1901—the same year that Mr. Ransom Olds opened his first assembly line plant to speed up and streamline the manufacture of the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, the first mass-produced automobile in history. Of course, the carriage industry did not disappear overnight—it would take another ten or fifteen years for Henry Ford to fully refine and harness the potential of the assembly line—but the transition was a remarkably fast one nonetheless. By 1914, cars were coming off of Ford's assembly line so quickly that the painting process caused a bottleneck (only black paint would dry fast enough to keep pace with manufacturing), and the cost of a single automobile dropped to almost half of what it was six or seven years earlier. According to Wiki, by 1914 it was taking only 93 minutes to assemble a car at Ford's factories, and an assembly line worker could purchase a Model T with four months' pay.

In retrospect, then, can we read in Millard's death and the "end of the wonderful one-hoss shay" the fate of D.M. Lane's carriage business writ large—indeed, not just the fate of the particular industry that the Lanes helped to drive, but in relation to every boom-and-bust cycle since? Here are the poem's final two stanzas, in which the parson's carriage—a prescient metaphor for what happens when one puts too much trust in the modern economy's claims to flawlessness and permanence—"went to pieces all at once":

The parson was working his Sunday text—
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the—Moses—was coming next.
All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet'n'-house on the hill.
—First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill—
And then the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half-past nine by the meet'n'-house clock—
Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!

What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once—
All at once and nothing first—
Just as bubbles do when they burst.—
End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is Logic. That's all I say.

It is fairly common for today's literary critics to imagine the Fireside Poets, including Holmes, to be voices of convention who were intellectually and poetically disabled by their nostalgia for a rural, religiocentric America and intense suspicion of the pace, technological invention, and changing values of modern life. "Ultimately," John Timberman Newcomb explains in Would Poetry Disappear? American Verse and the Crisis of Modernity, for example, "their refusal to accept the idea that poetry should, or could, grapple with the sources and effects of modern emotional dispossession not only damaged their own reputations, but seriously undermined poetry's place in American life." We here at P&PC aren't going to claim that the Fireside Poets weren't invested in pre-modern values and lifestyles, but maybe—as the bursting bubble that dispossesses the parson of his carriage in "The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay'" suggests—they weren't entirely blind to the character of modernity, either, nor did they refuse to have their poetry engage or analyze its dynamics. Holmes's parson, after all, is not unlike many homeowners in today's America—surprised at "the hour of the Earthquake shock" to find himself out in the cold and sitting on a rock. One can only hope he had paid off his carriage before that bubble burst.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Remembrance Day & the Case of the $400,000,000 Poem

We here at the P&PC Home Office like to call it the four hundred million dollar poem—and not just because its first stanza appears on the back of the Canadian $10 bank note, a fact that, all by itself, may very well make "In Flanders Fields" the most reprinted and most widely circulated poem, like, ever. No, we call John McCRae's World War I-era verse the four hundred million dollar poem because, shortly after it appeared in the December 8, 1915 issue of Punch magazine, the Canadian government made it the central piece of its p.r. campaign advertising the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds, printing it, or excerpts from it, on billboards and posters like the one pictured above. According to Canadian Veterans Affairs, the campaign was designed to raise $150,000,000 but ended up netting—wait for it—over $400,000,000.

Whoever said that "poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper" clearly wasn't thinking of McCrae's rondeau, which is the centerpiece of Remembrance or Veterans Day (November 11) activities worldwide and turned the red or "Buddy" poppy into the day's icon, manufacture and sale of which has been a regular source of funding for disabled and needy VFW veterans, as well as for the support of war orphans and surviving spouses of veterans in the U.S., since 1923. It is memorized by schoolkids, recited at Remembrance Day events, has elicited all sorts of reply poems and been put to music, and resulted in the restoration of McCrae's birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, as a museum. (That's McCrae pictured above.) Heck, in Ypres, Belgium, there's a museum devoted just to the poem itself! Take that, Joyce Kilmer!

By most accounts, McCrae composed "In Flanders Fields" in 1915, the day after witnessing the death of his 22 year-old friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, though legend has it that McCrae ripped it out of his notebook and cast it aside amongst the blood-red poppies on the battlefield where it was rescued by an onlooker and sent to Punch, which printed it anonymously:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly.
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

By 1917, the Canadian government paired "In Flanders Fields" with the painting of a soldier standing in the poppy fields by British-born Canadian artist Frank Lucien Nicolet and was raising its millions of dollars in Victory Loan Bonds.

In the most famous piece of literary-critical commentary on "In Flanders Fields," Paul Fussell (see The Great War and Modern Memory) doesn't have too many good things to say about the poem, claiming that the "rigorously regular meter" makes the poppies of the poem's first stanza "seem already fabricated of wire and paper." Nevertheless, he finds the verse "interesting" for the way in which it "manages to accumulate the maximum number of [emotion-triggering] motifs and images ... under the aegis of a mellow, if automatic, pastoralism." In the first nine lines alone, Fussell explains, you've got "the red flowers of pastoral elegy; the 'crosses' suggestive of calvaries and thus of sacrifice; the sky, especially noticeable from the confines of a trench; the larks bravely singing in apparent critique of man's folly; the binary opposition between the song of the larks and the noise of the guns; the special awareness of dawn and sunset at morning and evening stand-to's; the conception of soldiers as lovers; and the focus on the ironic antithesis between beds and the graves 'where now we lie.'" But Fussell saves his most damning critique—what he calls "[breaking] this butterfly upon the wheel"—for the poem's final lines which devolve into what he calls "recruiting-poster rhetoric apparently applicable to any war." "We finally see—and with a shock—" he writes, "what the last lines really are: they are a propaganda argument—words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far—against a negotiated peace." (For another examination of the poem in relation to McCrae's Canadian national identity and the rondeau form, see Amanda French's paper "Poetic Propaganda and the Provincial Patriotism of 'In Flanders Fields'" first presented at the 2005 SCMLA conference.)

But Fussell's right, isn't he? As the slogan "If ye break faith—we shall not sleep" in the "Buy Victory Bonds" ad pictured at the top of this posting indicates, McCrae's poem was in fact pitch-perfect "recruiting-poster rhetoric," wasn't it? Well, almost. P&PC would submit that it's worth noting how the Canadian government didn't exactly quote "In Flanders Fields" word for word. Instead, it excised the four words ("with us who die") that separate "If ye break faith" from "we shall not sleep" in the original poem—an act that works to repress the war's human costs and thus redirect the expression of faith to its financial ones. That is, in staging itself as an act of remembrance, the Canadian advertisement actually erases the subject of the McCrae's memorial ("us who die"). In this bowdlerized version of the poem—and we use the term bowdlerize on purpose, meaning "to remove those parts of a text considered offensive, vulgar, or otherwise unseemly"—the poster sanitizes the war by silencing the voices of its dead, depicting war as a financial and not human struggle and thus making the "propaganda argument ... against a negotiated peace" that Fussell describes.

But the repressed has a way of returning, just like the dead do. Consider, for example, the awesome item (pictured here) that P&PC got its hands on recently—a used ink blotter with Canada's "Buy Victory Bonds" ad featured on front. On the reverse, the ink stains grimly read like blood stains. And on the front (where the pun asks us to also read it as the battle line of war), the artifact's owner Vivian Hogarth signed her name in the upper right corner and corrected Canada's version of the poem, restoring the phrase "with us who die" and thus—in an act of what we might think of as zombie poetics—effectively writing the dead back into existence. Thank you, Vivian Hogarth. That's the type of memorial we're keeping in mind this Remembrance Day.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rethinking Poetic Innovation at the Modernist Studies Association Conference

Earlier this month, P&PC had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the Modernist Studies Association's annual conference held this year at the Hyatt Regency in the nearly post-apocalyptic downtown of Buffalo, NY. Themed around "The Structures of Innovation," there were your fairly predictable panels ("make it new," right?) on Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, DADA artwork, avant-garde little magazines, and the Paris and New York art and literary scenes. There was also a "roundtable" discussion, organized by Marsha Bryant and Alan Golding, that focused on the subject of "Rethinking Poetic Innovation" and had at least one person buzzing afterwards.

MSA roundtables are a pretty fun format in which, rather than droning on in sequence with extensive prepared remarks, five or six invited speakers offer short position papers then open the floor for discussion with each other and the event's attendees. Imagine our pleasure and surprise when, this past spring, Bryant approached and entered into negotiations with the P&PC home office about P&PC's participation! Now imagine our lone P&PC representative sitting in front of an audience of seventy-five modernists (including keynote speaker Michael Davidson, Lynn Keller, Jed Rasula, and Dee Morris) and among the roundtable's cast of Bryant, Golding, Bob Perelman, Steven Yao, Elizabeth Frost, and Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux—all tenured profs, all well published, some of whom certain members of the P&PC home office staff started reading in graduate school lo these many years ago. Hands somewhat a-tremble, our stomach feeling more like a Kurt Schwitters collage (example presented above) than the proverbial nest of butterflies, but bolstered by the presence of a younger, up-and-coming, somewhat iconoclastic generation of modernist scholars including Meredith Martin and Bartholomew Brinkman, here's the perspective on "Rethinking Poetic Innovation" that P&PC offered. (N.B. If you're a regular P&PC reader, well, bless you; the following is nothing you haven't heard from our offices before. We're posting it not for your benefit but for those at the conference—get this—who admitted to having never before heard the name of Edgar Guest.)

In the late nineteenth and early twentietth centuries, Americans regularly assembled and maintained poetry scrapbooks—personal verse anthologies that edited together poems cut out of newspapers, magazines, church bulletins, advertisements, greeting cards, and other print sources, oftentimes sampling in news articles, pictures, photographs, die cuts, or other items. Well known writers like Anne Sexton, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Marianne Moore kept such albums. Over the past six or eight years, I have assembled and studied an archive of 150 or so poetry scrapbooks produced by ordinary or less celebrated readers. The photocopy I’ve distributed here today (pictured above) is a page spread from one of those albums—a 230 page-long, 300-poem collection kept in the late 1920s and early 1930s by Doris Ashley, an unmarried sawyer’s daughter in her early 20s who was living just south of Boston.

It’s an interesting document, as Ashley puts four “modern” poems, including the now iconic poems by Pound (“In a Station of the Metro,” located at the bottom of the second page) and H.D. (“Oread,” located in the middle of the first page), in conversation with two popular poems and a news report on H.L. Mencken’s late-life marriage to Sara Haardt (a published writer who, in the 1910s, was a prominent voice lobbying the Alabama state legislature to ratify the nineteenth Amendment). The juxtapositions are compelling and represent a vernacular cut and paste analogue to, if not precedent for, modernist practices of bricolage or collage, as Ashley reads across or through a highbrow-lowbrow divide and very compellingly pairs up the Pound and H.D. poems, which are frequently combined in our histories of modern poetry but which her original source book, Louis Untermeyer’s 1925 edition of Modern American Poetry, did not print together.

If Ashley recognizes the shared poetics of “In a Station” and “Oread,” she is not limited by them. In fact, what most connects the six poems here is the image of the tree—the pear tree in Millay’s poem, the pines in “Oread,” the maple tree in Anne Campbell’s poem, the “wet, black bough” in “In a Station,” and the rain of Stanton’s “A Rain Song” that waters them all. This arboreal conceit extends thematically to the newspaper article—the seasons, gardens, plants, and flowers offer an appropriate landscape in which to read about Haardt’s latish marriage (she was 31); astonishingly, this conceit extends sonically, as well, as the “wet, black bough” of Pound’s poem echoes the subtitle of the Mencken article: “Noted American Bachelor Finally Bows to Cupid.” (Note: Ashley, an aspiring writer, would, like Haardt, remain unmarried until her late 20s, and P&PC reads this page spread, in part, as an articulation of how and why Ashley justified remaining single as a life choice that was more deliberate than prevailing images of spinsterhood would suggest.)

There is certainly more to discuss about this page spread, including the alternative map through the poetry of modern America that it and other such anthologies suggest, as well as its place in the history what Kenneth Goldsmith is calling uncreative writing. (Food for thought: can we call Ezra Pound [pictured here] a “popular poet” when he appears in a scrapbook alongside poems by popular poets Stanton and Campbell? Campbell, by the way, was a poet for the Detroit News who reportedly made $10,000 per year off of the daily publication and syndication of her poetry in the 1920s and 1930s.) I’m presenting these pages here, however, to help forward four ideas that might help us to rethink poetic innovation. Those ideas are as follows:

1. Future work on poetic innovation needs to include more study and theory of innovative reading as well as innovative writing.

2. Innovative reading and writing are not limited to experts in literary spheres but happen within popular culture as well—including, as I’ve argued elsewhere in relation to the old Burma-Shave billboard poems, the commercial marketplace. Innovation is not inherently oppositional and is regularly articulated to, and expressed in terms of, the market. In fact, the very claim to “innovation” itself, in artistic and commercial spheres alike, as well as their overlap, is a form of capital worth studying further.

3. Although Ashley’s scrapbook doesn’t suggest it directly, poetic innovation within popular and mass culture likely intersected with, and affected, the work of “literary” poets more regularly than we think—not just in terms of raw materials, but form, precedent, and logic as well. When we use the French word collage to describe modernist literary practices, for example, we disguise modernism's roots in popular practice and overlook the fact that Pound, H.D., Moore, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot and others were born in, learned to read in, and were educated in an America where scrapbooking was a primary form of reading and thinking and where the word collage did not yet exist.

4. What we call “literary” poetry also affected innovation within mass and popular culture. That is, not only did popular culture provide modernist writers with resources for their art, but, as we see in the case of Doris Ashley, modernist writers provided uncredentialed readers with raw materials for thinking and creating as well.

Thanks for listening.

Note: if you're interested in these and related issues, keep your eyes out for the P&PC-endorsed book-length study Poetry & Popular Culture in Modern America, due out from Columbia University Press in the Fall of 2012.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Walt Meets Walt: Breaking Bad and "I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"

It is Season 3, Episode 6 of AMC's Breaking Bad, halfway through the season in which high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-maker Walter White (pictured here) gets installed in a state-of-the-art meth lab to cook for drug kingpin Gus, mild-mannered owner of the fast food restaurant chain Pollos Hermanos. Walt's cancer is in remission, but he's trying to salvage his marriage (Skyler wants a divorce and is sleeping with her boss) and his relationship with his son. Walt's brother-in-law Hank is obsessed with finding the source of the blue meth that Walt has made famous, and he's tailing Walt's former partner Jesse Pinkman in hopes of tracking down the RV he (correctly) suspects of being a mobile lab. Pinkman is clean and just out of rehab but is talking with his friends about getting back into the biz as dealers.

That's when Walt meets Gale (pictured here), the lab assistant that Gus has provided. Gale, it turns out, is everything that Pinkman was not—unassuming, respectful, collaborative, trained, and, most of all, as passionate about the chemistry as Walt. Explaining how he ended up in the meth cooking business, Gale thinks back to graduate school and explains, "I was on my way—jumping through hoops, kissing the proper behinds, attending to all the non-chemistry that one finds oneself occupied with. You know that world. That is not what I signed on for. I love the lab—because it's all still magic, you know? Chemistry? I mean, once you lose that...."

Walt agrees. "It is. It is magic," he says. "It still is."

And then, because Breaking Bad can't exactly break into song to express the magical chemistry moment that Walt and Gale are experiencing, Gale breaks into a poem. "And all the while," he tells Walt, "I kept thinking about that great old Whitman poem, 'When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer.'"

Walt: I don't know it.

Gale: Well, anyway ....

Walt: Well, can you recite it?

Gale [laughing]: Pathetically enough, I could.

Walt: All right, well, come on, come on.

Click the video here to watch Gale's recitation:

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Beantown Beat: Nadia Nurhussein on Fried Clams, Poetry, and the North Shore

You probably remember Nadia Nurhussein—assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and P&PC's chief Beantown correspondent—as the primary force behind The Public Life of Poetry, an exhibition of 19th-century books and ephemera sponsored by the Boston Public Library in late 2010 and early 2011. In the following update from the City of Notions, Nurhussein (pictured here) is still interested in the public lives of poetry but shifts her attention from the library stacks to the state's north shore clam shacks. There, she finds a mediocre fried clam dinner served up with an unexpected helping of poetry and more than a faint whiff of the nineteenth century mingling with the daily catch.

The north shore of Massa- chusetts has long appealed to poets: Charles Olson, of course, is closely associated with Gloucester, but poets as varied as John Greenleaf Whittier, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Lowell have all made the north shore their home at one time or another. The Massachusetts Poetry Festival was held in Salem this year. Apparently, like shellfish, poetry thrives in this area.

I wasn’t thinking about this when, after six years of living in Boston, I finally made the trip this summer to Woodman’s of Essex, a celebrated clam shack on the north shore of Massachusetts whose claim to fame is the invention of the fried clam. Unfortunately, it was not worth the wait. The mediocre clams, in fact, did not leave nearly as much of an impression on me as the mediocre poetry did.

As odd a pairing as verse and bivalves might seem, an illustrated poem (pictured here) was displayed prominently next to the pick-up window. It was written—actually, it was calligraphied—on artificially aged paper, as if someone had found an old manuscript hidden in a seafaring bottle pulled up with the day’s catch. On the opposite wall, I noticed yet another framed poem: a versified note of thanks from a customer.

To hang poems on the walls of public places like this seemed to me a pleasing throwback. I was reminded of popular poems, like Bret Harte’s “Plain Language from Truthful James” and John Hay’s “Little Breeches,” that were once publicly displayed on barroom walls. Belonging to a long-running tradition of amateur poetry writing, and confronting all customers coming to pick up their orders of clams, Woodman's verses served as a visible challenge to the notion that people don’t care about or read poetry anymore.

The Woodman’s poem is one of the countless reiterations or parodies of the early nineteenth-century poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” (James Thurber wrote a particularly hilarious one for The New Yorker in the prosaic style of Ernest Hemingway; it is pitch-perfect.) Underlying the narrative in Woodman’s version is the promise that, if we are very, very good, we will be brought sacks of clams instead of sacks of toys. Describing the preparation for a clambake, the poem lists, instead of flying reindeer, members of the “Woodman” family in a kind of roll call:

The clam-baking crews and Dexter called them by name
On Woodman, on Roy, on Johnson and Lane
On MacIntyre, Noonan, Holmes feeling no pain
Dianne, Doucette, Fougere and Fiahlo
Lufkin, Towne, Reed—and their legs are hollow
Boutchie and Soucy Doyle, Leo the Uncle
Good, Frazer, Joseph, Barrett and Kunkel
When what to their wondering eyes should appear
But Jolly St. Deck and two cases of beer
And Dexter did say as the crew came into sight
“My god is no one sober tonight?”

With its rhetorical question, the last couplet above sounds a little like the final couplet of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “On Lending a Punch-Bowl,” whose speaker fears his wife’s reproach after a night of drinking. Appealing to his punch bowl, he says, “And may the cherubs on its face protect me from the sin / That dooms one to those dreadful words,—‘My dear, where have you been?”

As these elements suggest, Woodman’s also shares some character- istics with a type of verse that is far older than "A Visit from St. Nicholas": the drinking song. The insular and provincial camaraderie, the celebration of excessive drinking (as seen in the revelers whose “legs are hollow”), and the slight vulgarity are all here. The difference—and the source of the humor for me—is that the delicacy of the manuscript’s appearance in its calligraphy and age-darkened paper runs counter to the poem’s vulgarisms. Whoever made this artifact thought, on some level, of poetry in general as a something like what Susan Stewart calls a “distressed” genre, one that required the high-brow and antique affectations of yellow paper and highfalutin penmanship, complete with simulated spots of foxing and other damage brought on by the harsh and salty sea-air.

With a little bit of digging, I discovered that this poem was no fluke: Woodman’s of Essex continues to support amateur poetry. This year, the restaurant sponsored a limerick contest for St. Patrick’s Day—with a free lobster dinner for two to the winner! And, since I seem to be falling into impromptu couplets, I may have to try my hand at a Woodman’s limerick next year, too.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Changing Phiz of Poetry: The Man of a Thousand Faces

In 1925, the Lakewood Products Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, patented the cute and interactive "Mov-I-Graff" toy pictured here—a postcard-sized piece of cardboard featuring "The Man of a Thousand Faces" in profile. When you gently wiggle or "vibrate" the postcard, a thin chain making up his nose and chin area moves back and forth to create ever new profiles. As an ad for the product in the January 9, 1943, Billboard magazine explained, "It's the Mov-I-Graff Cartoon Greeting Card built around a figure of a person. However, instead of a drawn face, a small chain is attached from the forehead to the neck. By holding the card in one hand and tapping it lightly with the other, the face of the character takes various and odd shapes." If you're dying to see The Man of a Thousand Faces in action, skip ahead to the video at the end of this posting.

It appears that the rights to the Mov-I-Graff were eventually purchased around 1943 by the Weinman Brothers (the Billboard ad quoted above announces the addition to its product line), which was perhaps the same Weinman Brothers that was founded in 1912 and launched a jewelry collection in partnership with Lauren Bacall in 2007. Whether or not the length of chain that makes up the Man of a Thousand Face's profile evolved into a necklace endorsed by Bacall, it is clear the object had commercial appeal. As the version of the toy pictured here indicates, it became a premium give-away advertising item—a sort of business card used by O.A. Brown of New Hampshire to promote his business installing Sunbeam Cabinet Heaters.

Other companies took a page out of Brown's playbook. Kingan Meats of Indianapolis used the Mov-I-Graff to advertise its "reliable" hams and bacon. Marion Power Shovel Company of Marion, Ohio, dug its own niche in the market the same way. And Goodyear advertised a lawn hose and golf balls via the Man with the Thousand Faces as well. As the Mitchner Investment Company's use of the Mov-I-Graff (pictured above) suggests, companies asking potential customers to shift brand loyalties no doubt found an appealing and even instructional figure for the nature of that change in the shifting profile of El Hombre himself. "You can't change your face," Mitchner's card reads, "But you can change your fortune."

The subject of change- ability is at the center of a poetic version of the Mov-I-Graff card (pictured here) that the P&PC Acquisitions Department had the good fortune of obtaining via eBay recently. Via the poem, this card transforms the Man of a Thousand Faces into a 1920s hipster bohemian—a satiric male version of the decade's New Woman, perhaps, complete with blush on his cheek, hipster attire, and a bobbed haircut:

They christened me the Mov-i-graff—
Because, they said, I made them laugh
I do not know just why it is
Unless it is my changing phiz.

I always try to look my best
And am polite in any test;
The latest things in duds I wear—
I even bob my lovely hair.

Certainly, this version of the card works to discredit the New Man of the 1920s, casting him as effeminate, queer, clueless, and—as the chain forming his profile perhaps dramatizes—delicate, droopy and unreliable; he's a man of a thousand faces, not a model of masculine consistency exemplified by what in the 1950s would become his cultural opposite, the Marlboro Man, who also wears a hat and shirt with collar, who we also frequently see in profile, and whose high cheekbones seem to preclude any fashionable or girly changing of his phiz.

The interns at the P&PC office are quite taken with that word—phiz—and not just because they discovered it for the first time two or three months ago on the back of a photo from the nineteenth century's Jersey Shore. In the present context, they've pointed out, phiz combines with other colloquial words such as duds and bob to create a neat little record of 1920s slang. (Note: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word bob was first applied to women's haircuts in 1918 when Punch noted the "alarming speed of bobbing.") Reading the card today, they're not only struck by how language changes (where, oh where, has phiz gone?), but also how, in this context, the Mov-I-Graff discredits popular linguistic innovation—and thus the changing nature of language more broadly—by associating it with the effeminate, dandy-esque Man of a Thousand Faces. That is, like the chain that forms his phiz, the language he uses is fluid, changing, dynamic, queer, effeminate, and probably, by extension, downright un-American. The Marlboro Man—repository of constant manliness, firmness, tradition, and a man of few words—would never be caught talking like that!

We think our interns are onto something, don't you? While change in one sphere of people's activity—switching from one brand to another brand in the consumer marketplace—is encouraged, changing the way we speak and thus challenging the authority of established language practices (see English-only debates, for example, or the history of gender-inclusive language) is not. In fact, in the context of this poem, the etymologies of both bob and duds suggest as much. Originally from the Old French and Middle English, bob has also been used to mean "to befool, mock, deceive" and "to cheat." Similarly, dud (of unknown origin) has been used to describe "a counterfeit thing applied to any useless or inefficient person or thing." In the very fabric of its poem, then, this Mov-I-Graff postcard indicts the Man of a Thousand Faces as a fool, a cheat, and a counterfeit; his character reveals itself not just in what he wears, but in the very slanguage he speaks.

But that's how the "they" of the poem—a they that represents itself as the voice of common sense, convention, and social norms—wants us to view Mr. Man. We here at P&PC want to view him more sympathetically. In his bob, his duds, and his changing phiz, the Man of a Thousand Faces is not himself a fool (except in the Shakespearean sense, perhaps) but is in fact mocking, fooling, cheating, deceiving, unsettling and revealing as counterfeit mainstream values of standard language use and gender identity; indeed, insofar as it is nearly impossible for him to have the same face twice, he disrupts what Judith Butler would call the interability of gender identity—that "regularized and constrained repetition of norms" on which normative gender identities depend. In his "lovely" bobbed hair and blushing phiz, then, the Man of a Thousand Faces may well be one of the first drag queens of American poetry. Is it possible, then, that his popularity in the mid-twentieth century tells us more about the American public's desire than first meets the eye?

MOV-I-GRAFF - L'homme aux centaines de visages by heeza