Sunday, August 28, 2011

Scraps of Literature: Poetry & Popular Culture's Back to School Edition

In his recent London Review of Books essay on Anne Carson's latest book Nox—a scrapbooky, fold-out accordion collage poem assembled in memory of her late brother Michael—Stephen Burt rightly notes that Carson's compositional method recalls the fanzines of the 1980s and 1990s and has a clear historical precedent in the poetry scrapbooks that many people assembled and maintained in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We here at the P&PC home office are grateful for Burt's connections—and for the shout-out he gave P&PC in recommending the Review's readers to check out the examples of such scrapbooks that have appeared from time to time in this blog's postings and that, back when our home offices were located in Iowa City, we began making available at Poetry Scrapbooks: An Online Archive.

Given Burt's blurb and the fact that this is back-to-school season for many people, we thought it timely and appropriate to offer an example of another such album—this one assembled by a young reader, likely for a school project, and probably in the 1920s or 1930s. Titled "Scraps of Literature" and running about one hundred pages long, the collection is bound with two metal rings and contains over 130 (printed, handwritten, or typewritten) poems, assorted articles about their authors and subjects, and many illustrations cut out of magazines that the assembled poems are frequently used to gloss, caption, or otherwise engage.

There's no name in the inside cover to identify who put this album together, but the practice of making poetry scrapbooks part of—or even out of—schoolwork wasn't uncommon. Teachers kept personally-made poetry anthologies as sourcebooks for classroom reading. Children regularly converted their used composition books into poetry collections. Some people even turned their out-of-date textbooks into albums by pasting directly over the printed material of the published page; P&PC owns an old geography textbook that has been transformed in this way, making us wonder if perhaps even Elizabeth Bishop had this practice in the back of her mind when putting together Geography III. Educators were advised to harness the skills evident in such activity—finding, selecting, organizing, "publishing," and otherwise editing material—to make learning a fun and individualized endeavor.

In the process—as the album presented here perhaps suggests—poetry became part of an inter-disciplinary method of learning, as students could combine Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" with articles and pictures about Abraham Lincoln, or Oliver Wendell Holmes' "Old Ironsides" with historical accounts of the navy battle in which Ironsides participated. In the process, students not only learned about poetry and history, but also about the variety of ways poetry engaged and responded to the world around them. On a leaf not pictured in this posting, the maker of "Scraps of Literature" pastes a picture of Old Ironsides next to Holmes' poem and a newspaper article on how schoolchildren contributed to the Save "Old Ironsides" Fund, creating in the process a little triangular relationship in which it becomes visible that poetry not only matters but, contra Auden, helps to make things happen. (Holmes' verse is frequently credited with helping to save the ship from being decommissioned.)

This activity of collecting poems is not entirely a thing of the past; if you think back far enough, you can probably remember a teacher or two who made it an assignment for you to assemble an anthology of verse important to your life. During the past year, P&PC has found out that both Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass (both former poet laureates) have made this a regular part of their teaching over the years—an activity that isn't necessarily centered on, or motivated by, close, analytical readings of poems themselves for the objective values they might exhibit, but, instead, on those poems' relations to people's subjective experiences of being in the world. Reading old poetry scrapbooks today can be a frustrating experience because there is no key or record to how people paired poems up, or why they combined them with the pictures they caption, or how they mattered to their lives. It's clear that the process was frequently an analytical one, but most of what we have to go on today is the material end product of that process. When we hold Carson's Nox in our hands, we read it as a complex text in part because of her literary reputation and the fact that it was published with obvious care by New Directions, but also because of the personal experiences and relationships that motivate that care in the first place. Why shouldn't we give the benefit of the doubt to books like "Scraps of Literature" as well?

N.B. Following are a few sample pages from "Scraps of Literature" and not the entire collection, which is too long to feature here. If you are interested in helping to make this scrapbook, and many others like it, available for public reading in online or other formats, please contact P&PC with your ideas and suggestions. This public service announcement brought to you by Arbiters of Paste—Just Glue It.