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.