Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Hankie for V-Day

By "V-Day," P&PC doesn't mean Victory Day— although it might have meant that to the "sweetheart" owner of the hankie envelope pictured here—but, rather, Valentine's Day, perhaps the day of the year that people most regularly associate with great bad poetry of all sorts ranging from clever, be-mine schoolroom rhymes to the little classic "Mother" that we find printed on the cover of a 1920s Artstyle Chocolates tin (pictured below) and that probably served double duty for Mother's Day (first recognized in the U.S. in 1914):

Every age and every tongue
Of Mother love has fondly sung
And from my heart I want to add
A glowing tribute just as glad
For never could love more wonderful be
Than you, dear Mother, have given me

If all this bad, tear jerking poetry makes you want to cry and get away from it all, though, your hankies—or handkerchiefs from the first half of the twentieth century, at least—wouldn't necessarily provide you any respite. In fact, as the "Sweetheart" poem printed on the decorated, World War II-era hankie envelope pictured at the top of this posting indicates, they might very well be a source for even more bad poetry:

I thought that you would
like to know
That some one's thoughts
go where you go;
That some one never can forget
The hours we spent since first we met
That life is richer, sweeter far
For such a sweetheart as you are
And now my constant
prayer will be
That God may keep you
safe for me.

As the actual hankie pictured here indicates, if the bad poetry of V-Day sent you to "Sweetheart," then "Sweetheart" might very well have sent you to yet another bad poem—one printed on the hankie stored inside in the hankie envelope, what is effectively a poem wrapped in the arms of another poem. Like the way I wrap my arms around my sweetheart, right? Or how I hug my Valentine? Or, as a standard little rhyme from a schoolroom Valentine greeting card puts it—a rhyme seemingly illustrated across the years by the entwined lovers pictured on the hankie here (see detail below)—"Wrap these hands around you whenever I'm away / so you can have a hug from me anytime of day"?

What P&PC finds most freaky about poem hankies (and their living-room cousins, the poem pillows), however, is the brutal way they consistently wrap the experience of romantic love in the patriotic arms of war:

When war clouds hover o'er the land we read of heroes brave.
Our officers on land and sea, o'er them we fairly rave;
The real defenders are forgot, the men who fire the gun.
'Tis they who'll shield the Stars and Stripes,
God bless them ev'ry mother's son!
He may be wealthy, college bred, perhaps a son of toil,
He volunteers to fight or die, he loves his native soil;
No fame or glory be his, though through him battles are won.
Old Glory will never cease to wave while we have men to fire the gun!

In the illustration to this poem, not only are the two lovers wrapped in each others' arms, but they are then wrapped in the icons of the very history—the Revolutionary War and the Great War—that would have in fact split them up, sending him to war and her, presumably, to the bitter substitute of her hankie poem. Over and over, these poems make the argument that the fulfillment of romantic love is in sacrificing that love to the dogs of war—the occasion when V-Day (Valentine's Day) and V-Day (Victory Day) become expressions of each other, concepts sinisterly wrapped together in the discourse of love like ... well, like a poem inside of a poem.

Amazingly, the poetry of American handkerchiefs does not stop at the hankie envelope or the hankies stored inside—or at the intimate moment of solitude and reflection when one presses one's flushed face to the verses printed therein. As the 1913 postcard pictured here indicates, poetry also structured what we can only call the larger hankie economy itself. Advertising a Handkerchief Bazaar being held at the Webster City U.B. Church in Webster City, Iowa, this five-stanza poem, written, we believe, specially for the fundraising event, was sent by Tressie Dale to Mrs. L. C. Dale, presumably a relative also living in Webster City. "Was given these cards," Tressie writes, "to help our church and so will send you one. And if you can send one it will be appreciated very much. Just send it to me." Of course, in asking Mrs. Dale to "send one," Tressie is repeating the "plea in brief" that stanzas four and five of the poem on the other side spell out:

To be without a handkerchief
You know is quite distressing;
From every State let one be sent,
'Twill surely be a blessing.

If a handkerchief you can make,
That handkerchief we will surely take;
But if you can't, then buy us one.
We'll thank you till your race is run.

If that poetry distresses you this Valentine's Day—maybe it's even bad enough to make you cry?—well, won't you please let P&PC offer you a handkerchief to dry your tears?