Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Surprise Guest: Thoughts on Edgar A. Guest, Making Money with Poetry, and the Blind Spots of Modern Poetry Studies

So, P&PC just finished reading Edgar A. Guest: A Biography—Royce Howes's very swell, 1953 account of the one-time Detroit Free Press copy boy who went on, in Horatio Alger fashion, to become the most prolific and popular poet in U.S. history. We're certainly no stranger to Guest—check out an Edgar Guest Calendar here, Chrysler's Edgar Guest television spot here, and a scrapbook full of Guest's poetry here—but the biography stunned us nevertheless. Yes, in telling the story of how Guest's "ascent to fame has kept absolute step with Detroit's march from provincial city to industrial capital of the world," Howes is possibly even more saccharine than the "people's poet" himself was, but the facts are simply astonishing. Consider, for example:
  • Guest wrote a poem a day seven days a week for thirty years.
  • He lived in a mansion "staffed with servants, fine automobiles, the so-handy golf club [and] the big summer place at the Pointe."
  • He had radio, motion picture, and television contracts.
  • At one point, when his verse was syndicated to 250 newspapers, it was estimated that his poems had a circulation of about 10,000,000.
  • At one point, probably after World War II, Guest reported an annual income of $128,000—the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $1.6 million.
  • Guest's first two books (Home Rhymes and Just Glad Things) were self-published and printed by Guest's brother Harry in editions of 800 and 1,500 respectively, and on the basis of those books and his newspaper verse, Guest started getting wooed by the agents of Harper, Scribner, and William Randolph Hearst. Eventually, his publisher Reilly & Britton would print his books in editions of 100,000.
  • Guest couldn't go out on the streets of Detroit without getting hailed down by enthusiastic readers.
  • Guest was good friends with Henry Ford, who regularly gave the poet cars, beginning with a Model T and, many years later, a Lincoln.
  • Guest was pegged as a possible replacement for Will Rogers and even set up in Hollywood for $3,500 per week while studios tried to figure out how to use him.
  • A copy of Guest's poem "America" once sold for $50,000 as part of a war-bond fundraising event in 1942.
It's no wonder, really, that even though Guest maintains some of his popularity among people of a certain age today, he has been almost entirely written out of histories of modern poetry, because even though his life and career were propelled by the very forces of modernity that modernist studies scholars love to dwell on, his simple presence in a conversation contradicts all sorts of fantasies about the cultural marginalization of poetry in the twentieth century that those same scholars love to perpetuate: that poetry had a small readership; that no one could make money by writing poems; that poetry happened in bohemian enclaves and small cliques involving beret-wearing coffee drinkers and free lovers; that poetry primarily responded to the forces of modernity and consumer culture in an oppositional or counter-cultural way; that poetry was a print-based form inherently at odds with "new" and popular media forms like radio, tv, and film; that even if a poet were to make himself or herself available, consumer and popular culture would have no use for him or her. Yadda yadda yadda.

It's possible, we suppose, to explain away Guest's success as the exception that proves the modernist rule, but if you take even the smallest peek down the rabbit hole he opens up, you start seeing that that's not even the case. Not only was Detroit able to support one famous poet, for example, but it also supported a second: Anne Campbell, sometimes called "Eddie Guest's Rival," who for the crosstown Detroit News wrote a poem a day six days a week for twenty years, producing in the process more than 7,500 poems and making up to $10,000 per year from her poetry's syndication (that's about $140,000 adjusted for inflation, btw). Other poets like Helen Welshimer, Berton Braley, James Metcalfe, Ethel Romig Fuller, Don Marquis, and Walt Mason seemed to have little trouble making money off their verse as well.

Guest is not only compelling in his own right, then, but he's compelling because paying even a smidgen of attention to him opens up a window onto an entire sphere of literary activity that has been all but erased from the history books and that challenges almost every academic assumption about the cultural place and function of poetry in modern America. We look at Guest and see Campbell, Welshimer, Braley and crew, but then we also see that Guest's publisher—based in Chicago right down the street from Poetry magazine, that supposed center of all things modern in modern poetry—was also making a pretty good go of it; Reilly, for example, also issued Tony's Scrap Book, an annual print spin-off of Tony Wons's popular poetry radio show that sold over 225,000 copies in 1932 alone. (Wons, btw, reported making $2,000 per month including royalties from Tony's Scrap Book, which is the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $400,000 per year.)

When we figure in Reilly's activities and Tony's radio show, we start sketching out the parameters of a modern poetry landscape composed of affluent celebrity poets, for-profit poetry publishers, and multimedia distribution—a picture at odds with almost everything we imagine about the workings of poetry in the first half of the century. We here at the P&PC Office are stunned every time we think seriously about this, and we're convinced that, some day, scholars of modern poetry are going to start realizing the stories and archives awaiting them if they just take a moment to tune in.