Monday, September 22, 2014

Guest Posting: "Searching for Edgar Guest," by Victor Hess

Editor's Note: The following posting—about one person's thirty-year-long quest for a single poem—comes from our old acquaintance Victor Hess (pictured here) of Slidell, Louisiana. Before you read about Hess's search, though, let us first fill you in on a little backstory. Nearly a decade ago, P&PC was an eBay junkie, buying up almost every old poetry scrapbook we could get our hands on as we went about assembling the archive that would form the basis for Chapter One of Everyday Reading. (You may remember some of our meditations on our purchases here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) 

Back then, we were in graduate school, and we were poor. That was okay, though, because at the time no one was much interested in poetry scrapbooks, and we could land 'em easily with little or no competition and frequently for less than a five-spot—with one exception. Every now and again, the same someone would bid against us (this was back when eBay bidders were publicly identified by their user names), upping the bid beyond what a poor li'l ol' grad student could afford and leaving us sad and empty-handed but most of all curious. Who was this mysterious collector? Was there someone else writing about poetry scrapbooks? Had we found a potential new friend and colleague? So we did what any poor li'l ol' grad student would do. We sent an email asking who, why, and why not. Read on, dear readers, for the rest of the story.

Searching for Edgar Guest

by Victor Hess

My best friend Alan unfolded an old newspaper clipping in our seventh grade science class. "Read this," he said.

It was a poem. I read the title. "Stick to the Job."

"It was my Dad's favorite."

It was about never giving up, not compromising for the easy dollar. It was about finishing your work and working hard because there may be someone out there working harder. I liked the poem and handed it back to Alan. "That’s cool."

"Keep it. You should have it."

"Naww. This is yours. Your Dad gave this to you."

"It's okay. He gave me other stuff. You keep it."

I didn't have the first thing from my dad. He lived fifteen miles away from us and visited me all of twice a year. Here I was feeling special about a newspaper clipping some other dad gave his son who wasn't me. This poem was special.

I kept it in my billfold like a treasure. In the following years of my careers as a paper boy, a grocery clerk, a real estate clerk, a college student, and a poverty worker, it was there. Sometimes I even followed its advice.

But in 1969 Uncle Sam drafted me into the army, and my poem became missing in action. After the army, I became a realtor, married, had children, moved from Xenia, Ohio, to New Orleans, stayed in sales, watched my kids grow, and then moved to Dallas, and, for twenty years, the poem was out of my mind.

I can't tell you why, but when my sons were twelve and thirteen, I wanted to share that poem with them. I couldn't remember most of it. I could only remember how it made me feel when I was their age.

I did recall three lines: "Keep this in mind from day to day, / Success is just as close to you / As to some toiler far away." I couldn't remember the title any longer, but the poet was Edgar Guest. I stayed awake at night trying to recall the rest of the poem. It meant so much then, and now its absence was magnifying its worth. It had its hold on me. I needed to find that poem.

My search started at Half Price books where I found a small book written by Guest called Harbor Lights of Home. The store clerk told me Guest was syndicated in over 200 newspapers and had written over 11,000 poems. The book I bought had 129 poems in it—but not my poem.

"Good luck," he said.

During the next two decades, I purchased every Guest book I could find through book stores and eBay and Ex Libris and AbeBooks and then started buying people's scrapbooks if they included clippings of Guest's poetry.

I would read some of the poems like "Success" or "Time" or "It Takes a Heap o' Livin' to Make a House a Home" at the dinner table. "That’s nice, Dad," the boys would say as they left the table rolling their eyes.

My wife Melva and I moved back to Louisiana once the kids were grown, and in 2006 I received an email from a guy bidding against me on one of the scrapbooks on eBay. "I don’t want the scrapbook," he wrote. "I just want to scan it. I'm studying how poetry has become embedded in everyday American life and culture."

I agreed to send him all my scrapbooks to scan. I told him the details of my twenty-year quest for this one particular poem, and he said he would keep a lookout for it.

When he returned the scrapbooks, he included a DVD full of scans of not just my scrapbooks but others he had managed to borrow or buy.

He had found so many scrapbooks that it took weeks for me to study his scans, but my poem was not there. It was hopeless. After all, who spends thirty years of his life looking for a stupid poem? I gave up.

Two years later, on November 20, 2008, I received another email from the guy who had scanned the scrapbooks: "Hi Vic, I'm still keeping a lookout for the poem you want to find. Recently I happened to ask a librarian in Cincinnati if he'd look for your poem. He did, and his results suggest the poem may have been published in the Lincoln Star in 1930 or the Connellsville Courier in 1964. Perhaps this is a lead you can use. Hoping you're well. Best, Mike Chasar." I had given up, but Mike had not.

Within minutes, I had subscribed to, and found my poem (see below). I sent an email back to Mike, thanking him. Then I sent one to my sons, who were in their 30s, repeating to them the story I've just told here.

My sons don’t keep that poem in their billfold, but maybe they passed it on to someone else—just like my friend Alan did over fifty years ago.