Friday, May 29, 2015

1910-1920: The Golden Age of Poetry at the Movies?

The P&P summer interns have been knee-deep in the 1910s of late, as P&PC has been assembling and studying archives for an essay that editor and Northern Illinois University English professor Mark W. Van Wienen has asked us to write on "Popular Verse" from 1910-1920 for Cambridge University Press's decade-by-decade American Literature in Transition series. We're discovering that the 1910s were a special time in the world of popular poetry, a decade when everyone—including the Packers Fertilizer Company of Cincinnati—seemed to be reading and writing poetry. The Packers promotional notebook you see pictured here was bookended by calendars for 1911 and 1912 and contained the poem "Packers Fertilizer (By Almost Truthful James)" in which the "tall" fence posts of the final stanza gesture to the "tall tale" genre which the poem is clearly channeling:
You crowbar your potatoes out,
This fact you won't be doubtin,
Your very fence posts grow up tall
Well, you can hear us shoutin,
Everything grows, save mortgages,
And that's the reason why, sir,
We're selling such an awful lot
Of Packers Fertilizer.
How popular was poetry in the 1910s? Well, writing for the North American Review in 1911, poet and lawyer Arthur Davison Ficke wrote, "just now there appear to be more writers of verse than there have been at any time in the history of literature." A decade later, in her New York Times article "Poetry as a Major Popular Sport," journalist and social commentator Helen Bullitt Lowry wrote, "Not only gentlefolk are now urged to compose their own, but shoe clerks and manicurists, school teachers and bootblacks, policemen, reformers and flappers." And in 1931, considering the damage Modernism had done to the poetry-reading public, H.L. Mencken would look back on the 1910s with nostalgia. "In the last heyday of the craft—say in 1915 or thereabout—" he wrote, "[people] bought poetry so copiously that a new volume of it often outsold the latest pornographic novel." So what if Mencken was creating a bit of a tall tale of his own about poetry before Modernism; the fact that he set his "golden age" of poetry in the 1910s is good enough for us.

Perhaps the most amazing thing we've discovered about the decade of 1910-1920 so far, however, is the number of poems that were adapted to film. Yes, poems in the short and silent film era were regularly made into movies. This is new to us—almost totally brand new. Did you know, for example, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith" was adapted to the screen six times between 1898 and 1936—and that Frank Capra and John Ford each directed a version in 1922? Or that John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller" found its way to screen five times between 1909 and 1928? Or that Tennyson's "Enoch Arden" was adapted ... wait for it ... in 1911, 1914, 1915 and 1916?

Why haven't we seen anything about this before? Has someone written about it, and where? 'Cause we think this is pretty huge, folks. Like, for starters, it's awesome evidence of how supposedly outdated "genteel" poetry helped broker the new medium of film. It allows poetry scholars to bring adaptation theory—and film theory in general—to poetry studies and vice versa. It gives us examples of poem inter-titles and thus a chance to think about how people were reading poetry on screen. It helps us reconceptualize the binary between "popular" and "literary" poetry—since Longfellow and Tennyson, for example, are considered "literary" but appear in a "popular" medium. It furthers the claim that poetry scholars gotta stop looking only at the page—damn the hegemony of the book and the little magazine!—if they want to understand just how big of an impact poetry had on modern life. And it gives us a huge new archive to study, beginning with the Internet Movie Database.

When we search the IMDb for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for example, we find, among other writer credits, the following:

The Village Blacksmith (1897)
Hiawatha (1903)
The Village Blacksmith (1905)
Evangeline (1908)
The Village Blacksmith (1908)
Hiawatha (1908)
Hiawatha (1909)
The Courtship of Miles Standish (1910)
The Death of Minnehaha (1910)
Evangeline (1911)
The Flaming Forge (1913)
Hiawatha (1913)
Hiawatha (1913)
His Mother's Birthday (1913)
King Robert of Sicily (1913)
The Village Blacksmith (1913)
The Children's Hour (1913)
Evangeline (1914)
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1914)
The Village Blacksmith (1917)
Evangeline (1919)
The Village Blacksmith (1922)
The Village Blacksmith (1922)
The Courtship of Myles Standish (1923)
A Woman's Secret (1924)
The Wreck of the Hesperus (1926)
The Wreck of the Hesperus (1927)
Evangeline (1929)

And here's a partial list of films that give Tennyson writing credit:

After Many Years (1908)
Dora (1909)
Dora (1910)
The Golden Supper (1910)
Maud (1911)
Enoch Arden (1911)
Lady Godiva (1911)
Dora (1912)
The Lady of Shalott (1912)
Lady Clare (1912)
A Day That Is Dead (1913)
The Gardener's Daughter (1913)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1914)
Break, Break, Break (1914)
The May Queen (1914)
Sweet and Low (1914)
Enoch Aden (1914)
The Gardener's Daughter (1914)
The Lady of Shalott (1915)
Enoch Arden (1915)
Dora (1915)
Naked Hearts (1916)
The Lady Clare (1919)
A Dream of Fair Women (1920)
The Vanishing Hand (1928)
Balaclava (1928)

Just mull that over for a moment. Mull some more. If these movies were good enough for the likes of John Ford, Frank Capra, and D.W. Griffith (Griffith directed a 1911 version of Enoch Arden, wrote for the 1915 version, and anchored The Avenging Conscience [1914] in Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee"), shouldn't they be good enough for us to take a look at too? Unfortunately, space is too limited for us to do much with this in the "Popular Verse" chapter of the American Literature in Transitions essay that we're currently writing for Cambridge, but check in with that essay when it's published to see what we make of this phenomenon. In the meantime, start watching. And if you're a graduate student or teacher of graduate students, just think about what a great dissertation this-all would make. It's yours for the taking.


Unknown said...

This is amazing! It shows that 'poetry on the screen' is not something that started when the computer or the internet were invented. I should try to find out whether Dutch poems were adapted to film in that period...

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Don Gray said...

I am seeking nonsense rhymes that were learned by my mother in during the latter part of the 1910s or early 1920s. She learned these at school in Grand Rapids Michigan. She told it to us just before her death but we were unable to copy it down. Not sure how it starts. Any help is encouraged.

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