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.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Poetry of Quirt Manly and The Beverly Hillbillies (January 1, 1964)

In this episode, Granny thinks that Quirt Manly—a rugged and heroic TV cowboy—would be a perfect match for her granddaughter Elly May, so she invites him for a visit, only to discover that the real-life Quirt is not the manly man he plays on TV. Nope. He's super short. He's scared of horses. He can't shoot. And what he likes to do, as he explains to Elly, is "make up poems for girls like you." Of particular note, Quirt is played by Henry Gibson, who had recited poetry on The Jack Paar Tonight Show and on The Dick Van Dyke Show and who appears here to be further fashioning the character of The Poet, which he would eventually play on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

If you want to skip right to Quirt's poems, start around 16:45.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Back to School with Anne Campbell

A little less than a year back, P&PC wrote a piece about Edgar Guest, the longtime poet of the Detroit Free Press who published a poem in that paper seven days a week for thirty years. The national syndication of his verse made Guest (pictured here) a household name, got him dubbed the "people's poet," turned him into a popular speaker, and made him a very rich man even if it didn't secure him a place in scholarly histories of American poetry. Indeed, after mentioning Guest as part of a Modernist Studies Association panel a few years back, a P&PC affiliate happened to run into a prominent poet-critic in the airport and, in making small talk about the panel while waiting for their flights, said poet-critic confessed that, until our affiliate's talk, he'd never even heard of Guest. (By contrast, our P&PC affiliate's mother-in-law owned several of Guest's books before she moved out of the family house and into a retirement home; when our affiliate opened them while helping with the move, other poems by Guest that she'd clipped from newspapers and magazines and stored between the pages came fluttering out.)

If the poet-critic just mentioned had never heard of Guest, it's probably safe to say that he's never heard of Anne Campbell either—the poet whom the Detroit News hired in 1922 to better compete with the Free Press. Called "Eddie Guest's Rival" by Time and "The Poet of the Home" by her publicity agents, Campbell would go on to write a poem a day six days a week for twenty-five years, producing over 7,500 poems whose international syndication reportedly earned her up to $10,000 per year (that's about $140,000 adjusted for inflation, folks), becoming a popular speaker in her own right, and proving that neither the Free Press nor Guest could corner the market on popular poetry. Indeed, a 1947 event marking her silver anniversary at the News drew 1,500 fans including Detroit's mayor and the president of Wayne State University.

We've been thinking a lot about Campbell lately. For starters, P&PC has been working on an essay about women's poetry and popular culture for the Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century American Women's Poetry, and Campbell's clearly a central part of that history. Then we had the awesomely good fortune of meeting Campbell's granddaughter, who's been very helpful in sketching out some of the details of Campbell's life. Anne was born in rural Michigan on June 19, 1888, possibly finished high school, married the Detroit News writer and future Detroit city historian George W. Stark when she was twenty-seven, had three children, performed and recorded regularly with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra doing readings during intermissions in the 1930s, read on local and national radio, was active with the March of Dimes, and with George was a fixture of Detroit's cultural life and friends, of course, with Guest. She published her first poem (where else, right?) in the Free Press when she was ten, won a state prize for a Memorial Day story and poem when she was fourteen, was first paid for her poetry when she was seventeen, gave a popular talk called "Everyday Poetry" on the Lyceum circuit, and published at least five books of poems (one co-written with George). (For a bunch of blurbs and publicity materials about her, check out the pamphlets here and here.) She died in 1984.

But we've also been thinking about Campbell because it's back-to-school season, and, along with a new Trapper Keeper, new gym shoes, and a spectacular new pencil box, we just purchased the card pictured here, which features Campbell's poem "Visitin' the School" and is identified as "A Souvenir of Anne Campbell's Visit to Your School, Compliments of The Detroit News." (The back of the card is blank, btw, but it has glue marks on its four corners, suggesting that someone saved it in his or her poetry scrapbook; in fact, we've seen entire poetry scrapbooks dedicated to collecting nothing but Campbell's poems.)

Here's "Visitin' the School":
Oh, dear, I feel like sich a fool
When folks come visitin' the school.
I never git my problems well,
An' jist can’t read an' write and spell.

When teacher asts me to recite,
Although I try with all my might,
I feel the red burn in my cheek,
An' my throat swells so I can't speak.

My both knees shake an' sweat rolls down.
An' nen when I see teacher's frown,
I git so scared, I wish fur fair
That I was any place but there.

When I git big an' have a boy
I' goin' to make his life all joy.
No matter what the teacher's rule,
I'll not go visitin' the school! 
It's an odd little poem, isn't it? It's kitschy in a way that Daniel Tiffany's recent book My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch can help us to understand, and although the second and third stanzas don't disclose the exact content of the recitation, they nevertheless call most readily to our mind the history of poetry memorization and recitation that Catherine Robson takes up in Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem; seen this way, "Visitin' the School" is thus a poem about poetry.

But under the cover of innocence—the kitchiness, the schoolroom, the slightly baby-talk language, the rudimentary rhymes, etc.—we here in the P&PC Office think Campbell's poem's got something more going on. Noteworthy for how it doesn't assign a gender to teacher, student, or classroom visitor (thus making a role in the child's predicament available to all students, teachers, and classroom visitors), "Visitin' the School" is super concerned with the subject of reproduction: 1) whether or not the child's oral expression can be reproduced in print; 2) whether or not the child can faithfully reproduce what "teacher asts me to recite"; 3) how the child will "git big an' have a boy"; 4) and, ultimately, how the child vows to not reproduce the cultural practice of "visitin' the school."

Locating a voice of protest and dissent in the child—the weak, scared, young, and nearly voiceless ("my throat swells so I can't speak") subject put under pressure by multiple forms of surveillance—Campbell's poem becomes unexpectedly politicized, questioning, rather than confirming, the legitimacy of normative educational practices. If we do not hear this protest, it's not because it's not there, but because we who teach and visit classrooms at all levels fail to afford its apparently rudimentary poetic expression—by someone who "jist can't read an' write and spell"—the seriousness it deserves. As school begins, and as many of us may feel moved to lament the poor writing skills our students bring with them, that's a lesson worth keeping in mind.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

P&PC's New Acquisition: First Thoughts

Check out this neat little reward of merit, probably made in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and originally given to Imogene Hayes of Fillmore County, Minnesota, for three months of perfect school attendance. (Go Imogene!) Rewards of merit oftentimes included poems—the verse here is the first stanza of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Swing"—and were a common vehicle by which connections between poetry, school, childhood, and femininity were positively reinforced around this time, contributing to what Angela Sorby has called "the infantilization of American poetry: poets framed as children, children seen as poets, children posited as readers, children recruited as performers, and adults wishing themselves back into childhood."

You can certainly see how this reward of merit posits children as readers and performers of poetry, and no doubt their proud parents looked upon the card and wished for the real or imagined carefree days of swinging in the air so blue. But where, one might ask—as one of our interns did—is the child seen as a poet? That's one of the beautiful things about this card: not only is it a reward of merit, but it's an ink blotter as well—a reward that hails the student not just as a reader of poetry but as writer of poetry too. Add in the American flag motif of the child's dress (as she swings freely "o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave"), and you've got a potent little piece of ephemera linking the values of poetry, childhood, education, and American patriotism. Who knew that just three months of perfect attendance could come with so much extra baggage?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Summer Report: P&PC at Critical Margins

Yes, P&PC has been a little slow to keep up with our usual schedule of weekly postings this summer, and we apologize for any inconvenience or disappointment that has caused along the way. But there have been good reasons for our delays and postponements. Sure, our intern budget got cut back. And sure, Polly the Paper Shredder and Sally the Stenographer surprised us all by eloping and tying the knot—legally—in Oregon. But then came the two-week trip to Rome and Venice, where (among other things), we visited the graves of John Keats, Percy Shelley, Gregory Corso, and Ezra Pound and fell head over heels for Gian Lorenzo Bernini's sculpture in Rome and Tintoretto's paintings in Venice. (That's Tintoretto's The Miracle of the Slave pictured above, btw.) And then came a trip to Iowa City where we worked, visited with old friends, and ate George's cheeseburgers for nearly four weeks. As you can probably imagine, it can be difficult to keep up the pace when out of the office, missing interns, and fielding happy pictures and texts from Polly and Sally as they do their cross-country trip honeymoon.

But that doesn't mean we've been entirely missing in action. In fact, the time away from the office gave us a chance to complete a long interview for Critical Margins about Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America and matters relating to, well, poetry and popular culture more generally. That interview went live this week, and we loved the chance to talk about the book, poetry in the media, our time writing advertising poetry, our students' work, and the book project that we've got in the works. In the way of a teaser, here's one question from the interview and our answer:
Critical Margins: What is your favorite example in the last year of popular poetry?

P&PC: I'd have to say Season Four, Episode Six ("Foot Chase") of the FX Network's show Justified. (Okay, Season Four ran in 2013, but I watched it in 2014.) There's a scene where career criminal Boyd Crowder and his hired muscle break into the home of local banker Dale Haywood, whom they think might really be Drew Thompson—a man who, twenty years earlier, faked his death to escape testifying against a Detroit crime boss and then made off with a load of the crime boss's drugs. Hoping to collect a ransom if they find and deliver the real Drew Thompson, Boyd and Colt hold Haywood hostage until he can prove he is in fact who he says he is and not Drew Thompson. Searching for evidence one way or another, Boyd and Colt discover a box of souvenirs and mementos in Haywood's house, and they pull out a piece of lined notebook paper with a handwritten poem on it. Boyd reads it aloud, then we get a chance to read it for ourselves on screen. Here's the poem:
This is a fascinating little TV moment, isn't it? Why make Dale a poet (or at least someone who has written a poem)? Why make it such a bad poem? And why have it read aloud and shown to the audience when it doesn't end up proving anything one way or another (for Boyd, at least) about Dale's true identity?

It's also a fascinating little poem—precisely, I think, because of the nature of its badness. It begins with cliché, right? The kitschy abstractions like "my heart," "my soul," "my hurt," and "sorrow," plus the rhymes and meter of an amateur love poem, anchor it in unoriginal language, thus making for bad verse. But it's not uniform in its badness from beginning to end. Pushed by the need to find a rhyme for "sorrow," Dale's final metaphor ("the size of Kilimanjaro") is so not cliché that I can only describe it as truly original work—work, one might say, that reaches new, perhaps incomparable, heights of original badness. (He could have rhymed with "tomorrow," couldn’t he?) I suspect that, on some level, this verse dramatizes—in a way that "good" poetry might not be able to do—the scene's focus on whether Dale is actually Dale or an impostor masquerading as Dale. Is he the undercover Drew Thompson pretending to be someone else (the way cliché is "pretending" to be poetry), or is he really Dale (not pretty, but as original as his metaphor)?

There's another aspect of this that's interesting, too. Dale has hidden his poem away, and, in finding it, Boyd essentially "outs" Dale as a poet—a drama that doesn't just offer a nice foil to the "outing" Drew Thompson plot but that also recalls similar moments in other shows. There's a 1973 episode of All in the Family in which Archie Bunker outs his hippie son-in-law Mike as a poet—what Archie calls "a regular Edgar Allan Poe-lock." There's a 1982 episode of The Jeffersons in which George is outed as having once written love poetry for Louise. There's the plotline in the first season of Rescue Me (2004) where macho New York firefighter Lt. Kenny "Lou" Shea is afraid that people will find out he's been writing poetry to cope with his feelings in the aftermath of 9/11. All of these scenes associate poetry with the closet and thus with queerness—as if our culture needed yet another reason to think that a dude writing poetry might be queer. (In fact, Shea's story is paralleled by a plot line involving rumors that some of his fellow firefighters are gay.) Even in Justified, the scene sets up Dale to be read as queer: he's downstairs late at night and not upstairs in bed with his wife, and in mentioning "Curt" rather than the name of the "her" in the verse, Dale's poem suggests, ever so slightly, that the "hurt" expressed in the poem comes from the pain of seeing Dale's secret beloved Curt kissing a girl and thus knowing that Curt is unavailable.

There's more, too. This plot motif goes all the way back to the 1950s when ground-breaking TV comedian Ernie Kovacs debuted his character of Percy Dovetonsils—an effeminate poet in a zebra-striped smoking jacket who used a daisy as a swizzle stick, wore glasses that made him look bug-eyed, and lisped while reciting poems like "Cowboy":
O cowboy so lean,
O cowboy so tall,
You sit there straight as an arrow.
But side-saddle you ride,
Instead of astride.
Are you perhaps a gay ranchero? 
Dovetonsils, Kovacs once claimed, was based on none other than Ted Malone of Between the Bookends radio fame, whom audiences had only ever heard—a voice incriminated by its association with poetry that Kovacs, via the new medium of TV, was able to "out" as queer, thus making a case for the reliability or truth-telling power of TV over and against radio.

I've come a long way from Justified, haven't I? Maybe you now see a bit more clearly the types of vantage points that can open up via poetry in popular culture; it can be much more complex than it initially appears, with implications—in this case—for how we understand the taxonomies of poetic "badness," for how poetry has gotten linked to (indeed, how it's been presented as a symptom of) queer sexualities and thus has become a repository for cultural anxieties about homosexuality, and how it serves as an occasion by which changing media hierarchies are conducted. Kind of amazing, no? 
Please head over to Critical Margins for the rest of the interview? We hope you do.