Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday, October 3, 2014

In D.C. with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, and the Writers' War Board

This week, P&C is blogcasting to you from Washington, D.C., where we're in the process of wrapping up a short research trip to the Library of Congress and enjoying getting to know the city. We've been here twice previously—once for a couple of days back in the late 1990s for an AWP conference, and once around 2003 when we were visiting friends in Baltimore and took the train to the National Gallery of Art one afternoon—so we don't know the city very well. Suffice it to say, though, that we're totally lovin' it. Every day we get up early and head to the Library to do research on Edna St. Vincent Millay's relationship to the Writers' War Board. Then, come evening, we pack things up, return to our one-bedroom pad in Capitol Hill, change our socks and mindset, and head out for the night. We've enjoyed walking the H Street Corridor, the Eastern Market area of Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom, the National Mall, the Shaw neighborhood, and Columbia Heights where we came across the section of V Street (pictured above) named "Langston Hughes Way."

So, here's the gist of our research. During World War II, the Office of War Information operated an outfit called the Writers' War Board, which was charged with recruiting American writers of all stripes for domestic propaganda efforts. Poets. Playwrights. Fiction writers. Journalists. Editors. Radio writers. Speech writers. Song writers. Cartoonists. Screenwriters. You get the idea. A propaganda campaign of one sort or the other—More Nurses Needed! Conserve Oil and Gas! Use V-Mail! Don't Waste Food! Join the Merchant Marines!—would come down the pike, and the WWB would find writers to help make it go. Need a fifteen-minute radio play pitching the way your average American can contribute to the war effort? Well, the WWB's got not just one but fifteen for you to choose from. But get this. Not all writers working for the WWB wrote explicit propaganda. The WWB archives show that office staff wrote to poets and pulp writers encouraging them to take up particular topics that would tie in with—and thus bolster the credibility and appeal of—current campaigns. When the WWB was tasked with encouraging Americans to do volunteer work on farms and orchards and thus increase food supplies, for example, it wrote to Berton Braley, Ira Gershwin, Edgar Guest, Oscar Hammerstein, Phyllis McGinley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ogden Nash, Cole Porter, E.B. White and others asking them to write about food and farming. "Will you spare the time," the WWB asked, "to turn out something on the joys of farm labor, of what you get from working with the green growing things of earth?"

P&PC has a specific story it's looking for—the story behind Edna St. Vincent Millay's long poem The Murder of Lidice that Millay wrote at the bequest of the WWB, that was published (in two different abridged forms) in the Saturday Review of Literature and Life magazine, that was broadcast nationally on NBC radio and translated into Spanish and Portuguese for shortwave broadcast to Europe and South America, that was issued in "pamphlet" form by Millay's publisher Harper & Brothers, and that was eventually put on vinyl as part of a three-disc set. After a week of looking through the WWB archives and Millay's own papers, we've now got scads of material to return home with and coax into some sort of coherent, white-knuckle story of how The Murder of Lidice came into being and unexpectedly went on to became what might have been up to that point the most widely circulated American poem of the century. Stay tuned, dear readers. You likely haven't heard the last from us on this topic.

As you can imagine, though, we're running across all sorts of other goodies. When the WWB wrote to George Bernard Shaw asking him to join the "Lidice Lives" campaign for which Millay wrote her poem, he replied, "No. I am not such a mischievous fool as to waste time in preserving the memory of atrocities of which we are all equally guilty." There are materials pertaining to Thurgood Marshall (then at the NAACP), Margaret Mead, Upton Sinclair, Archibald MacLeish, Arthur Miller, H.L. Mencken, Bernard Malamud, and more. One of our favorites? The letter from Langston Hughes pictured here. Based on what we've seen in the WWB archives, we think that by the time he wrote this, Hughes had been involved with the WWB in other capacities as well, as he's listed as author of two radio plays ("Brothers" and "In the Service of My Country") in a lot of fifty such plays being circulated at one point by the WWB. (Other plays, btw, were contributed by Stephen Vincent Benet, Margaret Sangster, and Pearl Buck.) We love the idea that Hughes was collaborating with W.C. Handy, and wouldn't you have loved to have been there when the Benny Goodman Quintet introduced the "Go-and-Get-the-Enemy-Blues" and Jimmy Rushing of the Count Basie Band let 'er rip?

It's an interesting little letter, too, isn't it? Consider how Hughes makes sure that the WWB's Clifton Fadiman knows the difference between a concert baritone and a blues singer. Even more interesting is how Hughes skews the letter away from the subject of race and toward both "folk" and U.S. national identities. Indeed, he mentions the "folk quality" of Joe Turner in paragraph one, and the "folk manner" of "That Eagle" which he pitches to Fadiman in paragraph two. And is that "Theme for English B" we hear echoing in the background of the second paragraph? Whereas "Theme for English B" (which wouldn't be written until after the war, we believe) concludes
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you're older—and white—
and somewhat more free
the rhetoric in this letter focuses on "how that eagle of the U.S.A. has got his wings over you and me." The poem makes race a constitutive part of the relationship between "you" and "me," but, as with Hughes's use of "folk," the letter to Fadiman elides explicit mention of race in favor of an American folk identity as the common ground of the WW II effort.

Of course, Hughes's willingness to contribute to the WWB can't but be made ironic by the fact that over a decade later (in 1953), Hughes would be called to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy—testimony that Hughes began with the sentence, "I was born a Negro." As we all know, Hughes's interest in communism stemmed in part from the color-blind view of the world it promised—a color blindness that Hughes also imagines in his letter to Fadiman about the "folk-ness" of American identity out of which his song lyrics emerge and to which they appeal. As the beginning of Hughes's speech before the Senate suggests, the crime Hughes was called to account for may not in fact have been his affiliation with communism but of imagining a color blind America. Indeed, in his speech to McCarthy's Senate subcommittee, Hughes doesn't begin by explaining his connection to the WWB or his activities working on behalf of U.S. interests in WW II—both of which could have been used (in theory) to demonstrate his red-blooded American-ness. Rather, he begins ("I was born a Negro") by acknowledging race as central to American identity, inserting himself back into the dominant rubric of American culture and effectively renouncing or repudiating his former views, his dreams of a color-blind nation.

At 73,000 items, the WWB Archives are pretty huge. They're disorganized. They're sometimes mislabeled. But we think that for people interested in the role of the writer working on what the WWB sometimes called the second cultural front during WWII, they're just waiting for someone with less of a targeted agenda than P&PC has to come along and make something big out of 'em. We'll be back here for certain, as there's more about Millay to explain. But who knows what other stories are also waiting to be told?

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.