Friday, September 11, 2015

From Cowboy to Classic: The Poetry of Longmire (Season 2, Episode 12)

We here at P&PC have long suspected that there's an undercover army of poets in Hollywood and that, cloaked in the Mackintosh of Nielson ratings and prime-time broadcast slots, they've been sneaking all sorts of poems into people's everyday lives via tv shows ranging from Gunsmoke to Breaking Bad. Well, now we've got some hard evidence to back it up: Season 2, Episode 12 of the I'll-cling-to-my-traditional-honorable-manhood-in-an-ever-changing-world-because-what-that-ever-changing-world-needs-more-than-ever-is-traditional-honorable-manhood Western cop show Longmire. If you're getting the impression that we don't totally love Longmire, well, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. We're through the end of Season 2, and we're tired of the old-man-driven plot generally speaking. We don't like the show's treatment of the Cheyenne Indians all that much. And, truth be told, we wish the show were told from the point of view of deputy Vic or Henry Standing Bear and not Sheriff Walt Longmire. But whatever, right? We've watched it this far and, as the following's gonna explain, there's no way we're gonna stop now.

First aired August 19, 2013, Season 2, Episide 12 telegraphs its literary ambitions via the allusion to Flannery O'Connor in its title ("A Good Death Is Hard to Find") and is then very neatly bookended by two poems, one a cowboy poem, and one a classic. And wouldn't you know it? It was written by real-life poet Tony Tost, author of the poetry collections Complex Sleep and Invisible Bride. Tost (pictured in the ball cap here) is a regular writer for Longmire and first caught our eye with his allusion to Emily Dickinson in the title of Season 2, Episode 6 ("Tell It Slant"), which he also wrote. So, to a certain extent we could tell that the poetry of "A Good Death Is Hard to Find" was coming, and we've been keeping a lookout for it ever since. And now that we've found it, we're looking for more. Indeed, given both Tost's inclination to the poetic and Longmire's first name (Walt), we're fully expecting to get a Whitman reference somewhere on down the line, which would be, like, totally awesome, as it would allow us to tie Longmire to Breaking Bad and Mad Men in a series of three contemporary shows—indubitably a pattern!—all using variously brooding Whitmans to process their threatened masculinity.

"A Good Death Is Hard to Find" opens with what a banner hanging in the back- ground calls the "Absaroka County Cowboy Poetry Slam" taking place at Henry's bar, the Red Pony Saloon ("and continual soiree"), which you can watch in the first clip below. The poem is by the town's sorta corrupt retired former sheriff, and some humorous scenes throughout the episode show him composing or practicing his poetry. And the episode closes—the second clip below—with a scene in which Longmire quotes the Iliad in a downright poetic "get-out-of-town-before-sunrise" ultimatum he gives to Vic's stalker. So, the episode gives us two sheriffs, both with poems in their mouths: one a writer, one a reader; one sorta corrupt, the other of impeccable honor; one trading in popular poetry, one trotting out the classics. We don't really like how the popular-poetry math works out in this regard, but we'll nevertheless raise our glass—a toast for Tost!—and hope that Tony gives us that Whitman reference we're looking for to help make up for it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Stealing Poetry in North Platte, Nebraska

The P&PC Office has been a little bit ... let's say ... irregular in the frequency of its postings of late, but there's good reason for that, dear reader: we've been in the process of temporarily relocating our offices to Washington, D.C., where we'll spend the Fall 2015 semester doing research at the Library of Congress thanks to the generosity of a five month-long Kluge Fellowship and, of course, Willamette University, which granted us a semester-long leave. (You'll no doubt hear more about the nature of our research in the coming weeks, but you can get the gist of it here, in a posting we wrote while doing preliminary research on site last Fall.) So, the past month or so has been full of details details details having to do with the move: staffing the office in Oregon, finding new digs in D.C., and embarking on a six-day, five-night, 2,800-mile road trip with a (rented) minivan full of essentials, non-perishables, and the two P&PC Office cats. It was a long ride—kind of like doing the Oregon Trail in reverse but without all the wagons, dysentery, and barrels of salted pork—featuring stops in Boise (Idaho), Rock Springs (Wyoming), North Platte (Nebraska), Iowa City (Iowa), and Bowling Green (Ohio) and made somewhat more bearable by the fact that we've been watching Hell on Wheels and, for much of the trip, riding along the route of the transcontinental railroad including passing Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah. But now we're finally in D.C., settled in to our awesome pad across the street from Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill, and more or less installed at our work space in the Kluge Center. The picture of the capitol you see above is the last sight on our daily commute before we disappear into the Library to work.

While stopping in the booming metropolis of North Platte on the way here, we had the pleasure of staying at America's Best Value Inn, an independently owned, 1950s-style motel that we'd recommend to anyone passing by not just because of its cleanliness, affordability, and level of hospitality, but because of the poem "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" (pictured here) that they've got tacked to the wall in each of the motel's 33 rooms. Here's the text of that verse:
Is anybody happier because you passed his way?
     Does anyone remember that you spoke to him today?
The day is almost over, and its toiling time is through;
     Is there anyone to utter now a kindly word of you?
Can you say tonight, with the day that's slipping fast,
     That you helped a single brother of the many that you passed?
Is a single heart rejoicing over what you did or said;
     Does the man whose hopes were fading, now with courage look ahead?
Did you waste the day, or lose? Was it well or sorely spent?
     Did you leave a trail of kindness, or a scar of discontent?
As you close your eyes in slumber, do you think that God will say,
     "You have earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today." 
If you Google the poem, you'll find several versions of it in circulation (this is a shortened version), and you'll also find that there's some dispute as to its author and title. The America's Best Value Inn version attributes it to John Hall. It's been attributed to John Kendrick Bangs. It's been credited to "anonymous" and has oftentimes appeared with no byline at all. To P&PC ears, it sounds exactly like the "people's poet" Edgar Guest (pictured here), and, indeed, it's most frequently attributed to him directly or metonymically via Guest's publisher the Detroit Free Press. (For more on Guest's amazing and ongoing presence in popular culture, see P&PC postings here, here, here, here, and here.) Over the years, it's appeared as "The Day's Results," "The Day's Work," "At Day's End," "Is Anybody Happier," and "Consider Today." In the world of popular poetry, such authorial confusion, editing, and re-titling is a common thing; see, for example, the poetry of Rod's Steakhouse upon which we, uh, ruminated several years ago.

In our estimation, "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow" is most likely by Guest, and while we haven't found the issue of the Detroit Free Press in which it perhaps originally appeared, it most likely dates to 1916 or 1917, and its publication history is a miniature portrait of just how widely such verse circulated. In January of 1917, it appeared in The Journal of Zoophily, "published monthly under the auspices of the American Antivivisection Society, combined with the Women's Pennsylvania Society for the Preservation of Cruelty of Animals." The Lather, put out by the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers International Union, printed it in 1918. The Los Angeles School Journal and The Bessemer Monthly (put out by the Bessemer Gas Engine Company) printed it in 1919. The Gospel Messenger, The Sabbath Recorder, and the Southern Telephone News printed it in 1920. The Chamber of Commerce and State Manufacturers Journal of Scranton, Pennsylvania, printed it in 1921, The Plasterer in 1922, Vision: A Magazine for Youth in 1932, The Railroad Trainman in 1935, and American Flint in 1950. It continues to be reproduced in books and on web sites today.

You get the idea: the poem going by the title "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" has appealed to a wide audience—labor unions, religious folk, youth, animal lovers, civic stakeholders, etc.—for a long time. All the same, after leaving North Platte, and as mile after mile of blacktop ran beneath the dignity of our (rented) minivan, we began to wonder if the version of the poem at America's Best Value Inn tell could tell us anything more about how popular the poem continues to be and how audiences today respond to verse that moves them. So when we got to D.C., we gave the Inn a jingle and talked for a while with the owner Dave.

Dave opened the Inn in 1988 and almost immediately posted copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" in each of the motel's 33 rooms. He doesn't remember where he found the poem, and he doesn't know anything about the author, and neither of those things seem to matter much to him. But he did tell me that, over the years, the motel has sustained an average annual occupancy rate of 60-70%. So, you can do the math by yourself at home: at an average of 22 rooms per day (65% occupancy), that means that at least 8,000 motel guests (a conservative estimate of only one person per room) have the opportunity to encounter the poem in a single year. Calculate that number over the 27 years the hotel has been open under Dave's management (the "poem era"), and you discover that more than 216,000 people have seen "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" just in the rooms of  America's Best Value Inn alone.

But—we began to think halfway through our conversation with Dave—just because someone in a hotel room has the opportunity to read a poem doesn't mean he or she has actually read it, or read it with any semblance of seriousness, right? That's when Dave spoke up, as if anticipating our question. Once or twice a day, he said, people walk in to the main office and ask for a copy of the poem; he's got a stack of them behind the desk to give out for free. What's more surprising than that—especially considering the poem's content—is that every day poems go missing from one to two of the motel's rooms, so frequently that the maid carts carry stacks of replacement poems alongside shampoo bottles and tissue boxes. So, once again, let's do the math. If someone steals a poem from the hotel room every day, that's 365 copies stolen over the course of the year—or nearly 10,000 copies that have been stolen since the beginning of the poem era at America's Best Value Inn! Combine those 10,000 copies with the 10,000 or more that Dave has given away at the front desk during that time, and you've got 20,000 copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" that people have read and considered closely enough in their motel rooms to take certain and definitive action. How's that for concrete evidence of the poem's continued appeal?!

So, Dave's inn has poems on the walls, poems on the maid carts, and poems at the front desk. He's given or lost 20,000 copies of that poem over the past 27 years, and over the phone he seems more than okay with it all, though he does say that, from time to time, someone will call or approach him because they've been offended by "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?," thinking that Dave was in some way prejudging them and telling them to be better hotel guests. But Dave says he's not judging them—not even the folks who steal copies, it seems. Rather, he says the poem's title isn't a judgment or warning but a question, just the way it reads. "I'm wanting them to ask it themselves," he says in that matter-of-fact way that Midwesterners have, like it's meat and potatoes for dinner again. Meat, potatoes, and poetry.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday, June 21, 2015

P&PC Correspondent Catherine Keyser Reviews Francesco Marciuliano's "I Could Pee On This: And Other Poems By Cats"

Editor's Note: Usually the P&PC office cats show little interest in our regular postings and office politics. Sure, they appreciated our analysis of the poetry printed on the packaging for Purina's Friskies Crispies Cheese Flavor Puffs, but—not unpredictably—they were more interested in the puffs themselves. Our posting about the poetry printed on the reverse side of an old "Rat On Toast—For Dinner" stereoview card met with relative indifference, and while we thought our "Stray Cat Ethics of Poetry Criticism" was pretty damn charming, they (Athens and Bella, pictured here) felt it was pretty much common sense.

Thus, when Athens and Bella came to us with paws outspread suggesting that Francesco Marciuliano's new collection I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems By Cats would be excellent material for a posting, we had no choice but to oblige. So we turned to longtime P&PC friend and correspondent Catherine (Cat) Keyser, hoping that she and her housemates Buffy, Spike, and Dorothy Parker (Dottie) might be inspired to write a few lines on the subject of feline purr-sification. An Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, Keyser (pictured here with Dottie) is the author of Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture (Rutgers UP, 2011). Quite fittingly, then, she locates I Could Pee on This in a long tradition (a literary cat-egory, perhaps?) of magazine, newspaper, and popular modernist poetry that includes T.S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Deems Taylor, and Don Marquis. Read on, dear reader, to discover which litter boxes Marciuliano's Twitter-era internet celebrities have inherited from those literary lions—and which ones they've broken in on their own.

Letter from Columbia, South Carolina

Dear P&PC,

Before tendering the commissioned review for I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats, this correspondent must acknowledge that her deskmate Buffy (pictured here) harbored significant reservations about this reviewer's expertise on feline versification. (Subsequently, your loyal correspondent realized that Buffy's efforts to interpose her body between keyboard and screen may have been a bid for food rather than a verdict on the review.)

Francesco Marciuliano, the author (amanuensis?) of I Could Pee on This, is the heir to a long line of cat poets before him. Perhaps most famously, T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939) features the prestidigitation, tom(cat)foolery, and grand larceny of lovable rogues such as Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer, and Rum Tum Tugger. The original edition (pictured here) included a cover illustration by the poet. The kitties shimmying thereon forecast the choreographic feats of the Cats that would grace the stage of the Winter Garden throughout the 1980s.

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats embraced many features of light verse—broad rhymes, rollicking rhythms, nonsense words, tonal grandiosity and thematic deflation, and ironic twists. Ever the modernist, however, favoring inscrutability and interiority, Eliot insisted that cats have a "name that no human research can discover— / But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess." Cats in popular print culture confessed rather more, as in Don Marquis's newspaper column "archy and mehitabel." In a 1927 column, Mehitabel, a cat who claimed to be Cleopatra reincarnated (pictured here), complained that her kittens rather cramped her style:
just as I feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens
it is not archy
that I am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them
If Eliot's jellicle cats played feline flâneurs, Mehitabel flaunted her flapperdom. (She would later be played by Eartha Kitt in a short-running musical by Mel Brooks called Shinbone Alley [1957]).

Cats also resembled columnists: they kept nocturnal hours, liked to doze on couches, and never knew where their next meal was coming from but trusted that someone else would pick up the tab. Composer, music critic, and light verse writer Deems Taylor insisted that he turned to Broadway songwriting because someone had to support his cat, Mrs. Higgins. In a 1912 Smart Set poem called "Jack of All Trades," Taylor offered to get his cat in on a double act: "I can play a jig, or dance it; / I can teach a cat to hurdle through a hoop," for "well, you know, a fellow's got to eat." When Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote humor columns for Vanity Fair under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd, the magazine introduced her alter ego with a cat compatriot (pictured here), whose vantage point above the shoulder seems both inspirational and editorial.

If the cats of interwar light verse seemed like magazine columnists, Marciuliano's cats are decidedly bloggers. They write in free verse, not pesky ballad forms. Each poem is illustrated, not with a cartoonish line drawing, but with a close-up photograph of Instagram ilk. These cats are hyper-aware of their mediated lives, knowing their hijinks are likely to become memes: "But you took that special moment / You posted it online / Now forty million people think / I bark like a dog." They document the minutiae of their daily routines ("I lick your nose / I lick your nose again"). They observe shared occasions (In "O Christmas Tree": "The tree looks better on its side"). They confess their insecurities: "I thought I saw something / I forgot what it was / Now everyone is staring at me."

If the Internet is made of cats, it is perhaps cats who can best show us, not merely their native habits—though the catalog that Marciuliano offers, from keyboard-sitting to faucet-licking, is impressively complete—but also our media habits. These poems uncover the proximity between cats' OCD and ours, their distractibility and our longing for distraction. From the modern period to the digital age, cat light verse expresses the desire shared by cats and their humans to be elevated and adored, tempering that aspiration with the recognition that poetry, like all media, is ephemeral and transitory, dependent, above all, on audience:
In ancient Egypt
We cats were gods
We ruled the heavens
We reigned on earth
So kneel before me
I said come to me
Uh, listen to me
How about just a treat then?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Penny Dreadful: "All sad people like poetry"?

We here at P&PC haven't yet seen the Showtime series Penny Dreadful—"a psychologically dark adult drama filled with intense mystery and suspense"—but the little "Sound Bite" pictured here and appearing in the June 12 issue of Entertainment Weekly has certainly caught our interest. "All sad people like poetry. Happy people like songs," says Vanessa, an "enigmatic, composed, driven woman" who (according to Wiki) apparently "fears little, until the witches' power begins to pick at her strength." Add it to our queue—right after Grimm, True Blood, Crossing Lines, Broadchurch, Witnesses (Les témoins), and Justified? You bet.