Sunday, April 19, 2015

P&PC Heroes: An Interview with Erik Noftle about the Life and Legacy of Rod McKuen

When "mega-selling poet" Rod McKuen died at age 81 on January 29 of this year, the P&PC Office found itself at a complete and utter loss. What could we say in memoriam for the best-selling, critically-maligned poet and cat lover (pictured here) who published over thirty volumes, who wrote more than 1500 songs, and whose books, according to the Associated Press, sold more than 65 million copies—over one million in 1968 alone, when, according to the Huffington Post, McKuen also released four poetry collections, eight songbooks, the soundtracks to Miss Jean Brodie and A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and at least ten other albums?

Born in a charity hospital, McKuen ran away from home at age eleven to escape an abusive alcoholic father. He did a lot of odd jobs and hung out with and read alongside the Beats in San Francisco. He appeared in three films. He won a Best Spoken Word Grammy for Lonesome Cities in 1968. He was endorsed by W.H. Auden, who said, "Rod McKuen's poems are love letters to the world, and I am happy that many of them came to me and found me out." At one point McKuen was on tour 280 days per year, and his songs—covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Dolly Parton, and Frank Sinatra—have reportedly accounted for the sale of over 100 million albums worldwide and were twice nominated for Academy Awards.

Netting millions, McKuen lived the latter part of his life in a 15,000-square-foot Beverley Hills mansion that housed his collection of more than 100,000 CDs and 500,000 records. Called "the King of Kitsch" by Newsweek, McKuen found no love from the critics. U.S. Poet Laureate Karl Shapiro said, "It is irrelevant to speak of McKuen as a poet," and Julia Keller described his work as "silly and mawkish, the kind of gooey schmaltz that wouldn't pass muster in a freshman creative-writing class." As far as P&PC knows, no reputable literary history of American poetry even mentions McKuen (or, for that matter, his female counterpart from the 1960s and 70s, the best-selling and multimillionaire poet and greeting card entrepreneur Susan Polis Schutz). One of the best signs of the massive gap that continues to exist between popular and academic histories of American poetry, McKuen was a postwar version of Edgar Guest, who, in his own time, found similar popular success in print, sound, film, and spoken-word formats, who was a constant target of critics' scorn, and who also gets scant mention in histories of American poetry. (Like McKuen, Guest had a best-selling female counterpart as well, the prolific newspaper poet Anne Campbell.)

At a loss for how to justly and appropriately mark McKuen's passing and the significance of his career, P&PC thus stayed uncomfortably silent, but then we began to hear rumors on campus about psychology professor Erik Noftle (pictured on the right in the photo here). Word was that Noftle—who helped found Portland's community radio station XRAY FM and who every Friday night from 7:00-8:00 pm (Pacific Time) assumes the nom de guerre DJ Ed and hosts the disco radio show Discovery—was a fan of McKuen. Word was that Noftle had a collection of McKuen records. Word was that he owned forty of them, that he'd been carting them as he moved back and forth across the country for years (from Iowa to North Carolina, California, and Oregon), and that his collection is in fact still growing. 

What better way to remember McKuen, we thought, than by tracking Noftle down and separating rumor from fact—not by going to newspaper obituaries reporting on McKuen's death, but by finding out how America's "mega-selling poet" continues to live on. So we found Noftle and got him talking. In addition to spectacularly recreating the cover of Bob Dylan's 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home with all McKuen-themed references and album covers (pictured above; the P&PC interns insisted we include the Dylan image, pictured here, for easy comparison), here's what Noftle had to say.

P&PC: Um, do you really own forty Rod McKuen records?

Noftle: Not quite—I'm at twenty-eight by my last count. But I think I only own more records by Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and The Fall.

P&PC: You realize that not many people would 'fess up to that, don't you?

Noftle: Well, not too many people are in a position to boast of that fact. Then again, McKuen apparently released over 200 records (including at least 125 albums), so I need to remember to be more modest. My collection is still in its infancy, and there must be other people who could reasonably argue that I'm a neophyte. With so many albums he must be one of the top 100 best-selling U.S. recording artists of the twentieth century! But his onetime popularity has clearly waned. I checked iTunes recently and they have a couple dozen McKuen tracks but none of his albums. I don't think many have even appeared on cd.

P&PC: So, how did your collection begin?

Noftle: I first was turned on (if that's the right word) to Rod McKuen through a friend and former housemate of mine in Davis, California: Tony. Tony's a record collector like myself and introduced me to lots of odd, obscure gems he'd find digging through record bins, often at charity-based thrift stores like Davis' SPCA. Tony moved to the Bay Area about a year later and I found myself wanting to hear McKuen again, and also hoping to play him for others. So I started being on the lookout for his albums when out on record-buying sprees. I found that once you were looking for them, McKuen records popped up a lot, and they usually were pretty cheap, ranging from about twenty-five cents to a few dollars. So I snapped them up when I found them, and I discovered he had a lot of records. Probably the largest contributor to my McKuen collection was K St. Records in Sacto (now on Broadway). But when I tried to play the records for other people I found that people weren't always so receptive.

P&PC: When did you realize this was a long-term thing?

Noftle: Over the next few years, I moved around a lot—to a different house in Davis, out to my post-doc in North Carolina, and back out to the west coast again when I got a faculty position in Oregon. This meant I moved my ever-increasing record collection multiple times and thus had the opportunity to reorganize it several times. I settled on a loose organization by genre—including a large rock section, a disco section, an old country section, a French section, a jazz section, and an experimental section, among others. Well, I also ended up with a Rod McKuen section.

P&PC: And when did you realize you had a problem?

Noftle: When I first brought home a McKuen album and found out I already owned it. That happened a few times, actually. I'd accumulated so many I couldn't remember which I owned. Sometimes they had vastly different cover art, but sometimes not. Also, as I learned more about his catalog, I became aware of albums that didn't show up regularly in the cheap bins of record stores—records that I became very curious about. I ended up buying a couple online for $20 or so, including his gently satirical send-up of hippies, Rod McKuen Takes A San Francisco Hippie Trip (pictured above). I still haven't sought out Beatsville (pictured here), his earlier send-up of beat poets, a scene he was connected with to some extent.

P&PC: Can you describe a typical Rod McKuen album for us?

Noftle: Quite odd. I have a few of his classical albums, but my collection is mostly dedicated to his vocal work. His typical vocal album consists of a combination of his own spoken poetry with musical accompaniment, his own songs, and a cover or two—often a Jacques Brel song. He was the most prolific translator of Brel's songs into English and apparently spent a lot of time in Paris with Brel. Across his catalog, perhaps the modal musical style is orchestral in the style of Sinatra or even Lawrence Welk, but McKuen covers a lot of ground; many backings are minimalist and range from jazz to country to folk to soft rock and even to a sort of easy listening-style disco. When he reads his poetry, his tone is typically a whisper or at least quite soft. When he sings, his voice is gentle and crooning but with a certain gruffness. I've never heard McKuen's vocal style repeated. It's as though he's somehow the offspring of Mister Rogers and Tom Waits. It's not really gravelly. It's more that it sounds husky and slightly strained.

P&PC: Which one is your favorite?

Noftle: I have at least two. One is Lonesome Cities from the late 60s (pictured above). It's a great mix of spoken word and songs, a few of which were tackled by Frank Sinatra on his McKuen covers album A Man Alone. (Yes, you read that correctly—Sinatra did an album of McKuen covers [pictured here].) Another is Slide...Easy In, McKuen's disco-era album that includes a protest song called "Don't Drink the Orange Juice." This track is an enjoyable jab at Anita Bryant who was a spokesperson for Florida Orange Juice and outspoken against gay rights. McKuen resisted labels and as far as I know never came out as gay or bisexual but certainly was a lifelong advocate within and for the queer community.

P&PC: What does your spouse think about all this?

Noftle: Jess has predicted that one day I will come home and she'll tell me, "Oh no, honey, someone broke in to our house but all they stole was your Rod McKuen albums!" She clearly agrees that I'm sitting on quite a treasure trove.

P&PC: If someone liked McKuen, what else would you recommend they listen to?

Noftle: I have lots of recommendations but I'll limit myself to one: the singer Scott Walker (not the Wisconsin politician). Walker (pictured here) is a generation younger than McKuen but had a similar admiration for Brel. Scott first found fame as a member of the not-actually-fraternally-related The Walker Brothers, a 60s pop group. Walker left the band in 1967 and released a series of astounding orchestral pop solo albums that shared a dark, sardonic tone (Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3, and—you guessed it—Scott 4). "Scott" started out with a mix of Brel tunes, other 60s-era pop and folk covers, and a few of his own compositions. By the time of Scott 4, all the songs were written by him and were peppered with an unholy cast of characters including a fading duchess, a soldier returning from Vietnam, Stalin, and even Death—straight out of Bergman's The Seventh Seal. The songs explored themes of romantic dissolution, decay, and existential crisis but were beautifully sung by Walker and arranged by Wally Stott. Not surprisingly, his teenybopper fan base quickly dried up across the course of those albums and Walker disappeared into schmaltz in the 1970s. But in the decades that followed he began releasing stranger and stranger albums that are very difficult to classify—they're kind of like a marriage between Puccini and post-rock. His current work features a deep soaring baritone, intriguing, obscurist lyrics about topics such as Elvis's stillborn twin and recent genocides in the Balkans, and the musical backings include some very odd percussive elements like the sound of a bag of meat being punched. His most recent album is a collaboration with drone metal outfit Sunn 0))). Far out stuff.

P&PC: Twenty-eight albums means a lot of cover art. Anything especially noteworthy?

Noftle: Yes. The aforementioned Slide..Easy In album's outer gatefold (pictured here) is a muscular, hairy, man's arm reaching down into a vat of Crisco whose "Cr" has been changed to a "D" to read "Disco." Very clever. Oddly, it was released with an alternative cover featuring a blonde lady in silver lame pants (pictured below). Um, I have both versions. The album Rod McKuen Takes a San Francisco Hippie Trip both lampoons and perfectly captures the day-glo popular at the time. It's a real wonder. But there are several gems. 

P&PC: Your faculty profile says you're a personality psychologist and that you're interested in questions like "How do individuals differ psychologically from one another?", "How consistent are those differences across situations and time?", and "What meaning do these differences have for people in their actual lives—for achievement, relationships, and happiness and well-being?" What perspective does this give you on McKuen?

Noftle: I'm not sure—personality psychologists rarely do case studies these days. But I would say that from the standpoint of his music and spoken word, McKuen appears to be remarkably consistent; despite his genre exercises, he has a certain style and personality and worldview that are captured in that style, and those things don't seem to change much. But people are remarkably complex, and I can't say that I know enough about McKuen to say much more about who he is. His 1972 Pickwick album About Me (pictured here) suggests he lived a really interesting life full of adventure and wonder and hardship. It turns out I have two copies—I'll loan you one.

P&PC: Quick McKuen quotation analysis: "I had a pet raccoon that took my toothbrush once, / But only to another room."

Noftle: I'll follow McKuen's lead. "What I have to say about this album is on the record—I hope you like it.—Rod McKuen, London, June 1968" (liner notes on the back of The Single Man, RCA, 1968).

P&PC: Touché! Where does your collection go from here?

Noftle: Onward and upward—and if Jess has anything to say about it, it might float away in a hot air balloon.

P&PC: This was fun. In McKuen's words, "Thank you for the sun you brought this morning / even though the sky was full of clouds."

Noftle: Yes indeed, but I also feel like I've just gone through something. I will return the favor: "Soft. Listen to the warm. The night is almost gone. We can listen to the warm" (McKuen, Listen to the Warm, RCA, 1967).

Editor's Note: Noftle's McKuen-themed homage to the cover of Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home pictured near the beginning of this posting was made possible in part by P&PC contributor and organic chemistry consultant, Drew Duncan, who served as photographer.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Notes on Poetry, Poetry on Bank Notes: A Guest Posting by P&PC's Netherlands Correspondent, Kila van der Starre

Editor's Note: This past December, the P&PC Board of Directors sent a delegation to the Netherlands where, for twelve days, P&PC staff members traveled, took in the sights, mainlined museums (Rembrandt! Renoir! Van Gogh! Mondrian!) and found poetry just about everywhere we went. Poems accompanying St. Nicholas Day illustrations hung in the Rijksmuseum. Poets were on the cover of a recent magazine in Utrecht. And we took a long and winding walk through the magnificent streets of Leiden where more than 100 poems by international poets have been painted on the exterior walls of the city's buildings. (Note to Salem, Oregon: our city is perfect for this!)

A highlight of our visit to Utrecht was meeting longtime P&PC reader and fellow intellectual soul mate Kila van der Starre (pictured here) who, in pursuit of her PhD at the University of Utrecht, is studying and writing about the artistic, social, and cultural lives of poetry outside the book and magazine and off of the traditional page. As the wall poems in Leiden suggest, the Netherlands is rich with such material, but as is the case in the U.S., few poets, scholars, or critics have taken this ambient poetic landscape as the object of their attention. You can thus imagine how we and Kila jammed for several hours over beer (our first time having the hot mulled beer called glühkriek) and snackies at Cafe Olivier, and how touched we were when Kila presented us with the perfect souvenir—a shower-cap-like bike-seat cover printed with lines of poetry that poetry guerrillas secretly wrap over strangers' bike seats to keep them dry.

We are thrilled, therefore, to be bringing you the following guest posting from our new friend and P&PC Netherlands Correspondent—a posting that introduces and considers a Dutch poem that has a circulation of 325 ... million (yes you read that correctly) while gently chastising P&PC for its English language provincialism. Read on, dear readers, to learn more about Arie van den Berg's poem "IJsvogel" ("Kingfisher"), its appearance on the Netherlands' final 10 guilder bank note, and why the Guinness Book of Records has admitted but nonetheless refused to acknowledge the poem's record-setting circulation. Here's what Kila has to say:

P&PC is my all-time favorite poetry blog, as it is unique in writing about poetry off the page and outside the book—the topic of my PhD research at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. But, P&PC, you do realize that there's more than just English-language poetry, right?

P&PC once speculated that John McCrae's famous World War I poem "In Flanders Fields" may very well be "the most reprinted and most widely circulated poem, like, ever." Not only did the Canadian government make it the central piece of its World War I public relations campaign—printing it on billboards and posters to advertise the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds—but then, from 2001-2013, English and French language versions of McCrae's first stanza appeared on the back of the Canadian $10 bank note (pictured here), giving it an enormous circulation.

As compelling as it is, this claim appears to have overlooked a poem that was printed 325 million times during the last decade of the twentieth century and passed on by nearly every adult in the Netherlands. This poem was written by a poet who never won a significant prize, who never published a famous book of poetry, who only has a small poetic oeuvre and fan base, and who is actually better known as a literary critic than as a poet: Arie van den Berg (pictured here). Van den Berg wrote the poem "IJsvogel" ("Kingfisher") especially for the last 10 guilder bank note which was introduced in 1997 in the Netherlands. (It was known that this would be the last bank note to be renewed before the euro replaced the guilder in 2002.)

Jaap Drupsteen, who designed the last batch of guilder notes and who's pictured here, regards "his tenner" as his most successful design. He chose "birds" as the theme for this last series and designed watermark illustrations of birds to serve as authenticity features. "The Dutch Bank wanted to add mini texts which would vanish after copying," Drupsteen explained in an interview, "'Let it be a fine text, I thought.'" He suggested using poems as additional markers of the note's authenticity. After consulting the Museum of Literature in The Hague—which couldn't find a Dutch poem about a kingfisher (the symbol and theme of the 10 guilder note)—the Dutch Bank decided to ask Van den Berg, who had previously written poems about the owl and the hill myna, to compose a poem especially for the bill. Van den Berg had three weeks to write the poem from scratch—a blink of an eye compared to the three years Drupsteen had to finish the note's design, and a challenging request for a poet who on average wrote one-and-a-half poems per year.

Still, Van den Berg succeeded, and "IJsvogel" became the most reprinted poem in Dutch history—perhaps even "the most reprinted and most widely circulated poem, like, ever." A student of Van den Berg's contacted the Guinness Book of Records, which admitted the poem had a record circulation but determined that, because Van den Berg himself had not essentially contributed to the enormous spread, it unfortunately could not be included in their database.

A poem with a circulation of 325 million is impressive, and all the more so considering that the Netherlands only has 16 million inhabitants. I would dare say that roughly all Dutch adults handled a print of the poem between 1997 and 2002. Handling, however, is different than reading. "IJsvogel" was printed in a miniscule font, barely visible to the naked eye as you can see from the image here. An explanatory remark accompanying the poem stated: "The text next to the watermark is readable through a magnifying glass." Ironically enough, this information was printed in a type that was only slightly larger than the poem's font.

So perhaps not many people took the time to sit down with the bank note and magnifying glass to read the poem. But still, it did become Van den Berg's most famous work. He received unexpected responses from people who adored the poetic touch he'd given the bill and who had learned the poem by heart. Literary organizations would ask him to "come and read his tenner." "My next poem has a circulation of three hundred million," he would say before reciting the twelve lines. Afterwards, fans would always come up to him and ask him to autograph their 10 guilder notes, but he never signed his kingfishers. "I think that's inappropriate," he told the Dutch national newspaper de Volkskrant. "Every bank note is owned by the Dutch Bank. Only my children and a few friends own a tenner with my signature and a dedication. This way I'm sure the signed bills will never become a commodity."

Unlike "In Flanders Fields," "IJsvogel" was written especially for the 10 guilder note, which might make one wonder, what is the relationship between the poem and the bank note? And how does the poem relate to money and the financial market? Well, let's have a look. The poem has no title printed above it, but the author's name is printed at the bottom. (Can you imagine paying with an official bank note with your name on it?!) Since no English version exists, I've translated the poem myself, with the original Dutch below:

dagger on sails in a jacket of cobalt
orange belly...but the blink of the eye sees
only briefly a blue flame

for higher hunters as blue as the water
for who dwells underneath (the roach, the bream)
the dull orange of dry leaves

until the twig shortly bows, bounces back,
wings turn out to be fins and the dagger
slashes around the scales, which

will soon make the branch shine, after the slaughter when
the weapon is scrubbed dry, and the glutton sits and
shockingly brings colour to the winter


dolk op wieken in een jasje van kobalt
buik oranje...maar de oogwenk ziet
even maar een blauwe vlam

voor hogere jagers zo blauw als het water
voor wie daaronder huist (de voorn, de bliek)
het grauw oranje van dor blad

totdat de twijg kort neerbuigt, terugveert,
vleugels vinnen blijken en de dolk
zich om de schubben schaart, waarvan

de tak straks glinstert, na de slacht wanneer
het wapen drooggepoetst, de slokop zit en
schokkend kleur geeft aan de winter

The poem describes the kingfisher's physical characteristics—its colors, the shape of its beak, its speed, its food, and its habitat. But the particular feature that Van den Berg attempts to capture is the way the bird hunts its prey: the kingfisher dives into the water, snatches a fish, and kills it by hitting it on a branch.

So what's the relationship between the poem and its medium? First of all, the bill's design corresponds with the description of the kingfisher in the poem: its main colors are blue and orange—loud tones that allow someone to distinguish it from other bills in a split second. Designer Drupsteen said in an interview, "You only need to catch a glimpse of it to recognise it immediately." This is comparable to spotting a blue bird "in the wink of an eye" and immediately identifying it a kingfisher. Also, an image of a stickleback fish, the kingfisher's number-one prey, can be found at the top right corner of the note. This corresponds with the poem's hunting theme.

At first sight a kingfisher appears to have little or nothing to do with finance, currency, banks or economics, right? Well, let’s take a closer look at that as well. The main theme—the kingfisher hunting its prey—is on the one hand portrayed as natural and inevitable. "This is simply the way mother nature works," the poem seems to say. This is comparable to how economic liberalism tends to regard the financial market: the free market moves and develops in an organic, natural way and shouldn't be disturbed by government intervention. In other words, "this is simply the way the market works." On the other hand, there is an implicitly judging voice present in the poem. Even poems without an explicit "I" consist of a narrator—a voyeur who observes and describes—and here the implied narrator is made most present by a gaze in the second line ("but the wink of the eye sees") and a personal observation ("shockingly brings colour to the winter") in the closing line.

That narrator's relationship to the poem's subject is also conducted via the aggressive, violent, and predatory words ("dagger," "flame," "hunters," "slashes," "slaughter," "weapon," and "shockingly") used to describe the bird's actions. The most explicitly expressed opinion of the bird's deeds, however, is the word "glutton" in line eleven, where the implied narrator associates the bird with someone who eats or consumes immoderate amounts of food and drink. A characteristic of a capitalist society, greed marks the actions of individuals handling the note but also commercial companies and banks. (I must add that the Dutch word "slokop" additionally connotes "swallow" and "gulp," referring to how kingfishers swallow their fish whole.)

So in the little drama suggested by the relationship between the poem and the banknote, who would be the kingfisher in our economic world and who the fish? The poem shows that all is a matter of perspective. From the perspective of the "higher hunters" looking down, the bird is "as blue as the water." Yet from the fish's point of view, looking up, the bird is a "dull orange of dry leaves." Also, line eight shows that looks can be deceiving: "wings turn out to be fins." Thus, the opposition or binary between predator and prey is not as straightforward as it might seem. The predator turns out to have similar characteristics as the prey (fin-like limbs) and is apparently able to achieve similar goals (moving through water).

The design of the note itself only reenforces the subject of perspective. Only by holding the bill in a certain angle towards the light does the kingfisher watermark become visible and the fragmented image of the stickleback become a whole. Similar to the birds of prey above and the fish below, the background determines the view. The birds high in the sky see the kingfisher's blue back in front of the blue water surface, while the fish see the kingfisher's orange belly against a backdrop of orange tree leaves. Likewise, the "higher hunters" regard the kingfisher as their prey, while the fish view the same kingfisher as their predator. Note that just like the rhetoric of social class or the business or banking world, perspective also entails the "level" you're on (high or low).

Predator-prey metaphors and animal comparisons are common in discussions of economics. For example, "greedy wolves," "sly foxes," and, in Dutch, "gehaaide" businesspeople ("gehaaid" meaning "shrewd" and the embedded word "haai" meaning "shark"). A decade after the publication of "IJsvogel," the ambiguous relation between predator and prey with regard to the economic market became an even more widespread metaphor due to the great success of Jeroen Smit's Dutch "financial thriller" De prooi (2008). The bestseller was quickly translated into English as The Perfect Prey (2009) and turned into a Dutch theatre piece (2012) and television series (2013). The book, which is based on real events, describes the collapse of the banking system and the financial crises and credit crunch triggered by the downfall of The Dutch bank ABN Amro. While citizens and customers initially were regarded as the bank's prey, in the end the bank actually fell prey to its own system. The blurb of Smit's book reads: "In little more than a decade, one of Europe's largest, longest established banks went from powerful predator to the perfect prey."

The publication of Van den Berg's poem via bank note was criticized in different ways. Some people were of the opinion that the Dutch Bank should have issued an open call for poems. Others protested against the use of a poem as an authenticity feature; poetry, they argued, doesn't belong on banknotes. Poet and critic René Puthaar stated: "A poem on a bank note is like an oiled water bird."

Van den Berg himself has also criticized the course of events. His concern was—how very appropriate—the amount of money he was paid. "The bank's economists had decided that a poet requires thirty hours to write a poem," he explained. "I have no idea where they got that number from. They had formulated an hourly rate, and their opinion on what a poet should earn per hour was—to put it mildly—quite modest." Van den Berg remarked that a typical fee for contract work is one percent of a project's costs, which in this case would have amounted to about 1.8 million guilders. But the Dutch Bank refused to discuss royalties. "I considered hiring a detective to find out how often people borrow a tenner from friends," Van den Berg joked. "That way I could have asked the Ministry of Education for loan payments, just as writers get for the books people borrow from the library. I say this in jest, but it does point out I wasn't content. Eventually we reached an acceptable agreement."

If there's a lesson to draw from this poem's story, it might be "It's all about the money." But perhaps that too depends on one's perspective—and the medium in which the poem was published. By now you might be asking yourself if "IJsvogel" ever got published in a book. It did indeed. In 1998 Libris published an anthology with a selection of poems by Dutch and Flemish poets. The title of that book? Poëzie verkoopt niet. Or, in English, Poetry Doesn't Sell.


Postscript

"In Flanders Fields" and "IJsvogel" are not the only poems that found their way to bank notes. Below are some other examples. Perhaps there are P&PC readers out there who can expand the list?
  • A poem by Nezahualcóyoltl on the 100 pesos note in Mexico
  • A verse from Alykul Osmonov's poem "Jenishbek" on the 200 som bank note in the Kyrgyz Republic
  • The poem "To My Comrades" by Stefan Stambolov on the Bulgarian 20 Lev bank note, and Pencho Slaveykov's "Song of Blood" on the 50 Lev bill 
  • A line from Tchernichovsky's poem "Oh, My Land, My Homeland" on the front of the 50 shekel note in Israel, and a line from "I Believe" on the back
  • The Australian ten dollar note has two poems printed on it: excerpts from Andrew Barton Paterson's "The Man from Snowy River" on one side and lines from Dame Mary Gilmore's "No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest" on the other

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Poetry Out Loud 2015

On Saturday, March 14, Willamette University once again played host to the final round of Oregon's Poetry Out Loud state competition, and P&PC was there as usual. We just can't stay away. In 2013 and 2014, we judged at the regional and state levels, and this year we judged at the regional level and then helped to convene a pre-competition luncheon discussion at W.U. along with last year's state winner Rosie Reyes, who came back from Oregon State University (where she is now a student) to share some poetry and her experiences representing Oregon at the national level in D.C. the past two years. We swapped stories about reading, memorizing, and reciting poems. We recited some poems. And we nibbled at our sandwiches over the protests of the butterflies fluttering in all of our stomachs.

This year, nine students from around the state— Gypsy Prince, Mitchell Lenneville, Sarah Dom- browsky, Jessica Nguyen, Anna Smiley, Atya-Sha Van Ness, Serena Morgan, Allegra Thatcher, and Riley Knowles—represented their regions as winners at the classroom, school, and regional levels. While final numbers for 2015 aren't yet in, the numbers from 2014 suggest that those nine are the tip of a very big iceberg. In 2014, more than 365,000 students, 2,300 schools, and 8,800 teachers participated in Poetry Out Loud nationwide, making the contest—now celebrating its tenth year—one of the most successful poetry outreach programs we can think of. We're in awe at what the Poetry Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and state and local arts agencies like the Oregon Arts Commission have managed to make happen in the past decade. Tell your Congressional representatives to keep funding to the NEA flowing so that programs like this one keep going on!

This year, the Hatfield Room of W.U.'s Library was packed with families, teachers, students, and dignitaries and celebrities including the Oregon Arts Commission's executive director Brian Rogers, several OAC commissioners, Poetry Foundation ambassador Justine Haka, and Erika Lauren Aguillar, an international exchange student at the Oregon School for the Deaf who performed her American Sign Language version of Dorothy Parker's "Love Song" during intermission. We here at P&PC loved all the performances (especially Jessica Nguyen's rendition of Robert Creeley's "For Love"), and we've no doubt that judges Laurence Overmire, Ann Peck McBride, and Marty Hughley had a heck of a time coming to a decision. And it was close, coming down to a tie breaker mechanism between Gypsy Prince of the Academy of Arts and Academics in Springfield and Riley Knowles of West Linn High School.

In the end, Prince (pictured here) took first place on the strength of her final poem, Gregory Djanikian's "Mrs. Caldera's House of Things," and she will represent the Beaver State at the national competition taking place April 27-29 in Washington, D.C. (Let's give a big P&PC shout-out to Prince's teacher Scott Crowell!) Prince is a three-time school champion and was one of last year's state finalists as well. She performed William Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" in round one, Margaret Atwood's "Backdrop Addresses Cowboy," in round two, and then Djanikian's poem in round three. Knowles (no relation to Bey and pictured on the right in the photo accompanying the second paragraph above) performed Gwendolyn Brooks's "A Song in the Front Yard," Sylvia Plath's "Blackberrying," and Ernest Dowson's "April Love." As runner-up, she will represent Oregon in the event that Prince cannot.

Congratulations to all of this year's competitors, and thank you to all of the students, teachers, administrators, judges, and sponsors who keep this event on our Spring calendar. We are inspired by your dedication, your abilities, and your energy—and we'll see you next year. We'll leave you with the following video in which Prince recites Djanikian's poem and in which Deborah Vaughn, the Arts Education/Poetry Out Loud Coordinator of the Oregon Arts Commission, announces the judge's final results. Happy viewing—and good luck in D.C., Gypsy!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Daring Greatly: The Poetry of Cadillac and Teddy Roosevelt

Imagine our surprise to find a poem (pictured here) as the primary text in a full-page ad for Cadillac gracing the back cover of the the February 20 issue of Entertainment Weekly. ("Neil Patrick Harris Goes Full Oscar" is the lead cover story, btw, and Annie Lennox's Grammy performance is at the center of "The Bullseye.") Part of Cadillac's "Dare Greatly" campaign, the ten-stanza poem floating mid-air between two buildings adapts a passage from Teddy Roosevelt's speech "Citizenship In a Republic," which the Bull Moose delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910. Here's that passage:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 
This ad raises a number of interesting questions, no? Are the "writers" at Cadillac pulling a Kenneth Goldsmith who, in his book Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, argues that contemporary writers "confronted with an unprecedented amount of texts and language" in databases and other electronic and digital forms now "have the opportunity to move beyond the creation of new texts and manage, parse, appropriate, and reconstruct those that already exist"? Perhaps someone (or a team of someones) from Goldsmith's famous class on the topic of uncreative writing at the University of Pennsylvania has found gainful employment at the advertising agency working for Cadillac and is trying to "reconceive creativity, authorship, and their relationship to language" via General Motors and not from the innovative artistic fringe? Are these writers daring greatly? And how, exactly, are they managing, parsing, appropriating, and reconstructing previously existing texts for the commercial marketplace?

We here at the P&PC Office can't help but also think of Virginia Jackson's Dickinson's Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading, where, in a compelling little anecdote, Jackson presents something of a similar situation. On October 17, 1851, Jackson explains, Dickinson wrote a letter to her brother Austin that ended with a "poem" that Dickinson did not cut into standard poetic lines but that she presented, instead, as rhyming prose. So far as Poetry & Popular Culture can discern from the facsimile in Jackson's book, that poem read:
There is another sky, Ever serene and fair, and there is another sun-shine, tho it be darkness there—Never mind faded forests, Austin, never mind silent fields—Here is a little forest, whose leaf is ever green; here is a brighter garden, where not a frost has been; in its unfading flowers I hear the bright bee hum; prithee, my brother, into my garden come!
Editors of Dickinson's work, Jackson goes on to note, published "There is another sky" as prose in 1894, 1924, and 1931, but beginning with Thomas H. Johnson's The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Including variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts (1955) it began to be printed in conventional lines:

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields—
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,

Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum;
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

The history of "There is another sky" prompts a number of questions from Jackson about when the poem in fact became a poem. "Was it never ... a poem," she wonders at one point, "since it was never written as verse? Was it always ... a poem, because it could always have been read as verse? Or was it only ... a poem after it was printed as verse?" Later on, she continues with related questions: "In view of what definition of poetry would Dickinson's brother have understood the end of his sister's letter to him as a poem? Did it only become a poem once it left his hands as a letter? According to what definition of lyric poetry did Dickinson's editor ... understand a lyric poem to be if it was not the passage at the end of the 1851 letter? Can a text not intended as a lyric become one? Can a text once read as a lyric be unread? If so, then what is—or what was—a lyric?"

So, let's go ahead and rephrase Jackson's set of questions with the Cadillac ad and Teddy Roosevelt's words in mind. Was the Rough Rider's speech never a poem since it was never written as verse? Was it always a poem, because it could always have been read as verse? Or was it only a poem after it was printed as verse on the back of Entertainment Weekly in 2015? In view of what definition of poetry would Roosevelt's listeners have understood his speech at the Sorbonne as a poem? Did it only become a poem once it was delivered? According to what definition of poetry did Roosevelt's editor (here Cadillac) understand a lyric poem to be if it was not the passage in Roosevelt's Sorbonne speech? Can a text not intended as a lyric become one? Can a text once read as a lyric be unread? If so, then what is—or what was—a lyric?

Your five page paper on how to best read Cadillac's poem (or is it Roosevelt's poem?) "It Is Not the Critic" is due on Monday. Dare greatly—and make your criticism count!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Why Audiences Matter: Lorelai's Version of "I Will Always Love You" (Season 7, Episode 20 [May 1, 2007])

In the final season of the Gilmore Girls, Lorelai sets out to sing Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" to her daughter Rory, who is on the verge of graduating from college. Then Luke walks in. Grab a hankie and watch this unexpectedly touching illustration of P&PC's poetics at work.