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.

Friday, June 27, 2014

"Henry Horseworth Longfellow": The Poetry of Mister Ed (Season 2, Episode 23)

Note: In this episode—"The Beachcomber," aired on April 1, 1962—Mister Ed feels rejected, "real down, and beat," and runs away from home to join an artist colony full of beatniks. There are three poems for your viewing and listening pleasure: the first is at 10:25 in Part One (a poem by a beatnik about rejection); the second is at 1:25 in Part Two (Mr. Ed's poem about rejection); and the third is at 11:25 in Part Two (Mr. Ed's poem about how good his life is). Happy viewing!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Poetry of Hogan's Goat Pizza

As you know, P&PC has a vast network of lookouts, helping hands, affiliates, fellow travelers, and owl-eyed spotters scouring the American landscape for material so that we can bring you your weekly fix and simultaneously try, in our own little way, to goad on the members of that school of poetry-think that perpetuates the myth (as William Logan did this past Sunday in the New York Times) that poetry is "loathed by many." Indeed! Well, if we here at P&PC try to goad 'em on, then the menu (pictured here) at Hogan's Goat Pizza of 5222 NE Sacramento in Portland, Oregon, could be said to take a more hircine approach to the issue.

We got the menu (not the pizza and definitely not the goat) hand-delivered from our friend Cheryl before she left Salem for the more enticing climes of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She'd been hanging out with all the hipsters in Portland (many of whom apparently model their facial hair after the billy pictured on the menu). She'd gotten hungry. She stopped by Hogan's Goat Pizza for a pie and, like probably everyone else, wondered who was Hogan and what was a goat pizza.

Well, Cheryl didn't have far to look for a partial answer, as the first panel inside the menu's cover explains that "Hogan's Goat" comes from a nineteenth-century song. (For one version of the song, click here.) Here are the lyrics as the menu (pictured below) presents them, complete with capitalization and punctuation issues:
Old Hogan's Goat ... Was feeling fine ... He
ate my shirts right off the line ... I took a
stick ... And broke his back ... And tied him
to a railroad track ... A speeding train ...
Came speeding by ... Old Hogan's Goat was
sure to die ... He gave a shriek ... A shriek of
pain ... Coughed up the shirts and FLAGGED
DOWN THE TRAIN!'
When we first saw this version of "Hogan's Goat," we didn't think it was a song—right?—since the pizza joint didn't print it, as song lyrics are traditionally printed, in lines and stanzas. Rather, Hogan's Goat Pizza printed it to look like a "poemulation"—the term that Sinclair Lewis used to describe the verses written by fake newspaper poet T. Cholmondeley (Chum) Frink in the novel Babbitt (1922), verses that were formatted to look like prose but rhymed like poetry. While Lewis may have coined the term, we're pretty sure he didn't invent the form. Among the poemulation's most esteemed and prolific practitioners was James Metcalfe, who, in the 1940s and 1950s (after his career in the FBI), penned hundreds of 'em for Chicago's newspaper The Times. (You can find lots of Metcalfe's poemulations preserved in old poetry scrapbooks.)

Before Metcalfe, and as early as 1912, "Uncle" Walt Mason of Emporia, Kansas, was publishing poemulations as well (many of which also found their way into poetry scrapbooks; you can check out nearly two hundred pages of Mason's poemulations here). And, as we discussed back in 2009 in relation to a discussion in Virginia Jackson's book Dickinson's Misery, it's quite possible that Emily Dickinson could be said to have written in poemulation form before the Civil War—around the same time ... wait for it ... that the lyrics for "Hogan's Goat" were being written.

So what's the upshot of all this? Well, for starters, it's possible that "Hogan's Goat" was a poemulation before it was a song. And if it wasn't a poemulation first, well, it now is—at least in the version that Hogan's Goat Pizza prints in the menu. In fact, when Cheryl delivered the menu to the P&PC Office, she delivered what she thought was in fact a poem; she'd skipped over the restaurant's introductory words that insist on calling it a "song" even though it isn't, and she let the rhyming and lack of musical accompaniment direct her reading of it as the poem—er, poemulation—it is. She may not have loved it as much as the pizza (which she said was excellent, btw). But she certainly didn't "loathe" it as William Logan says poetry is "loathed by many." Nope. We in the P&PC Office suspect that if there's any loathing going on in the poetry world, it's not among non-readers of poetry but among poets and critics like Logan who are bound and determined to imagine that the rest of the world somehow has the spare energy to loathe what they in particular do. Indeed, if they'd just adjust their definition of what a "poem"—even a poemulation—might be, we think they'd be a lot happier. Less narcissistic, perhaps. But happier.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Meeting Alice Corbin Henderson (1881-1949) at Willamette University's Zena Farm

One of our favorite parts of Willamette University is Zena Farm—a five-acre, student-operated farm that is part of a larger, 305-acre property that includes a forest and a small observatory located in the Eola Hills about ten miles west of Salem proper. (Pretty awesome, right? How many other liberal arts universities do you know that can boast both a farm and a forest?) Overseen and managed by W.U.'s Sustainability Institute, the farm is a laboratory for all sorts of cool learning experiences. It sells tasty eats at the campus farm stand on Jackson Plaza during the school year. And it's also the site of the Summer Institute in Sustainable Agriculture—a residential, credit granting program that mixes hands-on learning with field trips, independent projects, and academic study in the theories and philosophies of sustainable agriculture.

We were out at the farm yesterday having lunch with students (including Shayna and Lori from last semester's Introduction to Creative Writing class) and the summer program leader Jennifer Johns, and we happened to notice the handwritten poem (pictured here) tacked to the side of the refrigerator. It's called "Kristen's Grace" and reads:

The silver rain, the shining sun
The fields where scarlet poppies run
And all the ripples of the wheat
Are in the bread that we now eat.

And when we sit at every meal
And say our grace we always feel
That we are eating rain and sun
And fields where scarlet poppies run.

For us, the poem's "scarlet poppies" immediately recalled John McCrae's famous World War I poem "In Flanders Fields," and so, intrigued by the apparent distance between World War I and what's going on at Zena, we set the office interns to work. Who was "Kristen," and was this her poem or her grace—or both? Might the poppies really link back to McCrae and World War I? And, if so, how does that affect how we read the poem today, especially in relation to the farm's mission? Well, we haven't found out who Kristen is, but the interns have discovered that while this is her grace, Kristen isn't the actual author of the poem. Indeed, it's a verse not uncommonly cited and used by sustainable foodie types—and sometimes by feminist types who see in the scarlet poppies a figure for menstruation—and it's usually titled "The Harvest" and attributed to Alice Corbin Henderson.

So who, you might be wondering, is Alice Corbin Henderson? Well, if it's the Alice Corbin Henderson we think it is, "Winter Harvest" not only links us to McCrae but also to Poetry magazine, where Henderson (1881-1949) was an editor and close associate of Harriet Monroe in the magazine's early years, co-editing with Monroe three editions (1917, 1923, 1932) of The New Poetry anthology. Henderson graduated from high school in Chicago and entered the University of Chicago, but due to her susceptibility to tuberculosis, she relocated to Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans for the completion of undergraduate school. (Henderson's mother died of tuberculosis when Alice was three.) Upon graduation, Alice moved back to Chicago where she took classes at Chicago's Academy of Fine Arts, in the process meeting and subsequently marrying William Penhallow Henderson, an instructor at the Academy and a notable Arts and Crafts artist who, among other things, was working on Frank Lloyd Wright's Midway Gardens Project. Alice worked with Poetry and she also wrote poetry (her first book Linnet Songs was published in 1898 when she was seventeen years old).

Because of Alice's persistent health concerns, however, the Hendersons relocated to the more lung-friendly climes of New Mexico, where they settled in Santa Fe, becoming central figures in the area's art scene that included Witter Bynner, D.H. Lawrence, and eventually Georgia O'Keeffe. By 1925, at least, poets were meeting weekly at the Henderson residence to read and discuss their work, and it's quite likely that Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, and W.H. Auden dropped by for one or more of these meetings over the years; we'd bet a considerable sum that on his cross-country travels—some on foot—Vachel Lindsay did too. (As we know, New York and Chicago weren't the only centers of modern art activity in the U.S.)

Alice continued to work for Poetry from Santa Fe, but that work—and her own poetry—became less and less the focus of her attention, as she and William became increasingly interested in Native and Chicano cultures and histories. She and William were cofounders of the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs (1922) and the Indian Arts Fund (1925). Many native artists visited their home. William produced and acted in plays to support Indian drought relief efforts in the 1920s. Alice helped organize the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, and she became a librarian and curator for the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art—housed in a building designed by William. (Alice, btw, was also the editor of New Mexico: Guide to the Colorful State [1940], one of the American Guide series books sponsored by the Federal Writers' Project during the Depression.)

That's all very interesting stuff, you might be thinking to yourself, but what about those scarlet poppies in "The Harvest"? Well, we can not only make a good argument that Henderson's poppies do, indeed, directly reference the poppies that McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" made synonymous with World War I, but that this reference also makes "The Harvest" a stunning poem about our relationship to food sources and one of the most surprising poems that we've come across in a while. During World War I, Alice worked as publicity chair for the Women's Auxiliary of the State Board of Defense and, like many poets whom we don't typically view as "political" today (Sara Teasdale most immediately comes to mind), Alice wrote about the war as well. Here is her poem "A Litany in the Desert," for example, which first appeared in the April 1918 issue of the Yale Review:

I.

     On the other side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains there is a great welter of steel and flame. I have read that it is so. I know nothing of it here.
     On the other side of the water there is terrible carnage. I have read that it is so. I know nothing of it here.
     I do not know why men fight and die. I do not know why men sweat and slave. I know nothing of it here.

II.

     Out of the peace of your great valleys, America, out of the depth and silence of your deep canyons,
     Out of the wide stretch of yellow corn-fields, out of the stealthy sweep of your rich prairies,
     Out of the high mountain peaks, out of the intense purity of your snows,
     Invigorate us, O America.
     Out of the deep peace of your breast, out of the sure strength of your loins,
     Recreate us, O America.
     Not from the smoke and the fever and fret, not from the welter of furnaces, from the fierce melting-pots of cities;
     But from the quiet fields, from the little places, from the dark lamp-lit nights—from the plains, from the cabins, from the little house in the mountains,
     Breathe strength upon us:
     And give us the young men who will make us great.

From one perspective, it's kind of amazing to think that the same person who wrote "The Harvest" also wrote "A Litany in the Desert" and that a "modern" poet was moving back and forth between the rhyming quatrains of the former verse and the long, Whitman-like, Sandburg-like lines of the latter. But the spirit linking them—the faith in the local (what Vachel Lindsay called "the new localism"), the connection between the social and environmental, the suspicion that modern urban life separates the human being from her food source and leads to environmental and social catastrophe—comes from something of the same place, does it not?

So here's the kicker. Setting "The Harvest" in its historical context (World War I), authorial context ("A Litany in the Desert"), and philosophical/ethical framework reveals "The Harvest" to be a much more sobering poem than it initially appears, and much less optimistic than "A Litany in the Desert." In fact, it's a downright gruesome couple of quatrains, probably written after the war, about what we eat and where our food comes from. Indeed, Henderson invests the bread of the poem not just with natural phenomena ("rain and sun"), but also—as represented by the "scarlet poppies" that McCrae's verse made so famous—with the blood of modern war. This is not a poem about menstruation. Rather, it is a poem about how the bread that we eat "at every meal" contains the the war's dead, both way back then and in the present moment of the poem in which, as line four says, we "now eat." The "harvest" of the poem's title thus refers to the wheat mentioned in stanza one and to the harvest of death (see Timothy H. O'Sullivan's famous Civil War photo of that same title). If you compare this view of nature with the view of nature and its purifying forces in Whitman's "This Compost," you'll get a sense of just how shocking we find "The Harvest" to be. Indeed, when we now read "The Harvest" in the P&PC Office, we aren't finding ourselves saying grace. Rather, we find ourselves asking for some.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Toward a Stray Cat Ethics of Poetry Criticism

Meet Bella and Athens, the P&PC Office cats. We adopted them last Fall shortly after our former friend and companion Stella reached the end of her nineteen years. (Regular P&PC readers met Stella here.) We weren't entirely sure we were ready to replace Stella, but the office got so empty so quickly that we just couldn't bear it, and so down we trooped to Salem Friends of Felines and came home with these two adorable stray tuxedos. At the time, Bella (on the left) was a little over a year old, and Athens (on the right) was eight months. They're awesome—a combined twenty pounds of confusion, excitement, energy, and curiosity that has made the office a lively and unpredictable place over the last several months.

We here at P&PC love John Keats's poem "To Mrs. Reynolds's Cat":
Cat! who hast passed thy grand climacteric,
   How many mice and rats hast in thy days
   Destroyed? How many tit-bits stolen? Gaze
With those bright languid segments green, and prick
Those velvet ears - but prithee do not stick
   Thy latent talons in me, and up-raise
   Thy gentle mew, and tell me all thy frays
Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.
Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists -
   For all thy wheezy asthma, and for all
Thy tail's tip is nicked off, and though the fists
   Of many a maid have given thee many a maul,
Still is that fur as soft as when the lists
   In youth thou enteredst on glass-bottled wall.     
Imagine our surprise, then, when Athens—clearly the poet of the pair—began suffering from the "wheezy asthma" mentioned in Keats's poem. We took her to the vet. He put her on prednisone. That helped for a while, but she has since had two acute attacks that landed her listless and drooling in the emergency vet's oxygen chambers. We haven't yet purchased the little AeroKat inhaler that's been recommended—our non-advertising-based non-revenue has us working on a petty slim budget—but we think that, following an increase in her meds, we've finally got things under control. Wheezy is now doing just fine, and the office is clattering with the noise of tinfoil balls, feather toys, and the general racket of Bella and Athens tearing after each other and rolling from room to room leaving tufts of fur hovering in the air behind them.

Stella didn't require much from the vet, so we've never spent much time looking around the waiting room. Waiting for Athens, however, we've had a chance to peruse the decor at Steve Swart's Capitol Veterinary Clinic in Salem, and we've discovered that if Athens does indeed have a little poetic breathing disorder, then she's going to the right place, as Swart's waiting room is a not unpoetic place. In the lower left-hand corner of the framed collage pictured in the previous paragraph, for example, you'll find Francis Witham's "Stray Cat" (pictured here) done up in blue calligraphy. While it doesn't have a whole lot in common with Keats's sonnet, it does eerily recall William Ernest Henley's "Invictus"—and not just because it's got sixteen lines of iambic tetrameter just like "Invictus" does, but also because those first six lines appear to be reworking the language of Henley's poem. The famous last lines of "Invictus"—
It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
—become the lines "The master of my destiny" and "Oh, what unhappy twist of fate" in Witham's poem. Witham even recycles Henley's "straight gate" and turns it into "my gate." Here, then, is the opening of "Stray Cat":
   Oh, what unhappy twist of fate
Has brought you, homeless to my gate?
   The gate where once another stood
To beg for shelter, warmth and food.
   For from that day I ceased to be
      The master of my destiny.
In Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, Catherine Robson argues that "those who learn a work by heart and recite it frequently come to feel that it belongs to them, not the author of its being, or, even further, that it actually speaks for them." Moreover, in her Afterword, which studies the recitation and memorization of "Invictus" in particular, Robson claims that "at every turn 'Invictus' offers reciters an open opportunity to understand its expressions not as the contingent utterances of somebody else in a particular historical moment or geographical site, but rather as entirely personal to themselves in their own time of trial."

Witham's "Stray Cat" certainly offers one more piece of evidence for the far-reaching legacy of the memorized poem in popular culture, but "Stray Cat" extends the legacy that Robson maps in compelling ways, suggesting there might be a history of how the memorized poem has led to the creation of new poems as well. Indeed, Witham doesn't let "Invictus" speak for her but creates a companion poem to it through which she herself can speak. In other words, the probable memorization of "Invictus" has become a doorway to Authorship for Witham, and some of the very traits of "Stray Cat" that might be turn-offs for some literary critics ("twist of fate," "master of my destiny," etc.) are the product not of Witham's inability to use language, or some other deficiency on her part, but, rather, the product of her relationship to Henley's poem and her experience learning in an education system that told her that poems like Henley's were valuable enough to learn by heart.

Thus, the "badness" or the "goodness" of "Stray Cat" is not Witham's goodness or badness alone. It is also Henley's goodness or badness. And it is also the goodness or badness of the education system where Witham learned it—or perhaps where she was even forced to memorize it and thus understand it as a valuable poem to know and on which to model her own poems. That is, just as it takes a village to raise a child (or a cat), it also takes a village to produce a poem. Rather than keep those poems outside the gates of critical understanding, we here at P&PC prefer to side with the ethical poetics that Witham herself metaphorizes at the end of "Stray Cat": "Well...don't just stand there...come on in!"