Whatever happened to poetry? Why don’t most of us read it anymore? Can you name three prominent poets? In his book, Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, Mike Chasar chronicles a time not so very long ago (the first half of the 20th century) when average people consumed, created and cared about poetry. I asked Mr. Chasar for an interview and this is the result.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Mike. You tell us that your book “traces the forgotten and often anonymous readers and writers who sustained and fueled the culture of popular poetry in twentieth-century America.” Can you tell us how you classify “popular poetry”? Would some of the work of Robert Frost fall into this category? Ogden Nash? Dorothy Parker?
Thanks for your interest in Everyday Reading, Hope! Generally speaking, I’m curious about two types of popular poetry: poems written intentionally for circulation in the popular sphere, oftentimes with mass audiences in mind; and poems not necessarily written for the popular sphere but that for one reason or another become popular, sometimes with the “consent” of their authors but very frequently not.
As far as Everyday Reading goes, the first group would include poems printed in newspapers and mass-market periodicals, poems broadcast on old-time radio shows, Burma-Shave poems that appeared on billboards to advertise shaving cream, Hallmark greeting cards, and so on. For the most part, these are poems that wouldn’t find their ways into the classroom or a poetry anthology but that nevertheless had (and in many cases still have) extraordinary appeal. I’m interested in the poems themselves and how they function as poetic texts, but also how people wrote, used and transformed them, and how they intersected with literary culture. Everyday Reading argues that these types of poems are more complex than one would initially think, that the readers consuming them do so in unexpectedly sophisticated ways, and that the dynamics of popular culture as we know it were partly worked out in relation to this type of poetry.
So, Everyday Reading focuses on how people kept poems in scrapbooks, becoming amateur editors of personal anthologies that became artistic projects in their own right. It delves into the world of nationally broadcast radio poetry shows and looks at an archive of fan letters to find out why people were so invested in the poetry featured on those shows. It argues that Burma-Shave advertising jingles display an unexpected literariness including some of the characteristics of avant-garde writing. These are just a few of the many ways to tap back into the thriving but by and large forgotten culture of popular poetry from the late nineteenth century through the Cold War. During this time, poetry wasn’t just in mass-market publications and on the radio, but it also appeared on pillows, candy boxes, bird-food tins, postcards, calling cards, business cards, handkerchiefs, table runners, matchbooks, pin-up girly posters, wall hangings, trivets, dinnerware, fliers, brochures, calendars and more. While writing Everyday Reading, I knew that I wouldn’t get a chance to study all of the different instances of poetry in popular culture, so I chose a few key examples that I hoped would model some of the ways that we might read and better understand popular poetry as a whole. Then, to help make up for all the material I had to leave out, I started Poetry & Popular Culture (http://mikechasar.blogspot.com/) as a companion project. It’s been going now for about six years.
All of that said, I’m also curious about poems that weren’t designed for mass publication or popular audiences but that somehow become popular. In the first chapter of Everyday Reading, for example, I showcase a poetry scrapbook assembled in the 1920s by a young woman named Doris Ashley, who was the daughter of a New England sawyer. She had a very eclectic taste in poetry and collected poems by modernist poets as well as poems by newspaper poets whom we’ve long forgotten. For instance, she (or someone she knew) typed out a copy of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and collaged it with several other poems from high culture and popular culture in a way that bridges or confounds the high/low divide that we assume structured how people read and how poetry circulated. You can probably think of similar examples from the current day: how Don Draper reads Frank O’Hara on Mad Men, how Walt Whitman figures into Breaking Bad, how Piper in Orange Is the New Black talks about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, how the serial killer on The Fall reads T.S. Eliot. Whether or not these poems were designed for mass media and popular audiences, they’ve become popular, and I’m interested in the hows and whys of that process. So, to answer your question, yes, Frost, Nash, and Parker could be popular poetry – if they appear in popular contexts. (If you want to go looking for it, you’ll find Parker’s “Resume” written in red paint on the walls of the Jump Street Chapel in the old 1980s Johnny Depp TV show 21 Jump Street.)
Don Draper reads Frank O’Hara:
Walt Whitman’s role in Breaking Bad:
Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” in Orange is the New Black:
You discuss Edgar Guest in your book. Please tell us about him. Does he have a twenty-first-century counterpart?
Edgar Guest was perhaps the most prolific and popular American poet of the twentieth century. He wrote a poem a day for the Detroit Free Press newspaper for thirty years straight, was known as the “people’s poet,” and his poems were syndicated to over 250 newspapers, so that his poems had a daily circulation of about 10,000,000. (Yes, you read that number correctly!) He had radio, film, and television contracts. His publisher issued his books in press runs of 100,000. He once reported an annual income of $128,000 – the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $1.6 million! People kept entire scrapbooks devoted to his poetry. He was a popular speaker, and he was even pegged as a possible replacement for Will Rogers; studios set him up in Hollywood for $3,500 per week while they tried (unsuccessfully, I’d add) to figure out how to capitalize on his popularity. A handwritten version of his poem “America” sold for $50,000 as part of a war-bond fundraising event in 1942, and the University of Michigan awarded him an honorary degree before it awarded Robert Frost an honorary degree. (Chrysler, by the way, recently used Guest’s poem “See It Through” as the basis for a TV commercial designed by the Wieden+Kennedy advertising firm, which did similar poetry-related spots for Levi’s and Nike.)
As popular as Guest once was, virtually no critical history of American poetry mentions him, and no scholarly articles have taken up the subject of his poetry – in part, I think, because his career starkly contradicts conventional wisdom that poetry can’t sell, that it was not a popular art form in the twentieth century, and that ordinary readers didn’t and still don’t care much about it. What’s more interesting for me than Guest himself, though, is the crazy-ass poetry rabbit hole that opens up once you start viewing American poetry from his perspective. As it turns out, Guest wasn’t the only popular, money-making poet – not even the only one in his home town! Detroit was also home to Anne Campbell, sometimes called “Eddie Guest’s Rival,” who, for the crosstown Detroit News, wrote a poem a day six days a week for twenty years, producing in the process more than 7,500 poems and making up to $10,000 per year from her poetry’s syndication (that’s about $140,000 per year adjusted for inflation). Other poets like Helen Welshimer, Berton Braley, James Metcalfe, Ethel Romig Fuller, Don Marquis, and Walt Mason seemed to have had little trouble making more than a buck off of their verse as well.
Looking out from there, Guest’s publisher, Reilly & Britton (later Reilly & Lee) – based in Chicago virtually right down the street from Poetry magazine – was also making a pretty good go of it. In addition to Guest’s books, for example, Reilly also issued the poetry anthology Tony’s Scrap Book, an annual print spin-off of Tony Wons’s popular CBS poetry radio show R Yuh Listenin’? that sold over 225,000 copies in 1932 alone. (Wons, by the way, reported making $2,000 per month including royalties from Tony’s Scrap Book; that’s the not-too-shabby, inflation-adjusted equivalent of $400,000 per year.) I honestly don’t know how many more such examples are out there, but it’s clear from just these few that our histories of poetry and its place in American culture are far from complete.
I don’t think there’s a 21st century counterpart to Guest, Campbell, and the others I’ve mentioned, although it would be thought-provoking to see the tax returns for writers like Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, and other well-known or “celebrity” poets making a living off of poetry and poetry-related activities today. That said, the poetry economy has changed drastically since the first half of the twentieth century. In Guest’s time, few poets made a living by teaching at colleges and universities, and M.F.A. programs didn’t exist to fund aspiring poets via scholarships or fellowships for two or three years at a time. It would be interesting to tally up all the money spent on salaries for faculty poets and funding for aspiring poets, not to mention grants, reading fees, residencies, and awards, and use that to help assess the changed poetry landscape and the way the money flows through it. One thing’s for certain, and that’s that the creative writing industry – a development of the past fifty years, really – is a big business, and while poets aren’t as prominent in the daily paper as they once were, they’re finding financial support in ways that probably would have awed Guest and his contemporaries.
You discuss personally assembled poetry scrapbooks. Where did you find these, and what do they look like? Is the current popularity of scrapbooking very much the same thing?
Yes, Chapter 1 of Everyday Reading focuses on poetry scrapbooks. People commonly “edited” their own poetry anthologies by cutting out and saving poems from newspapers, magazines, and other sources, oftentimes carefully editing them via theme, topic, author, or other rubric, and extending the older practice of commonplace book keeping into the era of print mass media. My oldest album dates to before the Civil War, but most were assembled between the Civil War and World War II. Some are very large – hundreds of pages long containing thousands of poems. Some were assembled inside of blank books, and others converted existing book structures by pasting poems right over the printed page. They mix literary and popular poetry. They sometimes include pictures and other design elements and – especially in the twentieth century – many use the page not just as a pragmatic storage or filing mechanism but as an open compositional field in which to creatively orchestrate poems and images, so that the form became an expressive part of vernacular culture as well. Lots of American authors kept scrapbooks – I briefly look at a page from a young Anne Sexton’s scrapbook, for example, and other poets like Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, Marianne Moore, and Carl Sandburg either kept them or used them in one way or another – but in Everyday Reading I’m more interested in collections assembled by unknown, ordinary, or uncredentialed readers. Such albums provide a fascinating record of people’s reading practices. They suggest how ordinary readers cared deeply about the poetry they read. And they suggest an ongoing, oftentimes critical engagement with that poetry.
I collected about 150-175 such scrapbooks by buying them on eBay over the course of a half-decade or so, and I currently use some of them in my classes. Not only are they interesting in their own right, but as a whole they also provide a compelling point of comparison by which to assess our literacy practices today – how we sort and save things online, how we sample texts into larger projects, and how the cut and paste culture of things like popular music, mix tapes, fan ’zines and so on finds a historical precedent in the scrapbook. Many of the albums I have are falling apart. Many weren’t designed with posterity in mind. And I’d love to find a way to digitally preserve them and thus make them available to the public.
My sense is that scrapbooking today is quite different, largely because poetry scrapbooks focus on poetry and related items (things that have significance for the compiler, perhaps, but aren’t about the compiler), while today’s scrapbooks focus on things expressly about the compiler and the compiler’s life. Poetry scrapbooks are miniature libraries, monuments to reading, and ways of thinking about life via the literary landscape, while today’s scrapbooks are life memorials, monuments to a person or a self, and ways of thinking about how one grows up and what one’s life journey has been. Scrapbooks today construct idealized life narratives (there’s never anything bad in a scrapbook – bad report cards, documents of illness or failure, records of broken relationships, etc.), and that seems to me a very different project than assembling a library of poems and “editing” those poems in creative ways.
You refer to “old-time radio poetry shows.” I had never heard of those. What are some examples of them?
In the late 1920s and early 30s, many American radio networks experimented with broadcasting poetry. A.M. Sullivan hosted the New Poetry Hour. Eve Merriam ran Out of the Ivory Tower, which featured interviews with politically progressive poets like Muriel Rukeyser, Kenneth Fearing, and Genevieve Taggard. As early as 1926, David Ross was broadcasting readings of Christopher Marlowe, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Matthew Arnold, and Robert Frost. John Holland read poetry regularly on the Little Brown Church of the Air. Don McNeill read poetry on The Breakfast Club. So on and so forth.
From what I can determine – the archives for old radio are sketchy and incomplete – the two most popular poetry radio shows were Between the Bookends with host Ted Malone and R Yuh Listenin’? with host Tony Wons, both of which read poetry over the air and fielded poem requests from listeners in what amounted to some of the first “long-distance dedications.” Between the Bookends was so popular that, at the height of its popularity, it received over 20,000 fan letters per month – per month! – and word of its cancellation at least once led to outpourings from fans that kept the program on air. Both shows also had successful print tie-ins; as I mentioned earlier, Wons edited Tony’s Scrap Book, an annual anthology of verse that he’d featured on air, and Malone edited a similar anthology, Ted Malone’s Scrapbook, plus a magazine version of the radio show in Good Housekeeping, where he served as poetry editor from 1940-1944. (At one point, the Library of Congress Poetry Division designated Malone “The Voice of Poetry.”) I think that Bookends is especially important because Malone actively solicited poetry from his listeners. His reliance on user-generated content thus made him one of the pioneers of that aspect of popular culture and the mass media today – American Idol, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. We don’t normally think of poetry playing an important role in the development of mass media, but it certainly did during this period in history.
Not unpredictably, Harriet Monroe at Poetry didn’t like these types of programs. She described them as “numerous impossibles reading their maudlin verses to invisible audiences of millions.” (Even she acknowledged that poetry had “audiences of millions.”) In the last part of Chapter Two, I try to make some of those audiences less invisible. At some point when I was researching Malone and Bookends, I came upon an archive of fan letters sent to Malone at the height of his popularity during the Great Depression. They’re fascinating documents. Some of them are long, vulnerable, truly heart-breaking confessions of Depression-Era hardship, social isolation, illness, and abandonment. As it turns out, they’re moving documents for how they talk about poetry, too – both the poetry broadcast on Bookends and the poems that readers were sending to Malone for possible inclusion on the show. Poetry was immensely meaningful to people, and so I spend some time in the book thinking through just how and why it was so meaningful – how it even appears to have saved some people’s lives.
You make the point that in certain eras most poetry circulated outside of books. Of what periods was that true, and is it the case today?
I think it’s true for all periods of history. Poetry was first an oral form that didn’t need books. Then it circulated on broadsides, in manuscript, in newspapers, in magazines, on the radio, and in all of the ways that I mentioned earlier. Walt Mason, the successful, Edgar-Guest-like poet from Kansas, once described what he saw happening to newspaper poems in the following way: “A man,” he said, “sees in the newspaper a clever rime full of hope and encouragement, and he cuts it out and shows it to his friends, and carries it in his pocket-book, and takes it home and reads it to his family, and his wife pastes it in the scrap-book for future reference.” Nowhere along the “life cycle” of that poem does the published book figure into the equation – neither as source nor as destination. This is true today as well. Poetry gets far more circulation via radio (think Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac), TV (think Def Poetry, shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, or even commercials like the Chrysler one I mentioned earlier), forms of popular music, and certainly now the Internet than it does from books, especially “slim volumes” by single authors. We have so privileged the “book of poems” as a sign of a poet’s legitimacy, however, and we have so idealized moments that are devoted exclusively to poetry, that we forget how poems most of the time circulate one by one, whole or piecemeal, through and in relation to other aspects of culture.
I think this has serious implications for how “popular” we imagine poetry to be today. We oftentimes bemoan the low sales figures for poetry books and assume that those figures mean that people aren’t encountering poetry, that they don’t care about it, and that poetry, as a result, is doomed to some sort of marginal existence in culture. But in terms of best-sellers, the “book” is really the standard and primary measure of prose, not of poetry; the poem is the primary unit of poetry, and when we attempt to measure the popularity of poetry via the standard measure of prose, poetry is going to come up short, because the book has never been the primary form by which poetry has circulated. We might do better to measure the popularity of poems the way we do popular music – as “singles” rather than entire collections. That way, when Garrison Keillor reads a poem on The Writer’s Almanac, we can see that poem reaching thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands? – of listeners. That way, when Don Draper on Mad Men reads Frank O’Hara’s “Mayakovsky,” we can see that poem, too, reaching hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions? – of listeners. That way, when someone performs a poem on Def Poetry, we see that there’s a huge HBO audience for poetry; just because people aren’t intentionally sitting themselves down to read an entire collection doesn’t mean that they don’t care about poetry.
Poems don’t circulate like novels circulate. They don’t stay politely on the shelf and between their covers. Instead, they move around, they become part of larger broadcasts or narratives, they appear in subways and greeting cards in ways that novels cannot, and they cross over and between media with an ease and regularity that books can never match. Why ask poems to be and act like books when they aren’t, never have been, and shouldn’t be expected to act like books act?
One of the many fascinating aspects of your book is its discussion of a person I must admit I had never heard of, Paul Engle. Could you explain why he is not as well known now as he was at the height of his career? You write rather movingly of him, “Engle has been made to vanish.”
Paul Engle was the second director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop – the director who, from 1941 to 1965, shepherded the program to national prominence. He brought John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Penn Warren, and other celebrated writers to teach at Iowa. He mentored students like Flannery O’Connor, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, Raymond Carver, and Robert Bly. Iowa offered the first M.F.A. program in creative writing (it began in 1936), and Engle’s administrative, fundraising, public relations, and leadership activities were some of the primary forces behind the Workshop’s success. He was also a poet; his first book, Worn Earth, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1932, and he wrote and published poetry the rest of his life. When he left the Workshop in the mid-1960s, he went on to co-found (with his spouse Hualing Nieh Engle) the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa, which provides residencies for international writers and, since its inception in 1967, has brought over 1,100 writers from more than 120 countries to Iowa City. In 2008, UNESCO designated Iowa City a World City of Literature, and I think it’s safe to say that, without Engle’s work in the Workshop and the IWP, that designation never would have happened.
But if you visit Iowa City today, you’d likely never know that Engle had been there. Despite his work, despite his publications, despite his celebrated colleagues and students, despite the Workshop’s status as the traditional gold standard for M.F.A. programs, and despite the fact that he was born in Iowa (Cedar Rapids) and lived most of his life there, there isn’t even a grade school in Iowa City named after him. (So don’t feel bad. Lots of other people have never heard of him either.) It’s interesting to wonder why, isn’t it?
Everyday Reading argues that part of Engle’s disappearance – why he “has been made to vanish” – has to do with the fact that he didn’t imagine poetry only in terms of literary poetry. He grew up in a Midwestern poetry-reading culture that didn’t imagine poetry to be only the province of the elite, books or little magazines, or workshops for that matter. He published poems in the Des Moines Register and the Cedar Rapids Gazette newspapers. He published in the Marxist journal, the New Masses. He published poems in Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, Better Homes & Gardens, and Reader’s Digest. And, to top it all off, he also wrote greeting card verse for Hallmark – poetry that helped initiate a long-term relationship with Hallmark. He went on to edit Poetry for Pleasure: The Hallmark Book of Poetry and even wrote the libretto for the Hallmark Hall of Fame feature Golden Child: A Christmas Opera.
Unlike the Workshop and other M.F.A. programs today – which strive for literary greatness and “high” art – Engle didn’t believe that poets should write one type of poetry and one type of poetry only. Whether stemming from a Midwestern pragmatism (a poet’s got to make a living) or from a commitment to poetry’s many and broad audiences and many and broad uses, I think he imagined a Workshop where poets would be trained (or at least feel licensed) to write for venues as diverse as Poetry magazine and Hallmark greeting cards, crossing lines between high and low just like readers in the first half of the century crossed them in their scrapbooks. Thus, in order for poets in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to embrace the “high” art philosophy it now embraces as the natural or inevitable form of graduate work in poetry writing – and in order for poets trained in the university system more broadly to keep on imagining that poetry has a small readership and is therefore a neglected or unappreciated genre doomed to a marginal existence in American culture – the Workshop has had to forget (or even repress) Engle and his connections to popular culture.
You make the interesting point that, in his book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl devotes relatively little space to the role of poetry in M.F.A. programs, preferring instead to focus on fiction. Could you discuss the matter of whether M.F.A. programs have contributed to the marginalization of poetry in American life?
Well, that’s a tricky question – especially because I’m reluctant to say that poetry is marginalized in the first place. As Everyday Reading argues, we tend to believe – or at least people keep on repeating – that poetry was marginalized in the first half of the century when in fact it wasn’t marginalized at all; it was part of people’s everyday lives and was a vital, shaping force in American culture. Just as some types of music are more popular than others today, so some types of poetry were more popular than others, but that’s no reason to say that the entire genre was a marginalized one. Imagine someone in an experimental band saying that music is a marginalized genre; it just doesn’t make sense. And while it’s true that the forces affecting poetry have changed since that time – the advent of the university-based creative writing program being one of those forces – I’m still reluctant to say that poetry as a genre is marginalized. If it were marginalized, then why would it be in Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Orange is the New Black, Def Poetry, TV commercials for Chrysler, movies, and all over the internet? Why would it then be broadcast as part of a commercial for Auburn University during this past year’s BCS Championship game – as was the case with Jake Adam York’s “There Are Angels”? (http://bluefoottv.com/projects/2014-bcs-national-championship-there-are-angels-jake-adam-york/) Why would the Colorado-based chocolatier Chocolove then print it on the inside of candy bar wrappers as it does? Why would there be a “haiku” section on every city’s Craigslist page? Perhaps these are striking examples because we perceive poetry to be marginalized and thus are surprised when we come across them. But can we really say that poetry is marginalized?
That said, there’s no doubt that the university-based creative writing program has shaped the world of poetry – including perpetuating the idea that poetry is a marginalized art form. But think of what the M.F.A. world offers: not only jobs for poets as teachers, but also an amazing number of two- or three-year fellowships to support beginning poets. When one thinks about it, it’s an amazing system with an amazing number of resources dedicated to funding poetry writing, and it’s something that poets in the first half of the century didn’t have. Do I think the M.F.A. system is perfect? No. Do I think it could reach out to other types of poets? Yes. Do I think that people of color and the working classes are underrepresented? Yes. Do I think that Spanish-language speakers are underrepresented or would benefit from Spanish-language workshops? Yes. Do I think it could more rigorously theorize the various roles that poetry can play in the world? Yes. But much of the same could be said for higher education in general.
A more interesting topic for me is how creative writing programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels might in fact be facilitating poetry’s place in the popular sphere. As we know, very few graduates of M.F.A. programs go on to become university teachers of creative writing, so where do the rest of those poets go? They work for granting agencies that fund or commission poetry. They start presses and journals and blogs. They tweet. They teach poetry to their children. They go to work for advertising agencies such as Wieden+Kennedy, perhaps, and incorporate poems into commercials. They help design ads for BCS Championship games. They go on to write for Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Orange is the New Black and weave poems into those shows. They work for the Poetry Foundation or help administer, judge, and run Poetry Out Loud – the national poetry recitation contest for high school students. They teach in prisons. They write poemgrams for PayPal, which this past year hired poets to compose custom Valentine’s Day poems for its users for free (you could tip the poet if you wanted to). Maybe they even work for Hallmark. Maybe – just maybe – Engle’s vision for the M.F.A. in poetry is being realized after all.
What is your favorite example in the last year of popular poetry?
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 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?
Could you tell us about your own experiences writing poetry for the commercial sector? Is that a daring move for an academic?
Sure. In brief, while I was writing Everyday Reading and thinking about the role of poetry in newspapers, I started writing topical poems for the Op-Ed page of the Iowa City Press-Citizen – what I imagined as editorial cartoons in verse form. I did maybe sixty or seventy of them over the span of three or four years, and a couple were picked up and reprinted in other papers. It was a type of research for me. In a sense, all poems are a type of research into the nature of language or thinking, but this was very targeted research. What could a poem add – discursively, visually, intellectually – to a page of otherwise pragmatic, instrumental prose? What would be the challenges or possibilities of writing a poem on short notice to keep up with breaking news, in much the same way that people debated issues of slavery and women’s rights via poetry in the nineteenth century by responding to each others’ verse on a day or two notice? And how could those things help us better understand the features of newspaper poetry from a century or more ago? (I address some of these issues in a piece I did for Poets & Writers some years back titled “Writing Good Bad Poetry.”)
More recently, an insurance company asked if I’d be willing to write a series of poems for the bi-monthly newsletter it sends to its 6,000 agents. It was a family-owned company turning twenty years old, and they thought it would be a novel way to highlight the company’s uniqueness, celebrate its anniversary, and pitch the merits of its products. And so I wrote a year’s worth of poems – twenty-six of them. For the first set of thirteen, I was paid $75 apiece. Then I renegotiated for $100 apiece for the next set of thirteen. I’ve studied and written about advertising poetry, so I tried to imitate some of the strategies and forms I saw in those poems while giving mine a contemporary twist. It might seem difficult to write a poem about insurance for architects or marina owners, but once you understand what you’re doing, it’s not all that hard. When all cylinders were clicking and I had the hook I needed (I found the hook to be the most important part), I could turn out a poem in an hour or so. Hopefully I’ll get the time to write more about this – and about several poems that the company rejected – in the not too distant future. It wasn’t entirely fun, and I turned down, or maybe just postponed, the opportunity to do twenty-six more. But the bottom line is that I’m here – $2,275 richer – to say that yes, Virginia, you can still make some money writing poetry.
While it’s unusual, I don’t think it’s a particularly daring move for an academic to do something like this – at least it shouldn’t be. Both the newspaper poetry and advertising poetry were informed by, and in turn informed, my research, so I had a good theoretical understanding of what I was doing and why. I had a set of aesthetic questions for each that I could articulate, and I was working in very particular traditions – all concerns that we’d ask an M.F.A. student to address and defend at some point or another. And it did entail a period of training and practice including some failures. I didn’t realize the full extent of that training and practice until I asked my creative writing students to try their hands at writing both newspaper and advertising poems, which turned out to be incredibly frustrating assignments for them. We don’t live in a world where that’s what we imagine a “poem” can be, or where we see, read, and learn from examples of such poems around us. That said, there are fundamentals that can be taught and learned just as there are with all forms of writing. But, as is also the case with other forms of writing, the originality of that poetry – be it original badness or original goodness – comes from someplace else.
Speaking of your students, in what ways do your students disseminate poetry that they write?
My students at Willamette are great. They’ve distributed their poetry in booklets, ’zines, the campus literary magazine, the campus newspaper, Salem’s local literary magazine, and various places online, and they’ve uploaded videos about their favorite poems to YouTube. They throw off-campus, spoken-word poetry parties several times a year, sometimes getting a crowd of a hundred or more. They are teaching inmates in the Oregon State Penitentiary. The campus literary magazine is thinking of filling gumball machines with poems and putting them in the campus coffee shop or elsewhere on campus or in town. One student set up a typewriter and sold custom-written poems at the Saturday Market in Portland. They have indulged me in “haiku bombing” the Math Department with hundreds of haiku written on sticky notes as a celebration of National Poetry Month and National Math Awareness Month, which are both in April. And they worked with me in class to collect, study, and edit poems from The New Northwest – a Portland-based suffragist newspaper from the nineteenth century – for presentation to an experimental script-writing class that then incorporated those poems into a production celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of Oregon women’s suffrage. Some of the poems were put to music and sung, some were projected onto walls, and some provided source material for small refrains or strange snippets in dreamlike scenes. (For my reflections on the show, see http://mikechasar.blogspot.com/2013/02/now-showing-brightly-dawning-day.html.)
Perhaps the most sustained and theorized project along these lines was a senior creative writing thesis done by Emma Reagan (http://cargocollective.com/emmareagan/Blood-Lines-Collection). Interested in the relationship between text, medium, and space, Emma wrote poems that she then distributed via various media on campus and in town. She welded a poem-sculpture that she erected on campus. She wrote a poem in paint on a wooden board and set it up in a small Japanese garden on campus. She wrote a poem in glue on a brick wall. She made a video of a poem being signed in American Sign Language. She used overhead and digital projectors to project poems onto screens and the outside of campus buildings. She had the poems bound into a handmade book. And then she documented the entire project online.
Creative writing students – especially students raised in an era of spoken word poetry, poetry slams, hip-hop, Poetry Out Loud, social media, and online writing communities or environments – don’t necessarily come to college thinking that poetry is marginalized, that it happens primarily on paper or in books, or that it has to adhere to one set of aesthetic criteria or another. If you provide opportunities for them to identify, articulate, and theorize what they want to do and why, it’s amazing to watch them go.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a sequel to Everyday Reading that examines the relationships between poetry and non-print media between the end of the nineteenth century and the current day. When I was finishing Everyday Reading, I realized that even though it studies a lot of unusual source materials, and even though I use “Popular Culture” in the title, most of those source materials and most of that popular culture were anchored in print culture – newspapers, magazines, scrapbooks, pamphlets, little magazines, books, printed billboards, greeting cards, and so on. Even the chapter on old time radio doesn’t account much for the vocal performance or the broadcast experience – I study typed transcripts of radio shows, print media coverage of them, and fan letter responses to them!
There are a bunch of good and understandable reasons for this, but as Everyday Reading came to a close, I began to wonder more and more about the relationships between poetry and non-print media like magic lantern projectors, film, radio, audio recording, television, and various digital platforms. So, the next book focuses on those relationships and asks not only how those media affected the cultural status of poetry but also how poetry may have affected the development and cultural status of emergent or “new” non-print media forms. If everything goes as planned, there will be a chapter on the projection of poems by magic lantern; a chapter on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s long propaganda poem The Murder of Lidice, which was distributed in book, magazine, domestic radio, international radio, and vinyl formats during a single week in 1942, making it perhaps the most widely distributed American poem up to that point in the century; a chapter on how poetry was important to the emergence and cultural legitimacy of film; a related chapter on how poetry contributed to the cultural legitimacy of television; and a chapter on poetry in the digital era. This book won’t emphasize the “ordinary” reader or the surprising literariness of popular poetry as much as Everyday Reading did. Rather, it aims to show how and why some of the very media forms that people accuse of helping to “marginalize” poetry in the long twentieth century not only gave poetry wider audiences than ever before but also owe some of their cultural prestige or authority to poetry.
Thank you very much, Mike.
You bet, Hope. Thank you!