Guest post by Peter B. Hyland
In 1877, Joseph Ray, M.D.–“late professor in Woodward College”–published Ray’s New Practical Arithmetic. I own a copy for some reason, part of a small collection of nineteenth-century books that my father-in-law gave me, containing everything from an abridged version of Livingstone and Stanley to The Early Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier. They’re beautiful artifacts, each disintegrating at its own pace.
Ray’s Arithmetic is especially cool. A name, “G.J. Burgess,” has been penciled onto the flyleaf, flanked by two poorly drawn hands pointing toward the script. Mr. (or Ms.?) Burgess really wanted to brush up on the practical math. The book is saturated with human presence. A foldout of meticulous, elegant handwritten notes on thin wax paper has been pasted inside the front and back covers. Math problems have been worked all over the rear flyleaf, as well as on a blank stock certificate for shares of National Steel Plate Engraving Company ($10 each!), folded neatly and stuck within the pages. A number-scribbled bookmark peeks its little head out from the bound leaves, an appropriated business tag from Lexington Cycle Works, owned by G.M. Cox, “Successor to W. B. Blanton.”
Both the stock certificate and the bookmark are from the early twentieth century. The former has an empty date field reading “190_”. By Googling “Lexington Cycle Works,” I found a link to the Kentuckiana Digital Library, which holds a scanned page from the March 8, 1906 edition of Clay City Times that refers to G. M. Cox, who apparently sold “all kinds of talking machines” (click on “Page ” under “Contents”; the reference is in the far left column, a little more than halfway down). If you’re not yet convinced of our technological acceleration, consider that it took me five minutes, on the PC in my den, to find scanned source material referencing an obscure business which sold “talking machines” just over a hundred years ago.
All this futzing around with history got me thinking about the things that poets choose to include in their work. There was a time, conceivably, when I could have written a poem that mentions talking machines, the National Steel Plate Engraving Company, and Lexington Cycle Works, and they would have been as familiar then as iPhones, Microsoft, and Britney Spears are to readers today. Poets are notorious hoarders. We gather up the world, dropping any and every available object, person, place, or idea into a poem to make it spark.
The annihilation of strictures on the use of “low” culture has been one of the most valuable breakthroughs in modern poetry. Now, absolutely anything can go into a poem, and we’re better off for it. One can knock out a poem that includes Payless ShoeSource* or Daffy Duck** and still be artful, dignified, and legitimate. And why not? Pop culture expresses our collective desires, attitudes, perfections, and defects during a given historical moment. If we banish it from poetry, we banish part of ourselves. Unbridled prejudice against pop culture is really a kind of neurosis.