Vanity Fair, June 1916
THE ALARMING SPREAD OF POETRY
A Little Free Speech About Free Verse
By Pelham Grenville
RECENTLY I had occasion to visit, on business the nature of which does not come within the scope of this article, my old friend Dodd of the firm of Winchley, Dodd and Co. It was a perfect day, and as I was not pressed for time I thought it would be pleasant to stroll part of the way, smoking thoughtfully. Entering a tobacco-store, I addressed the youth behind the counter. He was a dreamy-eyed young man, and as I entered he was scribbling something on his shirt cuff with a stub of pencil. I could hear him muttering something about “light” and “bright.”
“I want a mild cigar,” I said.
He bustled about among his boxes, all eagerness and efficiency.
“A mild cigar? About what price? Ah! here you are. You’ll find this nice. I hear each day somebody say this brand’s the best by far. All other smokes are simply jokes compared with this cigar.”
I thought little of the incident, until I reached the office building where my friend works. A child of tender years was standing in the elevator, gazing heavenward in a rapt sort of way and chewing a fountain-pen. I addressed him.
“Take me to Winchley, Dodd and Co. They are on the second floor.”
“Step right inside, and up we go. The elevator isn’t slow. In fifteen seconds, sir, or so, you’ll tap upon their door.”
I obeyed the child’s instructions, and, entering the office, accosted the office-boy. He had long hair and was dictating something to the stenographer. I caught the words “breath” and “death.”
“Who is it that you wish to see? Be candid and confide in me.”
I said I wished to see Mr. Dodd.
“Mr. Dodd? Why, that’s odd. There’s his room, but he’s not in it. He’s gone out. Not a doubt! He’ll be back in half a minute.”
And then I perceived with that clarity which comes from actual personal observation how universal the once sporadic disease of poetry had become in our midst.
TO the thinking man there are few things more disturbing than the realization that we are becoming a nation of minor poets. In the good old days poets were for the most part confined to garrets, which they left only for the purpose of being ejected from the offices of the magazines and papers to which they attempted to sell their wares. Nobody ever thought of reading a book of poems unless accompanied by a guarantee from the publisher that the author had been dead at least a hundred years. Poetry, like wine, certain brands of cheese, public buildings and Hans Wagner, was rightly considered to improve with age; and no connoisseur would have dreamed of filling himself with raw, indigestible verse, warm from the maker’s.
Today all this is changed. Editors are paying real money for poetry; publishers are making a profit on books of verse; and many a young man who, had he been born earlier, would have sustained life on a crust of bread, is now sending for the manager to find out how the restaurant dares try to sell a fellow champagne like this as genuine Pommery Brut. Naturally this is having a marked effect on the life of the community. Our children grow to adolescence with the feeling that they can become poets instead of working. Many an embryo bill clerk has been ruined by the heady knowledge that poems are paid for at the rate of a dollar a line. All over the country promising young plasterers and rising young motor-men are throwing up steady jobs in order to devote themselves to the new profession. On a sunny afternoon down in Washington Square one’s progress in positively impeded by the swarms of young poets brought out by the warm weather. It is a horrible sight to see those unfortunate youths, who ought to be sitting happily at desks writing “Dear Sir. Your favor of the tenth inst. duly received and contents noted. In reply we beg to state . . .” wandering about with their fingers in their hair and their features distorted with the agony of composition, as they try to find rhymes to “cosmic” and “symbolism.”
And, as if matters were not bad enough already, along comes Mr. Edgar Lee Masters and invents vers libre. It is too early yet to judge the full effects of this man’s horrid discovery, but there is no doubt that he has taken the lid off and unleashed forces over which none can have any control. All those decent restrictions which used to check poets have vanished, and who shall say what will be the outcome?
UNTIL Mr. Masters came on the scene there was just one thing which, like a salient fortress in the midst of an enemy’s advancing forces, acted as a barrier to the youth of the country. When one’s son came to one and said, “Father, I shall not be able to fulfil your dearest wish and start work in the fertilizer department. I have decided to become a poet.” Although one could no longer frighten him from his purpose by talking of garrets and starvation, there was still one weapon left. “What about the rhymes, Willie?” you replied, and the eager light died out of the boy’s face, as he perceived the catch in what he had taken for a good thing. You pressed your advantage. “Think of having to spend your life making one line rhyme with another! Think of the bleak future, when you have used up ‘moon’ and ‘June,’ ‘ love’ and ‘dove,’ ‘May’ and ‘gay’! Think of the moment when you have ended the last line but one of your poem with ‘window’ or ‘warmth’ and have to buckle to, trying to make the thing couple up in accordance with the rules! What then, Willie?”
Next day a new hand had signed on in the fertilizer department.
But now all that has changed. Not only are rhymes no longer necessary, but editors positively prefer them left out. If Longfellow had been writing today he would have had to revise “The Village Blacksmith” if he wanted to pull in that dollar a line. No editor would print stuff like:
Under the spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands.
The smith a brawny man is he
With large and sinewy hands.
If Longfellow were living in these hyphenated, free and versy days, he would find himself compelled to take his pen in hand and dictate as follows:
In life I was the village smith.
I worked all day
I retained the delicacy of my complexion
I worked in the shade of the chestnut-tree
Instead of in the sun
Like Nicholas Blodgett, the expressman.
I was large and strong
I went in for physical culture
And deep breathing
And all those stunts.
I had the biggest biceps in Spoon River.
After publishing a few like that he would have had to keep a dog to chase away the editors who cluttered up his door-step and pestered him for stuff. He would have had to wear a false mustache if he meant to walk anywhere near the magazine offices. And if he had seen Charles Hanson Towne coming he would have run like a rabbit.
WHO can say where this thing will end? Vers libre is within the reach of all. A sleeping nation has wakened to the realization that there is money to be made out of chopping its prose into bits. Ninety million people are discovering that they have been giving away all their lives what they might have sold for good money. Only the other day I myself was stricken with the disease. I happened to be writing to my landlord what is technically known as a “strong letter” about the state of the roof, dwelling on its imperfections, and hinting at the probable danger of allowing it to continue in its present state. I had not got half-way through it when I perceived that I was letting good stuff go to waste. I tore up the letter and sent the following to a magazine:
Take a good took at the above tombstone.
I died of acute rheumatism,
(No flowers, by request.)
Wasn’t it rotten luck?
Everybody loved me,
But the landlord would not fix the roof,
And the rain came in and made the house
And that finished me.
I tied myself in knots and
Spoon River has forgotten me,
Everyone in Spoon River has forgotten me
Ed Judkins, the drug-store man.
I owed him fifty cents.
A child can do it. And, what is worse, nearly every child is doing it. Things have reached such a pitch that our little ones take to poetry as soon as they write a legible hand. Something must be done shortly if the nation is to be saved from this menace. But what? It is no good shooting Edgar Lee Masters, for the mischief has been done, and even making an example of him could not undo it. Probably the only hope lies in the fact that poets never buy other poets’ stuff. When once we have all become poets, the sale of verse will cease or be limited to the few copies which individual poets will buy to give to their friends.
Hans Wagner: Better known today as Honus Wagner (1874–1955), the star of the 1909 World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates, outbatting Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers by .333 to .231, and stealing six bases, a Series record. He was christened Johannes Peter Wagner by his German-born parents, and his family nickname of Hans was sometimes used during his professional career. By the way, “Honus” should be pronounced “honn-us” not “hone-us”; it’s just an Americanized spelling of the last two syllables in the German name “Johannes.” Wikipedia has details of his career, including the comment that he “aged exceptionally well” and that he was the oldest player in the National League by 1912, the oldest player to hit a grand slam in 1915 [a record only broken in 1985], and the oldest player to hit an inside-the-park home run in 1916.
Pommery Brut: a dry Champagne from one of France’s best-known and oldest (1858) producers of sparkling wine
plasterers: This can be taken two ways, either as construction workers who apply plaster to walls and ceilings, or as process servers who deliver legal papers such as court summonses to (usually unwilling) recipients. The concept that once the papers had touched the recipient he was legally considered to have received notice of them—in other words, he was stuck with them—gave rise to this American slang term; “plaster” was (and still is in the UK) a common term for an adhesive bandage or skin remedy (sticking plaster, mustard plaster). Sam Bulpitt, a process server in Wodehouse’s 1937 novel Summer Moonshine, is described as America’s champion plasterer, confusing Sir Buckstone Abbott until the slang term is translated for him.
Your favor of the tenth inst.: standard commercial correspondence jargon for “the letter with which you favored us on the tenth of the present month”; Wodehouse is as familiar with the locutions of American business offices as he is with the slang of the streets.
Edgar Lee Masters (1868–1950): American attorney, author, and poet, whose Spoon River Anthology (1915) presented free-verse portraits of the characters of a community.
Nicholas Blodgett: Not in Spoon River Anthology, so presumably a Wodehouse coinage here.
expressman: an employee of a commercial package-delivery firm
Charles Hanson Towne (1877–1949): American poet and magazine editor, at McClure’s when this was written.
Ed Judkins: Not in Spoon River Anthology, so presumably a Wodehouse coinage here. He also is mentioned as “of the village grocery-store” in “A Great Coming Tennis Match” in the October 1916 Vanity Fair.