Sunday, May 27, 2018

Poetic Justice?

Beginning in elementary school until just recently, I have composed poetry in a number of modes, sometimes comic, sometimes more serious.   In high school I wrote verse for the student newspaper.  In college, I was poetry editor of the university’s literary magazine.  In adulthood, for years I regularly contributed poems to a Northern Virginia nature newsletter and read appropriate verse at my company’s celebrations.

This introduces a contribution I made in 1996 to “The National Library of Poetry,” an Owings Mills, Maryland, publisher that regularly advertised for poems to be selected for its annual volume.  It cost nothing to submit a poem and have it selected by this outfit, but contributors were expected to buy a $50 copy to see their creation in print — or maybe multiple copies to present to relatives and friends.

The entire enterprise seemed to me to be a charade.  The objective of the National Library was not so much a search for good literature but a way of selling expensive books.  It remained to prove my point.  As a result I set out to write as bad a poem as has ever passed through the human mind and send it in.  I called it “Life with Thea” and it goes like this:

Thea, she takes me from heaven into hell,
Her smile, it is heaven.  I know it so well.
Is it only for me?  I wish I could tell.

She tells me always that her heart is true,
She pledges daily:  “Honey, I love only you
Using me?  Abusing me? I wish I knew.

Refusing to disbelieve, but wondering still
Eternally uncertain, weak of will,
Life is passing, thinking of Thea, a chill

Yeasts through my body, my knees go weak
If I utter her name, I can hardly speak,
She is my present but the future is bleak.

Be my lover, Thea, be my friend,
Unique our beginning , uncertain the end,
Lead me again to heaven, let us ascend

Let us go together, Thea, do not hold back.
Surely you will be true to our pact
Help me on the way, find the track

Is this an inspiration I feel?  Yes!
Thea is true, I know — O bless, O Bless!

Now that you have finished “Life with Thea” you must admit that it is one of the worst pieces of verse you have ever read.  (Still and all I am proud of the image of a chill “yeasting” through a body — it is awful but perfectly so.) The folks at the National Library of Poetry, however, were positively ecstatic.  Note below the reaction of “M M” to it:

Not only were they going to print my poem in their annual volume called “Sound of Poetry,” but they found it fully worthy to be printed as well in “what promises to be the most historically important collection of poetry we have ever published.”  To be called “America at the Millennium,” this volume reputedly would drastically winnow down the 1.2 million contributions allegedly received by the Library over the years to a select few of the best poems and poets of the Twentieth Century.  “Life with Thea” had been chosen for that honor!  Wow!  Eat your heart out Robert Frost!

Yet this business is not all fun and games, as explained by Peter Armenti, a librarian at the Library of Congress, in a March 2012 post on his blog “From the Catbird Seat.”  The Library, he says gets about two hundred inquiries a year from people who mistakenly believe that the Library of Congress publishes and sells those anthologies. 

Armenti says the National Library may encourage the confusion by naming the Library of Congress in its copyright page.  Note it below.  The insert seems to identify the Congressional library as cataloguing the volume and assigning an ISBN number to it.  In truth, he says, the Library “only rarely” buys copies for its collection and that this ISBN number was arbitrarily assigned by the publisher.\

In the end, though tempted, I did not allow “Life with Thea” to be published.  As part of my test for the poetry “judges,” I had engineered the first letter of each line, if read down, to spell out a sentence — just to see if anyone was paying attention.  The letters read:  “This surely is bullshit.”  Check it out above. Somehow it seemed to go over the bounds of propriety to permit that to be printed.  If someday someone would recognize the scam it might lead to the firing of some underling.  In the meantime, anyone can feel free to reprint “Life with Thea” — if they dare.  

Saturday, May 12, 2018

“The Man on the Barrel” Through Time

As I write this post, the image of a man on a barrel sits before me. It is decoration on a small Doulton pottery cream jug from the Cheshire Cheese tavern off Fleet Street in London, similar to the bas relief Doulton figure shown here.  “The man on the barrel” is a familiar figure to anyone interested in English pottery.    Who is he and what does he represent?  

First of all, the barrel is not just an empty keg convenient for sitting.  It holds something alcoholic, rum perhaps or “sack,” a fortified white wine from Spain much favored by Shakespeare’s Falstaff or, later, bourbon whiskey.  The man on the barrel is a drinking man — sometimes depicted as a drunkard.  For example, here is Brussels faience jug from the late 1700s that depicts a man in a blue coat and yellow pantaloons who clearly has had one too many sips from that wineskin he has next to him.

Other men on barrels of that era could be local heroes.  The one right is a reproduction of an original jug created in 1770 by Ralph Wood of Wood & Sons Pottery in Burslem, England.  The figure is identified as Admiral Lord Howe, the much maligned leader of British naval forces in the American Revolution.  This may have been made before the war with Howe looking benign and holding a foaming pot of beer.  Was it done by friend or foe?  

Skipping forward to the 19th Century is a wood engraving of the man on the barrel by Jean Frederic Wentzel, a French print-maker, born in Wissenbourg, France, in 1807.  He specialized in images of ordinary life as seen in the France of his time and was very popular.  Here he has captured a happy French peasant on a barrel with a spigot conveniently located from which to refill his bottle and glass of wine.

We are back in England with the next example, a flask of a jolly toper dubbed “Old Tom” sitting on a barrel, said to be ware from Rockingham.  Given the inscription on the base, this item is from the Victorian era, about 1850.   Also known as a “reform flask” it celebrates the Reform Act of 1832 in England.

Although he is similarly shaped and dressed, the next two fisted drinker with an all-over brown glaze is attributed to a pottery at Bennington, Vermont, dating from the early 1800s.  Bennington was a convenient location for producing pottery because of the close proximity to local clay deposits, as well as deposits along the Hudson River.  Bennington also had an abundant supply of waterpower from local streams, which was necessary to power the machinery used at the time. Around 1804 stoneware pottery was introduced and achieved notable success, eventually employing hundreds of people.

The late 1800s brought this depiction of a man sitting on a barrel while drinking a glass of wine.  It comes from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire before its demise in World War One.   My guess is the gent portrayed was a political figure who would have been recognizable to the people of the day.  

In 1896, Gustav Schafer and Gunther Vater founded a factory in Thuringa, Germany, with the purpose of making high quality porcelain items. By 1910 the reputation of the pottery for craftsmanship and design had grown to international proportions and Sears Roebuck was importing and selling large quantities of Shafer and Vater ceramics in the United States.

Among the pottery’s products were a host of small figural liquor bottles called “nips.” The term is taken from an Old English word nipperkin, meaning a container of liquor holding a half pint or less. These German giveaways were always imported empty, then filled by a distiller, whiskey distributor, or saloonkeeper and handed off to favored customers.  An example is the “Old Sedgwick” ceramic figural that carries the image of a jolly old Dutchman. It advertised a brand of whiskey from the A. Bauer Distillery of Chicago,

When National Prohibition was adopted in the U.S. in 1920, Schafer & Vater lost a major element of its business and retaliated by creating an image of Uncle Sam as the man on the barrel — a barrel that proclaims “What We Want” and shows Sam filling a glass from a bottle.  This figure also came in brown on a tray with four cups.

The final man-on-the-barrel is a contemporary image of a pirate with an eye patch and wearing a bandana.  He appears to be daring anyone to come close to tapping the keg on which he sits.  Thus we have come full circle from the jolly toper who is sitting on the barrel in order to be as near as possible to the wine or liquor that fuels his joviality.