A poet and scholar explores the power of verse for ordinary readers from the 19th century through today.
When University of Iowa graduate student Mike Chasar happened across a homemade poetry anthology on eBay, he thought it a curious object and little more. Then he found another, and another, and another.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is something people did much more regularly than anyone would assume,’” he recalls. To date he’s collected more than 70 old scrapbooks of poems clipped from newspapers or magazines, copied by hand, or meticulously retyped.
The collection helped inspire Chasar’s “Everyday Reading: U.S. Poetry and Popular Culture, 1880-1945,” which last year won the Council of Graduate Schools/UMI Distinguished Dissertation Award, the nation’s top honor for doctoral dissertations. Chasar’s work also earned the UI Graduate College’s 2007 Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize.
But Chasar, today a visiting assistant professor in the UI Department of English, doesn’t just want to reveal a bygone poetry culture: He’d like to help bring it back.
“Poetry was everywhere—in magazines, newspapers, advertisements, pinup posters, menus, stickers, and broadsides—and people edited their way through that landscape,” he says. “Looking at these scrapbooks, you get a sense of popular poetry culture and see that ordinary readers were a lot more sophisticated than we imagine.”
Chasar’s study explores largely lost outlets for verse—including radio poetry shows that built enthusiastic fan bases and Burma Shave jingles that stretched commercial poems over miles of open road—and their impact on poets like William Carlos Williams.
“Mike’s work makes us rethink what we thought we knew and helps us see and understand poetry in places we never recognized it,” says Dee Morris, professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Chasar’s dissertation advisor. “He brings these poetry scrapbooks to life as engines of thought and linguistic energy.”
For Chasar, the scrapbooks reveal readers who drew freely from both high art and popular culture, pasting avant garde works alongside sentimental odes. “If we actually look at what purposes this poetry served for readers, how they used that poetry, it becomes much more complex,” he says.
Chasar’s interest in everyday readers stems in part from his background. His parents were the first in their families to finish college, and so far Chasar is the only one in his generation to follow suit. “There’s a definite working class relationship to poetry and literature in my family,” the Cleveland native says.
His family enters his dissertation via a brief epilogue that describes his grandmother’s poetic quotations in World War II letters to his grandfather. “She felt entirely capable of using poetry in these ways,” Chasar says, “cutting out parts of poems that served her purposes in that moment and disregarding the rest.”
Starting after World War II, University-trained writers succeeded the amateur poets of earlier years. Print culture in general began to fade, and rock and roll became a new focus for popular passions—mix tapes eventually would replace poetry scrapbooks. Even Burma Shave execs decided their ads were winning readers, not buyers.
Nevertheless, people still find something special in poetry, Chasar says, noting that it often marks emotionally charged events—weddings or funerals, or the communal expressions of grief after 9/11. At the same time, poetry continues to infuse pop music, puns and limericks, advertising jingles, and other cultural ephemera.
Chasar wants to expand the perception of poetry and its uses. He’s a driving force behind “Poetic License,” a recurring feature on the editorial page of the Iowa City Press-Citizen that encourages local writers to submit poems on current events.
The resulting poems are often comic or political, giving writers like Chasar—who’s previously published poetry in literary journals—a chance to play with both function and form. “I recently rhymed ‘hot cocoa’ with ‘loco,’” he says, “and I’ve written poems comparing Britney Spears and George Bush. You typically wouldn’t get away with that in a poetry classroom.”
Poetry also lets people draw associations they couldn’t in prose. “After the tornado hit Iowa City in 2006, I wrote about it arriving with ‘shock and awe,’ tying it to national themes of war and rebuilding,” Chasar says. “In a poem you can talk about two things at once in a way that would seem contrived in, say, a letter to the editor.”
The series has prompted submissions, raves, and critiques from readers. Some even report clipping and saving poems that make a particular impression.
“Poetry thickens, patterns, and rhythms language. It’s not a transparent form of communication,” Chasar says. “High or low, ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it foregrounds the fact that someone was there making it deliberately, and that this is someone’s work you’re reading.”
Story by Lin Larson; Photo by Tom Jorgensen
March 10, 2008