Poems by the numbers
‘Little magazines’ are by definition low circulation, though a compensation sometimes arrives via outsized impact. Wyndham Lewis’s Blast, which famously lasted only three issues, has since been reprinted multiple times and is a standard point of reference in our narratives about Modernism. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s Germ only lasted two issues. Even without making such spectacular interventions in literary history, little magazines have shaped the story of poetry. Now the proliferation of internet magazines and other sites that can count tens of thousands of ‘visits’ may be evolving something new: the low overhead and often volunteer labour of the little magazine married to gigantic numbers of (one hopes) readers. Poems, however, were always part of the first mass media, the newspapers.
Newspaper poetry has the reputation for being provincial, stylistically retardataire, and sentimental. As a teenager I oft mocked the efforts in the ‘Poet’s Corner’ of a rural weekly, imagining I would grow up to write something more properly despairing and akin to Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, which I had by heart. Because I don’t have the back files of The Northern Neck News (Warsaw, Virginia) ready to hand, a random sample from another paper may substitute: ‘’Tis but a song, yes, only a song, / But its tender and sweet refrain / Speaks to my heart of the days gone by / With a thrill of infinite pain’ (‘Only a Song’, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 2 June 1887). Typically, it is ‘The song of a little child at play, / With eyes that star-like shine.’
If mass media produces ‘bad’ bad poetry, it is often because, as Wilde says in ‘The Critic as Artist’, ‘bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.’ As one ages, one becomes more charitable towards verse expressive of genuine feeling, though still not exactly amused. However, the poetic discourse found in newspapers, which is often pseudonymous or by completely obscure authors (rather like much of the poetry of the internet) can still reward study. In her new anthology Poets of the People’s Journal (again, a Dundee paper), Kirstie Blair creates a revelatory compendium of voices, especially of working-class women, occluded by literary history. The snappishness in the editors’ ‘To Correspondents’ column replying to poetic submissions adds spice.
The old mass media also produced ‘good’ bad poetry, the kind of poems that are so memorably inept they share with the Lyrical Ballads that ‘they who should be pleased with them would read them with more than common pleasure: and ... by those who should dislike them, they would be read with more than common dislike’ (Wordsworth, Preface of 1800). Has D.B. Wyndham Lewis’s anthology The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (1930) ever been out of print? I think not. Dundee papers had the honour of hosting the best bad poet, the immortal McGonagall. It was not until his early fifties that William McGonagall was seized with ‘a strong desire to write poetry’ (McGonagall, Poetic Gems, 6–7). His first efforts were published in the Dundee edition of one of the leading Scottish popular papers, the Weekly News. The newspaper reported his reading at the Dundee Working Man’s Club in 1879, in which he eclipsed the other readers, received round after round of applause, and was presented with a purse of silver at the evening’s conclusion (Weekly News, 26 April 1879). For poets, purses of silver are as rare as butts of sack. One of McGonagall’s ‘Tay Bridge’ manuscripts was later auctioned for a literal tuppence. Now, when the internet has made McGonagall famous as the world’s worst poet, and he is available in several new editions, what would it bring?
Though few and far between, good and even great poems have also been first published in newspapers. The Examiner, the London weekly founded by John and Leigh Hunt, was a political rather than a literary journal, but it published Keats’s best sonnet, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ (1 December 1816). In the nineteenth century, more typical newspaper poems were overtly political, often in the form of parodies of well-known songs. An example is a galloping anti-Tory rant by ‘W’, mocking nostalgia for bygone days that were in fact ‘The good old times for cutting throats that cried out in their need, / The good old times for hunting men who held their father’s creed’, and noting that in response ‘the press was seldom known to snarl or bark’ (Examiner, 7 August 1841). ‘W’ is better known as Charles Dickens. The Examiner’s last great poem, however, was by Tennyson, barking in 1854 at military incompetence, and praising heroic sacrifice to duty.
As with ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, the most powerful newspaper poem of our time, Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’ (The Guardian, 18 March 1991), is about war and takes its inspiration from something seen in a different newspaper. Tennyson, reading the account of the Battle of Balaclava in The Times, noted the phrase ‘someone had blundered’. Harrison writes about Kenneth Jarecke’s unflinching photograph of an Iraqi soldier’s smouldering corpse in his vehicle, which was published in The Observer (10 March 1991). American newspapers did not trouble their readers with such images, and certainly not with poems inspired by them. ‘A Cold Coming’ is a powerful ekphrastic recreation of a photograph, and a virtuoso dramatic monologue, with the dead soldier’s bitter speech captured by the speaker on a tape recorder. At least that’s how the poetry teacher, finding it in an anthology, might class it. In the daily paper in the middle of the war, readers presumably didn’t bother with genre.
Harrison published a first Gulf War poem, ‘Initial Illuminations’, in The Guardian on 6 March, in which he questions ‘in these dark days, what poems can do’. ‘A Cold Coming’ is direct, formal, satirical, complex, and allusive all at the same time, without ever being obscure. Its title is taken from a phrase in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’, but the poem offers no magic, its mages merely ‘three wise marines’ who have banked their sperm as a precaution against their demise. The colon at the end is a repeat sign, a musical da capo: ‘I pressed REWIND and PLAY / and I heard the charred man say:’. While ‘A Cold Coming’ blends genres, the one that it is emphatically not is the consolatio; there can be no relief from distress until the rewind button is not in play. It has been said of the Vietnam war fetish with ‘body counts’ that when the Pentagon could not measure what was important (‘hearts and minds’), they made important what could be measured. Jarecke’s photograph shows us the grotesque mangling and burning of flesh that adds up to one digit in a count. ‘A Cold Coming’ adds a voice and I have faith that as it appeared on breakfast tables in The Guardian something unmeasurable occurred. The Guardian sold well over 400,000 copies in 1991, the issue of 18 March lives on in the digital archive, and Harrison’s poem now finds more readers in his books. But in 2003 the second Bush pressed ‘REWIND and PLAY’, triggering a Guardian reprint of Harrison’s poem. What can poems do?