Debunking the notion that poetry is dead, Michael Chasar, an assistant English professor at Willamette University, shows how the art form continues to be a vital part of American life in his new book, “Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America.”
The book, published by Columbia University Press in 2012, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
“What I found was that poetry was part of everyday life for many Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries,” Chasar says about his research. “It appeared in daily newspapers, magazines and advertisements. It was broadcast on old-time radio shows. It appeared on billboards, and people avidly collected it in poetry scrapbooks.”
Chasar’s interest in the subject was fueled by his own upbringing. Even though his family didn’t read poetry, it still found its way in the greeting cards his relatives bought and the rock lyrics his cousins parsed.
Poetry also appeared in books his grandmother kept and in letters she wrote to his grandfather, when he was stationed in the Pacific during World War II.
“If she was using poetry in her letters, and saving books of poetry for her entire life, then maybe other people were doing that too,” Chasar says.
In his book, Chasar examines the common practice of poetry scrapbooking, greeting card poetry and poetry billboards used to advertise Burma-Shave shaving cream. He looks at poetry used on old-time radio shows and in the fan letters sent to them. He even finds poetry printed on candy boxes, thermometers and handkerchiefs.
“I’ve been amazed that virtually no literary or cultural critic has deemed much of this writing worth considering at any length,” Chasar says.
Having gathered too much material to fit into one book, Chasar started a blog to keep track of and analyze his findings. He’s also collected more than 150 poetry scrapbooks — and counting — by buying them on eBay.
“The albums put together by ordinary readers aren’t being saved by libraries and archives, and thus get sold at auction or estate sales when people die,” he says. “I'm trying to salvage as many as possible so that this history of what people read and valued doesn't disappear even more than it already has.”
Now Chasar is planning to write another book focusing on the relationship between poetry and non-print media — such as film, television, radio and the Internet.
“It turns out that poetry appears in these media — some of the same media that have been accused of killing poetry — more often than expected,” Chasar says. “I want to figure out how, why and what effects that’s had on both mass media forms and poetry alike.”