Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rhyme and punishment

What was the deal with poets in mid-twentieth-century American hard-boiled writing?

First this, from Dashiell Hammett's story "Too Many Have Lived" (1932):
"`I'd want to talk to her,' Spade said. `Who is this Eli Haven?'

"`He's a bad egg. He doesn't do anything. Writes poetry or something.'"
Thirteen years later, Brett Halliday the author, Murder Is My Business the book, Mike Shayne the detective:
"She won't be married — unless Towne has changed a lot. That's the job I did for him. There was a chap named Lance Bayliss. A poet, Lucy, and a poet is lower than dirt to a two-fisted, self-made financier like Jefferson Towne."
So, just to be on the safe side, if you're a character in a hard-boiled book, try not to be a poet. Or at least get a real job, and write on the side.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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41 Comments:

Anonymous Jerry House said...

Poets stink.
So I think.
They are worthless
Even when they're verse-less.

August 14, 2010  
Anonymous Guy Savage said...

I read the 'poet' business as more of a character trait than anything else. The character is a idealist who drifts alarmingly from cause to cause. At one point he's following dictators around working on their bios ("Dictators I Have Known"), but then "after Poland" he does a 180 degree turn around. I also read "poet" as ineffectual. Sorry to the poets out there....

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jerry, Jefferson Towne appears to think that poets are soft so deserve to be offed.

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Guy, a poet must have been something like a commedia dell'arte character in mid-twentieth-century crime writing, the drifter who can't or won't get a real job. (It may be of interest that the poet in the Hammett story is not a rich, idle drifter, he's more a scrounger, a blackmailer, and a drifter who, his wife says, claims to make money from poker and the races -- not exactly your delicate aesthete.)

It seems to me I've seen poets appear in several other stories from the period. I just happened to notice these two examples because I read them on consecutive days.

Poetry used to appear in regularly American newspapers (think of the poem that immortalized Tinker to Evers to Chance), so was probably more a feature of daily life than is the case now. Perhaps by Hammett's and Halliday's time, taste was begin to grow more sophisticated than those humble rhymes, and poetry and poets began to be viewed as cut of from daily life, and hence as ineffectual.

Apologies to the poets.

August 14, 2010  
Anonymous Guy Savage said...

I was thinking along those lines. After all, Lance Bayliss has been a lot of things by the time the story begins, so "Poet" is derogatory and dismissive in this case. Perhaps not a good comparison (as Lance is ineffectual), but imagine calling James Cagney a waiter. It would be true but it's also in his past and overlooking his career.

I wonder how much influence Hemingway had on the issue of masculinity and the Arts?

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe two currents in American culture contributed to the low status of poets in crime fiction: the Hemingway influence, and also a growing split between middle-brow and highbrow taste that left no room for popular newspaper-style poetry.

I'm sure someone has written a paper on this for an American studies course somewhere. I was going to suggest Bowling Green State, but the topic might be a little highbrow.

August 14, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Jerry House
Likes to grouse
'bout some genius's ditty
He thinks he's witty
The miserable louse.

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right.
It's shite.

August 14, 2010  
Anonymous Adrian said...

I've been reading the collected Madeleine to my daughter over the last week to my youngest daughter and its a very enjoyable book with a great deal of wit and charm, by my God the rhyme scheme (such as it is) is annoying. Dr Seuss uses a disciplined anapestic tetrameter but in Madeleine the rhyme is all over the place and half the lines dont scan at all. It's incredibly irritating to read out loud. Just because its poetry for little kids doesnt mean you dont have to work hard at it.

August 14, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

No I wasnt being ironic by having my post not scan either. Merely stupid.

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What is Madeleine's original language? Translation from Flemish or French could be responsible for the unruly scansion.

I quite enjoy Dr. Seuss's disciplined rhymes, but one thing that makes my flesh creep with embarrassment for my species is when writers, intending a tribute to old Theodire Geisel, try to write in his style. There was a reeking epidemic of this stuff when he died.

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No I wasnt being ironic by having my post not scan either. Merely stupid.

You must be one of those feckless free-verse writers that Sam Sapde or Mike Shayne would have known what to do with.

August 14, 2010  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Madeline was written in English. What's particularly annoying about it is that it'll have a standard rhyme scheme for a couple of paragraphs and everything's going fine and then he'll have one syllable or a couple of syllables too many. It would have been so easy to edit. It really drives you to distraction.

Seuss is very disciplined. The problems with those Seussian tributes is that most didnt use anapestic tetrameter or remember that Seuss was writing with a deliberately limited vocabulary.

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps Madeleine betrays Byronic inspiration:

"Anapestic tetrameter is a rhythm for comic verse, and prominent examples include Clement Clarke Moore's "'Twas the night before Christmas", Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, and Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle and The Cat in the Hat. When used in comic form, anapestic tetrameter is often highly regular, as the regularity emphasizes the breezy, melodic feel of the meter, though the initial unstressed beat of a line may often be omitted.

"However, the verse form is not solely comic, and Lord Byron's epic Don Juan, for example, contains much anapestic tetrameter. In non-comic works, it is likely that anapestic tetrameter will be used in a less regular manner, with caesuras and other meters breaking up the driving regularity of the beat."

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

It'd be sort of cool if they ran into Adam Dalgliesh.

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, I never knew Dalgliesh was a poet until now, I'm afraid, but I have wondered whether poets came under similar fire in English crime novels. I know P.G. Wodehouse made fun of aesthetically sensitive types in some of his storues.

August 14, 2010  
Anonymous Guy Savage said...

Gary: I remember that now that you mention it. Can't recall the name of the episode but Dalgliesh has a copy of his poems. Is there an old g/friend in the background?

Poet trivia....

August 14, 2010  
Anonymous Adrian said...

It's interesting that in Ireland being a poet is nothing to be ashamed of. I can name a dozen contemporary Irish poets off the top of my head and in Waterstones in Belfast the poetry section is twice as big as the self help section which I cant help but find encouraging. This has a long tradition, of course. To become one of the Fianna - the elite warriors of Ireland - it was necessary to deflect the javelin throws of nine men while reciting flawlessly from the great books of Gaelic verse.

I wonder if this might be the reason why one of my contemporaries is driven into near apoplexy by some of the more popular crime novels he has to review for his newspaper: a novel which is all about turning the pages instead savoring of the pages, the lines, the words, is bound to drive you a bit potty if you come from our background.

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, Irish crime writers manage to keep the pages turning while taking and giving obvious pleasure in the words on those pages.

Not that I could name any Irish crime writers between Liam O'Flaherty and Ken Bruen, but such writers would not have made fun of, say, the aesthetic or spiritual excesses of wiftier followers of Yeats and Lady Gregory? Seems to me there's something to be made fun of there if one wanted to make fun of poets.

Maybe Irish poets got earthier and more sensible in the last third of the twentieth century.

Does your contemporary find crime-fiction prose too lean, too functional?

August 14, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

No. He's much more ecletic and tolerant than I am. I did hear that he threw the latest James Patterson out the living room window though.

However I also think its the nature of the job. I review monthly for the Melbourne Age whereas I think he has to do a weekly column for the Irish Times. That's a lot more crap coming your way.

August 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's one benefit to writing about books my way: I write about what I like and want to write about, which means no shite unless I say so.

August 14, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Three cheers to whoever is throwing James Patterson books out the window, a totally justifiable action.

Lots of readers wouldn't read his books unless we were on a desert island and that was the only reading material--although as some have pointed out, his books would probably be on such desert island because they are everywhere.

Speaking of Irish poets, what about Seamus Heaney? I like his poetry, though I've only read a bit of it.

August 15, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"`He's a bad egg. He doesn't do anything. Writes poetry or something.'"

That sounds like Bertie Wooster.

August 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I had Seamus Heaney in mind then I typed the word "earthy" above:

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pin rest; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

August 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, that does sound Bertie Woosterish, doesn't it, both "He's a bad egg" and "or something." That's the risk when one removes a short passage from its context. There's nothing lighthearted about the passage in the novel, unless any reference to a poet was intended to elicit a chuckle.

August 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've never read any of Patterson's books, and I guess he doesn't even write his own books anymore. But he apparently has rendered good service to the genre -- editing at least one crime-fiction anthology that contained work by some pretty good authors.

August 15, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

It occurs to me that, while I've sneered at Patterson and his "books by committee" or however he does it these days, I shouldn't forget that the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books were written by a team of authors, even though the books had Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon on the cover. What he's doing is not unprecedented.

At that, if he's putting his name on them they must be better than some of the schlock now being produced as "Robert Ludlum's XXXXX."

August 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

House names were also rife in the pulp magazines. But there never was a Carolyn Keene or a Franklin W. Dixon -- no intent to deceive anyone into thinking they were getting the work of a given real, live person. There is a real James Patterson, on the other hand, who lends his name to books he did not write. So I'm not sure the situations are comparable.

August 15, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Go into a bookstore, pick up a Patterson book and look at a few pages, just to be fair--and I'll bet that you put it back on the shelf.

It's formulaic pulp crime fiction to the max.

Appreciate Seamus Heaney's poem here.

I don't think Ireland get the credit due on literature, including poetry.

August 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I was never curious about Patterson because I had not really started reading crime fiction back when he was good or considered so, and most of my reading these days is "foreign" crime fiction. I'm likelier to rent the movie version of "Kiss the Girls."

The Irish get due credit for an illustrious literary tradition, though for most people it stops at Beckett.

August 15, 2010  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

Guy,

You're probably thinking of Death In Holy Orders, in which Emma Lavenham gets hold of one of Dalgliesh's books and reads it.

Dalgliesh's poetry is mentioned in every book, and in one other he writes a poem, after Deborah Riscoe dumps him, if memory serves. He is recognized wherever he goes as the poet detective. PD James makes it clear he's a minor celebrity.

August 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, does Baroness James of Holland Park ever give examples of Dalgliesh's purported poetry? "Too Many Have Lived" gives an example of the character's poetry, and it's not that good.

August 15, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Any Irish women poets? In Ireland, that is.

I haven't heard of any, although I do know of several women historical figures and writers, mystery and non-mystery.

I would like to also know if anyone has read mysteries by Irish women authors, including Arlene Hunt. The only one I've read is Tana French.

August 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not up on my Irish poets, I'm afraid. I know marginally more about Irish female crime writers and can add Alex Barclay to your list. Declan Burke's blog, Crime Always Pays, is a good source for Irish crime fiction, full of reviews and interviews.

August 16, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Dashiell Hammett published at least 4 known short poems between Nov 1925 and Sept 1927.

Burke Pangburn, the poor sap who enlists the help of the Continental Detective Agency in the Hammett short story "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" (1924), was a poet. Of the more dreamy, "delicate aesthete" variety.

August 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Burke Pangborn is a fine name for such a poet (And "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" is a fine story.) I still wonder why such figures kept cropping up in hard-boiled fiction (thought I could be exaggerating the frequency of their occurence). Maybe Hammett and company were rebelling against delicate aestheticism as well as against the conventions of the English detective story.

August 16, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Oh, should have mentioned Robin Thin, Jr., protagonist of 2 Hammett ss. Thin works in his father's detective agency but would much rather be writing poetry. Hammett's versatility is really on display in these stories as Thin is a completely different kind of PI than is the Op. Style and dialog are quite different, too. Thin brilliantly solves the crime as quickly as possible so he can get back to his verse.

These two ss, as well as Raymond Chandler's "Pearls Are a Nuisance," (1939) are gentle pokes at the twinset-and-pearls British detective story of the 1920s-30s.

Anyway, just shows Hammett knew something about poetry.

Anybody ever read what Raymond Chandler described as his early "Grade B Georgian" poetry?

Sample. First verse of 1908's "The Unknown Love":

When the evening sun is slanting,
When the crickets raise their chanting,
And the dew-drops lie a twinkling on the grass,
As I climb the pathway slowly,
With a mien half proud, half lowly,
O'er the ground your feet have trod I gently pass...

Had enough? I thought so. I for one am so glad he tried his hand at crime fiction.

August 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I could probably think of another word that rhymes with grass and pass if I put my mind to it.

The volume I have that contains "Too Many Have Lived" also includes "A Man Called Thin." I'll take a look.

I have been thinking about the Library of America Hammett volumes. First I want to see how much of their contents I already have between other covers. Much of it, if not almost all, I think -- all the novels, certainly.

August 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps the hard-boiled gang poked a bit of gentle fun at itself by writing poets into stories.

August 16, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The LOA Hammetts are worth having for a couple of reasons. Wherever possible, editor Steven Marcus went back to the original sources for the ss and the ss appear in order of their original publication. Having all the novels in one volume is also nice. I realize these reasons are kinda picky for all but Hammett fiends.

For some reason Marcus left out the hilarious "Corkscrew." Perhaps because he doesn't like the blend of crime fiction-western elements...? I have used this story to introduce DH to people who've never read anything by him before.

If it turns out that you have all/almost all the ss in various volumes might I suggest Vince Emery's "Dashiell Hammett: Lost Stories"?

All (at the time of publication) of Hammett's ss and other fiction not published and/or readily available elsewhere appear in this book. Emery's bio of Hammett is also very useful.

I was astonished at Hammett's range of styles and his facility with nearly all of them. Esp like the semi-autobiographical "Holiday", "The Ruffian's Wife" -- convincingly told from a woman's viewpoint, and the clever "The Advertising Man Writes a Love Letter."

August 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marcus was also the editor of at least one Hammett volume that I have. And I shall put "The Ruffian's Wife" because it, too, is in the same volume as "Too Many Have Lived."

August 16, 2010  

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