March 20, 2019

The Federal Writers' Project

In March of 1933, a newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special session of Congress and began the first hundred days of enacting his New Deal legislation. You probably had a history class that talked about the almost daily bills that were passed, including the Emergency Banking Act, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. It seems more incredible today in a time when Congress has so many problems agreeing on and passing any legislation.

One of the New Deal’s cultural programs that may not have gotten any attention in history class is worth noting. That is the Federal Writers’ Project. It is a program that would seem almost impossible to get support for in the current administration.

The project employed more than 6,600 out-of-work writers, editors, and researchers. Some of the names are familiar — Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Conrad Aiken, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, May Swenson, Richard Wright — but many of them were struggling writers who were not famous and did not become well known.

The benefits were minimal subsistence wages of around $20 a week.

One of the main writing projects was the American Guides Series. They were guidebooks to to each of the existing states of the time, as well as Alaska, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and several major cities and highways. But beyond being travel guides, they also had essays on various subjects from geography and history to architecture and commerce.

Another project was to collect the life histories of more than 10,000 Americans under the direction of folklore editor Benjamin A. Botkin. The writers interviewed people of all socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. They also collected first-person accounts of more than 2,300 former slaves, which were assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the 17-volume “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.”

Not everyone saw value in the FWP. Opponents of President Roosevelt thought the New Deal would ruin the country, and some considered the New Deal a Communist plot.

Poet W.H. Auden called it “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state.”

The FWP produced 275 books, 700 pamphlets, and 340 “issuances” — assorted leaflets, radio scripts, and articles. Although states were permitted to continue Writers’ Project programs until 1943, the federal program was terminated in 1939, due to the country’s need for a larger defense budget.

A National Endowment for the Humanities-funded documentary about the Federal Writers' Project, entitled Soul of a People: Writing America's Story premiered on the Smithsonian Channel in September 2009. The film includes interviews with notable American authors Studs Terkel, Stetson Kennedy, and popular American historian Douglas Brinkley. The companion book is Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America.

The Slave Narratives are represented by the HBO documentary, Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives which features actors such as Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson performing dramatic readings of the transcripts.

The 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, by Tim Robbins, while depicting the events of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), dramatizes the attacks against Federal One (via the House Committee on Un-American Activities) which helped shutter both the thaeter (FTP) and the writers (FWP) projects.

Source: The Writer's Almanac


March 13, 2019

There Will Come Soft Rains

There Will Come Soft Rains
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

I posted this poem on another blog as a follow-up to a post  on the disappearance of humans from the Earth. “There Will Come Soft Rains,” is a 1918 poem by Sara Teasdale. The poem imagines nature reclaiming Earth after a war that has led to human extinction. It is interesting that she wrote this poem 25 years before the invention of nuclear weapons.
Ray Bradbury wrote a story in 1950 that used Teasdale’s title as its title. The story shows us a world in which the human race has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Bradbury was writing during the “Cold War” era when the devastating effects of nuclear force was frequently in the news.

March 8, 2019

Dr. Seuss and Trisyllabic Meter

Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, is our featured poet for this month's prompt. The author of more than 60 children’s books majored in English at Dartmouth and was the editor and a contributor to the campus humor magazine.

He was caught drinking gin on campus (this was Prohibition, so it was definitely illegal). He was forced to resign from all of his extracurricular activities, including the humor magazine. But he continued to write for the magazine but signed his work with his mother’s maiden name, Seuss.

He published his first children’s book in 1937. He said that the book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was inspired by the rhythms of a steamliner cruiser he was on.

That book, and much of the rest of his life’s work, was written in rhyming anapestic meter, also called trisyllabic meter.

The meter is made up of two weak beats followed by a stressed syllable.
And today the Great Yertle, that Marvelous he
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
He was a serious writer and spent a long time revising. In The Cat in the Hat, he wanted to limit the vocabulary for his young readers. The book has only 220 different words but is 1702 words long.

Like any poet, he struggled to get every line correct. He once said: “Writing for children is murder. A chapter has to be boiled down to a paragraph. Every word has to count.”

March 4, 2019

Prompt: Like a Seuss

“From there to here, and here to there,
funny things are everywhere.”
- from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss

For this month, we are writing poems in the style of Theodore Geisel - better known as Dr. Seuss. Is he a poet? We certainly think of him as a children's book author and we know he uses rhyme, but few people think of his books as poems. If you take a look at one of his books in its entirety, using his line breaks, it certainly looks and sounds like a poem. Take a look at Oh, The Places You'll Go  as one poem.

Dr. Seuss came into being partly because of a 1950s report on illiteracy among American school children called "Why Johnny Can't Read." That report placed part of the blame on boring children's books. Random House and Houghton Mifflin commissioned a young author and illustrator named Theodore Geisel to create a new vocabulary primer that would inspire and excite its readers. He wrote The Cat in the Hat and became Dr. Seuss.

Rhyme and repetition were clearly two of the poetic tools Seuss used. In One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish Seuss uses words that rhyme exactly. These straight rhymes create a simple rhyme scheme.

Did you ever fly a kite in bed?
Did you ever walk with ten cats on your head?
Did you ever milk this kind of cow?
Well, we can do it. We know how.
If you never did, you should.
These things are fun and fun is good.

Dr. Seuss did not always use straight rhymes. He sometimes played around with words by using half rhymes - two words that sound alike but don't rhyme exactly - to add a different rhythm to a book. We can find an example of this in Yertle the Turtle.

"You stay in your place while I sit here and rule.
I'm the king of a cow! And I'm the king of a mule!
I'm the king of a house! And a bush! And a cat!
But that isn't all.  I'll do better than that!

My throne shall be higher!" his royal voice thundered.
"So pile up more turtles! I want 'bout two hundred!"

If you say 'thundered' and 'hundred' out loud, you can hear their sneaky half rhyme.

The beauty of many of the rhymes is that the words are unexpected.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
     From: Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’”
     From: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

I meant what I said, and I said what I meant…
An elephant’s faithful, one hundred per cent!
     From: Horton Hatches the Egg

Using the same words and phrases was one way he was able to get young children to read his books on their own. Green Eggs and Ham is a good example of his use of repetition. (This was one of my youngest son's favorite books, though I must admit the repetition drove me a bit mad on the hundreth reading.)

I will not eat them in a house,
I will not eat them with a mouse,
I will not eat them in a box
I will not eat them with a fox,
I will not eat them here or there
I will not eat them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them Sam I Am.

Dr. Seuss had a 53-year career and is one of the most beloved authors of children's books. His clever rhymes, humor, invented words and colorful illustrations continue to capture readers. His books have sold over 220 million copies and have been translated into 15 languages, and beyond the books are the films and merchandise that has no poet competition.

In that first book,The Cat in the Hat, there is less repetition and more of a narrative, which might be the approach you take in your poem this month.

Then our mother came in
And she said to us two,
"Did you have any fun?
Tell me. What did you do?"

And Sally and I did not
know what to say.
Should we tell her
The things that went on
there that day?

Well... what would YOU do
If your mother asked you?

His book The Lorax has become an environmental classic that is read by children and adults. Though it is a light-hearted story, it is also a cautionary tale. It has a message about taking collective responsibility for the stewardship of the environment. Not doing so would mean our own world will soon be like the one that the Lorax left behind.

I am the Lorax.
I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees,
for the trees have no tongues.

I meant no harm.
I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger.
So bigger I got.

Oh, the Places You'll Go! (1990) is his last book to be published during his lifetime. The book concerns the journey of life and its challenges. It has become a popular gift for high school and college graduates and also for retirees.

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

Though it has much of Seuss' style, it also has a narrator and the reader as characters. A young boy, the "you", is the reader and it is written in second person and uses future tense. YOU is setting forth on an adventure which may be starting kindergarten or college or a new job or retirement.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

The book is very much about making good choices as you choose the "streets" you will go down, and hopefully avoid ones that are "not-so-good."

You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care.
About some you will say, 'I don't choose to go there.'
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And there is also the possibility that none of the usual streets will be to your liking (a road not taken?) and so you have the option to head "out of town."

And you may not find any
you'll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you'll head straight out of town.
It's opener there
in the wide open air.
Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.
And then things start to happen,
don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along.
You'll start happening too.

This month's prompt is to write in the style of Dr. Seuss. Does that mean a "children's poem?"  Not at all. We would expect rhyme, some half rhyme, some repetition, perhaps some invented wordplay. Be clever with your theme or message, if there is one. Of course, all that cleverness can be used to entertain too.

Submission Deadline: March 30, 2019

March 2, 2019

Dear March

snow on the maples - via Wikimedia

In my part of the Northeast, March came in like a lion with a roar of snow. 

So far, it has not been mad like a March Hare - but the month is young.

Let's start the month with this poem from Emily Dickinson that looks at the month when it is a bit older and there are some leaves and colors. 

Dear March - Come in -
How glad I am -
I hoped for you before -
Put down your Hat -
You must have walked -
How out of Breath you are -
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest -
Did you leave Nature well -
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me -
I have so much to tell -

I got your Letter, and the Birds -
The Maples never knew that you were coming -
I declare - how Red their Faces grew -
But March, forgive me -
And all those Hills you left for me to Hue -
There was no Purple suitable -
You took it all with you -

Who knocks? That April -
Lock the Door -