August 31, 2014

Dorothy Parker, Winnie the Pooh, and a proofreader's Fail

Two recent birthday shout-outs on social media that spoke to me were those for Winnie the Pooh on August 21, the anniversary of the day in 1921 when the real-life Christopher Robin received him as a present, and those for Dorothy Parker, poet, short-story writer, critic and notorious wit, on August 22, she having been born on that day in 1893, across the Atlantic in New Jersey, USA. Not just because I am a fan of both, but because coincidences delight me, and this is a very good one, especially when you add in a third august anniversary: August 25, 1928:  the day Dorothy Parker's famous review of The House at Pooh Corner came out in The New Yorker. The one where she sentenced "Tonstant Weader fwowed up".

Harold Ross had started up The New Yorker in 1925, and Dorothy Parker, a fellow-member of that Algonquin Round Table characterized by liquid lunches and sharp wit, was a contributor from the second issue on. She was perfect for the The New Yorker in its early, non-establishment era, of course, being fresh, urbane, sophisticated, and funny, and within a couple of years had found her niche as the author of the popular Reading and Writing column, signing herself Constant Reader, a term from Victorian times used when writing letters to the editor. Charles Dickens, for example, is noted for having written a Constant Reader letter to the Daily News, complaining about their numerous typos, and also the Editor's reply to the letter.

(Keep in mind: typos.)

Here's the story of Miss Parker's review of The House at Pooh Corner, as told by Marlene Wagman-Geller in  Eureka! : the surprising stories behind the ideas that shaped the world:

The House at Pooh Corner proved to be one pot of honey too many for the acerbic critic. The breaking point for Parker was when Pooh revealed that he added the "tiddely pom" to his Outdoor Song which Has To Be Sung In The Snow "to make it more hummy". Her caustic ink stated, "And it is that word 'hummy,' my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up."

Now, here's what Dorothy Parker's obituary in the New York Times, as posted by the Dorothy Parker Society on their website, has to say about the review:

Book Briefly Dismissed
She reduced A.A. Milne's sugary "The House at Pooh Corner" to water by remarking that "Tonstant Weader Fwowed up" after reading one too many of the word "tummy."

Tummy! Tummy!

Can't you just hear the proofreader?  "Hummy! What's a hummy? She can't have said hummy! It must be a ...a... tummy! That'll be it!"

You just know that mistake would not have been in the original obituary, which was written by the legendary Alden Whitman, the man who made an art of the obituary, the inventor of the "Interview with the still-living", the one where he'd meet with the meritorious before they died to get the story for the obituary he would eventually write for them. Apparently they quite welcomed the chance.

I found Alden Whitman's own obituary in the The New York Times, in their archives.You have to wonder if it were one that he wrote for himself. It does sound like it:
Mr. Whitman, short, amiable and professorial, worked 13 years as an editor on metropolitan and national copy desks of The Times. He became something of a clubman and literary figure in his later life, writing book reviews for The Times and other publications and donning a cape to sally from newsroom for luncheons with authors. 

Now, Mr Whitman would have read Dorothy Parker's review. But even if he hadn't, anyone who was a child in the '20s, as he was, and later a father of four children, would know that Winnie the Pooh is full of hums, Good Hums, Hopeful Hums, all sorts of hums, all modified with capitalised adjectives, as was A.A. Milnes's way, and that of any number of writers attempting to emulate the sacred mysteries of childhood, an annoying habit on their part which Miss Parker did not point out but could have.

Whereas 'tummy' not only does not appear in The House at Pooh Corner, but is simply not a word jazz-agers have trouble with, however much the Dorothy Parker Society might think they do. We even have the story of Hemingway on a clothes-buying expedition at Abercrombies exchanging quips with the belt clerk about his "hard tummy" (punching himself in the stomach with the clerk's hand), courtesy of Lillian Ross's Portrait of Hemingway, which first appeared in ... The New Yorker!

August 26, 2014

Poetry in the City

To celebrate National Poetry Day, this month we took poetry out of the library and into the city streets, or more exactly, onto the city walls. The very cool Phantom Billstickers designed, printed and put up nearly a hundred poetry posters featuring works by Michele Leggott, Robert Sullivan, Selina Tusitala Marsh, John Newton, Murray Edmond, Alice Miller, Jack Ross, Ya-Wen Ho, and Makyla Curtis, stars of this year's Poetry Central, the gig we put on every year with nzepc on Poetry Day.


Here's a shot of Rutland St, where I loved seeing the poster of John Newton's poem "Kerouac, somewhere near Billings, Montana" juxtaposed with posters for "Sunset Road".

Summer, 1975. Rotorua, New Zealand … Jimi Hendrix, motorbikes, ika mata and dawn raids… it’s the scene of Tawata Productions’ new play Sunset Road, by Miria George.

is what the show's producers say about "Sunset Road".

Winter, 1949. Billings, Montana... Jack Kerouac, Greyhound bus, the memory of a girl, the night... it's the episode from Kerouac's journals which inspired this poem. 

is how John introduced his poem at Poetry Central.

And here is the poem, of which John gave a masterful reading before dashing out the door -- "Off to Moscow!" I heard someone say, and thought it was a reference to Ferlinghetti's "Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow", a friendly salute to John's artistic prowess, but it turns out he really is going to the white stone city. Still, the metaphor would hardly have been amiss.

Kerouac, somewhere near Billings, Montana

Beneath the outline of his face, in the smoky window
of the Greyhound bus, the atavistic continent,
its pitch-black mountains, its steel-grey rivers,
scrolls by him. Knight of the Dolorous Countenance.
Here is the west of his mislaid connections: neighbourhood
softball games under floodlights, a girl in bright denims
with strawberry hair, a fatherly face among the wind-beaten ranchers
at the card tables back in some beer joint in Butte.
In every valley there's a single light, and every light
is a family's love, and the inky night between them expands
in his chest. With his hand in his trousers
he comforts himself, adrift in the darkness and solitary joy
of an epic grief that could almost be real, that
could almost be something else, minor, too painful to touch.

-- John Newton

Poets and posters at Poetry Central 2014
The poets with their posters at Poetry Central 2014


You can read about Kerouac's bus trip through Montana in his journals, published as Windblown world : the journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954Deftly and unobtrusively edited by Douglas Brinkley, they make a great read for Kerouac fans, or, if you're not already a fan, might get you heading down the Kerouac road.

John Newton's books of poetry are Lives of the Poets (2010) and  Family Songbook (2013). He is also the author of  The double rainbow : James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem commune.

nzepc, which celebrated its thirteenth birthday at our Poetry Day gig, is the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, an electronic gateway to poetry resources in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Pacific region, based at the University of Auckland.

To learn more about the Phantom Billstickers, visit www.0800phantom.

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