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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Herndon Davis painted a face on the barroom floor of the Teller House
in Central City, Colorado, in 1936, in honor of a 49-year-old poem
that “thousands of people” had heard “from time to time since childhood.”

Daisy Fried has raised the issue of the public recitation of poetry, which is an interest of mine.

Daisy might be right -- grossly generalizing -- that actors can’t recite poetry well. Maybe so, but who better? I got into the recitation thang via acting; started writing poetry in college in part to feed a performance jones and gave it up for theater, more or less. My first encounter with public recitation of other people’s poetry took place at Chicago theater critic Anthony Adler’s annual solstice/Whitman party, circa 1990, at which people take turns reading “Song of Myself.” The time I went was with a gang of friends from Theater Oobleck, and reading with such fine actors was like a jazz jam. Since then, I’ve hosted numerous reading parties, usually around Christmas, often of a Shakespeare play. (This December we read The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was a blast -- the funniest Shakespeare I’ve read.) We’ve read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in translation) two or three times at our Christmas party -- it’s magnificent to read aloud. We read two Canterbury Tales one Christmas (also in translation), which were just wonderful. Every time we read Shakespeare -- or older poetry -- I initially resist it, wanting to slow it down to understand every word, but once I give that up, the shared experience of reading and listening aloud together is deeply communal and uniquely soul-satisfying. We’re always sure to have lots of food and alcohol, which help too.

At my college reunion last fall I recited two of my college poetry teacher’s epigrams, as well as Leigh Hunt’s poem “Abou Ben Adhem,” which my grandpa had to memorize to join his college fraternity; I had memorized it to please him and so was able to recite it without planning to.

Several years ago I recited Carl Sandburg’s anti-bourgeois diatribe “The Sins of Kalamazoo” at a party at my brother’s house just outside our hometown of Kalamazoo, and it was one of the great performing experiences of my life (though I hadn’t memorized the poem). I’ve recited other poems at parties, around campfires, here and there. Always enjoyable.

100 years ago public recitation was mainstream popular entertainment. I’m always on the lookout for collections of “popular verse” and “ballads.” Last week I found one for 18 cents, from the 1950s, compiled by an elderly actor, director, and playwright named Charles O’Brien Kennedy, who had been a friend to Eugene O’Neill, Don Marquis, and the Barrymores. Kennedy’s note to the once-famous, now-obscure 19th century ballad “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy, gives some of the flavor of cultural practices long gone.

Hughie D'Arcy always insisted to me that the title of his celebrated work was not "The Face on the Barroom Floor" but "The Face on the Floor." I reluctantly bow to popular usage and include "Barroom" in the title. Maurice Barrymore, brilliant father of Ethel, John, and Lionel, spread the ballad's fame by his recitation. Years after, when I was playing with the two boys in "The Jest," Hughie sent them an autographed copy. Seated in his dressing room, Jack read it to Lionel and me with the pathos that only Jack could command.

The poem itself is a fantastically sentimental Victorian job, with a touch of Victorian racism, and curious pre-sentiments of 20th century pop. The story takes place in Joe’s bar, who is at one point urged to “Fill her up, Joe,” very much like the line in the Arlen-Mercer song, “One for My Baby” -- “Now set ‘em up, Joe.
Here is the poem, if you’re interested.

(I just found that Charlie Chaplin directed a movie of it in 1914; am curious to see it. Chaplin played the unfortunate drunk who paints the face on the floor; there he is at left, begging a drink.)

(It’s an opera too! The poem is not entirely forgotten.)

More to say, but things to do.

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