Poetry by the Pennyworth

‘FOR SALE — Beautiful poems, 35 titles, all new, 35¢. Peter Wilson, Junior, R.F.D. 3, White Mount, Georgia.’

For some weeks this item, persistently recurrent in my home-paper advertising columns, has cheered my heart, for I perceive that there are others who, like me, regard poetry as a commodity worth purchasing. I am comforted also to observe that poems may still be had cheap; the price of singing has not gone up with the price of living; where could one buy thirty-five eggs, ‘all new,’ for thirty-five cents? But when the generous ‘Junior’ named his price, did he regard himself as a giver or a getter? Exactly how does a Parnassian reckon his worth in dollars and cents to a Philistine public?

The relation between a poem and a penny needs subtle arithmetic on a poet’s part, as also it demands some canny ciphering on the part of the purchaser. A certain present-day poet was once accustomed to leave to the buyer’s conscience the amount due him. I do not know whether this poet still trudges highway and byway as once he did, offering to sing his rhymes in exchange for bread; but when he did so sing, I wonder how it worked. Did he feel that he received his singing’s worth in supper? Did his listeners feel that they received their suppers’ worth in singing?

Payment for poetry is a matter as precarious for the purchaser as for the poet, because people who pay good money for verse usually have very little money for verse or anything else. Only poor people buy poetry, or want to. The number of inglorious Miltons is small compared with the number of inglorious Mæcenases who would be princely patrons of poesy if Providence had not made them paupers instead. Rich men are too thrifty to risk their dollars on rhymes; and unfortunately for that poor man who loves a lyric as the drunkard loves a dram, the bookseller is also too canny to venture his money on the exhibition of any lyric wares not tested by time. Bookshop counters do not afford us pauper-purchasers the opportunity to taste and sample before we buy, since it is not the Classics that we want, for long since they became flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone; but we crave the magic and the melody of present-day song. Poetry by mail-order is hazardous, for often enough some fugitive rhyme that has lured us with promise proves the only one of its kind, and the book turns blank in our hands, when we had thought we were buying beauty, and had gone without boots and beefsteak to buy it, too! Yet whether the result of purchasing poetry from a publisher’s catalogue, ’sight unseen,’ be delight or delusion, we who have an unquenchable thirst for the wine of song will probably go on daring our last dollar for the draught divine.

I began to be a drunkard on my seventh birthday. On that date there came into my life a volume called The Child’s Book of Songs. Before that time poetry had rung about my head, but somewhat over my head, too; now first I entered my into heritage of sheer inebriety. At seven I was rawly sensitive to the Weltschmerz: perhaps a little playmate had been whipped; perhaps there was sinister crêpe fluttering on a neighbor’s door; perhaps remorse for my sins shook me with wild tears — in the Book of Songs there was glorious forgetting! ‘Souls of poets dead and gone’ welcomed me to their Elysium from a world, even at seven years, too grim and gray. That book walked and worked and slept and played with me — always alone, for I knew better than to ask any companion to share my orgies of joy. Alone in some secret spot I declaimed ‘The Battle of Ivry,’ or shuddered as the high tide crept up the coast of Lincolnshire, or, daughter of Netherby, I was swept from dance-lit hall to starlit midnight flight, the bride of Lochinvar. Thus first I tippled drink divine; and ever since I opened the wrappings of that fateful gift-book, to find the wine of wonder, every volume of poetry has seemed to me a sealed flagon of fairy mead. Ever since then I have been insatiably athirst; alas for the obduracy of life, which always, before I may lift the draught to my lips, prosaically demands, ‘Show me first your penny’!

Have you ever pared down a budget with a view to buying song with the scrapings — deleting furbelows and feathers, and even shoe-leather, in order to have perhaps a whole frenzied fiver to spend on poesy? For five dollars you may buy at least three whole poets and a fraction of another. Fortunately for such as I am, the new wine is still cheap. Only the old poets, long bottled and labeled, are put up in fancy editions. For pence blessedly few one may envisage Ralph Hodgson’s Eve: —

Eve, with her basket, was
Deep in the bells and grass,
Wading in bells and grass,
Up to her knees.
Picture that orchard sprite,
Eve, with her body white,
Supple and smooth to her
Slim finger-tips.
Wondering, listening,
Listening, wondering,
Eve with a berry
Half-way to her lips.

For less than one round silver dollar one may be enwrapped in the wizardry of Walter de la Mare: —

’T was autumn daybreak gold and wild,
When past St. Ann’s grey tower they shuffled;
Three beggars spied a fairy-child
In crimson mantle muffled.
The daybreak lighted up her face
All pink and sharp and emerald-eyed.

For but a few shillings one may throb to the immortal pulse of Israel in Lola Ridge’s ‘Ghetto.’ Is he not worth buying, her patriarch of the push-carts?

His soul is like a rock
That bears a front worn smooth
To the coarse friction of the sea,
And unperturbed he keeps his bitter peace.
What if a rigid arm and stuffed blue shape,
Backed by a nickel star,
Does prod him on,
Taking his proud patience for humility —
All gutters are as one
To that old race that has been thrust
From off the curb-stones of the world —
And he smiles with the pale irony
Of one who holds
The wisdom of the Talmud stored away
In his mind’s lavender.

For less than the cost of a dinner one may walk with Francis Ledwidge down a leafy alley melodious with blackbirds and white with thorn in blossom. Surely for such as him there are green Irish lanes in heaven — ‘ If it were not so, I would have told you!’

Surely a day must dawn when earth’s merchantmen will no longer stupidly sell their young poets, both those mute and those musical, to that red customer, War.

I saw with open eyes
Singing-birds sweet
Sold in the shops
For the people to eat,
Sold in the shops of
Stupidity Street.
I saw in vision
The worm in the wheat,
And in the shops nothing
For people to eat;
Nothing for sale in
Stupidity Street.

I have perhaps sufficiently proved my claim to inebriety. That first cup, at seven, yet fires my veins with thirst. Two characteristics of that infantine indulgence persist. For one, I still, for the most part, drink alone. Few people can share my uncritical abandon to sheer joy, I, who

When a bird sings me heart-music,
Don’t ’spicion the size of its throat.

Others rebuke me that I desire new wine rather than be content with the old. I grant that the world would not be the same place without Wordsworth, or Keats, or Browning; but surely the older poets, now securely immortal, remembering their hard entrance into fame, would have their lovers welcome new singers. I hold there is strength and sparkle in the wine that our young poets are pouring; and yet so few of my acquaintance share my conviction that, when a fresh pennyworth of poetry comes to me from the publishers, I still, as at seven, quaff in solitude.

In another respect the poetry of to-day appeals in the same way that poetry first affected me; it is still to me romance and release. The world at present is dark with portent and pain. But in the murk how many young singers are chanting to an unseen morning! Probably these are not great poets, but they are brave and sincere, and often they are jocund with an inexplicable confidence. The wine of their singing is a magic dawn-draught, strengthening one against the darkness of the night. There is striking individuality in the notes one hears, as if little birds, each alone in his dark covert, should, each alone, break forth with his own message of hope, each severally convinced of sunrise. A pennyworth is small price to pay for such high hopefulness, and for the faith that, when there is such confident choiring, there must surely be a dawn.