I've had an eye out for Boston-themed poetry for a while now, and just came upon a keeper in the 1936 anthology Best Loved Poems of the American People, edited by Hazel Kellerman, editor of the Queries and Answers page of the New York Times Book Review for 15 years. Ms Kellerman received inquiries for favorite poems over the years, and collected them in this volume.
When I saw Dover street in the first line of this poem, I knew I had to look. The name of the poet was not familiar to me, but many if not most of the poems in the collection were not written by 'name' poets, and would never be anthologized today. In fact, the book is full of the kind of verse one would expect from the popular culture of the time - inspirational, patriotic, motherhood, humor, etc. It was when I looked up the author's name that things got interesting.
James Norman Hall was born in Iowa in 1887, and graduated from Grinnell College in 1910. He then moved to Boston to get a Master's degree in writing at Harvard. In England at the start of World War I, Hall enlisted in Lord Kitchener's Volunteers. Returning to the States (and Boston), he wrote his first book, Kitchener's Mob, the first pro-British book of the war. After returning to the war and winning the Croix de Guerre, the returned to the United States. In 1920, Hall moved to Tahiti, and with his writing partner, Charles Nordhoff, wrote many books, including Mutiny on the Bounty. Who knew? I'm one of the many people who saw the movie but never read the book.
At some point during his time in Boston, Hall wrote the following poem. A bit of a clunker, no doubt, but I think the plain-spoken language fits the topic.
Eat And Walk
James Norman Hall
There's a three-penny lunch on Dover street
With a cardboard sign in the window: Eat.
Three steps down to the basement room,
Two gas jets in a sea of gloom;
Four-square counter, stove in the center,
Heavy odor of food as you enter;
A kettle of soup as large as a vat,
Potatoes, cabbage, morsels of fat.
Bubbling up in a savory smoke -
Food for the Gods when the Gods are broke.
A wreaked divinity serving it up,
A hunk of bread and a steaming cup;
Three penny each, or two for a nickel,
An extra cent for a relish of pickle.
Slopping it up, no time for the graces -
Why should they come, these men with faces
Gaunt with hunger, battered with weather
In walking the streets for days together?
No delicate sipping, no leisurely talk -
The rule of the place is Eat and Walk.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
I just found another Boston history blog that's definitely worth a look: Irish Boston History and Heritage. My own Boston Irish history only goes back one generation - my father's family spent time in East Cambridge before moving across the river.
Posted by Mark B. at 11:32 AM