Mari Essay: Newsroom Work Poetry in Twentieth-Century American Journalism

mari
Will Mari, Louisiana State University

I suspect that every media historian at some point sees something in their work that makes them remark (to themselves), “huh, wouldn’t that be a fun article?” This happens in a variety of spaces and places, from dusty archives to late-night reading sessions to the middle of class, to name just a few.

In my case, that thought occurred to me dozens of times while I was reading trade publications such as Editor & Publisher, The Guild Reporter, and Quill. This was during the latter half of graduate school at the University of Washington, while I wrote my dissertation.

My adviser, Richard Kielbowicz, encouraged me to write down my ideas, however far-fetched, and if it was not too distracting, to save some examples of the various bits of temporal flotsam and jetsam that wash up on the shores of any big research project. In this, he was suggesting that I follow the example of the late Harold Innis, and his Idea File.

This collection of musings and proposed projects by Innis was published in 1980, long after his passing. But the concept of an “idea file” continues to inspire me, and I write down “maybe-later” notions in Evernote or even just in Word documents, for other future, possible projects.

In my case, though, the one idea that kept returning to mind was what to do with the hundreds (really, upon hundreds) of poems I had found, peppering the margins of my primary sources.

Written as savvy, sarcastic, or even savage commentary on newsroom life, these often badly rhymed occupational ditties—doggerel, in many cases—were composed by reporters about other news workers, their day-to-day lives, and, of course, editors.

I had, in fact, tried to add some of these to my dissertation. Perhaps to Richard’s surprise, I had included several dozen choice instances, often in awkward block quotes, in my dissertation’s early, messy drafts.

“Why don’t you put these into an appendix,” he gently told me. “Who knows? Maybe they can become an article of their own someday.”

He was right.

Newsroom poetry as historical evidence

While I talk more formally about this in the article published in the December 2020 issue of Journalism History, newsroom poetry is a form of blue-collar or working-class poetry, as produced by reporters and editors in the industrial newsrooms of the early-to-mid-twentieth century. Jim Daniels calls this, explicitly, “work poetry.”[i] This writing has received some scholarly attention, but not nearly enough, Daniels and others have pointed out. Some exceptions include work by poets about other poets.

Denise Levertov celebrated the working-class poet Susan Eisenberg, and Archibald MacLeish advocated for closer connections between journalism and poetry, for example.[ii] Literary historians have also been interested in poetry by journalists, though often about the wider world, or about the news, and not so much about journalism itself and its processes and predicaments.[iii] With media history, Howard Good has written about depictions of journalists in poetry (and in movies and novels).[iv]

And so I had a strong, if maybe a little spotty, foundation of good research to work with and to cite (which is always nice). But as for the poems themselves, I confess that at first I had a challenging time thinking of them as historical texts, or artifacts, in their own right.

They were embedded in a rich newsroom culture that was gradually becoming professionalized, partially as a result of working in newsrooms together, and partially due to outside forces, such as the influence of journalism education and, eventually, by competition with radio and TV news. This is something I talk about in my forthcoming book for the University of Missouri Press.

Poems in context

So, that being said, I did not want to divorce these poems—and their mostly anonymous or rank-and-file (i.e. not famous) authors—from that context. In reading through a select sample again, then, I tried to read them in conversation with each other.

In some cases, they were in conversation with each other, as with the back-and-forth poem between copy editors and reporters that is featured in the article.[v] This dynamic can also be seen in poems about editors, more generally, and is something I tried hard to bring into the piece.

Whereas before, when I had plopped all these odd, intense, wacky and sometimes funny poems in an appendix, I had done the opposite of showing them as alive and pinned to bulletin boards, written on night shifts or out in the field (among other places). I had inadvertently stuck them like butterfly wings to a corkboard—they had been preserved, but not really shown as the dynamic, vivid creations that they were, reflecting the creative, agency-possessing newsroom people who wrote them.

But an article-length study, thanks to the editors and reviewers of Journalism History, helped me do that needed illumination, allowing the poems to breathe on the page and to be appreciated for what they were—not as accidents of history or castoff, tangential thoughts, but real reflections of the ironies and absurdities of newsroom life.

Our journal provides the supportive and scholarly space for research that would not have a home elsewhere, but that can and should speak to other fields.

Future directions

I suspect that another study, one looking at newsroom poetry in the latter half of the Cold War and then in the 1990s and 2000s, might be worth pursuing, as these poems were common in trade publications throughout that era. Even more massive changes marked this time of transition, including newsroom computerization, the rise of the commercial internet, and the financial hardships of the digital transformation of journalism.

From Henry Edward Warner, to David Tucker to Eliza Griswold, journalists and poetry have coexisted for a reason: the fluid, contemporary nature of verse, even as its aesthetic quality varies, allows news workers to speak honestly about what has been, and will be, important to them.

I, for one, cannot wait to read more newsroom poems. Even the “bad” ones.

Notes

[i]  Jim Daniels, “Work Poetry and Working-class Poetry: The Zip Code of the Heart,” in New Working-Class Studies (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2005), 114, 115, 134–37.

[ii] See Levertov’s introduction to Susan Eisenberg, see It’s a Good Thing I’m Not Macho (Boston, MA: Whetstone Press, 1984); Archibald MacLeish, Poetry and Journalism (Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Press, 1969), 7, 8.

[iii] Elizabeth Lorang, “American Poetry and the Daily Newspaper from the Rise of the Penny Press to the New Journalism” (Dissertation, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2010), 3.

[iv] Howard Good, “The Image of Journalism in American Poetry,” American Journalism 4, no. 3 (1987): 123–32;

[v] “Hal Kallenburg,“Point of view,” Feb. 14, 1958, Guild Reporter, p. 4

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