Blog Post

Stealing Poetry in North Platte, Nebraska

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I, II, III 

Michael C. Cohen begins his new book The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) with a few examples of scenes in novels that center on characters' interactions with poetry but that don't, in fact, include the poems themselves. In William Dean Howells's The Minister's Charge (1886), for example, young hotel clerk and aspiring poet Lemeul Baker is asked to read aloud a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, and although he reads it, and although characters respond to it with sighs and yawns, and although they debate if a Longfellow poem would have sufficed just as well, we are never told the poem's title, nor are we made privy to its actual text. Similarly, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Huck finds Emmeline's scrapbook, and although he describes her process of writing "tribute" poems for the recently deceased, and although he describes how he "tried to sweat out a verse or two myself" on the occasion of Emmeline's death, we never get to see what Huck reads or what he writes.

With the text of the poems rendered unavailable, Cohen is interested in what remains—how these scenes produce or record the effects of poems. With no "words, words, words" to distract us, we scholars can use these moments to gauge how "[t]he missing poems structure social relations (private conversations, public tributes) between men and women, individuals and institutions, and the living and the dead." In other words, the poems that Howells and Twain reference "are so generic as to have no identity and need none," because the scenes they structure focus on meanings made via literature but "outside of a model based on literary analysis." Yes, Virginia, there is life beyond literary analysis.

I haven't read all of Cohen's book yet—truth be told, I've only read this far into the Introduction—but his opening discussion made me think about all of the times that someone or other has claimed that poetry is dead or dying, that few if any people read it, or that it's simply not a popular art. I'm so tired of these discussions that I can't believe I'm actually writing about them here, except that Cohen made me realize that such discussions, like the scenes in The Minister's Charge and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, revolve around missing or absent poems. That is, no one ever cites any examples of poems that are not popular or that are in fact declining in popularity. In the big cocktail bar or drawing room or hotel lobby of this "debate," we're told that poems aren't being read. People fret or don't fret about the fact that poems aren't being read. They sigh. They yawn. And, with no one getting distracted by all of the poems that actually are circulating via all types of media in American culture, the scene of this cocktail bar as some novelist would draw it focuses thus on the effects of those missing poems—on the social relations between men and women, individuals and institutions, and the living and the dead that they structure. Every discussion about poetry's lack of popularity in fact makes poetry both more and less popular. Such discussions make poems "so generic as to have no identity and need none" (thus making poems less popular) but counterintuitively produce and sustain more poetry-related social relations (thus making the subject of poetry more popular).

In such discussions, you're likely to come across (cited as proof positive of poetry's unpopularity) how books of poems don't sell, as if the book were the inevitable or natural unit by which the poem should be packaged, delivered, consumed, traded, bought, sold, given, read, or unread—as if, in other words, the measure typically used to determine the popularity of prose were the best measure to determine or measure to popularity of poetry. But the standard unit of poetry is the poem—right?—so why not measure the popularity of poetry via the individual poem as it gets circulated on the radio (in shows like The Writer's Almanac), TV (in shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Orange Is the New Black), the web, the clipping, the quotation, the Chrysler or Mazda advertisement, or the whatever so long as that "whatever" isn't the low-press-run, slim or slender volume that's somehow been designated and fetishized as the best and most legitimate measure of a poet's suceess? I mean, just check out Saul Williams's performance of "Coded Language" on Def Poetry Jam, the YouTube video of which has gotten over two million views. And now that you've checked it out, check out the music video version done with DJ Krust, which checks in at a relatively paltry 300,000 views. How is this not good evidence of poetry's popularity?

I realize that, by citing "Coded Language" and thus mentioning a specific poem, I'm totally breaking the rules of the "poetry isn't popular" conversation, but it finally brings me to the story that I set out to tell you about the string of poetry thefts that's been taking place in North Platte, Nebraska for the past twenty-odd years. It's a fun story. It's an illuminating story that helps to illustrate and even quantify poetry's ongoing popularity away from the world of literary analysis. And while it's the story of a poem that regularly goes missing, I'm going to nevertheless give you the text of that poem in this posting.

I recently completed a six-day, five-night, 2,800-mile road trip from Oregon to Washington, D.C., where I'll spend the Fall 2015 semester writing and researching at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. It was a long ride featuring stops in Boise (Idaho), Rock Springs (Wyoming), North Platte (Nebraska), Iowa City (Iowa), and Bowling Green (Ohio). While in North Platte, I stayed at America's Best Value Inn, an independently-owned, 1950s-style motel that I'd recommend to anyone passing by not just because of its cleanliness, affordability, and level of hospitality, but because of the poem "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" (pictured here) that they've got tacked to the wall in each of the motel's thirty-three rooms. Here's the full text of that verse:

Is anybody happier because you passed his way?
     Does anyone remember that you spoke to him today?
The day is almost over, and its toiling time is through;
     Is there anyone to utter now a kindly word of you?
Can you say tonight, with the day that's slipping fast,
     That you helped a single brother of the many that you passed?
Is a single heart rejoicing over what you did or said;
     Does the man whose hopes were fading, now with courage look ahead?
Did you waste the day, or lose? Was it well or sorely spent?
     Did you leave a trail of kindness, or a scar of discontent?
As you close your eyes in slumber, do you think that God will say,
     "You have earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today." 

If you Google the poem, you'll find several versions of it in circulation (this is a shortened version), and you'll also find that there's some dispute as to its author and title. The America's Best Value Inn version attributes it to John Hall. It's been attributed to John Kendrick Bangs. It's been credited to "anonymous" and has oftentimes appeared with no byline at all. To my ears, it sounds exactly like the "people's poet" Edgar Guest, and, indeed, it's most frequently attributed to him directly or metonymically via Guest's publisher the Detroit Free Press. (For more on Guest's amazing and ongoing presence in popular culture, see my Arcade posting from October, 2013). Over the years, it's appeared as "The Day's Results," "The Day's Work," "At Day's End," "Is Anybody Happier," and "Consider Today." In the world of popular poetry, such authorial confusion, editing, and re-titling is a common thing; see, for example, the poetry of Rod's Steakhouse which I discussed at Poetry & Popular Culture some time back.

In my estimation, "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" is most likely by Guest, and while I haven't found the issue of the Detroit Free Press in which it perhaps originally appeared, it most likely dates to 1916 or 1917, and its publication history is a miniature portrait of just how widely such verse circulated. In January of 1917, it appeared in The Journal of Zoophily, "published monthly under the auspices of the American Antivivisection Society, combined with the Women's Pennsylvania Society for the Preservation of Cruelty of Animals." The Lather, put out by the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers International Union, printed it in 1918. The Los Angeles School Journal and The Bessemer Monthly (put out by the Bessemer Gas Engine Company) printed it in 1919. The Gospel Messenger, The Sabbath Recorder, and the Southern Telephone News printed it in 1920. The Chamber of Commerce and State Manufacturers Journal of Scranton, Pennsylvania, printed it in 1921, The Plasterer in 1922, Vision: A Magazine for Youth in 1932, The Railroad Trainman in 1935, and American Flint in 1950. It continues to be reproduced in books and on web sites today.

You get the idea: the poem going by the title "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" has appealed to a wide audience—labor unions, religious people, youth, animal lovers, civic stakeholders, etc.—for a long time. All the same, after leaving North Platte, and as I put mile after mile of blacktop behind me, I began to wonder if the version of the poem at America's Best Value Inn tell could tell us anything more about how popular the poem continues to be and how audiences today respond to verse that moves them. So when I got to D.C., I gave the Inn a call and talked for a while with the owner Dave.

Dave opened the Inn in 1988 and almost immediately posted copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" in each of the motel's thirty-three rooms. He doesn't remember where he found the poem, and he doesn't know anything about the author, and neither of those things seem to matter much to him. But he did tell me that, over the years, the motel has sustained an average annual occupancy rate of 60-70%. So you can do the math by yourself (but double check mine): at an average of twenty-two rooms per day (65% occupancy), that means that at least 8,000 motel guests (a conservative estimate of only one person per room) have the opportunity to encounter the poem in a single year. Calculate that number over the twenty-seven years the hotel has been open under Dave's management (what I'll call the "poem era"), and you discover that more than 216,000 people have seen "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" just in the rooms of America's Best Value Inn alone.

But—I began to think halfway through my conversation with Dave—just because someone in a hotel room has the opportunity to read a poem doesn't mean he or she has actually read it, or read it with any semblance of seriousness, right? That's when Dave spoke up, as if anticipating my question. Once or twice a day, he said, people walk in to the main office and ask for a copy of the poem; he's got a stack of them behind the desk to give out for free. What's more surprising than that—especially considering the poem's content—is that every day poems go missing from one or two of the motel's rooms, so frequently that the maid carts carry stacks of replacement poems alongside shampoo bottles and tissue boxes. So, once again, let's do the math. If someone steals a poem from the hotel room every day, that's 365 copies stolen over the course of the year—or nearly 10,000 copies that have been stolen since the beginning of the poem era at America's Best Value Inn. Combine those 10,000 copies with the 10,000 or more that Dave has given away at the front desk during that time, and you've got 20,000 or more copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" that people have read and considered closely enough in their motel rooms to take certain and definitive action. How's that for concrete evidence of the poem's continued appeal?

So, Dave's inn has poems on the walls, poems on the maid carts, and poems at the front desk. He's given or lost 20,000 copies of that poem over the past 27 years, and over the phone he seems more than okay with it all, though he does say that, from time to time, someone will call or approach him because they've been offended by "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?," thinking that Dave was in some way prejudging them and telling them to be better hotel guests. But Dave says he's not judging them—not even the folks who steal copies, it seems. Rather, he says the poem's title isn't a judgment or warning but a question, just the way it reads. "I'm wanting them to ask it themselves," he says in that matter-of-fact way that Midwesterners have, like it's meat and potatoes for dinner again. Meat, potatoes, and poetry.

I'm an Associate Professor of English at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where I teach and write about American poetry, especially the intersections of poetry and popular culture. My books are a monograph, Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (Columbia UP, 2012), and a co-edited collection of essays, Poetry after Cultural Studies (U of Iowa P, 2011). I also write and maintain the blog Poetry & Popular Culture. For the Fall 2015 semester, I'll be writing and doing research in residence at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.