05 September 2008

Quite Different

The poetry editor of Guernica sent me this link to "Only Different," a new poem by Richard Howard in that online magazine. It imagines a correspondence among L. Frank Baum, Henry James, William James's daughter Margaret, and her future husband Bruce Porter, all circling around the Hotel del Coronado. Both James and Baum stayed at that hotel in the early 1900s, along with many other rich people.

So for Poetry Friday I'll be so bold as to quote some lines from near the end, in Porter's voice:

we learned that L. Frank Baum,
author of a couple of fantastic
(and fantastically popular) books
for children, more or less, was living on
what Henry James calls
the lagniappe of such
popularity in the same hotel;
perhaps it was the inordinateness
of the Del Coronado, a really
extravagant resort, which inspired
our scheme: we proposed to this pair of
antithetical literary lights
who, I was rightly sure, had never heard
of one another, that they have what their
various readers would nevertheless
view as a veritable “author’s lunch”.
Along the way we learn that the fictional Henry James dislikes Tip's transformation into Ozma in The Marvelous Land of Oz, and that the fictional L. Frank Baum has been corresponding with William James at Harvard.

I have to say I don't recognize that fictional Baum at all, calling What Maisie Knew "line after crapulous line" and quoting William's criticism of American "worship of the bitch-goddess Success"--he was too Victorian to write like that. And he would never have passed up a possible fun time with another literary celebrity; I doubt Baum would have enjoyed lunch with Henry James, but he wouldn't have known that till he'd tried it.

Howard also has Baum trumpeting Theosophy. I think far more has been written about Baum and Theosophy in the last fifteen years than Baum wrote about it in his lifetime. Yes, he dabbled in those beliefs in the early 1890s, just as he dabbled in a lot of things. Theosophy is such a squishy "system" that people can find its tenets reflected almost anywhere.

The poem suggests that in 1904 Baum had written "but two [books] so far." He'd written only two Oz books, it's true, but he'd written about a dozen others, including an earlier national bestseller, Father Goose. And he was best known for the hit stage extravaganza based on The Wizard of Oz.

I know fact-checking's a poor way to read poetry, but if the poem involves real people I can't help but look for their essence as well as the essence of language. And seeing people I don't recognize is as disappointing as seeing poor word choices.

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