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From Poetry Magazine

Double murders & Pound in pidgin

By Lindsay Garbutt

If you’ve taken a peek at the January issue of Poetry, you might have noticed something new on the last page. In honor of Poetry’s centennial, each month the magazine will be reprinting an artifact from the magazine’s history at the back of the issue.

Paul Durica has been combing through Poetry’s archives month-by-month and he surfaces each time with so many great finds that it’s hard to choose just one. To bring a few more of these images to light, we’ll be posting from time to time what we’re calling “Back Page B-Sides”—images from Poetry’s history that didn’t make it into the print issue, but that are too good to forget.

In this edition, we’d like to shine the spotlight on two gems from the January 1925 issue:

In September 1924, Methodist minister Lawrence Hight and his alleged lover Elsie Sweeten were tried for murdering their respective spouses with arsenic. At the joint trial, the two turned against each other, with Sweeten claiming she was never Hight’s lover and was coerced by him into signing a confession.

Alva N. Turner, who published several poems in poetry, was apparently present at this trial and wrote the above poem, “The Psychological Moment of Love,” based on the scandalous story. It’s clear where his sympathies lie:

She answered the last embrace
Of the arms of the commonplace preacher,
With the thin hair, thinning,
With wrinkles and suspected wrinkles.
They were short arms, like his heavy short body,
And suggestive of his helpless short hope.

Hight was sentenced to life, while Elsie receive thirty-five years but was acquitted at her second trial held in 1927. You can read the full poem here and view a scan of a front page story on the trial, complete with photo of Hight, here.

The January 1925 issue also includes poems by Yvor Winters, Witter Bynner, and others. It was in the News Notes section, near the end of the issue, that we found another unusual offering:

A frequent Poetry contributor, Clifford Franklin Gessler lived in Hawaii and wrote many poems about his adopted state. (See Poetry’s October 1924 issue for his “Beorhtgar to the Dusk-Woman of the Sea-Caves”.) In this issue, we learn more about the extent of Gessler’s Hawaiian interests.

Gessler and his friend Mike Mitchell were creating “Hawaiian Pidgin poems” and had decided to translate some work by Poetry foreign correspondent, Ezra Pound. Gessler sent the editors Mitchell’s translation of Pound’s “An Immorality.”

“For our readers’ enlightenment,” the editors wrote, “we quote both versions”:

Sing we for love and idleness—
Naught else is worth the having.

Though I have been in many a land
There is naught else in living.

And I would rather have my sweet
Though rose-leaves die of grieving

Than do high deeds in Hungary
To pass all men’s believing.

Mr. Mitchell’s islanders improve the poem thus (the words needing explanation are wuhine–woman; hanahana–work; pau–finished; holu holu–run about; make, pronounced mucky–dead):

Wahine, hanahana pau
Be number one we sing.
Spose holuholu anyside
More better anything.
I like more better this time play
(For bimeby make, doh)
Be too much smartuh, people speak:
“I think so, I dunno.”

There you have it. Many thanks to Paul Durica for all his sleuthing. You can do your own hunting in the Poetry archive online. If you find something interesting or odd, be sure to let us know at editors@poetrymagazine.org.

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Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 by Lindsay Garbutt.