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THE POETRY MUTUAL STORY

As many of you know, Poetry Mutual is not the huge company it once was. The current holders of the name and archives have continued on with its illustrious work, but many email us requesting information about the company they grew up with and remembered. We all await the full story of Poetry Mutual. But save for numerous academic dissertations, that full story has yet to be written. Given the long and colorful history of this once dominant global corporation, it will be a hell of a story.

Until that time, we have asked our interns, Kirssten Bradford and Mstislav Wang, to dig through the company's archives and write up some highlights from the company's past. We hope they and other interns will add to this history in the future. D. Vera and M. Gushue

 

The amazing story of Poetry Mutual dates back to 1870s on the hard-driving streets of Washington. For twenty years two rival versemongers, Horace Cormapple and Vladimir Porchinsky, sold poems across the street from each other and waged a fierce competition securing and selling the finest poetry. Cormapple specialized in exquisite bindings and his books wore prominently featured in the finest shoppes in the country, including Philps and Solomons Booksellers near the White House. He gained his reputation and fortune by publishing the first variorum edition of Joel Barlow's "Ode to Hasty Pudding." It was a huge success and went through an unprecedented 12 printings in five years. Porchinsky specialized in more experimental work and "street poetry" from the neighborhoods. He published the bestselling Nell of Murder Row and the popular Swampoodle Scamps Adventure Poems.

Attempting to repeat his success, he rushed into publication Barlow's later work "The Columbiad." The critics were scathing and led to a financial calamity that would force Cormapple to merge with the rival Porchinsky & Son.The new company was known incorporated as Amalgamated Poetry Concern and later Poetry Mutual.

The marriage of Cormapple's daughter Harriet to Porchinsky's son Leopold further cemented the merger. The consolidated family business prospered under the direction of Leopold,who would move to capture the local, regional and national markets through innovative door-to-door fresh poem delivery and national radio and newspaper campaigns.

 

Insuring Poetry
Without any doubt, Poetry Mutual's greatest transformation occurred under the leadership of Albert Corm Porchin (Leopold and Harriet having disposed of their ethnic-sounding names for more acceptable surnames) who pioneered the revolutionary new market of "poetry insurance." Porchin's discovery has become a classic tale in American business lore and was popularized by the 1925 Liberty Films release, Sonnets for All. In the film, Gary Cooper portrays Albert, who, struck by his Eureka moment, exclaims "By Calliope and her Sisters, I've got it!" In his 1928 memoir, Poems More Sweet Please, Porchin himself described his breakthrough:

"I recall I was having a talk with one of our rhyme chaps, Arnie Durrant, who was having a horrid time with an ode to wireless telegraphy. It was a damnable theme, but a customer had requested it for a Masonic convention, so we had to comply. But I got to thinking of putting Arnie together with Phil Manchik, who was a humdinger of a verse jockey in those days. And that's when it hit me! I remember I scared poor old Arnie out of his spats, I was so excited. I thought to myself, what if we insured people against bad poetry? I mean people insure against lesser calamities, why not poems? Later some Hollywood screenwriter got some tonic in him that I'd shouted "By Calliope" or some such twaddle. But that just didn't happen. I've always prided myself on my comportment."

The true story is less dramatic but no less remarkable for the revolutionary breakthrough. No one had thought of insuring against bad writing. The public was skeptical at first and authors took umbrage at the idea of second guessing their writing. But after a clever post-Valentine's Day advertising campaign that capitalized on the bitter effects of bad love poems, policy writers became very busy.

 

The Twenties

No accounting of the Roaring Twenties can be written without Poetry Mutual. During prohibition poetry kept spirits high and proliferated in speakeasies and gin-joints. The firm's popular broadcasts Poetry Time Radio Hour© and Poetry Mutual's Poetry Cavalcade © brought poets like Edgar Arlington Robinson, Ruth Sallow McClatchy and Horace Finster into American living rooms and made them household names. Sales of poetry boomed and more policies were sold to poets desiring excellence and marketability.

Literary prominence came to Poetry Mutual with the successful publication of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, rescued from calamity by Poetry Mutual adjuster Ezra Pound. (Due to Pound's later wartime infamy, he was fired by the company in 1943; Eliot would fail to mention the firm's contributions in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.)

 

The Thirties

Due to prudent investment in foreign poetry exchanges, the firm managed to weather the initial shock of the 1929 stock market crash. But many forget that the Great Depression was exacerbated by the Verse Depression of 1933. Caused by the passage of the Marsden-Hartley Act of 1928, a bill that imposed stiff tariffs on the importation of foreign poetry. Sponsored by Massachusetts Representative Gerald Marsden and Montana Senator Bill "Happy" Hartley, the act sought to protect key poetry producing regions of the country, New England's poetry mills and the Cowboy Odal Region of the Rockies.

In the long run, the act provoked retaliatory measures from European literary powerhouses, which dramatically effected the nation's poetry exports. It also gave rise to the mid-30s French and German Haiku Boom as Japan capitalized on the trans-Atlantic trade war to expand its European market share.

As the leading import/export poetry concern, Poetry Mutual faced its greatest crisis and responded by supporting ultimately successful anti-regulation campaigns in the United States and by wisely investing in less-expensive European markets, such as Poland and Czechoslavakia. Those countries proved to be excellent long term investments for the corporation.

"By moving into previously untapped markets, Poetry Mutual not only expanded its global reach, but also came to popularize previously unknown poets, from Lubomir Marek to Radosław Kluk. American commentators of the time believed them crazy, but they not only shielded themselves from the mercurial nature of American markets in the 1930s, they paved the way for their post-war global verse dominance."

Matt Sorensteiner, Sultans of Sonnet: Poetry Mutual in the Electric Age

 

Poetry Mutual in the Wartime Era

The firm was affected by the upheavals of World War II. As the Axis forces marched across Europe, foreign insurance adjusters were under siege and access to poets was severely limited. The company's continuing poetry broadcasts rallied listeners on both sides of the Atlantic.

What was less known until recently was the company's crucial clandestine role in sustaining the spirits of the allied forces. Stateside, President Roosevelt terminated wartime assistance from the company after a number of contentious editing sessions over his fireside chats. Winston Churchill was another matter.

The full story remained hidden, and largely forgotten in the company itself, until the release, after Churchill's death in 1965, of wartime teletypes requesting the help of Poetry Mutual's oratorical experts.

Most historians agree that Poetry Mutual's finest work was editing Churchill's "Those lads saved a lot of British arses." to read, "Never was so much owed by so many to so few." Those stirring words became one of Churchill's best remembered phrases and inspired an equally memorable if controversial advertisement for the company in 1971.


In future chapters of this history we will cover

  • the company's post-War global expansion,
  • its contributions as a patron of cutting edge corporate architecture,
  • the company's eventual rise and downfall due to speculative trading in complex poetry derivatives,
  • its liquidation and sale at auction for $1 in 2008.

 


 
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