This is part 6 of a series introducing poetry to those who have had bad experiences reading poems. Poetry is to be experienced not unlike life itself. Here we will explore the poem, "The Pioneers" by Berton Braley. I will not give you a background of the poem or a detailed analysis of the rhythm, meter and societal implications of Braley's poem. Instead, let me tell you a story about an enterprising American, one who just so happened was not born in this country.
Today, feature length films, that is, films that run approximately 2 hours in length, are the standard, but this was not always the case. In the early 1900’s, when the film industry was still in its infancy, the business model was built around a series of ten to fifteen minute films that could be churned out as quickly as the audiences were shuffled in to and out of the small theaters, called “nickelodeons,” since they cost a nickel for attendance.
While still in its infancy, a man set to change all that. He was unlike most other men of his generation in that he could watch these shows and see something special.
On a special day he sat in the audience of a two hour film titled “Quo Vadis,” and he immediately stated to his business partner “this is the future.” He was a man with an “utterly foolish dream,” and a man who embodied the pioneer spirit, his name was Adolph Zukor.
Zukor, an immigrant from Hungary in the late 19th century, was an unknown person in the burgeoning film industry. He felt that his idea for reshaping the film industry around “features,” rather than these short, under-produced films, was so good the biggest film distribution company, General Films, would jump on the idea. So he approached a friend who worked as a secretary for General Films, who promised to get him a meeting with the president.
Zukor arrived at the headquarters and took a seat on the hard wooden benches in the hall outside the board room. He felt that the benches were designed to cause discomfort, perhaps, he thought, to discourage men like him. He would not be discouraged, however. Sitting bolt upright like a marine, with his hat held between his legs, he waited an hour. And then he waited another hour, and another, and another.
Though patient and resilient as all pioneers, even he began to droop. First his back drooped, then his shoulders and then even his lips.
Suddenly, with a flourish the board room doors opened and the business magnates exited. They were still heated after having had yet another quarrel regarding the future of the industry. Zukor’s friend, the secretary, remembered his promise and whispered to the president, telling him of the patient pioneer, still waiting in the hall.
“And what does he want?” Asked the president.
“To produce films 2-hours in length and for General Films to distribute them.”
Listening, Zukor was standing waiting for the pronouncement from the noble businessman.
“I seem to recall the name, Zukor. Ah! Yes, he made clothes or something.” Then, turning to the other board members, he laughed and said, “that boy will soon be back making buttonholes.” And they all jeered at the despondent Zukor, who, still standing hat in hand had now merely hoped for a word of recognition or a nod of approval, but received ridicule instead as the haughty businessmen strode by him without a glance.
But in true immigrant spirit he did not surrender. Instead he tightened his belt and got to work. Going home that night he told his wife the news and she said “well so we move again. I’ll find a place. Now how much can we afford?” Zukor responded: “as little as possible.”
He would go on to found a small company, Famous Players, and start creating features films on his own, and eventually he took over Paramount Studios and made it the dominant studio in the world.
The legacy of a pioneer is that they are remembered when the herd is forgotten. For, “After they’ve fought and perished, and after their work is done, the cause they have loved and cherished is lifted to fame--and won!” We all know Paramount’s icon, the rising Mountain Peak; can anyone remember General Film’s icon?
Poetry Reading Tip: Differing Interpretations
This point is a hard thing for engineers, lawyers—professionals of all stripes—to grasp. Not because there is anything wrong with professionals, or that poetry is inherently useless and illogical. The difficulty is that poetry utilizes logic (yes the same logic utilized in mathematics) but on a much broader level. There are logical continuities in good poetry. The following poem, a short one with three stanzas, portrays a broad view of pioneers, men as utterly foolish dreamers who dream of a world made new and “after their days are finished the wonderful dream comes true!” The implication here is that someone is a pioneer only after they are dead and the cause still lives. Berton Braley expresses that the pioneer must strive even when he will, during his lifetime, fail. My reading is aligned with the view that this is the spirit—the soul—of the pioneer, that he is a person who fights for “the utterly hopeless cause,” but that he in fact can see the realization of his dream; whereas Braley says “after their work is done, the cause they have loved… is lifted to fame” meaning they die and then the success comes.
The idea that if there is not one correct interpretation then poetry is useless is a misunderstanding of the value of literature broadly. To use an analogy, when assessing the character of a new-hire, there is no “singular” interpretation of their character, there are numerous understandings because of their complexity. The same is true of poetry.