This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian
In honor of National Poetry Month, I felt inspired to celebrate one of the more obscure literary contributions of the early twentieth century, true pioneers of the D.I.Y. movement. Formed in 1932 by retired New York Telephone Company employee, Francis Lambert McCrudden, the Raven Poetry Circle was unveiled at an outdoor event near Washington Square Park in May of 1933. Members of this unique collection of writers were known as “Ravens” and included bohemians, published poets, students, city employees, various characters from the neighborhood and even a feline mascot named Phyllis. Mcrudden held monthly poetry readings in his storefront apartment and devised a plan to sell poetry in an open market atmosphere. The New York Times referred to it as “the world’s first sidewalk poetry mart”.
The Ravens, whose namesake and symbol stem from the classic poem by Edgar Allan Poe, held annual exhibitions in which participants tacked original copies of their poetry to a tall green wall on Thompson Street, next to a tennis court. Attendees were encouraged to purchase the poetry that hung like artwork on display for all to enjoy. Prices ranged from a nickel for the work of a lesser-known writer up to several dollars for a piece penned by one of the more popular Ravens. At a time when New York City streets were crawling with pushcarts filled with apples and knishes, the Ravens were pure peddlers of poetry. Initially published monthly, then quarterly, The Raven Anthology journal was produced from December 1933 to October 1940.
Everyone, including writers, felt the financial and emotional effects of the Great Depression. By 1935, royalty rates had dropped by 50%, newspaper closings had climbed to 48% and best sellers were few and far between. The Ravens were operating in a devastated economy and living in a fractured city. Charter member of the group, Anca Vrbovska, said McCrudden “kept the flag of poetry flying in our community”. He was a quiet, hard-working, scholarly man who valued a writer’s sincere expression of sentiments. Mcrudden could not tolerate “mere rhymers, wise- cracking doggereleers and other nuts” and such individuals were not welcome into the Ravens.
Thought by many to personify the Avant Garde, the most prominent figure among the Ravens was Max Bodenheim. A Mississippi native who’d previously been involved in the Chicago Literary Renaissance, Bodenheim moved to New York City in the early 1920s. Life magazine described Bodenheim as “young and slim with sandy red hair and pale, baleful eyes” and noted that “women jammed tiny candle-lit rooms in The Village when he gave readings of his poetry”. Although he was a prolific writer in his earlier years, publishing 13 novels and 10 books of verse, as Bodenheim grew older and fell deeper into alcoholism, his writing suffered and his rambunctious behavior took a turn for the worst. He was known to panhandle for money and exchange poems for drinks at local bars, such as the Minetta Tavern, frequented by many Ravens. Victims in a twisted crime of passion, Bodenheim and his third wife were brutally murdered by an unstable dishwasher they’d befriended and were staying with in February 1954.
Anton Romatka, the self-proclaimed “Poetry Mender”, was another regular in the Ravens’ scene. He hosted Saturday night poetry sessions in which writers came together to read their work aloud. He charged several cents for critiques and editing services and wrote “verses to order” for 10 to 15 cents per line. Ironically, Romatka was born in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, and became a Bohemian in Greenwich Village.
Joe Gould, also known as Professor Seagull, was perhaps the most controversial writer associated with the Ravens. A Harvard graduate and struggling historian, Gould came to the city in 1917 and worked as a reporter for the New York Evening Mail. He was a rather eccentric, often homeless man who lived largely on hand-outs he received from local establishments, like the Waldorf Cafeteria, on 8th Street. He attended poetry readings and recited outrageous, absurd poems intended to mock the more serious poets. Gould felt alienated from other writers and wanted to document the history of the “shirt-sleeved multitude”. He was known to wander The Village with a sign that read, “Joseph Ferdinand Gould, Hot Shot poet from Poetville, a Refugee from the Ravens. Poets of the World, Ignite. You have Nothing to Lose But Your Brains”. He boasted about an in-depth Oral History he’d written that purportedly included transcriptions of 20,000 conversations he’d overheard. In Joseph Mitchell’s 1965 book, Joe Gould’s Secret, the author reveals the secret is that the manuscript never really existed.
While original Ravens passed away or became too reclusive to participate in social groups, the Beat Generation was blossoming into a powerful, magical movement of its own. The Raven Poetry Circle dissolved by the early 1950s. Francis Lambert Mcrudden was buried on what would have been his 86th birthday, January 21, 1958. The final lines of his epitaph were taken from a poem he’d written for Bodenheim.
Child of the Lyric Muse, your
song is sung.
Your wanderings ended and your
For you, the ills and joys of life
The music of your poetry lives