Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Monday, May 30, 2016


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #189
      Suppose you were given $200,000,000 and tasked with improving poetry's profile.  What would you do?

     Where would your focus be?  On writing?  Performing?  Education?  Edutainment?

     What sources of revenue would you design to sustain your efforts?

     How would you define success?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Dana Gioia, California's Poet Laureate

     Dana Gioia has been appointed the California Poet Laureate.  If you recall, Dana wrote poetry's Goldstein Diary, "Can Poetry Matter?", in May of 1991.  This tongue-in-cheek satire featured the most hilarious statement in the history of literature:

     "Never has it been so easy to earn a living as a poet."

      Each "argument" for this conclusion is funnier than the last:

1.  "There have never before been so many new books of poetry published..."

     ...none of which have sold.

2.  "There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching..."

     ...but none in poetry, which involves writing and performing.  Not teaching, per se.  

3.  "Congress has even instituted the position of poet laureate, as have twenty-five states..."

     ...not that any of these people "earn a living" for their efforts.

4.  "There has also never before been so much published criticism about contemporary poetry..."

     ...almost none of which would be recognized as "criticism" when poetry was alive.

5.  "...it fills dozens of literary newsletters and scholarly journals," having disappeared from more successful media.

6.  "No one knows how many poetry readings take place each year" because no one attends them.

7.  "With an average of ten poetry students in each graduate section, these programs alone will produce about 20,000 accredited professional poets over the next decade" whose failure proves that "professional poets" is an oxymoron.

8.  "Not long ago, 'only poets read poetry' was meant as damning criticism. Now it is a proven marketing strategy."  One assumes he means "proven failure as a marketing strategy."  Were he serious, we wouldn't wonder why he is no longer working in the private sector.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #123
9.  "Or it might never be reviewed at all."  Reviewed for whom?  An imaginary readership?  Can you say "cart before horse"?

10. "Usually the less a critic knows about verse the more readily he or she dismisses it..." or write endless blather about its content.  Obviously, this article predated Facebook poetry groups.

      When he speaks in earnest Gioia makes a number of points we echo here at Commercial Poetry.  He writes this of the Watermelon Problem "The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage. One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones. It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, generally not even the magazines' contributors."

      Of poetry's solipsism he comments:  "Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets' work. Hardly a self-effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art. Today most readings are celebrations less of poetry than of the author's ego. No wonder the audience for such events usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author."

      While we may quibble, his "six modest proposals" held promise:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people's work--preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally.

     Agreed.  We have reservations about the next three words:  "Readings should be..."  Perhaps they shouldn't exist.  Perhaps they should be replaced by poetry performances.  Why promote what even the author cannot remember?

2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only.

     Ayup.  As Shakespeare did.  As bards and raconteurs did.  As Leonard Cohen does.

3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively.

     Heaven forfend!

     Let audiences speak.  Even their silence, owing to their non-existence, says infinitely more than the usual self-promoting spam from poets.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #166
4. Poets who compile anthologies--or even reading lists--should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire.

     This is the problem, not the solution.  Again, anthologists should present poems audiences¹ genuinely admire.

5. Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future.

      We agree wholeheartedly on the value of performance, though obviously not on the definition and import of analysis.

6. Finally poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art's audience. Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #175
      This treatise was written in 1991, just before the world wide web relegated radio--other than NPR--to breaking news, talk shows and programmed music.  More to the point, poetry was never an aural medium;  it is and always was an audiovisual one.  This is one reason why, almost a century ago, poetry was replaced by music (which is an aural medium) on the radio.

      Will Dana Gioia be a good poet laureate for California?

      In his capacity as National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia brought "The Big Read" initiative to the U.S. from Britain in 2004.  Two years later he instituted "Poetry Out Loud".  Thus, Dana has already done more for poetry than all previous laureates--state or federal--combined.

      We have observed an inverse relationship between one's value as a poet versus laureate.  Even if this doesn't remain true, Dana Gioia rates to be the greatest poet laureate ever.

      Watch this space.


¹ - Or would admire, if such audiences existed.

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    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Love is a Weakness - Chapter II - Mother

Love is a Weakness - Chapter I - Meetings

Love is a Weakness - Chapter II - Mother

Chapter II - Mother

     Even though most of us were alive at the time, few can believe what life was like in the decades before Kemla stepped onto that stage.  Who can accept that in the first two decades of the 21st century fewer than 2% of anglophones could recite a single line of contemporary poetry, or that most new "poetry" books didn't include a single verse?  Who can accept that the average English graduate didn't understand how meter worked?  Who can accept that poetry magazines never discussed technique?  Who can accept that for more than a century it was illegal to perform poetry without the author's explicit consent?  Or that poetry didn't produce a single successful writer or performer for more than a generation?  Who could expect those defending the abandonment of centuries of experience and science to be taken seriously after decades of total failure?

     Who could imagine poetry dead?

     Such was the status quo as Kemla finished reading that first stanza.  It would remain so for sixteen more seconds.

Grasshopper from Earl Gray on Vimeo.

     We have the exact timeline from the four cameras trained on the stage.  The Closed Circuit Television one saw the action from behind the podium, looking out into the audience.  It allowed us to count and identify the 43 people present.  Maude's event camera recorded all the performances head-on from across the room.  (With the artist's consent, these videos would be posted online.)  Auden's auction camera caught Kemla from the left at a seventy one degree angle. 

     At the two second mark Rick entered the room from the kitchen and saw Auden filming the performance.  Thinking this unusual, the waiter turned on his cellphone and waited for it to power up.  Standing at 23 degrees to the speaker's left, Rick took a few still photos before switching over to video. 

     At the four second mark Kemla, still looking down, folded the placemat containing the poem she was reading and set it aside.  (A month later this scrap paper would be auctioned off online for $155,000.  It was resold the next day for twice that.)

     At the seven second mark, still without looking up, Kemla switched off the microphone.  The click resounded about the room.  Later, the world.

     At the eleven second mark Rick's phone-cam became fully operational.  He pointed it onstage just in time to snap the most famous photograph in human history.  (It would adorn bedroom walls, posters and memes, in addition to serving as the default wallpaper for 73% of the computers and 62% of the smart phones sold over the next twenty years.)

     At the twelve second mark Kemla did the unthinkable.  She looked into the crowd.  Not at her text, as all readers must.  Not above the attendees' heads.  Not blankly into the space between them.  She peered into their eyes, one by one.  It was not searching.  It was neither defiance nor boldness.  It was not timid.  It was the intimacy of a friend sharing sorrow.  It was the plea of a child being abandoned. 

     The flash from Rick's camera phone caused many to flinch as if tased.  A lady in the front row gasped.

     Four seconds later Kemla spoke with them.  Not over them.  Not down to them.  Not at them.  Not in the monotone of the soporific academic or the Screaming Me-Me.  Each listener became the departed heroine.  With rising urgency and pace, Kemla's tone moved from scolding to exalting, from interrogating to witnessing, from reporting to begging for one more audience.

     "When you died and the bees did not mourn, did the crickets...hesitate? Did they draw long blue chords on each thigh?  Did they speak? Did they say 'She is gone. Face that fact.'?"

      In the space of mere moments her angry tone became one of resignation, then inspiration:

     "It's the truth but, in every other sense, it's a lie!"

      Her volume rose, as if she were speaking to the deaf.  Or the dead.

     "You remain, sui generis, one light that beams as the guide of my passing..."

      Only now did Kemla release the crowd from the grip of her gaze, turning it upwards and into the distance.

     "...and mother to my dreams."

Love is a Weakness - Chapter I - Meetings

Love is a Weakness - Chapter II - Mother

    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below.  Failing that, please mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Monday, November 30, 2015

Greatest Poet Of Our Time

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52
     What the word "poet" means to us can be very revealing.  And very convenient.

     Producers say a poet is someone who shares that avocation.  That is, at best, tautological and, at worst, presumptuous.

     Prosody geeks assume we're talking about those who exhibit superb technique.

     Performers think of their fellow YouTubers, slammers or open mikers.

     People who read or listen to poetry don't exist. 

     On the rare occasions when the public speaks of contemporary poets, it is usually in reference to those who bring us popular song lyrics.  For example, some might describe Elton John as a poet without knowing or caring that Bernie Taupin wrote the words to his tunes. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #156
     Naturally, Content Regents, regardless of their level of sophistication, rate and categorize poets according to their material.  Rebels love Charles Bukowski, romantics turn to Maya Angelou, and "critics" blurb an endless list of p[r]osers who can't write verse any better than they can.

     To be successful, one must appeal to all of these constituencies.  A great poet would be a modern Shakespeare whose audiences appreciate themes that stir blood and brains in language that survives its utterance.

     We don't have any of those.

     In order to produce a great poet we would need, in place and in sufficient quantity and quality:  education, performers, directors, critiquers, venues, networks and, above all, audiences.

      We don't have any of those either.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


John Prine
     No, it's not an Oriental tourist advisory.

     The cause is information overload, the constant bombardment of trivia--"data smog"--emanating from television, radio, print and Internet sources.  The effect we call "information aphasia" or "infasia", a declining ability and desire to retain details.

     We ask ourselves:  "Why commit to memory what we can web search at will?"

     This facility of research and fact checking, coupled with the difficulty to perform on our feet, leads inevitably to a processing paradox.  As Pearl says:  "We know everything and nothing."

     Everyone understands that poetry was replaced by song lyrics in the 1920s and that copyright law was the coup de grace.  The casual sharing of work on the Internet has all but solved the latter problem.  The former might be overcome by education and expertise in verse writing and presentation (e.g. performance, multimedia, networking, integration, et cetera).  Presently, the greatest challenge facing poetry is infasia, a problem that promises to get worse long before it gets better.

     The good news is that the cure is simplicity itself.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Is Bad Poetry Good For Poetry?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #187
     We know what poetry is:  speech worth retaining (even in preliterate societies).  Prose is everything else.  What, then, is "bad poetry"?  An oxymoron?  After all, why would anyone commit poor writing to memory?

     By definition, doggerel is bad verse, the classic example¹ being William McGonagall's "The Tay Bridge Disaster".  Obviously, people might learn and repeat it for the same reason most bad verse is preserved:  as song or, in this case, humor.  It won't have the value of a Shakespearean comedy or an opera but it is no less useful than a television sitcom or catchy pop tune.

     Free verse is too scarce to be consequential.  Almost all prose poetry is the former, not the latter.  Again, regardless of whether it is rhythmic or not, speech that no one, including the author, cares to memorize and perform isn't poetry of any sort, good or bad.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #18
     All of this you already knew.  Now things get interesting.

     Bad verse is fun because it is immediately and universally apparent as such.  It encourages both the consumption (e.g. top 40 charts, parodies) and production ("Hell, even I can do that!") of verse.  "Bad free verse"--prose posing as poetry--has the opposite effect.  Those who try reading it wonder why anyone is writing it.  Those who try listening to it feel like they're being machine-gunned with tranquilizer darts.  Rather than attract entertainment audiences and serious practitioners, it drives them away.

     This leads us inexorably to a question that defies theory, let alone answer:  After three generations of abject failure, why do universities and foundations ignore rhythm² and performance in order to concentrate on p[r]ose "poetry"?


¹ = In truth, "The Tay Bridge Disaster" is not the worst verse ever written.  Hell, it isn't even the worst William McGonagall's poem about that area!  This dubious distinction belongs to "The Famous Tay Whale".  No, really.

² = "Rhythm" refers to meter and that rarest of birds:  free verse.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

In Praise of Russian Judges

     As the story goes, young artists from all over the world were handed a blank piece of white paper and asked to draw a picture of their homeland in December.  The girl from the pampas used a lot of green and blue to show the lush vegetation and clear skies of her native Argentina.  The boy from Australia employed brown and gray to illustrate the outback.  The child from Kansas relied on gold to display the stalks of cut grain.

     The girl from the Canadian prairies returned the paper untouched.

     Only the Siberian judge understood.