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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Dreaded Bell Jar Curve

Bark blogger Brett Ortler
     In "Too Many Writers: The Best Problem in Contemporary Poetry", Blogger Brett Ortler writes:  "If there are too many writers, yes, you’ll have a lot of schlock (most of writing produced will be middling or bad).  Nevertheless, if you have a glut of writers, you’ll also, by definition, have an excess of good writing."

     Given that he produces a science blog, Brett has committed a surprising error.  It becomes evident the moment he trots out the dreaded Bell Jar Curve. 

     Can you spot the mistake?




     No, Brett, a glut of writers will not necessarily or even generally produce "an excess of good writing."  Indeed, it hasn't.  The reason is simple:  "good writing" does not refer to "the best of a bad lot."  We have models passed down through millennia to define this.  Rather, the inept majority might form a voting bloc to preclude any initiative or funding that might allow more talented artists to reach and please an audience.  As for the less gifted horde, even if 100 chimpanzees with 100 typewriters do produce Shakespeare after 100 years it won't register as more than an imperceptible dot--an inconsequential fluke rather than an outlier, let alone meaningful data--on your chart.

     The Bell Jar Curve is made for random/natural phenomena that trend toward a middle ground:  crop yields, rain patterns, golf scores.  Standard deviations are useless for art not because humans are unpredictable but because, for better or worse, they are easily influenced.  It would be like measuring crop yields during a hurricane or golf scores in three feet of snow.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #11
      For poets of yore, a pyramid would be a more representative shape.  There were plenty of William McGonagalls at the bottom, none worth distinguishing from the others.  Only Shakespeare would be at the top.

     The disappearance of fundamentals, coupled with the death of poetry in the early 1900s, squeezed the pyramid.  The center was lost as average poets were replaced by ConPoets who think doggerel or lineated prose will please an audience, even as they avoid listening to it themselves.  Now the pattern is a thick vertical line with two progressively tinier dots after it.  The first signifies those few hundred out of 2 million who know trochees from iambs;  after that, we see the handful who can create something interesting with that knowledge.  We can't chart this because by the time the smallest speck of skilled authors becomes visible the column of aspiring muggles may have stretched itself twice around the moon and be heading home.

     Times change.





Saturday, January 24, 2015

Numbers III

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #143
     Blogger Nic Sebastian echoes a question:  "Isn’t attempting to monetize poetry a lose-lose proposition for both poetry and poets?"

     We won't quibble long about the figure of 200,000 poets in the United States--the real number is closer to 2,000,000--beyond noting that the closer the respondent is to The Ivory Tower the lower the estimate.¹  This doesn't matter much because I can accept the premise:  the number of poetry readers is, at most, equal to the number of producers.  (Mind you, it's probably equally true that the number of rock albums being sold is equal to the number of air guitarists out there.  I wonder what percentage of those 186,440,000 prose readers are novelists in their dreams, at least.  110%?  150%?)

          In fact, if we consider why people (i.e. poets) read poetry, the news becomes even more depressing.  Are poets reading as fans, for pleasure?  Or are they practitioners interested only in who and what is being published where?²  Whatever percentage of "poetry consumers" (tanpc) fall into the latter category should be removed or, at least, asterisked when we get down to discussing those who enjoy poetry for its intrinsic value.  Let's be generous and split the difference:  half of poets read contemporary poetry for the same reasons they read prose or watch movies.

     Earl the Squirrel's Rule #138

     That isn't much to work with.  Half a reader per writer.  Let's not forget about fragmentation.  Academics don't write for onliners;  onliners don't write for slammers; and, slammers don't write for academics.  But wait!  It gets much worse!  Apparently, we should eliminate all genres other than pontifications and memes that will "shift [the readers'] view of a situation, elevate their perspective, help them grapple with a challenge that before seemed unmanageable."  To hell with romantic, dramatic, narrative, tragic or comedic stories;  only self-help tomes should be put forward.  Oh, and as a poet, "I don’t want to calculate my words or their presentation..."  Heaven forfend that we think before we write!  Especially if we are going to be [gasp!] paid for it!

     Of course, none of this has anything to do with attempts to monetize poetry.  Granted, when Nobody Reads Poetry it goes without saying no one is going to buy it.  The problem is that removing cost doesn't help much.  We literally can't give this stuff away.

     Is there any chance of success here?

     Sure. 

     Just do the opposite of what all the failures are doing.



Footnotes:

¹ -  And the closer to home the definition roosts.  In the blog cited Ron Silliman and Seth Abramson discuss numbers based on those "graduated from MFA or Ph.D. in Creative Writing programs."  Apparently, no one else need apply--not even English graduates!  Can you say "slam"?  "Online critical forum"?  "Vanity venue"?  "Self-publishing"?  "Indies"?  The roughly 99% of poets who aren't MFA, Creative Writing or English graduates?

² - We'd cite those accessing a source only because their friend or relative is being published there.  We'd also exclude from our count books purchased by students as part of a compulsory reading list.




Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Spotting Human Poetry

      It is hard to believe that 98% of the poetry being published today isn't computer-generated.  A writer types in a few seed words, hits a button and, if particularly diligent, selects lines that fit the previous ones.  Voilà!  Poetry! 

      The good news is that it is remarkably easy to spot verse that couldn't be produced electronically.  This 2% is divided between works that are either too good or two awful to have been created by programs.  We've seen samples of the upper echelon.  This is what the lowest 1% looks like, copied and pasted exactly as it appears in a venue that describes itself as "an intelligent, stylish, unpretentious magazine":

How will a Mormon boy get a wife,
I wondered,if he declines his mission to wander the world,
spreading the Mormon word as he goes:
no wife for a Mormon boy who refuses.

So I was kind to two young Mormon men
who came to my door last Saturday morning--
the point man in short-sleeved shirt and blue tie,
his back-up in short-sleeved shirt and blue tie--

the former displaying a pulp magazine
which featured a story on the fashion industry
and its dangers, especially to young women:
anorexia, bulimia, and low self-esteem.


     Because we have a Mercy Rule here, I'll spare you the last eight paragraphs and won't identify the author of this tripe.  (Better questions would be:  "Who publishes it?"  and "Why?")  Yes, there is a space missing after "wondered," in S1-L2.  Notice the obvious errors any grammar- and punctuation-checker would catch.  Note the run-on sentences, the second of which begins with the dreaded conjunction, "so".  Check out the comically overused em dashes. 

     We know this is written by a human because state-of-the-art software is incapable of producing anything so devoid of merit.


Friday, January 9, 2015

The Party

    Earl Gray's 1st Rule of Poetry:  "Never say anything in a poem that you wouldn't say in a bar."

    Or a party.



    You know your social life is a write-off when your probation officer says you need to get out more.  Things are picking up, though.  You are flattered to receive your invitation to The Event of the Season...until you arrive and see that everyone and their dog is there.

     No, really.  Some clown brought his dog.

     On arriving at the mansion, you are greeted in the first of five huge halls by the blank gaze of a large, disheveled man.  In an unnaturally flat voice he begins reading aloud from a philosophy booklet, pausing at random points in his dissertation for no discernible reason.  Others congregate behind him, waiting their turn to bore you.  Having never learned how to sleep standing up, you excuse yourself and flee to another chamber, only to be confronted by another group of zombies.  Before reaching the third room you have adopted a proactive tack, countering the lead freak's approach with:  "I'm looking for Keegan McGillicuddy.  Have you seen him?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #93
     They seem shocked and hurt to learn that you haven't come to hear them.  With a backwards glance at their dishabille you wonder if someone forgot to tell you this is a costume party.  Fortunately, you're wearing clothes your mother gave you so you've got that covered.

    In the middle of the next room a comedienne is drawing a crowd.  Attendees elbow each other to get closer.  Behind them are those wishing the comic were taller and had a microphone.  Disguised as a Canadian, she's doing schtick about living north of the 49th Parallel.

    "If you think Canadians are quiet and polite you've never been to a hockey game.  We're talking about a country where 'getting lucky' means you've been transferred to Vancouver.  We're talking about people who honeymoon in Fargo.  If you've ever had poutines you know why they have free health care.  In winter, south of the border, folks wake to 'Good Morning, America'.  Canadians get up, look outside and ask:  'WTF am I doing here?'"

    The dining room houses the trauma/drama crowd.  Dozens stand or sit around the table, listening to detailed narratives.  These are not without humor, such as when the woman working for the Census Bureau looks up from a list of occupations and asks:  "WTF is a 'chicken sexer'?"

    The fifth room is the smallest.  Partiers are gathered in a circle, each telling the story of how they met their one true love.  It is like a contest;  whoever garners the most tears and "Aw!" sounds will win.  It doesn't occur to you until too late that your turn is coming up.  Do you really want everyone to know you met your paramour at a Justin Beiber concert?  True, your life partner was chaperoning a niece whose best friend got grounded at the last minute.  True, you had lost a bet and were obliged to show up wearing a zoot suit, belt chains and clogs, but isn't it bad enough that so many embarrassing photos were taken?  You are never going to divulge that story without being waterboarded first.  Instead, you talk about how your parents meeting each other led to the first ugly sweater party.  It's every bit as humiliating but, hey, at least it's not about you.

    As enjoyable as the evening is, you decide to head home early.  You have a few hundred zombie poems to burn.



Footnotes:

¹ - Ever wonder why so many comedians are Canadian?  Part of the answer may lie in their intonation.  Linguists tell us that Americans tend to stress the first half of a sentence (e.g. "The pen is blue.") while Canadians and comics tend to punch the ends of sentences (e.g. "The pen is blue" or "Take my wife.  Please!").



Thursday, January 8, 2015

Dasein

     "Dasein... is a German word which means 'being there' or 'presence' (German: da 'there'; sein 'being') often translated in English with the word 'existence'."

     While German philosophers, including Neitsche, Hegel and Jaspers, lend the term more depth, I'll stick with Heidegger's "a way of being involved with and caring for the immediate world in which one live[s]".  Roughly:  awareness or presence of mind.



Earl the Squirrel's Rule #126

     Two thousand years ago the average person might read or hear two or three novelties a day:  storylines, songs, dramas, motifs, ideas, et cetera.  With newspapers, that rose to two or three dozen items per day.  Radio brought us that many songs or commercial messages an hour.  With the Internet, especially email and social media, we might encounter three dozen new messages in a minute.  This information overload makes concentration and memory difficult.  Everything is a blur.  We begin to believe that learning--especially rote learning--can be replaced by reference material;  whatever we don't know can be web searched.  Our brain has become a mushy conduit, transmitting noise in one ear and out the other.  This is not such a great inconvenience for most because we no longer speak to strangers;  we write for them, often in blogs such as this one.  We aren't fooling anyone, though.  Our ignorance shows in what we do not address.

     In short, we lack dasein.  Not surprisingly, this has had a deleterious effect on endeavors that require knowledge, concentration or memory.  Expressed as a percentage of the population, graduation rates in the hard sciences are dropping among anglophones.  Jobs that require concentration (e.g. quality control) are among the first to be computerized.  More complex strategy struggles like chess and bridge have given way to video games requiring hand-eye coordination or simple trial and error.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #122
     Poetry is all about memory.  Prosody is little more than a bag of mnemonic tricks that writers, performers and audiences use to enjoy the lasting benefits of verse.  We may forget every word of our favorite novel but can recite the silliest nursery rhyme or jingle.  The loss of dasein didn't kill poetry--that happened half a century earlier--but, along with its cause (i.e. the incessant flood of factoids), it all but eliminates any hope of recapturing public interest.

     Let's put this in perspective.  Centuries ago, even after the advent of the printing press, poetry's continued audiovisual tradition allowed it to actually exceed the level of literacy.  Today, only ~8% of English speakers read poetry.  Worse yet, almost none of it is contemporary.  That is, the number of people who read contemporary poetry is actually less than the ~1% who write it.  The situation could hardly be worse, could it?  Actually, yes, and by a factor approaching infinity.  The number of people today who understand what every 6th grade graduate knew about verse 100 years ago is negligible, even among academics.  Fewer than 2% of poets attend university English classes and most of those are taught by Content Regents who couldn't guess whether Blake's "Tyger" is iambic or trochaic.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #19
     Prospects are bleak. 

     If poetry is to be reincarnated the keys will be, as always, content and education as opposed to Education¹.  Poems have to be more interesting than their authors.  Aspiring versers need to study what works (i.e. prosody, performance, drama, romance, tragedy and comedy) rather than what doesn't (e.g. arid lineated Seinfeldian prose, cryptocrap, navel-gazing, philosophy lectures, etc.).  Writing as well as Margaret A. Griffiths would be enough to sustain poetry but to revive it will require material more eye-catching and spellbinding than what we get from television, movies, songs, prose or the Internet.

     Good luck with that!



Footnotes:

¹ - We could start by honoring those few teachers capable of providing both.


Monday, January 5, 2015

True Bullshit


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #144
     Think of the difference between lies and bullshit.  The former implies an intent to deceive;  the latter may be "nonsense¹, lies or exaggeration"--roughly, anything with which we don't agree.  Every propagandist understands that the truth can serve bullshit and, if deftly employed, outright falsehoods.

     Blogger Rosemarie Dombrowski, PhD, confesses:  "I want to rattle readers."  She succeeds in "Academia vs. Poetry: How the Gatekeepers of Contemporary Literature might be Killing It" largely by castigating academia for what it does right, encouraging what it does wrong, and misapprehending what it does in toto.  Much of her post constitutes true bullshit, beginning with her references to academia in the third person.  Yes, technically, only those currently in university are academics but, considering the years in college required to earn her degree, the real world's response will be:  "Aside from herself, who does Dr. Dombrowski think she's kidding?"  As for the title, how are the "Gatekeepers of Contemporary Literature" killing something that has been dead for more than half a century?

Adrienne Rich
    She begins by agreeing with Adrienne Rich in saying:  "...poetry has been hoarded by universities, and those universities have kept out poetries that could speak to and resonate with more people."

     I'm not sure how something in almost infinite oversupply could be "hoarded".  I suspect she means that she is completely unaware of other conduits, including two-and-a-half of poetry's three worlds:  pixel², stage and non-academic print outlets such as, ironically enough, "Rattle" magazine.  (You may recall we first encountered this amaurosis poetica in "Numbers", where Mark Halliday mistook a paltry 10,000-30,000 English and MFA graduates for the entire poet population.)  We can smile at the irony of her subsequent statement about academics:  "Maybe the problem has something to do with the number of years they’ve been talking to, interacting with, and reading to each other--and only each other."

Rosemarie Dombrowski, PhD
     Universities have, indeed, "kept out poetries that could speak to and resonate with more people."  That's their job.  Sort of.  To wit, if those poetries are timely rather than timeless, excluding them in favor of more lasting literature is academia's raison d'être.  It is a concept and task so simple it is circular:  scholars preserve that which survives.  Using Howard Miller's example (see Addendum A below), we study "Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert...Milton" as well as "Housman...Tennyson and Browning, Hardy" rather than Thomas Tusser and Norman Rowland Gale because the former group speaks to subsequent generations, including ours, while the latter two writers don't.  Would we want the late 20th century to be remembered for Shel Silverstein and Charles Bukowski?  As for sales and popularity, these are not impediments;  they are irrelevancies.  Shakespeare drew sufficient crowds to become a wealthy theater owner.  Byron outsold all contemporaries, including novelists.

     Later, Rosemarie Dombrowski wanders/wonders:  "...academic poets must intuitively know that no one in the general population can fathom why anyone would have to use the word loam instead of dirt or soil.  What could that distinction possibly add to a line of poetry?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #68
     Precision.

     If Ms. Dombrowski thinks that the word "loam" is interchangeable with "dirt" or "soil" it isn't the general population's understanding of the term we need to worry about.  Nevertheless, this contempt for the public, so pronounced among "Gatekeepers of Contemporary Literature" like Dr. Dombrowski, coupled with death denial, could help explain why academics can be actively hostile toward efforts at reincarnating poetry.

     She may seem to make a little more sense here:  "Most of us abhor these ticks and gimmicks, preferring, instead, a beautifully crafted imagistic or narrative piece, oftentimes authored by 'a local poet' as opposed to an academic one."

     Ahem.

     It isn't the presence of "ticks and gimmicks" that annoys audiences;  it is the absence of anything "beautifully crafted".  The curginic accentual verse in "The Red Wheelbarrow" may have fooled people but it doesn't seem to have bothered them much.  We can only guess at how many of our current forms and approaches were originally dismissed as gimmickry because people like Dr. Dombrowski associated them exclusively with ineptitude.

      Too many form-phobic editors today will publish all manner of dreck as long as the structure is every bit as unimaginative as the content.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
     In one of her more confusing paragraphs, Ms. Dombrowski speaks of contemporary "gatekeepers of so many prestigious journals" being "gatekeepers of the canon."  Given that this segmented source hasn't produced a single iconic verse in 50 years, along with accessibility problems, literal and figurative, why assume that  any print poetry today will be part of a canon?  Have none of these people heard of the Internet?  YouTube?  E-zines?  Web searches?

     She ends with a call for language so simple it can be understood by those who think "loam" and "dirt" are perfectly synonymous.  That's fine for those in the pits but what about those in Shakespeare's balconies?  The ability to please all demographics, using words that only appear simple, was a "secret" shared by all successful poets, dating back to a time when "successful poets" wasn't an oxymoron.



Footnotes:

¹ - As as example, think of when the posse leader says "You got me dizzy with all that bullshit!" in Lenny Bruce's classic "Thank You, Masked Man" routine.



² - This, despite appearing more than once on InklessMagazine.com.



Addendum A:

Want to make popularity based on sales as the criterion of poetic worth? Think about the following:

Bestselling poet in England between 1560 and 1640 (the era of Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, and the early Milton, to name just a few) -- Thomas Tusser (he outsold most of those poets even when you take all their works sold during that period combined).

Bestselling English poet between 1890 and 1914 (era of Housman, late Tennyson and Browning, Hardy, and numerous others of note) -- Norman Rowland Gale.

     - Howard Miller (Gazebo, 2007-03-19)


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Tablets

Lesley Wheeler
     On her "taking poetry personally" blog, the English Department Chair at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, Lesley Wheeler, asks:  "Do poets without connections or their own major taste-making powers, I wonder, really receive fair consideration?"

     I suspect that by "fair" she might be alluding obliquely to [artistic] "merit"--a taboo word within the educational community.  Frankly, if that were the criterion I doubt a winner could have been declared in this millennium.

     By "poets" Ms. Wheeler means "poetry graduates publishing books".  The "consideration" she mentions would come from  National Book Awards voters.  We shouldn't miss this irony:  Lesley is complaining about exclusion while ignoring the 98+% of poets who weren't English majors and whose poetry appears onstage, online, or in magazines rather than in books.  Those excluded include two of this century's top three 21st century poets.  Note the paucity of self-publishing high school graduates from Podunk, Missouri.  Even a cursory glance at the list of winning tomes (see Addendum A below), most of them anthologies, as well as the age and occupation of the authors, shows that this is not about singular publications;  it is a lifetime achievement award created by and for academics.  If Ms. Wheeler feels her own work (e.g. "Dressing Down, 1962") is being overlooked, perhaps she just needs to wait a few decades.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #68
     Lesley makes a number of good points, going to great pains detailing how she [along with the rest of humanity] finds reading poetry onerous, even volumes shortlisted for a prize she is blogging about.  Nobody Reads Poetry.  This is especially true for books, a technology that cannot compete with tablets.  To wit, among uncountable other advantages, the electronic tablet (or smart phone or computer) offers faster access (e.g. through web searching), a wider selection (e.g. nothing goes out of print), more convenience (e.g. backlighting), instantaneous interactivity (e.g. the comments section below), greater economy, and multimedia.  Book defenders cite the greater gravitas their medium enjoys but if that is the issue why not try stone tablets?  Or engravings beneath statues?  After all, what could be more monumental than a monument?

     Currently, these prizes constitute the only advantage offered by books.  What if forward-thinking patrons establish similar events for online or performed poetry?  Before you consider money, let's bear in mind that virtually all poetry print publication--book or magazine--today involves financial loss.  Why sponsor poetry that no one--not even other academics--will read when, for much less cash, one can fund honors mentioned far more often?  A websearch for "National Book Awards" reveals 487,000 hits, only a fraction of which are poetry related.  "Pushcart" gets 669,000 hits, of which a higher percentage are relevant.  "Best of the Net" gets 41,400,000 mentions and is mostly poetry.  That is more than the 29,900,000 for "Pulitzer".  Think about that for a moment.



Addendum A:  National Book Awards Winners for Poetry (1950-2013)

1950: Paterson: Book III and Selected Poems by William Carlos Williams
1951: The Auroras of Autumn by Wallace Stevens
1952: Collected Poems by Marianne Moore
1953: Collected Poems, 1917-1952 by Archibald MacLeish
1954: Collected Poems by Conrad Aiken
1955: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens
1956: The Shield of Achilles by W.H. Auden
1957: Things of the World by Richard Wilbur
1958: Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 by Robert Penn Warren
1959: Words for the Wind by Theodore Roethke
1960: Life Studies by Robert Lowell
1961: The Woman at the Washington Zoo by Randall Jarrell
1962: Poems by Alan Dugan
1963: Traveling Through the Dark by William Stafford
1964: Selected Poems by John Crowe Ransom
1965: The Far Field by Theodore Roethke
1966: Buckdancer's Choice: Poems by James Dickey
1967: Nights and Days by James Merrill
1968: The Light Around the Body by Robert Bly
1969: His Toy, His Dream, His Rest by John Berryman
1970: The Complete Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
1971: To See, To Take by Mona Van Duyn
1972: Selected Poems by Howard Moss; Frank O'Hara
1973: Collected Poems, 1951-1971 by A. R. Ammons
1974: The Fall of America: Poems of these States, 1965-1971 by Allen Ginsberg
Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich
1975: Presentation Piece by Marilyn Hacker
1976: Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery
1977: Collected Poems, 1930-1976 by Richard Eberhart
1978: The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov by Howard Nemerov
1979: Mirabell: Books of Number by James Merrill
1980: Ashes by Philip Levine
1981: The Need to Hold Still by Lisel Mueller
1982: Life Supports: New and Collected Poems by William Bronk
1983: Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell
Country Music: Selected Early Poems by Charles Wright

1991: What Work Is by Philip Levine
1992: New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver
1993: Garbage by A.R. Ammons
1994: A Worshipful Company of Fletchers by James Tate
1995: Passing Through: The Later Poems by Stanley Kunitz
1996: Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, Poems 1991-1995 by Hayden Carruth
1997: Effort at Speech: New & Selected Poems by William Meredith
1998: This Time: New and Selected Poems by Gerald Stern
1999: Vice: New & Selected Poems by Ai
2000: Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 by Lucille Clifton
2001: Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry by Alan Dugan
2002: In the Next Galaxy by Ruth Stone
2003: The Singing by C.K. Williams
2004: Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003 by Jean Valentine
2005: Migration: New and Selected Poems by W.S. Merwin
2006: Splay Anthem by Nathaniel Mackey
2007: Time and Materials by Robert Hass
2008: Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems by Mark Doty
2009: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy by Keith Waldrop
2010: Lighthead by Terrance Hayes
2011: Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney
2012: Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations by David Ferry
2013: Incarnadine by Mary Szybist