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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Just Say "No"

    Our culture and history are shaped and reflected by what we dare not or cannot say.  We could attribute the stereotypical Russian stoicism to the fact that it doesn't use the present tense of "to be".  "I am" becomes "I"--a full sentence!  Some theologians might argue that the reason Christianity did not come to Rus until 998, centuries after more remote Ireland, is that Russian doesn't have articles.  This made it somewhat more difficult for translators to distinguish "He is the son of God" from "He is a son of God", as all men could be. 

    Without question, we can tell how democratic a society has been and how independent its citizens are by examining how easy and common it is to say "no".  For example, we have this excerpt from a site dedicated to teaching Japanese:

     Japanese RARELY say "no" directly when they are turning down offers.

     In [the] business world, when you hear a Japanese [man] say "We open our mind to it", "We’ll try our best", "We will think about it", "Please let us study it" or other similar phrases, he is rejecting you politely, trying not to hurt your feeling with a direct rejection.  You should NOT call him next week and ask him about the progress of his study, because he will never do any study.  It applies sometimes even when a Japanese is speaking in English. So how to tell when a Japanese really means to say 'yes'? A good rule of thumb is whether he goes into details to elaborate his 'yes' or just say 'yes' without adding anything.

     Occasionally, Japanese people will choose not to respond at all ("mokusatsu";  literally, "to kill with silence") rather than come out and say "no" ("iee").  Centuries ago, one could go months without hearing such a denial, the reason being as simple as the will to survive.

     English can be no less nuanced.  For instance, short of outright negation lies a contravening conjunction.  To wit, these first two statements seem to state the same thing but there is, literally, a world of difference between them:

1.  "Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker."

2.  "While candy is dandy, liquor is quicker."

3.  "Candy is dandy while liquor is quicker."

     Starting with the original author, Ogden Nash, native English speakers will usually go with the more contradictory "but" rather than the concurrent "while".  This reflects how comfortable anglophones are confronting authority head-on, as they have throughout their history.

     On the other side of the globe speakers may feel safer avoiding "but".  Having served under absolutist tsars for centuries, Russians find the second construction much more natural.  The Russian term for "while" is "a", pronounced "aw" as in "paw".  Anglophones can put "while" before (Statement #2 above) or after (#3) the phrase being de-emphasized ("candy is dandy").  Lest it be overlooked, Russians will insert "while" ("a") before and after that expression.  Couple this with dropping "is", present tense of "to be", and the syntax becomes:

4.  "While candy dandy while liquor quicker."

     For what it's worth, the Russian word for "but" is "no".


Monday, December 15, 2014

Why Is Contemporary Poetry So Good?

     In "Why is Contemporary Poetry so Bad?" we demonstrated that today's verse is awful.  Paradoxically, we'll now argue the opposite without contradicting ourselves.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #102
    20th century verse was jump-started with two hypermodern¹ heterometrical classics, the iambic "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"  (1915) and the accentual "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923).  Today's poets are even more innovative, producing reversers, curginas, coratas, cliché collages and other inventive approaches.  However, great poetry involves far more than form or originality;  it is about the ability to please an audience.  The question becomes:  "Will the early 21st century produce 2-6 major poets, as every other era has?"  My answer remains:  "It depends on the instructors."  You and I can name three or four contemporary geniuses whose technique, performance value and sense eclipse all others since Frost but if our literature is taught by Content Regents who think² Blake's "The Tyger" is trochaic all bets are off. 

    Advocates for overproduction (i.e. "The art form is alive, despite the fact that Nobody Reads Poetry, because more people are trying to write it now than ever before") have a point, although it may not be the one they intend.  It is true that in 100 years 100 chimpanzees with 100 keyboards might produce Shakespeare.  No less than three of the ten best poems of this new millennium were flukes.  Better yet, we have computer programs that can, in a nanosecond, spew out what those 100 simians produce.  With all of this writing to choose from--some of which is bound to be excellent--what is the problem?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #123
    Filters.

    Many will blame editors.  It is undeniable that only a few of them have studied prosody but, from all appearance, neither had Harriet Monroe.  It is obvious that the insistence on first serial rights has to be jettisoned, if only because it would have precluded "Poetry" magazine's republication of "Prufrock" altogether.  It is painfully obvious that the focus has to switch from poets to poems.  However, this particular failure is not about personnel.  It is structural.   

     Our selection mechanism is missing a vital component.

     You.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #73
     The story of how "Prufrock" came to us is more than a microcosm;  it is a parable.  In my experience, editors are more than willing to listen to informed advice, as Ms. Monroe was.  Need help with basic scansion, as she did?  It is only a click away.  Constructive criticism?  Go to Eratosphere, Gazebo or Poetry Free-For-All and you'll see plenty of experts helping poets improve³ their works, as Ezra Pound did with T.S. Eliot. 

     More than any other factors, the Internet's educational and critical resources explain why today's best poetry is as good as it is.  We are seeing people who've never been inside a literature class show a better understanding of the definition and composition of verse than many English PhDs.  As for critical resources, these may be as pedestrian as posting a poem to Facebook and tossing or revising it if our friends don't gush.

     So what is lacking? 

     Consider how periodicals find candidate poems.  They are either submitted over-the-transom or solicited from a recognized poet.  The former causes overworked editors to go bleary-eyed.  The latter results in the dreaded "New Yorker" poem.  Or worse.  Care to guess how many of the six greatest poems of our time followed either course to publication?


Beans (D.P. Kristalo) posted by Earl Gray on Vimeo.

     That would be none.  Zero.  Bupkes.

     "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths was published posthumously, "Beans" by D. P. Kristalo and "There are Sunflowers in Italy" by Didi Menendez not at all.  "Antiblurb" by Alicia E. Stallings was published, but in a book

     That leaves "How Aimee Remembers Jaguar" by Eric Hopson and "Auditing the Heart" by Frank Matagrano, both of which appeared years after they were written. 

Question:  If these last two weren't submitted by their author, perhaps prompted by the editor, how did they get published? 



Answer:  The same way the best (i.e. "Prufrock") and, to stretch a point, the best known ("In Flanders Fields") North American WWI era poems did.  They were bird-dogged.  Pound championed "Prufrock", even to the point of scanning it for Harriet Monroe so that she wouldn't reject it as the rambling of an old man.  John McCrae's co-workers recommended his verse to the editors of "Punch" magazine.  This tradition is old as poetry itself but, barring agents and parents, approaching an editor to promote poetry other than one's own is a bizarre concept today.

     The next time we are inclined to cast aspersions on the caliber of work editors put out let us think of what we might do to close the gap[e] between what is being produced and what is being published.



Footnotes:

¹ - Since then, millions who miss the whole point of hypermodernism have tried to duplicate that success.  Why is it so hard to understand that we cannot copy uniqueness?

² - They also seem to believe there may be 2-6 hundred significant poets alive today.

³ - Ignore outlets that won't accept work subjected to objective critical thinking;  aesthetically speaking, such venues are beyond hope.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Why you don't talk like Grandma

Reba McEntire

    Have you ever noticed how almost everyone on U.S. network television and in the movies sounds alike...and not like any American you know?  Characters who are supposed to be New Yorkers, born and bred, don't sound like anyone from the buroughs.  In her show, ostensibly situated in Minneapolis, Mary Tyler Moore never displayed the hint of a midwestern twang.  In real life, southern U.S. voters watching their senators speak to the national press are struck by how different they sound.  In her eponymous television show, Reba [McEntire], the Houston mother character, shows every fiber of her  McAlester, Oklahoma roots but her offspring on the show seem to be northerners.

    What gives?

    Here's another baffler:  you could write a poem or lyric, thinking that "caught" is a homonym of "cot", rhyming with "hot", only to find some who think "caught" sounds more like "poet".

    Again, what gives?

    If you grew up in the central or western Canadian provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta or British Columbia you share a basic accent with each other and with some western U.S. states, particularly Washington and Oregon.  There is one slight, apparently inconsequential difference, though:  the Canadians talk like their grandparents¹.  The Americans?  Not so much.

Mary Tyler Moore
    If you grew up in an ultramontane U.S. state you speak a dialect with locals but, perhaps without even being aware of it, you change over to a common accent when an outlander may be part of your audience.  That lingua franca is the type of speech found in movies and on television or, less consistently, radio.  As such, let's call it "Media Speech" or "TV English". 

     If you venture far enough from home for any length of time (e.g. to work or attend college) you discover that a recognizable dialect tends to provoke a negative reaction² from other Americans.  Thus, your regional speech patterns recede with remarkable speed.  If you are gone long enough your family will begin to notice this [d]evolution.  You no longer talk like your grandparents, whom your children may have difficulty understanding.

     Such people might expect their old, native accent to be replaced by the one from the new locale.  For example, imagine a Southerner who moves to Boston and starts dropping "r" sounds.  That appears logical but, as often as not, that's not what happens.  It may take a long time before the visitor hears, let alone absorbs, the regional vernacular in face-to-face conversations.  Why?  We're missing a subtlety here:  the Bostonians were acutely aware of the presence of an outsider and were likely using Media Speech--the "Mandarin" of English--to be accommodating.  In fact, conversations might switch from Bostonian to TV English in midsentence as the Southerner enters the room.

William Shatner
     Where does this common accent come from?  Is it a mixture of existing ones, like a linguistic melting pot?  An eclectic hodgepodge, like the English language itself?  Actually, no.  Without significant³ variations, it is the accent spoken by Canadians living west of Quebec.  Could it have started in Oregon or Washington state and moved northeast?  No, because it existed north of the border for a generation before it appeared in the United States.

     Okay, but why would proud Americans settle on Canadian English as the speech standard?  After all, due in part to HTML coding and programming (i.e. where "COLOUR" won't work when scripting websites or writing executables), U.S. spelling has won the battle to become the world model.  "COLOR" gets 2.07 billion hits to 692 million for "COLOUR".  Why is Hollywood cranking out television shows and films filled with characters speaking like Canucks?  Why are American actors coached in the finer points of this foreign speech?  Why are opportunities so severely limited for those who cannot master this esperanto (e.g. the aforementioned Reba McEntire, whose movie career began with the NRA film, "Tremors", in which she had remarkably few lines, and soon stalled)?

Peter Jennings
     Remember me saying that "a recognizable dialect tends to provoke a negative reaction from other Americans?"  A Southerner hears any discernible Yankee accent (or vice versa) and thinks of the Civil War.  A Bostonian hears a New Yorker and immediately thinks of the Babe Ruth trade.  At best, it's a distraction.  When these same people hear Torontonians like William Shatner command the Enterprise or Peter Jennings deliver the news, though, they think "Where are you from, boy?"  They may be baffled, yes, but they're not affronted.

     One advantage to this consensus is recognition.  Denizens of the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia, Georgia and Brooklyn might not be able to comprehend each other's words but they all understood Lorne Greene and Pernell Roberts.  (Now you know why half of "America's family", the Cartwrights, were Canadian.)

Lorne Greene
     Another reason for the success of this consensus enunciation is the relative simplicity and consistency of of its vowels.  Generally speaking, they aren't collapsed into partial phonemes (e.g. "human rights" doesn't become "human rats"), they aren't mysteriously stretched (e.g. "wash" doesn't become "worsh") into dipthongs (e.g. "Damn!" doesn't become "Day-yem!"), and they aren't interchangeable, as in "I'm sari.  I guess I'm just a sorry [rhymes with 'glory'] excuse for a human being."

     There are a few differences that Canadian actors need to learn, the most important of which is not to uptick their inflection.  For example, hand this simple sentence to your friends from north and south of the 49th:

     "I'm going to the show."

     Your American buddies will say:  "I'm GOING to the show" or, more likely, "I'm GOING to the SHOW."

Pernell Roberts
     Canadians will read this aloud as:  "I'm going to the SHOW."  Paradoxically, this will seem either emphatic, causing us to wonder if someone suggested they were going elsewhere, or uncertain, sparking a response such as "Are you sure?"  The latter is consistent with the interrogative "eh" that permeates Canadian speech, apparently without them noticing (since they all deny using it much).  This indecision is similar to the Valley Girl--now ubiquitous--use of "like" as a stutter step.

     Speaking of things Californian and Canadian, here is a startling observation:  the more and less homogenous a group the less varied the language.  At one end of the spectrum, Australia exhibits fewer regional differences than New England.  No surprise there.  The polar opposite is the most multicultural city in the world--not Paris, New York or Montreal but--Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the tenth largest minority is an astonishingly high 4% of the population.  Aside from a few local institutions (e.g. donuts called "jambusters" and "goldeyes", wedding traditions that include "socials" and "presentation"), this is an area without a distinctive patois.  Everyone speaks like they're on TV.  Indeed, that is where many of them learned English.  California is among the most culturally diverse states in the union but the English spoken there is quite uniform, much closer to those north of them (including Canada) than those east (especially Texas).

Phonologist Jürgen Handke
    Thus, almost all North American anglophones speak C+W (i.e. Central and Western, not Country and Western) Canadian along with a regional variant (where applicable).  Over time, the latter will fade.  Abroad, Canadianization is not so pronounced, especially in Britain.  Due to the proliferation of U.S. media, though, we can see how younger English-as-a-second-language speakers sound less British than their grandparents, most notably in India and continental Europe.

    If interest warrants, we'll examine the development and impact of this confluence in a sequel.



Footnotes:

¹ - Canadians sound like their grandparents, yes, but not necessarily like their great grandparents, who may have spoken a more British-sounding "Canadian dainty" if born before the 20th century.  (Others argue that "Canadian dainty" was more a reflection of class than geography.)

² - At the very least, your accent identifies you according to your place of origin.  As such, it is, quite literally, alienating.

³ - Of particular interest is the Northern City Shift, as illustrated in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's documentary "Talking Canadian", which we'll examine in Part II.  In America's great lake states residents have begun pronouncing "top" and "box" as "tap" and "backs", and using new dipthongs to enunciate "and" as "ay-end" and "family" as "fay-yem-ily".  The spread of this trend comes to a screeching halt at the Canadian border.



References:

     While I didn't agree with every detail, these videos were very helpful in preparing this post:

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's documentary "Talking Canadian" (43:32)



Phonology - English in North America II with Jürgen Handke



The History of English in 10 Minutes




Monday, December 8, 2014

Published - Part II

    In this series we will examine recently published poems as they might be received in a geek-infested critical forum.  Each post will feature the best work of a different publication.  If you have encountered a piece you'd like to see analyzed and rated (see scale below) please enter the text and author's name or, better yet, a URL below (your post won't be made visible to anyone) or send us, "Earl Gray", a message on Facebook.




     Rattle Editor-In-Chief Alan Fox's "The River" is a crude outline, one step removed from scatterbrainstorming.  Most of it is fat;  the entire poem could be captured in, at most, these 19 words:  

I heard you missed the eddy
and the stream¹ embraced you.
I skip a stone
and watch it sink.

    "The River" was chosen from all others in "Rattle #44, Summer 2014" because it isn't until the second line that we are struck by the lack of craft.  In a generous mood I'd rate it 3 out of 10 (i.e. "Rejected, pending significant revisions").

    For context, we need to check out the competition, direct and indirect.  Compare this flab to Hank Beukema's recitation of John Stewart's "Strange Rivers" (ignoring the repetitive last half minute for now):



    Which experience is more enjoyable?  Reading Fox's prose or hearing Beukema's rendition of Stewart's verses?  (The switch in media from print to audiovisual is part of the point here.)

    It gets worse if we contrast this flat text with John Stewart's song, as covered by Joan Baez:



    We know that poetry was replaced by song on the radio in the 1920s.  Here we see why.  In essence, poetry doesn't understand what it's up against.  How can today's print editors compete with an entrancing voice, let alone masterful music?  By producing shaggy dog stories with linebreaks?

We were col|lege best friends | for three years

     The inclusion of "best" causes a voice/mood problem, blending a chatspeak tone² with a stark theme, but serves to sustain the anapestic rhythm. Note, too, the sonics: alliteration of "We were" and "friends for", then the assonance of short and long "e" sounds in "We...three years". This creates an expectation of more to come. Instead, we get unremarkable reportage. Note that "kayaking" is the only relevant word in this entire strophe...and might work better as a title.

kayaking the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.

     A tip: Avoid plurals and groupings. They detract from the immediacy and our ability to visualize a specific setting.

I cherish our week in Glacier Bay,

     Instead of telling us what the speaker cherishes, try showing us why. Better yet, try showing us why we should cherish these words.

     Nothing in the second strophe before "I heard today" contributes anything but confusion to the narrative.

     The third paragraph includes more distractions. Who cares that it is his new wife? That he is hiking the hills of England?

     Here we see one of the key differences between institutional and independent poems:

into the sparkling waters of memory.

     Incoherence is a facet of academic poetry. Indies tend to have the opposite problem: a lack of subtlety. This last line has no purpose other than to club the reader (tinr) over the head and scream: "THIS IS SAD! SEE HOW THE STONE SINKING IN THE RIVER HARKENS BACK TO HIS FRIEND SINKING IN THE RIVER?"

     You know, in case we missed it.



Footnotes:

 ¹ - "River" changed to "stream" for sonic and rhythmic purposes.

 ² - It may sound too much like "BFF" ("Best Friend Forever") for some. Is "best" really necessary? Or is it an attempt to make the account even more mawkish than it is?



Rating Scale:

##   Action Taken                             Frequency 

10 = Anthologized                             Once every 10 years? 
#9 = Accepted and discussed                   Twice a year? 
#8 = Accepted and featured                    Once per issue? 
#7 = Accepted                                 ~1% of submissions 
#6 = Held for consideration                   ~2% of submissions 
#5 = Recommended for publication elsewhere    ~1% of submissions 
#4 = Rejected, pending suggested changes      ~1% of submissions 
#3 = Rejected, pending significant revisions  ~1% of submissions
#2 = Rejected with encouraging remarks        ~6% of submissions 
#1 = Rejected without comment                 ~80% of submissions 
#0 = "You were joking, right?"                ~8% of submissions 


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Show Some Respect!

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #112

cento:  Poetry made up of lines borrowed from a combination of established authors, usually resulting in a change in meaning and a humorous effect.

found poem:  A poem created from prose found in a non-poetic context, such as advertising copy, brochures, newspapers, product labels, etc. The lines are arbitrarily rearranged into a form patterned on the rhythm and appearance of poetry.

    Thus, the found poem derives from sources outside literature.  It follows that the cento tends to be drawn from novels, songs, films or other poems.  In both cases, though, they are presented in a poetic form, which may include open form (i.e. free verse or prose poetry).



Earl the Squirrel's Rule #24
    Think of the last few times the public might have been exposed to the toxic radiation of "poetry".  In 2009 we saw Elizabeth Alexander's crowd-clearing "Praise Song for The Day", which gave birth to Rule #24.  This was followed up four years later with Richard Blanco's "One Today", which seems to have taken a day to deliver.  More recently, people may have been trolled by Frederick Seidel's "The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri".  Before him, Kenneth Goldsmith was reading baseball commentary and newspaper clippings to the POTUS and First Lady.

    "Why call raw prose poetry?" you ask.  "Doesn't prose sell a thousand times better?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #25
     Yes, but not if it is tedious.  Anything as banal as Seidel's braindroppings or Goldsmith's mind-numbingly inartistic random text is too dull for prose;  it can only be sold to pseudo-sophisticates as "poetry".  In fact, substitute "the actual words" for "reading the actual work" and this becomes the very definition of prose:

    "His work is about the ideas (read:  Content Regency) and discussions that it generates (read:  offense or antagonism it provokes), rather than about reading the actual work the actual words.

     Let's not miss the progression here.  I'll grant you that Ms. Alexander and Mr. Blanco are both profoundly lazy, untalented individuals but at least they aren't trolls.  They didn't mean to permanently lower our metabolisms by boring us stiff¹. 

     More disturbing is the defeatist, exploitative attitude toward poetry's moribund condition. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #19
    Mr. Goldsmith says:  "One of the great tragedies of poets is that they assume they are being read, and they are not. So why not assume there will be no readership and give great concepts to think about instead?"

    In essence, he has reduced Rule #19 to the absurd.  The implication is that since Nobody Reads Poetry it doesn't matter how bad it is.  We can't argue with that logic and, sadly, we must concede that this is the prevailing [anti-]aesthetic today.  It is a cornerstone of Convenient Poetics.  As for what qualify as "great concepts", we won't bother arguing with someone who seems to think he invented the found poem and that excerpting from sports broadcasts and newspapers constitutes plagiarism.  [It was legal when Lenny Bruce did it in the early 1960s and remains so today.] 

    The flaw in his "thinking" is that it applies general truths (e.g. Rule #19, Nobody Reads Poetry) not just to specific circumstances but to ones known to be exceptional.  Unfortunately, folks did hear those inaugural poems.  Many did read [about] Seidel trivializing the tragedy at Ferguson.  If not the people, their elected representatives in Washington did have to suffer through Goldsmith's silliness.  There was not a single line of poetry in any of the four presentations but the art form was publicly humiliated nonetheless.

    Looking at it now, we wouldn't guess that poetry was once alive and vibrant within our culture.  Still, there is something cowardly and, yes, sacrilegious about kicking its corpse.



Footnotes:

¹ - Almost literally so, given the temperature.






Friday, December 5, 2014

A New Paradigm in Critique?

 Earl the Squirrel's Rule #109
     As workshoppers currently use the term, "critique" is a commenter helping a poet improve a poem before it is published.  In "Poetry Critique" we examined the existing ethos.  A recent thread on Eratosphere has caused me to wonder if we need a new model for open critique.

     For the sake of argument, let us say there is a feeling that most of those posting poems are not interested in developing--not the poem or as poets.  Rather, they may be Self-Propelled Attention Seeking Members ("SPASMs") using the forum as a vanity outlet and/or egomaniacs testing the critics' ability to recognize "flawless" poetry when they see it.  Let us say that their attitude is apparent in the way they ignore or respond to critiques.

 Earl the Squirrel's Rule #100
     Many tend to downplay the impact of this abuse.  In the words of one respected Eratospherean:  "People post for different reasons, and if you don't like what you perceive to be the reasons some people post, then simply avoid commenting on their poems."

     Easy-peasy.  So, what's the problem?

     Let us say that, judging from threads to this effect, the quantity and quality of critiques is said to have declined.  The reason would be obvious:  members don't want to waste precious time and energy critiquing verse at length, only to discover that the author is merely showcasing.  The poem listing is now a minefield, each piece likely to blow up in your face if you deign to critique it.  New poets will see this behavior and follow suit.  New critics may be faced with frittering away months or even years discovering who the triflers are.  Inevitably, members will ignore poems by anyone they don't know [is serious about improvement].  This creates a perception of cliquishness.

 Earl the Squirrel's Rule #94
     With so many sensitive souls posting, critics may feel obligated to avoid candor.  This makes writing the critiques and reading them more tedious and less entertaining.  (Yes, I wrote "entertaining".  There is no reason the process should be as humorless as it is.  Among other things, this plays into the notion that good poetry, itself, cannot be comedic.)

     Critical thinking is the third leg of the stool, along with absorbing technique and reading a lot of poetry.  Aside from the rec.arts.poems newsgroup, there are few, if any, better sources of this than Eratosphere and Poetry Free-For-All.  Seeing someone else's work being examined has an advantage of objectivity;  it isn't our ego on the line.  Unfortunately, the status quo [dis]regards onlookers as "lurkers", one or two steps removed from voyeurs.  If the poet turns out to be a vanity poster or a megalomaniac and spectators aren't actively encouraged, who benefits from reading these critiques?  A great resource could be wasted.

 Earl the Squirrel's Rule #80
     The new paradigm would alleviate all of these difficulties.  Better yet, it would involve nothing more than moving from the second person to the third.  "You should change this" becomes "This should be changed."  Indeed, perhaps we should avoid using the term "critique" entirely¹.  Perhaps we should engage in analysis, essentially relegating the poet to observer status.  Thus, it no longer matters if the poet doesn't choose to benefit;  others will.  People will post poems (or URLs to poems), asking for our impressions² and suggestions.  What does it matter who wrote them?

     Sometimes semantics are everything.  There may be many people who are more willing to accept analysis than criticism, even if the actual texts are identical.



Footnotes:

¹ -  Zoetrope calls them "reviews", but directs them privately and unproductively at the poet.

² - Unlike critique, analysis can extend to finished pieces, serving as a measure of the poem, poet, editor and publication.  Personally, I don't see this as a problem, especially with the Frederick Seidels of this world obliterating any qualitative distinction between published and unpublished work.



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Published - Part I

    In this series we will examine recently published poems as they might be received in a geek-infested critical forum.  Each post will feature the best work of a different publication.  If you have encountered a piece you'd like to see analyzed and rated (see scale below) please enter the text and author's name or, better yet, a URL below (your post won't be made visible to anyone) or send us, "Earl Gray", a message on Facebook.




Rosemary Tonks

    We begin with "Oath" by Rosemary Tonks as viewed on the Poetry Foundation site, 2014-12-02.  A number of things are remarkable about this poem:

1.  Unlike 99+% of non-metrical poems written today, "Oath" is [rhythmic] free verse.  In fact, it is too rhythmic and measured.  Is it sloppy meter or monorhythmic free verse?  Two thirds of its lines work as iambic tetrameter ("IT").  That's too many for free verse.  The remaining lines are too much of a hodgepodge to work as heterometer.    We immediately know that this is a 4 out of 10, publishable when the author has chosen a form and made the necessary revisions.  We are also reminded of the need to hear someone read our poems to us before we send them out.

 Earl the Squirrel's Rule #13
2.  The sonics come and go.  Stanza 4 is remarkable for its assonance of short and long "e" sounds, but the rhyming couplet, "trees-knees", clangs, exacerbating the metrical expectation.  The sudden overalliteration in S5-L3, "mortar made of mirrors", protrudes, especially since the sonics are so sparse everywhere else.

3a.  The noun pairings ("ink-storm", "Scent-kitchens", "scent-storm") work rather well, notwithstanding the selfconscious hyphens.

3b.  The repetition of words (e.g. breath, breast, storm, dark, heart, etc.) suggests connections that don't [seem to] exist, leaving readers wondering if they "missed a memo".

 Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
4.  No serious poetry reader got past "dark moods against my soul."  Indeed, as a convenience, the Poetry Foundation webmaster should have made those five words a link to the next poem.

5.  Mixed metaphors, such as a heart thirstily drinking a thought, don't help the cause.

6.  The poem tries too hard to be misunderstood.

7.  Phrases and ideas that misfired the first time don't warrant reiteration.  A "Universe unreal as breath" and "no hard earth inside my breast"?

8.  For what it's worth, Seinfeldian poems (i.e. about nothing) don't bring in the crowds.


     Drop a few vagrant syllables in some of the lines and, in five minutes, this would be metrical.

I swear | that I | would not | go back
To glass fish|pools where | the rough | breath lies
That built | the Earth--|und'r heav|y trees
With their bark | that’s full | of groc|er’s spice,

Not for | an hour--|although | my heart
Moves, thirst|ily, | to drink | the thought--
would I Go back | to run | my boat
On the | brown rain | that made | it slip,

I would | not for | a youth return
to ig|norance, | and be | the wild
fowl thrown | about | by dark wat|er seas'ns
like an | ink-storm | against | my soul,

And no | firm ground | inside | my breast,
Only | the breath | of God | that stirs
Scent-kitch|ens of | refresh|ing trees,
green cart|ilage | upon | my knees.

With no | hard earth | inside | my breast
To hold | a Un|iverse | of breath,
like fish, | wet mor|tar made | of mirr'rs
I laid | some glass | upon | my youth.

Without | wat'rpools | would I | go back
To a Un|iverse | unreal | as breath?
I use | the musc|le of | my heart
To thirst | for the | scent-storm | of trees.

Conclusion:

     As a first draft, this piece has moved beyond the brainstorming (or, in a worst case scenario, scatterbrainstorming) and the outline stages.  It exhibits a good ear for rhythm but an incomplete understanding of meter.  Beyond that, it has many of the earmarks of a typical modern institutional poem:  the inconsistent attention to sonics;  the obligatory em dash abuse;  stretches where, as Maz¹ would say, the author "neglected the basic need to make sense"; and, the lack of plot. 

     Among free verse poems, compare this to Erin Hopson's "How Aimee Remembers Jaguar".  For verse comparisons, look at Archibald Lampman's "Morning on the Lièvre" (text here).





Footnotes:

¹ - In case you've forgotten why we love Margaret A. Griffiths so much, she was once shown a link to an article reporting that Northern Arts had provided generous financial support for a project by Gaelic poet Aonghas MacNeacail which involved spraying words onto sheep and seeing what poem resulted.

     Maz resolved:  "I'm going to feed my dog Scrabble tiles and see what she shits."



Rating Scale:

##   Action Taken                               Frequency

10 = Accepted and anthologized                  Once every 10 years?
#9 = Accepted and discussed                     Twice a year?
#8 = Accepted and featured                      Once per issue?
#7 = Accepted                                   ~1%  of submissions
#6 = Held for consideration                     ~1%  of submissions
#5 = Recommended for publication elsewhere      ~1%  of submissions
#4 = Rejected, pending suggested changes        ~1%  of submissions
#3 = Rejected, pending significant revisions    ~2%  of submissions
#2 = Rejected with encouraging remarks          ~6%  of submissions
#1 = Rejected without comment                   ~80% of submissions
#0 = "You were joking, right?"                  ~8%  of submissions