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, October 20, 2014

A World Without Poetry?

Dateline:  2211

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #134
     All of us are familiar with the Press Paradox:  "News is what doesn't happen."  Planes make headlines only when they don't land.  We rarely think of the sun until an eclipse.

     I pondered this while working on my magnus opus:  a chronology of English language poetry since 1066.  The "eclipse" in question was the disappearance of poetry¹ during the Cocoon Era, between 1966 and 2026.  We know how and when poetry vanished:  it was replaced by songs on the radio, starting in the 1920s.  We know how and when it reappeared:  the publication of Humorist Skancey Brown's "Everything Butt" PoVid in 2026.  Fascinating theories abound as to why poetry died in English-speaking cultures but not in others--most of which had popular tunes on the radio as well.  What intrigues me at the moment, though, is how a society operates without poetry.  This isn't like French speakers ignoring the past perfect tense or Russian lacking articles (i.e. "the", "a" or "an").  We're talking about losing an entire mode of speech--of which there are only two!  This was unprecedented in human history.

     What was it like living in a world without poetry¹?  Did the entire population turn into soulless, mindless, unromantic drones?  Did civilization collapse?  Did men die miserably every day for lack of it?

     Oddly, no.  Humanity survived, taking solace in song, video, fiction, and sundry other sources.

     It is difficult to imagine a time when no single poem would be familiar to any four randomly selected compatriots--not even four poets!  Few people can recite one measly line, let alone an entire poem, written in their lifetime.  Despite our sophisticated 23rd century search techniques, we cannot find any significant samplings of non-poets quoting verse from this period in any context.  The only popular verser from this era was a Mother Goose stand-in, Dr. Seuss, who outsold all of his contemporaries combined.  From surveys found online we estimate the average college graduate could name two living poets but could quote none.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #19
     As always, many people mistook themselves for poets, an error few others committed.  Reviews were little more than blurbs.  Not surprisingly, criticism disappeared entirely.  The prevailing sentiment was that such candor might hurt the poet's chances of getting a teaching position and, besides, why excoriate something that no one is going to read? 

     The taboo against quality was baffling.  Identifying one or two poets as "best" was deemed offensive--worse than bring up sex, politics or religion among strangers--because it implied that all poets weren't equal.  Technical discussions were almost as rare.  People discussed poets, not poems.  Put another way, the one thing missing from most poetry discussions was--you guessed it--poetry.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #113
     There was a fad called "slam", which we might call "animated speech".  Indeed, many hard core organizers avoided the expression "slam poetry", lest it be too closely associated with a moribund art form.  Slam appealed to the young and appeared to be a rare instance when participants left their homes.  (E-Tourney championships didn't appear until the 2030s;  before that, all videogaming was done at home.)

     We know the Internet obsoleted books and magazines but it took longer than many would expect.  The last public library was closed in 2061, twelve years before the Library of Congress became a museum where we can go to touch actual pages, just as our great, great, great, great grandparents did.

     Given sales and lending statistics, it is hard to see how print publishing had much success promulgating poetry.  Lest we think cost and inconvenience was the problem, poetry e-zines and e-books were equally ineffective.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #24
     Paradoxically, while Nobody Read Poetry, many expropriated it.  Because of a quirk in the crude scripting language of the time ("HTML"), one could embed pictures but not text.  That is, one could include a photo from another site directly (i.e. without copying it and posting it to one's own server).  One could "hyperlink" to another site but a user would have to click on the link and go to that secondary source.  If one wanted to incorporate the text into one's own document, though, copying and pasting was the only option...and that violated the copyright laws of the time.  It wasn't until 2024 that browsers provided this feature, and 2031 (Britain), 2033 (United States), 2034 (Canada) or 2036 (Australia and South Africa) before lawmakers got around to fixing the problem.
Earl the Squirrel's Rule #115

     It is a challenge for us to envision an environment where one doesn't hear so much as a commercial jingle in the course of a day, week or month.  This was the case despite the existence of three different media:  print, pixel and performance.  Today, only the latter survives (except for analytical forums and treatises).

     We may never understand how thin poetry's lifeline was.  At the turn of the millennium the number of geeks² may have been under 100 worldwide.  They served the same purpose as 7th century Irish monks, keeping classic literature alive during the Dark Ages.

     It is remarkably easy for literary scholars to ignore an epoch without poetry.  It produced no major poets and no iconic poems.  While most verse is extant online, only a handfull of Cocoon Era pieces rose above their own obscurity and, at that, only in anthologies.  Nevertheless, it was during this period that poetry experienced its greatest move toward modernity and democratization.  Before it, the vast majority of recognized poets were male.  During the Cocoon, three of the four most revered³ poets were female.  That trend, if not that ratio, has continued ever since.

      In the end, I believe that this peculiar time, 1966 to 2026, lies beyond our 23rd century comprehension--even beyond our imagination.


¹ - Lest there be confusion, by "poetry" we mean "[the market for] poetry", excluding song lyrics.  After all, if no one is listening then "we might as well be barking." 

² - During this period, anyone who understood even the rudiments of scansion could be considered an "expert".  Many of these self-identified as "geeks", a term that didn't seem to have the negative connotation it has today.

³ - Most revered in 2211, at least.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Soft Rhythms

     "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain."

     "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain."

     Between the perfect rhymes and iambic rhythm this line proclaims "This is poetry!"  Reciting it and knowing it is intended as verse, people who have never had the benefit of an acting coach are liable to overstress the preposition "on".  This misapprehension (called "promotion") that poetry uses unnatural speech patterns survives among too many non-performing poets today. 

     Of course, competent versers would not write such doggerel in the first place.  Instead, they would concentrate on softer rhythms:  more substitutions (e.g. anapests, spondees, pyrrhics, double iambs instead of metronomic iambs), far fewer proximate/exact rhymes, and more variety in the stress levels.

    "Your face was always saddest when you smiled."

    The words "face", "sad-" and "smiled" are accented more strongly than the first syllable in "always".  Using Otto Jespersen's 4 levels of stress, "al-" is a three while the other three are fours, just as natural speech leaves "when" unstressed (i.e. 1 or 2).

    Compare Shakespeare's lines to rap lyrics and the differences between soft and hard rhythms and between natural and metronomic speech become abundantly evident.  Softer cadences, then, are associated with more sophisticated poetry while stronger beats identify more popular verse, including song lyrics.  That's one view.  Another is that if you want your words to be taken seriously by contemporary or future audiences they should be wrapped lightly, not tightly, in rhythm.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Learning from West Chester

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #25
     Do poets need to be interesting?

     No, but their stories do.

     If you lack the skills needed to perform or present your work you can network with those able to bring your pieces to life on stage and/or video.  At the same time, you may be the life of the party but no one can help if your material or perspective is boring.  Take the two greatest poems of our time as examples.  "Studying Savonarola", written by Margaret Ann Griffiths, is told in the voice of a modern gay man infatuated with a cleric burned at the stake in Florence, Italy 516 years ago.  D.P. Kristalo's "Beans" involves a woman delivering an English language eulogy to Salvador Allende in a politically supercharged atmosphere where any partisanship could cost her life.  What made these poems interesting, along with the copious, dazzling prosodic pyrotechnics, was the writers' ability to imagine a viewpoint other than their own.  "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was about a man's midlife crisis.  T.S. Eliot was all of 21 when he began writing it, 27 when it was published.

     Let us test your ability to do this, shall we?

Kim Bridgford
     The Internet is abuzz with opinions regarding the West Chester University fiasco.  There is a petition to express "support for the former Director of the WCU Poetry Center and Conference, Dr. Kim Bridgford."  Calmer voices are advising a wait-and-see approach, given the lack of details from Kim Bridgford or Dean Lori Vermeulen.  All we know for certain is that much beloved organizer Kim Bridgford was reassigned to teaching, such that the 2015 Conference will be cancelled while a new project leader is installed.

     The beneficiaries of Ms. Bridgford's efforts are legion.  Many are demanding details.  Consider this statement by Patricia Valdata:

Patricia Valdata
    "I was taking minutes on August 25 at the Poetry Center's 3rd quarter Advisory Board meeting (for the rest of you, I was there as a temporary employee from mid-February through August 29). The board's financial committee requested an audit for two reasons: (1) it is good financial practice for every organization to be audited on a regular basis and (2) audits are required on most grant applications. The Center had never been audited, so it was long overdue. The advisory board approved the audit, quite enthusiastically, I might add.

    "As soon as the meeting concluded, the dean left the room like she was shot out of a cannon, without a word to any of us. Three weeks later, Kim was removed, ostensibly because she didn't 'work closely enough' with the WCU Foundation, which is ridiculous."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #128
     In sharp contrast to Kim's vociferous supporters, those of Ms. Vermeulen have been as tight-lipped as the two principals themselves.  Forget the conference for a moment.  As an exercise in imagination and empathy, can you surmise what the Dean's supporters might argue?

     For the sake of this challenge, let us regard the organization as a Section 501(c)(3) charity and frequent grant applicant which, contrary to the bolded print in Ms. Valdata's statement, would require considerable financial disclosure, including audits.  In this hypothetical scenario, assume that both her Advisory Board and Kim Bridgford herself were well aware of this compliance when they made their demand.

     Even as a devil's advocate, can you write a cogent, convincing defense of the Dean's actions based on these circumstances?

     Ready, set, go!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Three Friends and a Stranger

     The expression "three friends and a stranger" refers to competitors ganging up to eliminate or fleece an opponent.  The word "friends" may be figurative;  reasons for this ad hoc alliance may be more strategic or financial than social.

     Poetry is a competition, as is the pursuit of jobs teaching it.  One is an artistic endeavor, though, and the other is commerce.  How much of the PoBiz is poetry and how much is business?

     To appreciate this distinction, compare the North Carolina Poet Laureate Scandal to a slam contest.  The former was a PoBiz concern related directly to employment.  Not surprisingly, we saw "three friends", the Carolina Arts Council, and "a stranger", Valerie Macon.

     Slam is at the far end of the spectrum.  While the PoBiz is a labor exchange, slams are, for better or worse, exercises in democracy.  Judges are drawn from the crowd.  Highest scoring participant wins.  Simple, right?

    "But aren't slams cliquish?"

     People who wonder this are inferring that, by "democracy", we mean people voting for candidates.  No.  More often than not, the Realpolitik of democracy involves people voting against candidates.

Piping in the vote results
     Suppose Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice are the forerunners pitted against each other at a slam.  Regulars Bob, Carol and Ted may bring tagalongs who serve as judges.  Newcomer Alice is on her own.  In order to help Bob win, his buddy on the panel may downgrade the scores for Carole and Ted but will see little reason to assess unknowns on anything but merit.  Supporters of Carol and Ted may do the same for their favorite.  Thus, if the performances are approximately equal, being an outsider--a novelty to judges tired of the same-old-same-old--might actually benefit Alice.  In my experience, this is the rule, not the exception, for new talent.

     Between these two extremes, the more directly a decision affects possible employment the stronger the "three friends and a stranger" influence.  Publishers associated with colleges or poetry organizations tend to be more closed in terms of participation and audience input.  That is, neither the poet nor the poetry are crowd-pleasers.  Contests--especially those with blind judging--and independent publishers tend to be more merit-based and audience-oriented.  The explains the vast difference in name recognition, aesthetics and entertainment value between The Paris Review or Poetry Magazine and Rattle, The Pedestal, or TheHyperTexts.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Episode 4b - Poets Say the Funniest Things

     When we last left our hero, Juan Vidal amused us with the notion that virtually nothing written before the death of poetry in the 1920s constituted poetry because it wasn't political.

     You may need to reread that last sentence for comprehension and effect.

     Believe it or not, this was not his punch line.  No, he saved that for last.  To fully appreciate its silliness in all its glory we need to bear in mind two indisputable facts:

1.  There is more poetry¹ being published today than ever before; and,

2.  Nobody Reads Poetry.

     This is news to no one.

Marc Bolan
     Mr. Vidal prattles on about the disappearance of "political poets¹".  You know, the kind we see in the millions at slam and open mic soirées.  The kind that cause those of us in attendance to mutter "Bob Dylan knows (and I'll bet Alan Freed does) there are things in the night that are better not to behold."

     With no hint of irony or self-awareness, Juan Vidal ends his argument with the most ridiculous question ever posed in earnest:  "Did they stop speaking, or have we stopped listening?"

     Mr. Vidal missed his cue [by generations] and his calling [as a sitcom writer].


¹ - I rarely use the term this loosely.


Episode 1 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Episode 2 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Episode 3 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Episode 4a - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Episode 4b - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Monday, September 15, 2014


      "Genius" is a word I do not bandy about.  It should describe the rarest of traits, not wasted on our favorite obscure poet.  Chances are, if you know three or more geniuses you know zero geniuses.

     What, then, is a genius?  More specifically, what is a creative genius?  For once, I don't find a dictionary definition particularly helpful since it addresses none of the practical concerns:  consensus, consistency, and production.

      Suppose someone creates a work that a few people consider a masterpiece.  By "few" I mean a tiny minority, even among fans of that particular subject and genre.  Because common understanding is the purpose of language, we cannot identify the author as a genius because too many people disagree with the assignation.  At most, we can preface the term with a disclaimer such as "In my opinion [this person is a genius]."

      Suppose a person creates one brilliancy in a career besmirched by enumerable embarrassing failures.  That artist may be a financial success but "genius"?  No.  There is simply too much evidence to the contrary.  This is equally true of the individual who recreates the same item, perhaps with minor variations, over and over again.

      Now suppose someone writes one gem and then quits.  "Genius"?  Hard to say, since genius comes in a pattern.  Is the artist a one-shot-wonder?  A flash in the pan?  Consistency implies a sizeable number of confirming examples, notwithstanding the occasional clunker.

      When, then, can we use the word without qualification?

Kelly Nishimoto
      As I use the term, a genius is someone who can reliably produce unique items that please a significant consumer market.  As such, we obviously don't have a living poetry genius.  This is true even if we accept a demographic limited to fellow writers as a "market".  Of course, we may be getting ahead of ourselves.  In the last half century, other than Dr. Seuss, we haven't produced a single successful poem, let alone a Shakespeare capable of cranking them out in series.

      The good news is that, contrary to what passes for conventional "wisdom" today, the products of genius are never difficult to spot.  For example, take The Learning Channel's "Something Borrowed, Something New".  Resident genius, Kelly Nishimoto, reworks dresses worn by the bride's mother decades earlier, presenting each as a palatable option to modern gowns.  She does this every episode.  The results amaze even those of us with no interest in fashion and design.

      Watch a few of her shows.  It may be a life-changing experience to be able to point at something or someone and say without equivocation or reservation "Now that is genius!"

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Episode 4a - Poets Say the Funniest Things

DPK's "Beans"
      In "Where Have All The Poets Gone?" Juan Vidal wrote:  "For centuries, poets were the mouthpieces railing loudly against injustice."

      Actually, no, they weren't.  Not the poets we remember from when poetry had an audience, at least.  Drama, comedy, romance, elegy?  Sure.  Philosophy and religion?  Maybe.  Polemics?  For niche publishers, perhaps, but not as a general rule.  To be clear:  Mr. Vidal isn't saying "political" in the usual reductionist sense that everything is political (or dramatic, romantic or even humorous--whatever the pseudointellectual wants to argue).

      His example of "for centuries"?  "From Langston Hughes to Jack Kerouac..." leading to other contemporaries:  Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg, and Amiri Baraka.

Garcia Lorca in 1914
      You couldn't guess his other example:  Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca (5 June 1898 - 19 August 1936).  In none of the theories about Lorca does anyone describe his body of work as "overtly political".  Lorca didn't consider it so, else he might never have left Madrid.  His Falangist friends and hosts didn't seem to have a problem with it.  Indeed, if the nationalists considered his poetry "overtly political" would it have taken them more than 30 minutes, let alone more than 30 days, to arrest and execute him?

      Needless to say, Mr. Vidal doesn't list examples of political pieces by Lorca.  Nor can anyone explain how badly one would have to misread Lorca's poetry before describing it as "overtly political".  Are we supposed to view "Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías" as...what?...a diatribe against bullfighting?

      Mr. Vidal continues unabated:  "At its root, poetry is the language of protest."

      Yes, that would explain the paeans, love sonnets, praise poems, non-satirical comedies, commercial jingles, bawdy limericks, and just about every canonical poem written before WWI.

      Do people actually think before they write these things?


     "I want to die decently in my bed." - Lorca, in "Romance Sonambulo"