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

Friday, December 23, 2011

Poetry Numbers - Part I

Want a quick demonstration of how bad we poets are at numbers and how oblivious we are to the effects of losing our audience?

On his Samizdat Blog, in "10,000 Poets: The Problem of the Multitude in American Poetry", Robert Archambeau paraphrases Mark Halliday as saying:

Defining a poet as someone who has published a book, or aspires to do so, continued Halliday, we might conservatively estimate the number of American poets at 10,000 (“or,” he added, “30,000 — when I’m in a bad mood”).

Even if we take the higher number, 30,000, and divide it by the U.S. population figure he mentions, 300,000,000, we get .01% of the population, 1 in 10,000 individuals, being poets. Messrs. Archambeau and Halliday are trying to make the point that there are too many poets. In truth, expressed as a percentage of the population, we have fewer American poets now than at any time in history.

Of course, what is missing is the audience.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Same Words

This is prose:

This is poetry:

     How can this be?  They're the very same words!

God is alive, magic is afoot
God is alive, magic is afoot
God is afoot, magic is alive
Alive is afoot, magic never died

God never sickened
Many poor men lied
Many sick men lied
Magic never weakened

Magic never hid
Magic always ruled
God is afoot
God never died

God was ruler
Though his funeral lengthened
Though his mourners thickened
Magic never fled

Though his shrouds were hoisted
The naked God did live
Though his words were twisted
The naked magic thrived

Though his death was published
Round and round the world
The heart did not believe

Many hurt men wondered
Many struck men bled
Magic never faltered
Magic always led

Many stones were rolled
But God would not lie down
Many wild men lied
Many fat men listened

Though they offered stones
Magic still was fed
Though they locked their coffers
God was always served

Magic is afoot, God rules
Alive is afoot, alive is in command
Many weak men hungered
Many strong men thrived

Though they boasted solitude
God was at their side
Nor the dreamer in his cell
Nor the captain on the hill

Magic is alive
Though his death was pardoned
Round and round the world
The heart did not believe

Though laws were carved in marble
They could not shelter men
Though altars built in parliaments
They could not order men

Police arrested magic
And magic went with them
For magic loves the hungry

But magic would not tarry
It moves from arm to arm
It would not stay with them
Magic is afoot

It cannot come to harm
It rests in an empty palm
It spawns in an empty mind
But magic is no instrument
Magic is the end

Many men drove magic
But Magic stayed behind
Many strong men lied
They only passed through magic

And out the other side
Many weak men lied
They came to God in secret
And though they left him nourished

They would not say who healed
Though mountains danced before them
They said that God was dead
Though his shrouds were hoisted
The naked God did live

This I mean to whisper to my mind
This I mean to laugh with in my mind
This I mean my mind to serve 'til
Service is but magic

Moving through the world
And mind itself is magic
Coursing through the flesh
And flesh itself is magic

Dancing on a clock
And time itself
The magic length of God

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

     Note that this isn't a matter of a pre-existing poem being set to music and/or chanted/sung, as with Pink Floyd star David Gilmour's rendition of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.

Buffy Sainte-Marie
     Nor is it embedded poetry.  It is an excerpt from Leonard Cohen's 1966 novel, "Beautiful Losers", every word of which was intended, accepted and honored as prose.  Only when folksinger Buffy Ste. Marie read and, subsequently, sang this snippet did it become verse (a subset of poetry).

      How is that possible?  What definition of poetry or prose can handle this?  If adding background music made words verse then many a movie finale would qualify.  Chanting a telephone book doesn't make it poetry¹.

Leonard Cohen
     We could get into the technical aspects, pointing out that this is accentual heterometer, like "The Red Wheelbarrow" (except that it is mixed dimeter/trimeter rather than alternating dimeter/monometer).  However, the truth is much simpler than that:  people repeat it verbatim.  Whether they are speaking, chanting, or singing onstage or in the shower² is irrelevant.  They are making a voluntary effort to get the words exactly right.

     That is poetry.

     In fact, that is how all poetry came into being before the development of writing and prosody.  One cave dweller told a story, another wanted to preserve it, in whole or in part, for posterity.  This memorization effort turned a [prose³] tale into a poem.



¹ - Until others follow your lead, chanting the same names, at least.

² - Or both, given the state of performance art, I suppose.

³ - Prose being the stuff we don't memorize and recite.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cheap Prosody Parlor Tricks - Part II

In Cheap Prosody Parlor Tricks - Part I we saw how a knowledge of scansion can help us predict what sections of a poem or song will be retained in memory. Let's continue the fun with a test my friend conducted during an open mic.

The rules couldn't be simpler. Participants will be presented with four poems--parts of poems in my buddy's 3-minute version--and then be asked whether each one is metrical or not. No, really. That's all there is to it. In fact, to make it even easier, the metrical poem(s) will rhyme and at least one of the works will be familiar to us.

Why not play along? If music will distract you, turn off your volume for all except #2, which is recited. For #1, #3 and #4, feel free to read the poems aloud to yourself as the words appear. In any event, please view each video only once before marking the poem as Metrical or Free Verse.

1. "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths


2. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by Thomas Stearns Eliot


3. "How Aimee remembers Jaguar" by Erin Hopson


4. "Beans" by D. P. Kristalo


When you're ready to see the answers, please scroll down past these photos:

"Beans" (iambic pentameter) and "Prufrock" (iambic heterometer) were verse. "Savonarola" and "Aimee" were free verse.

So, how did you fare?

When my buddy did this he had 35 people in the audience but, because it came after a poetry reading, three of them were fast asleep. Let's do the math:

32 / (2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 16) = 2

If the audience were stone deaf and guessing blindly, then, two of them should have gotten all four right. By my friend's count there were at least eight MFAs, graduate students or PhDs in the crowd so our minimum expectation should be...what? 8 contestants getting all of them right? 9 out of 32?

No matter. Only one person in the crowd (a PhD, yes, but in History) got all four correct. Ever the diplomat, our hero told those assembled that the purpose wasn't to test people's ear for poetry but to show how the best free verse is virtually indistinguishable from metrical.

For what it's worth, here are the four snippets my friend used in his 3-minute version:

  1. from "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths

    Say you die, scorched into ashes, say

    you pass from here to there, with your marigold
    eyes, the garden darker for lack of one golden flower,
    would bees mourn, would crickets keen, drawing long

    blue chords on their thighs like cellists?
    Say you disperse like petals on the wind,
    the bright stem of you still a living stroke

    in memory, still green, still spring, still the tint
    and the tang of you in my throat, unconsumed.

  2. from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot

    And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
    The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
    And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
    When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
    Then how should I begin
    To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
    And how should I presume?

  3. from "How Aimee remembers Jaguar" by Erin Hopson

    sink into the spaces between knees, brush bottoms
    of feet. The softest parts pursue something equal
    to spoon, fingers trace patterns over smooth
    and slick terrain. How pliable, the chasm between lovers
    where welcome linen soothes the burn.

  4. from "Beans" by D. P. Kristalo

    September came like winter's
    ailing child but
    left us
    viewing Valparaiso's pride. Your face was
    always saddest when you smiled. You smiled as every
    doctored moment lied. You lie with
    orphans' parents, long

Try this with your fellow poets or students. It's a hoot.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Poetry Genres: Part IV - The Essence of Pose Poetry

"...ninety percent of [everything] is crud."

- Sturgeon's Revelation (1958)

We don't know exactly what dark matter is or does but, according to Fritz Zwicky's 1934 postulations, we need it to complete the universe. Think of it as filler, comprising 5/6ths (83%) of all matter, but quite apart and different from normal, visible stuff. Think of it as matter that, for most of us, doesn't really matter.

Now consider any of your favorite endeavors. Many sporting events take three hours to show you one hour of action, and much of that "action" is jostling for position. In his day, Shakespeare's plays took five hours for less than two hours of theatre, the rest of the time being consumed with commentary and commerce. Thus, in addition to Sturgeon's Revelation, we have Zwicky's Constant, one that is literally universal: "83% of everything is fluff."

It is worth interjecting that, while crud pleases no one, fluff is designed to interest us. Those Superbowl commercials attempt to catch our eye and entertain us. Ditto the jugglers, mimes and prostitutes in Shakespeare's theatres. Ditto the announcers.

Let's do the math. Of course, the order in which we apply Sturgeon's Revelation and Zwicky's Constant doesn't affect the bottom line.

Sturgeon first: 100% - 90% - (83% of the remaining 10%) = 1.7%

Zwicky first: 100% - 83% - (90% of the remaining 17%) = 1.7%

This means that we get a return of 1.7 cents on our entertainment dollar. It means that in a three hour sporting event our heart rate will rise for only 3.06 minutes. It means that only 17% of any newspaper is news and only 1.7% is headline news. It means that 98.3% of any poetry magazine or collection will be jetsam. Is it bad poetry or is it non-poetry? Crud or fluff?

Who knows?

Who cares?

The bottom line is that a typical monthly poetry 'zine that accepts 10 submissions per issue will produce 20 poems, only two of which are downright good, each year. Before we rush off to demand refunds, though, let's remember that Sturgeon's and Zwicky's percentages have applied since the dawn of humankind and the universe, respectively. Art and sports survive in spite of these numbers...or, dare I suggest, in part because of them? Does the valley not make the mountain?

"Vanessa Place is taking legal briefs that she writes during the day in the law field. And she doesn't do anything to them, she just represents those as poetry."
- Kenneth Goldsmith

No doubt you've noticed that very little of what is published in poetry books and 'zines today qualifies as metrical or free verse, or as prose poetry. Rather, it is prose posing as poetry. "Pose poetry".

Pose poems may be distractions, I suppose, but like Shakespeare's hawkers and Superbowl commercials, they are designed to please, no less so than the main event. As with any form of communication, pose poetry can be every bit as profound, funny or provocative as actual poetry. It serves the same function as a newspaper's editorials, funny pages, horoscopes and crossword puzzles. Most importantly, pose poetry serves as filler. Who would subscribe to a 'zine that prints 20 submissions per year, only (.017 x 120 = 2.1) two of which are any good? Who would buy "Best American Poetry" if it included only (.017 x 75 = 1.275) one poem?

It's like Catholic penance viewed in rewind mode. You have to suffer through 25 Charles Bukowskis and, say, 24 Mary Olivers before you can fully enjoy a Margaret A. Griffiths. You have to endure 25 Thomas Tussers and 24 William McGonnagalls before you can truly appreciate a John Donne. You have to slog through 25 Lawrence Ferlinghettis and 24 Billy Collins before you can measure a D.P. Kristalo.

If every poem in every book and 'zine were half as good as A. E. Stallings' "Antiblurb" we'd have a "Watermelons Gone Wild" problem: without chaff we'd be less able to discern great from good, good from mediocre. We'd be spoiled. Ergo, as readers or writers we needn't be too concerned that ubiquitous brain droppings, meanderings, cryptocrap, heart farts, navel bombardments and other forms of verbal styrofoam aren't poetry. Very little is and, as the seconds pass, fewer and fewer will care.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Poetry Genres: Part III - The Essence of Prose Poetry

"The difference between rhetoric and poetry is the difference between a command and its echo."
- Dr. A. W. Niloc

"...a rose by any other name..."
- William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet)

"...there must be great audiences."
- Walt Whitman

"...when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck."
- James Whitcomb Riley

Prose poetry is not some mongrelization of prose and poetry. Like a blind person relying on other "heightened" senses, the lack of meter or rhythm explains why prose poems are so replete with other poetic elements. Just as the stich and rhythm string define verse and free verse, respectively, prose poetry is distinguished by density. This is expressed at the verbal level as concision and, if a longer poem, at the technical level through mnemonics. Allow me to demonstrate:

Christmas Tsunami 2004

on treetops.

In three words the poet has captured the devastation and one of its tragic ironies. Short pieces like this derive their power and memorability from their depth and size. In addition to concision, longer poems will need to use a density of technique. The standard prose poem example is Louis Simpson's translated of Charles Baudelaire's "Be Drunk":

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."

While the repetitions of words survive translation, I'd like to see more sonic reiterations (e.g. consonance, assonance, alliteration) than this. Prose poetry should be stuffed with a broader range of technique. More fundamentally, "Be Drunk" lacks Whitman's requirement: an audience.

To survive, any platform needs a "killer application". Those who insist that poetry has to have rhythm may be surprised to learn that the best and best known poem of the last 400 years was neither metrical nor free verse. Like the latter, the prose poem that I have in mind does use rhythm--prominently so in places--but breaks that cadence with deliberate effect.

I speak of a poem recognized by every anglophone on the planet. Its author produced and performed a number of such compositions, many under very similar circumstances, but this is the one we remember. In terms of device density, it exhibits more poetry techniques per sentence than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. (No, that's not hyperbole. Count 'em.) Its poetic, logical, grammatical and rhetorical constructs are used as examples in almost every technical manual and aesthetic dictionary written in the last century. By any rational, objective measure it is the greatest poem written in the last four hundred years. Contemporary descriptions of it included the phrase "speech for the ages". In my view, that is as accurate a definition of great poety as we'll find.

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Poetry Genres: Part II - The Essence of Free Verse

Got 60 seconds that may change your view of poetry forever? Take this test.

If you failed that test or wish to confirm your understanding of meter consider investing another 20 minutes in learning the rudiments of meter.

How might this "change your view of poetry forever"?

  • It allows you to appreciate the objective, quantifiable certainties that do exist in poetry.

    An iamb is an iamb. Period.

  • It increases the chances of your contributions being of interest to those who do understand verse.

    To informed readers our ignorance of the basics is immediately apparent in our commentary, criticism and poetry.

  • It facilitates your participation in serious workshopping.

    If we don't understand meter we almost certainly don't understand rhythm as it applies to speech. Of what use are we to a workshop if we don't comprehend rhythm, the lengua franca of verse and free verse?

  • It expands our conversations beyond lifestyles and subject matter.

    Without a technical grounding we'll have little choice but to remain as Content Regents and gadflies whose contributions amount to little more than celebrity gossip.

  • It immunizes you against nonsensical "theories" about, among other things, the rhythms of speech paralleling those of music.

    "Vanessa Place is taking legal briefs that she writes during the day in the law field. And she doesn't do anything to them, she just represents those as poetry."
    - Kenneth Goldsmith

    Shenanigans like this would be far less likely if more of us understood rhythm and its defining role in free verse.

  • You will understand why certain poets have gained popularity since the study of scansion disappeared from curriculae in the 1940s and 1950s.

    For example, you won't need to wonder why, unlike a number of his contemporaries, Edgar Allan Poe couldn't make a living as a poet.

  • It will dramatically increase the number of forms you can use or appreciate.

    Does having one form utterly dominate a milieu benefit an art form? P.K. Page's "Hologram: A Book of Glosas" is a fascinating effort but would you want 80+% of English poems to be gloses? Or sonnets? Or rondeaux? Or free verse? Or prose poems? Or prose with linebreaks?

  • It makes you more conscious of educational standards.

    How do you feel about public monies being spent on teachers who don't know the elements of the craft?

  • It is essential to understanding the differences that separate verse, free verse, prose poetry and prose (with or without linebreaks).

    In particular, it is vital to an understanding of free verse.

Insofar as English language poetry is concerned, the only difference between verse and free verse is that the latter's rhythmic units--iambs, trochees, dactyls, amphibrachs or anapests--are not quantified into stichs. Take Ezra Pound's monorhythmic "In a Station of the Metro", for example:

The ap|parit|ion of | these fac|es in | the crowd;
[x] Pet|als on | a wet, | black bough.

These are simple iambs with a missing ("[x]" marks the spot) syllable ("acephaly" or a "lame foot") after the semicolon. Why isn't this considered metrical? The poem is too short; we would normally want to see a pattern of stichs of identical length. To wit, change the linebreak and we'd have iambic pentameter:

The ap|parit|ion of | these fac|es in
the crowd; | [x] Pet|als on | a wet, | black bough.

Were the poem longer, though, the paucity of substitutions would grate. This is an example of a free verse poem that would be too rhythmic for meter! Believe it or not, that is the rule, not the exception, for well-written free verse. Yes, you read that right: free verse is more rhythmic than metered poetry.

For starters, meter as a whole doesn't necessarily involve rhythm at all. Beats ("accentual") and feet ("accentual-syllabic") are only two of the things that meter can quantify. We could create meter simply by putting the same number of words ("lexometric") or syllables ("syllabic meter") in each line. The 5-7-5 "syllable" structure of many a haiku often won't sound rhythmic to English ears. W. C. Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" is rhythmic, but not solely because of the 3-and-1-word line lengths or the fact that the poem is, in fact, accentual heterometer (i.e. alternating between dimeter and monometer).

so much depends
a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Rather, its rhythm comes from the fact that the first half is [hypercatalectic] iambic pentameter:

So much | depends | upon | a red | wheel bar|[row]

...and the second is [hypercatalectic] trochaic pentameter:

Glazed with | rain wat|er, be|side the | white chick|[ens.]

Note how these polyrhythms are buttressed by words that embody that cadence. To wit, the first two disyllabic words in the first half, "depends upon", are iambic while the first and last disyllabic words in the second half, "water" and "chickens", are trochaic. Metrical poems tend to reserve such words for the end of a phrase, sentence or stanza. This illustrates the opposing goals of the verser and free verser: the latter is trying to establish an easily discernible rhythm immediately while the metrist, having done so, spends most of the poem trying to avoid overwhelming the listener with rhythm. Thus, a rhythm string is likely to contain far fewer substitutions than a stich will.

By using both binary rhythms, iambs and trochees, in the same small poem WCW anticipated the polyrhythmic poetry of the 1930s. Indeed, the 21st century DATIA (i.e. verse that changes meter and rhythm between stanzas) can trace its origins to this poem.

Would we be able to spot and appreciate these facets without a firm grounding in meter and rhythm? Color me skeptical.

The essence of free verse, then, is the rhythm string which, unlike the stich, can be of differing cadences (e.g. "The Red Wheelbarrow" had iambs and trochees) and can be unique in length (e.g. "In a Station of the Metro"). Of course, the string has to be long enough to establish itself rhythmically but that length may vary from one authority to another and even from one poem to another. As a rule of thumb, seven syllables seems a reasonable minimum.

Here is an experiment you may enjoy: Take a moment to write down your favorite lines from as many canonical free verse poems as you can bring to mind. Once you're done, please scroll down.

Scan the lines you've remembered. Note how rhythmic--usually iambic--they are as compared to other lines, often including those in that same poem. This illustrates the fact that when writers or speakers succeed at implanting words in our minds they usually do so via rhythm.

Prose poetry (with or without linebreaks) and prose posing as poetry replaced free verse in the middle of the 20th century. Less than 5% of the poetry published today is free verse.

Next: "Poetry Genres: Part III - The Essence of Prose Poetry"

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

Poetry Genres: Part I - The Essence of Verse

Poetry Genres: Part I - The Essence of Verse

Before we categorize poetry let's take a moment to define it. IMHO, there are, at most, two views of poetry worthy of consideration:

  1. "Poetry is rhythmic speech."

  2. "Poetry is verbatim" (Kaltica, 2008) or, if you prefer, "memorable speech" (Auden, 1935).

If you are ever engage in a discussion of poetry genres pick #1. It saves time by excluding prose poetry, treating it as a hybrid. Now you just have to distinguish verse from free verse. That shouldn't pose a problem, should it? (Hee-hee!)

We squirrels never take the easy way out. For the purposes of this series I'll adopt the second definition and will use less arbitrary means to distinguish prose poetry from verse and free verse. In fact, I'm going to start by designating Definition #1 as:

Myth #1: "Poetry is rhythmic speech."

There was poetry long before there were accented languages, let alone accentual or accentual-syllabic verse. Even ignoring this fact and the concept of prose poetry, we have syllabic verse, which is deliberately arrhythmic. Whole paragraphs of "Moby Dick" are in perfect iambs. Are these sections [embedded] poetry? No. Why not? Because they aren't meant to be [read aloud or] memorized.

What is the essence of verse?

Consider this passage from "Beowulf":

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.

A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on.

In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Et cetera.

Note that each "line" of "Beowulf" has four beats, making this accentual tetrameter. However, this wasn't how the poem was written. Rather, it was recorded in one long string of words without so much as a single paragraph break. Essentially, it was in the form of ticker tape text. Even if we were to include the punctuation and capitalizations that you see "Beowulf" would look like this:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes. A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on. In the end each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Et cetera.

Without rhymes and with even less formatting than prose, how could a listener tell "Beowulf" is poetry rather than prose? Did it require a knowledge of accentual poetry? Not really. A listener could, after a while, discern the pattern of four beats per phrase/sentence. What the audience detects, though, are not "lines"--"Beowulf" has neither lines nor stanzas--but stichs: segments determined by the meter.

Nota bene: Yes, the speaker would pause at the end of each stich but only because it was the end of a sentence or phrase.

Flash forward more than an eon and we see corata, where verse is presented in paragraphs, not lines. Similarly, we have curginas, where verse is presented as lineated free verse, without regard to meters. The most famous example is "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
...et cetera.

These are, in fact, rhyming bacchic monometer couplets:

We real cool.
We left school.

We lurk late.
We strike straight.

...et cetera.

Myth #2: "The line defines verse."

No. The stich does. This is as tautological as saying that meters define meter. To be precise, what defines verse is not the stich but the listener's ability to discern it at a subconscious level, at least.

In "Beowulf" we saw how [more or less] complete thoughts in the form of end-stopping (roughly: punctuation) and phrases cut the text into stichs. Compare these to where a line might end in mid-phrase, such as the fully enjambed second line in this passage from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar":

I wish we may: but yet have I a mind
That fears him much; and my misgiving still
Falls shrewdly to the purpose.

Myth #3: "Performers pause after every line of poetry."

Not so, as anyone who has seen a professional Shakespearean performance can attest.

Hearing the predominant de-DUM pattern allows us to recognize the cadence but, without pauses and rhyme, how does the poet help the audience recognize the meter? That is, how does the mind see that these feet are grouped into stichs of five? The answer is in an ever-expanding bag of tricks.

The authors of "Beowulf" used grammatical constructs: phrases and sentences. Shakespeare relies on these, too, especially at the beginning of his blank verse. In essence, he's training the ear to anticipate a break after each five feet; once he's established this expectation he can skip such pauses, as he does with the Cassius excerpt above. Another, more subtle tool had arrived with the advent of accentual-syllabic verse. The tendency of stichs to "find their rhythm" as they proceed alerts the ear to the meter length. Consider this line from "Hamlet":

Whether | 'tis nob|ler in | the mind | to suf|fer

1 trochaic inversion, 4 iambs within the stich and a hypercatalectic semisyllable, "fer", outside it. After a few hours--yes, Shakespeare's plays took hours--of this the ear ignores the "noise" at the beginning and end of the line to focus on the iambs, "'tis nob|ler in | the mind | to suf-". This resolution marks the meter length and explains why substitutions in general and inversions in particular occur far more often at the beginnings of lines than their endings. Indeed, in all of English prosody not a single stich ends with an inverted foot...and inversions are extremely rare in the penultimate foot.

To be, | or not | to be: | that is | the quest|ion,

The late inversion, "that is", stands out as the only fourth foot inversion in the entire production. It draws attention to itself for a reason, this being the pivotal point of the play.

Other ways to signal the end of a stich [or stanza] range from the subtlety of diaeresis to the garishness of perfect rhyme. I could go on and on about the technical aspects of meter but I find that such discussions tend to bore today's poets. That being the case, I'll end with this:

Not one canonical poem has been written by anyone who wasn't a very competent verser. Don't expect that trend to change.

Next: "Poetry Genres: Part II - The Essence of Free Verse"

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kudos to Contemporary Poetry Review

I have attended dozens of poetry readings. Virtually all of them were identical:

  • The introductions made me think I was about to witness the second coming of John Donne.

  • All of the "poems" were preceded by tedious, unhelpful explanations. Typically, these involved the author's state of intoxication when they wrote this stuff or the unknown friend or relative who served as the inspiration or subject. Like we care.

  • As I recall, there was only one elegy, that being for a poet.

  • Indeed, the only people mentioned, living or dead, were either poets (often portrayed reverently) or leaders (almost invariably shown in a negative, political light).

  • What little humor that was in evidence usually amounted to that dessicated, self-conscious, congratulatory intertext. "Oh, did you see how I alluded to 'The Waste Land' here?"

  • Every word was intoned in a voice typically reserved for hungover, agnostic Sunday School teachers.

  • When tested, only 3% of the attendees--including presenters, their students and professors--exhibited even rudimentary scansion skills.

  • Not surprisingly, all of the "poems" exhibited profound arrhythmia. What few attempts at meter there were amounted to light doggerel. Only some of the humor was intended. There were no examples of free verse (which, as the word "verse" implies, is rhythmic). Only a few offerings had anywhere near the number of repetitions needed to qualify as prose poetry (which, as the word "prose" implies, is arrhythmic). By any objective definition, more than 90% of the "poems" were prose.

  • Given their soporific effect, it isn't clear whether these profound[ly boring] prose pieces were intended as meditations or medications.

  • All of the readings were to promote a book, none of which sold enough copies to pay for cab fare. It wasn't evident why these tomes were published but, in light of the return and the obvious lack of interest in craft, it's safe to say that economics and aesthetics were not factors. Why, without government funding...

  • With a lifetime to prepare not one of the "poets" could be bothered to commit a single poem of their own to memory. How are we supposed to take their words seriously when they don't? Do people watch plays and movies where performers read from scripts?

  • It was immediately apparent that none of the readers had ever received an honest appraisal of their work, as they might if involved in open, peerless (e.g. online) workshopping.

  • Most readings were followed by an open mic for those who'd patiently listened to and politely applauded the reader. About half of these readers stayed to return the favor.

  • Among few other mercies, all venues served alcohol.

  • Thankfully, all organizers observed the Joan Houlihan Rule: "Any poetry reading longer than 20 minutes is a hostage situation."

If any of this coincides with your experience The Lighter Side: Why We Still Hate Poetry Readings is a must-read. Granted, it does little but state the painfully obvious but, in times of professional disingenuity, this becomes essential, if only to flush out the posers.

I have little but my congratulations to add to what is said about the need for poetry to be performed. I have only a few tiny quibbles with the finale:

"The point of rhyme and meter—the purpose of all prosody—is ultimately mnemonic. From that standpoint, most of what our contemporary poets write is not (even technically) memorable."

This is very close to the Kaltican definitions, "prose is verbatim" and "prosody is mnemonics". Perhaps the statement benefits from making the reference more clear...

"By this logic, no prose would qualify as 'memorable'." - Luke Hankins (Comment #2)

And none does, which is why it's prose and not poetry. Maybe we need to specify "memorable words" (or "words worth memorizing") as opposed to "memorable experiences". We enjoyed every moment of reading Carole Shields' "The Stone Diaries" but aren't tempted to memorize, recite or even quote it at length.

"Our final conclusion is a commonplace and a warning: the fate of so many American poets who have forgotten to study prosody is to be forgotten themselves."

Sadly, so will those who have studied prosody. That is the Catch-22: we can't hope to please an audience without prosody and presentation skills and we can't encourage the practice of prosody and presentation without an audience.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What we do

We need a new word.

On October 13th, 1812, Sir Isaac Brock stormed a larger American force that was ensconced on the Queenston Heights. He came over the crest of the hill, audaciously demanding the surrender of the hundreds of U.S. troops. The Americans made ready to comply until one of them peered over the lip of the hill, noticed that Brock hadn't bothered to bring any troops with him, and shot the General on the spot. Thus ended the life of Canada's greatest military strategist.

(Later, with a little help from Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonell, a few dozen whooping native fighters scared the Americans into surrendering to the British.)

We now have a perfect way to describe proceeding without support: "brocking".

In the absence of an audience this is what we, as poets, critics, theorists and editors, are doing.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Everything you need to know about poetry

I contend that everything one needs to know about poetry can be discerned directly or indirectly from these two scenarios, both of which must have played out in every nascent civilization:

Scene #1:

The alpha tribesperson gets up in front of the group and delivers what appears to be a significant, inspired message. Unfortunately, language hasn't been developed yet so the audience can only nod obsequiously, careful not to offend their leader. Everyone tries to avoid these encounters, their motivation being intimidation, boredom or the lingering suspicion that the speaker is full of shit.

Scene #2:

Soon after establishing a common language the primordials gather around the campfire. Experience being limited, there is a paucity of material, such that separate members end up telling the same story. Plotlines that survive long enough become part of that group's culture, history, religion and lore. The entertainment comes in the different ways these speakers relate the same events. This is the basis of prose. Occasionally, a performer "nails it" so perfectly that the audience decides to preserve that rendition intact by memorizing it. That is the basis of poetry.

Ramifications of Scene #1:

This is history reminding us what happens when we lose our audience. It doesn't really matter what the cause: babble instead of communication, competition, boredom, lack of tools, venues or media, et cetera. When audiences exhibit the "good night" response, fleeing if they can, sleeping if they must, a predictable set of interdependent circumstances unfolds:

  1. the art form is defined by its producers;

    ...since there are no consumers.
  2. the art form is indistinguishable from prose;

    Why worry about form when no one is watching?
  3. authorities monopolize the podium;

    This is almost tautological since, by definition, authorities monopolize everything. Apathy makes their job easier, though. No one is going to storm the stage to grab the microphone and speak to the crowd when there is no mic, no language and, above all, no crowd. Just as despots avoid or rig elections they can't win, the absence of an audience serves the purpose of authorities who lack the language to please one.
  4. a knee-jerk reaction to popularism reigns;

    If the audience were comprised of the society's more sophisticated members might not the distinction between popularism and meritocracy become blurred? Even if/when all language is reduced to onomatopoeia, authorities won't want to see a cult of personality grow around, say, the best bird-caller.
  5. criticism becomes unthinkable;

    A tribe is a small community; those hoping to address it rate to be smaller still in number. Forget criticism; even disapproval would be considered antisocial, if not downright treasonous. Besides, what would be the basis of criticism in an environment where technique hasn't been studied and, lacking a contemporary canon of icons, no standards for excellence have been set? It follows logically that, in this culture of nods and blurbs:
  6. the lack of iconic examples is no coincidence;

    The insignificance of the text, coupled with indiscriminate praise, ensures that neither a meritocracy nor a prosody can take hold.
  7. the speakers remain convinced that their utterances are vital and profound;

    ...while, in truth, such blatherings are too incoherent for prose and too dull for poetry. In many cultures language may have been inspired by the burning need of "poets" to discover that they weren't, in fact, poets.
  8. humorlessness;

    Authorities would be keenly aware that humor would include parodies of their performances. This being the case, humor would be limited to dessicated intertextual allusions--gibberish congratulating other gibberish.
  9. solipsism;

    Speaking a language no one else understands and with no one else listening, why discuss anything beyond the speaker's own concerns?
  10. contempt for audiences;

    ...whose inability to understand nonsense is, of course, entirely their own fault.
  11. a pall is cast on all attempts at communication;

    The tribe becomes more insular, suspicious of speech itself. Thus, a case is made against language. Fortunately, we have a Catch-22: that case can't be articulated.
  12. and, as the bottom line: in the absence of an audience speakers compete to be the most conspicuously ignored.

    Worse yet, the language doesn't exist to describe exactly how hollow such a victory is...and how integral an audience is to any form of communication.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Ramifications of Scene #2:

While Scene #1 may be of greater interest to those invested in the post-WWI poetry world, it is Scene #2 that strikes at the definition of poetry as memorable speech, not necessarily rhythmic speech.

  1. Poets didn't create poetry. Audiences did.

    These audiences weren't mere arbiters, declaring that this is prose while that is poetry, good or bad. Their efforts to preserve the words in memory was, itself, what changed performances into poems. Poetry didn't merely respect the audience; it was the audience.
  2. Posterity honors the best, not the first.

    The version that caught on with listeners might have been the seventh as easily as the first. This illustrates how content regency is a mug's game. Even if we come up with something new under the sun someone can come along, say it better and we're SOL. Altogether now:

    • It ain't about what you say.
    • It ain't about how you say it.
    • It's about how well you say it.

  3. Poetry was prose.

    Given that techniques and forms weren't developed yet, poetry was originally identical to prose. Something was a poem solely because it was preserved intact by listeners. Some could spin the current fashion, prose qua poetry, as a return to poetry's roots. Others could describe it as the original failed aesthetic, prosody replacing it with prose poetry, free verse and then meter. The latter group may be inclined to describe post-WWI poetry as a devolution from meter to free verse to prose poetry to prose.
  4. Poems were iconic.

    By definition.
  5. Poetry was never as much fun as song.

    People really don't listen to song lyrics. Atheists have their favorite hymns while believers sing along to Lennon's "Imagine". Clearly, people aren't taking the message of these songs seriously.

    As a medium, poetry is more persuasive, more like rhetoric than lyrics. Most prefer to be entertained than persuaded, though. As long as beach parties draw greater crowds than political parties poetry will take a back seat to song.
  6. Poetry thrived in Apollonian, authoritarian and puritanical environments.

    Most primitive societies probably fit this bill, with power resting in the hands of the strongest and/or the most capable of providing food.

    Compare the Georgian and Victorian generations--the last in which verse reigned--to the speakeasy flappers of the 1920s, when poetry died. Until the Depression kicked in the post-WWI era was Dionysian, democratic (e.g. universal suffrage), and, obviously, more sexually liberated than the decades before the war. Let's take these three in order:

    • Many poets have been dipsomaniacs but few qualified as Dionysian "party animals"; most were either mean drunks or quiet ones.
    • Anyone who has survived an open mic understands the price that democracy brings to poetry. Does a grass roots approach produce better art? One need look no further than our recent leaders to know that democracy and meritocracy are two very different things.
    • As for puritanism, poetry served well as a way of flirting, even in the presence of parents, when daughters weren't allowed out of sight. How many of us owe our lineage's existence to poetry?

  7. Poetry was, by definition, elitist.

    Thousands of performances might result in one poem. Just as the perfection of an endeavor destroys it (e.g. there are no tic-tac-toe championships), that poem would become the only version of that story and was not to be paraphrased. There were no bad poems; why bother memorizing mediocrity? In theory at least, the worst poem was better than the best prose. Poets were often venerated. In every sense, aspect and stage, then, poetry was elitist.
  8. Comedy was king.

    Even in the strictest hierarchical societies exceptions would have been made for anyone who could make people laugh--at least as long as they weren't laughing openly at authority figures! To this day, an unknown poet's best chance of publication comes with light verse, especially if intending to publish in more lucrative and numerous non-literary outlets.
  9. The expression "forgettable poetry" was an oxymoron.

    Today it is the standard.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Convenient Poetics

"Poets...are...the laziest, stupidest people I know."
- Christian Bök - Kelly Writers House, UPenn, November 18, 2009

Convenient Poetics ("ConPo") is now the dominant force in English language poetry, eclipsing even Content Regency. Advocates of Convenient Poetics, known as "ConPoets", embrace their philosophy with the pious dedication of living martyrs. ConPo tenets include:

1. That which we do not understand cannot be important.

"I don't need to learn about scansion. I write free verse!"

2. There is no such thing as bad poetry.

"The 'Tay Bridge Disaster' isn't poetry; it's doggerel!"

3. Criticism must never contain criticism.

"Hey, what goes around comes around, right?"

4. Humorlessness is next to godliness.

"They say that those with no sense of humor have no sense at all but poetry is no laughing matter!"

5. Overcomplication is the seal of the truth.

"...and it pays the bills!"

6. The customer is always wrong.

"Don't like my poetry? Should I 'dumb it down' for you?"

7. Reject others, lest they reject you.

"Why would any self-respecting author want to write anything the public would want to read?"

8. Thou shalt commit verbosity.

"To paraphrase Mao: 'Why use one word when we can use a thousand?' Seriously, who's gonna pay to hear one measly word?"

9. Segmentation is unity.

"The smaller the readership the more intimate the experience."

10. People never really liked poetry.

"Robert Service didn't really make $500,000 from one poem, did he?"

11. Poetry can't be defined.

"Poetry is whatever someone presents as poetry. Why let the audience decide? Especially when there isn't one!"

12. Thy navel is the Lord, thy God. Thou shalt not have strange navels before It.

"'I contain multitudes!' Pardon me, but are you laughing or yawning?"

13. Academics, critics and editors are a waste of time.

"Why bother studying? This poetry shit is easy!"

14. Poetry can't be taught.

"Well, not to me, at least."

15. Poetry can't be dead.

       "That would require almost no one knowing a line of it written in the last two generations."


        "Oh, wait..."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Musicality Morass

Almost every authority has mentioned the "music" or "musicality" of poetry. In the right hands both verse and music have, among other things, rhythm, pace, pauses, tone, and movement in common. This being the case, why are there so few people who have mastered both disciplines? Know any composers who were great poets? Vice versa? Among the living, Leonard Cohen may come closest: he wrote three best selling books of poetry and has won his nation's highest award for both poetry and songwriting but I'd stop well short of comparing his music to the great composers of our time.

The truth is that while both are art forms music and verse are two completely different types of endeavour. Music is like chess in that it is intrinsically logical and self-contained: after we learn the rudiments our innate ability kicks in, allowing us to intuit what comes next. The skill requires more practice than learning, though both are essential to attain the level of refinement needed to compete with other masters. Not surprisingly, we have seen quite a few chess and musical prodigies in our history.

Poetry is language. It is like bridge in that it is arbitrary: we need to learn a wide variety of systems, conventions and vocabulary before we can perform at a competent level. There is etymology but no universal logic to words; otherwise what we call "a pencil" wouldn't be called "un crayon" in France and "karandash" in Russia. Innate ability may help us win a spelling bee but it won't allow us to unravel a new language based on a few grammar and syntax rules, nor will it allow us to "reinvent" poetry without long exposure to it and an understanding of its rudiments. This explains why there are few, if any, bridge or poetry prodigies. Arthur Rimbaud may be the closest thing to our mythical "natural poet" but his youth was devoted to the study of literature.

Obviously, there is no positive correlation between musical and poetic acumen. Is there a negative one? I believe there is.

Let's begin with lyrics. Most of the great lyricists of our time work in unsophisticated musical genres, primarily folk: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Simon & Garfunkle, et cetera. As we ascend the scale of musical complexity the lyrics get progressively worse, hitting their nadir with the libretto.

What about individuals, though? Does musical ability decrease the likelihood that one will be able to write poetry as well as others in the same intelligence bracket? If so, how?

I have a number of "poet" friends who are either musicians or music critics. All have extremely sophisticated tastes. Not one of these could write competent, interesting rhythmic verse--free or metrical--to save their lives. Most can't detect it when they hear it.

"I've immersed myself in music for decades. You're trying to tell me that I don't recognize rhythm? How can that be?"

Answer: The rhythms of speech and the rhythms of music are entirely different. Melisma is one of thousands of things a lyricist can get away with that a poet cannot: Bruce Springsteen makes multiple beats out of the word "I" in singing "I'm on Fire". Try that in speech and you'll look like a mo-o-o-o-ron.

I can see these people playing music in their heads as they read their prose-with-linebreaks or ham-fisted doggerel aloud. They are the poetic equivalent of tone deaf air guitarists singing in the shower. They have what I call "sonic dysplasia": a gifted music lover's inability to discern or create verbal rhythmic alignments. The frustration is compounded by the fact that the sufferers don't know they are afflicted. Not one understands why poetry audiences and editors avoid them.

Is the condition treatable? Maybe. However, it might be that the ability to hear musical rhythms occludes one's ability to discern poetic ones. Perhaps this is something future human psychologists will investigate. Unfortunately, squirrel psychologists are too busy trying to understand why we act so...well...squirrelly.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Watermelon Problem - Part II

We ended Part I of this discussion with the provocative question: "What does it say when a periodical has no such special editions?" That is, what if a publication doesn't highlight any iconic poems?

Respondent Christine Klocek-Lim pointed out that "the editor is too freaking busy already and...may not recognize the watermelon is a watermelon, tucked as it is between the broccoli and brussels sprouts". That is the watermelon problem at fast forward speed. A dominant jewel needs a prominent setting. Literary history is full of masterpieces being rejected by overworked examiners. No editor or contest judge wants to miss the next "Prufrock", as Harriet Monroe would have without Ezra Pound to provide the pedestal and definitions, the mound and space.

Rostrums and stages are built for a reason. What is the sense of having filters and filters for filters (e.g. assistant editors, screeners, bird-dogs like Ezra Pound, etc.) if we don't have a credible way to spotlight the next "Sonnet 43"? This is particularly important in an age of "channel-surfer" readers.

How did all of this come up? A friend of mine--yes, I do have friends--is an exceptionally sharp critic. This isn't the usual pontificating guardian of good taste. My buddy will go line-by-line, iterating myriad ways to have improved the writing and listing 12 different cases, compete with hyperlinks, where another poet has said the same thing better. In the end, his reader wonders why the underlying verse was ever published, let alone anthologized. This character is certainly not given to blurbing, hype or hyperbole. Imagine my shock when he emailed to tell me that he'd stumbled across "one of only three immortal poems from this decade". (He didn't need to tell me the other two.)

He wondered what could be done with such a diamond. "Can't send it to a poetry magazine, given their lack of readership and track record: no widely recognized poems in half a century. The New Yorker? No. This is the opposite of their typical fare. Trade mags? Not without a narrow focus and a long explanation. YouTube is a thought, if the poet has the networking and capital to produce and promote a video worthy of the text."

Both the author and the person being eulogized in verse have been described as recluses, modest to a fault, never seeking or receiving fortune, fame or the company of celebrities. The writer of this particular poem is known for ambiguity and strong opening lines. This entry doesn't disappoint:

There are no stars for us.

The elegy contains something few others do: humor. I'm not talking about wry tragicomedy, polite grins or wan nostalgia. I'm talking about a gut-busting laugh, something that will seem entirely inappropriate to anyone unfamiliar with the deceased's devilishly irreverent sense of humor.

The final stanza includes lines like:

You told the wicked truth
and I the honest lie.

Can you guess the name of the poet? The deceased?


Monday, May 9, 2011

The Question

In "Who Killed Poetry?" we saw how poetry got its ass kicked by song, starting in the early 1920s. It follows that the only question we need to ask ourselves is: "How can words trump lyrics?"

Let's begin with what we know or can confidently surmise:

  • Every culture developed both poetry and song long before the ability to record either.

  • Before the written word, at least, what distinguished poetry and song from what we now call "prose" was that verse was memorized, performed and preserved word-for-word.

  • When literacy was developed the convenience of text tilted the balance in favor of poetry. That is, before 1920 people could recite more contemporary poems than contemporary lyrics.

  • Poetry's advantage was nullified when, due to radio, music became at least as easy to disseminate as poetry.

  • The cross-cultural decline in poetry's popularity since the 1920s has been neither universal nor uniform. By far the hardest hit has been anglophone popular culture, from which contemporary poetry has disappeared.

The sky hasn't fallen. Indeed, this disappearance has gone largely unnoticed. Out of sight, out of mind. (Indeed, when that expression was translated literally into Russian and back into English the result was "invisible idiots"; that's not a bad description of how poets are regarded today!) Society seems to have survived quite well without poetry. For the sake of this discussion, though, let's assume that poetry could matter and that our culture would benefit from absorbing more of it. Rather than complain about the lack of iconic contemporary verse or sing silly choruses of "Yes, we have no watermelons" let's consider the question:

"How can poetry compete with song?"

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Watermelon Problem - Part I

     Please take this Commercial Poetry Challenge:  Go to, say, Poetry Magazine and try to read the verse there without saying to yourself:  "Surely they have better submissions than this...!" followed by the inevitable "So what do they do with the good stuff?"

My neighbor is trying to grow watermelon. Again. Being a squirrel, I watch her progress with considerable interest. Unfortunately, she is no gardener. Her failure stems from a lack of acreage and/or education; a watermelon requires its own mound and considerable distance between plants.

Suppose you were to have encountered a blindingly brilliant poem. For the sake of argument, let's say there is no argument; this was, flat out, one of the two or three greatest poems of our time. Chances are good that you read or heard the poem at a slam, reading, open mic or in a book, workshop or 'zine. Chances are good that fifteen seconds after those transcendental moments your reverie was broken by another poem. Chances are good that you've already spotted The Watermelon Problem.

Put such a poem anywhere near another and both will suffer from the juxtaposition. The lesser work is being upstaged while the better one creates, at best, a certain guilt by association or, at worst, a situation where proximity is profanity.

    As a vendor, don't get so addicted to such sweetness that you reject lesser fruit.  The supply of watermelon is too short and the off-season to long for your business to survive selling only watermelon.

As an Editor-in-Chief of a premier literary magazine what do you do if such an unpublished poem drops into your lap? Yes, I know, you publish it, but where and how?

If you include it in your usual lineup of new poems, without comment, you might give people the impression that you don't recognize the difference between "good enough to publish" and spectacular. If you acknowledge the fact that this poem doesn't belong with the others you insult the rest of your lineup. Obvious solution: Create an unscheduled special edition featuring that poem and no other.

Give the watermelon its mound and space.

I should stop here but I can never quit while I'm ahead. The question arises: "What does it say when a periodical has no such special editions?"

Soon: The Only Question that Matters


Monday, May 2, 2011

Time for some good news

In previous posts we've demonstrated the obvious: poetry is dead, killed by music [on the radio]. Today we'll see that the corpse has, if not a pulse, a promising future as a re-incarnate or reanimation. We begin with some seemingly unrelated observations:

1. Apples and Oranges:

"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."

- (Gazebo, 2007-03-19)

Can you spot the flaw in this argument?

2. Feedback:

Many audience members love the chance to respond. The Internet enables this, as with Facebook's Thumps Up feature, YouTube's Thumbs Up/Down option, and numeric evaluations on discussion software packages like VBulletin (1-to-10) or sites like Zoetrope (1-to-5). These are things that a computer can easily collect, quantify and report. What effect will this have on the audience's role in artistic expression?

3. Distribution:

Previously unknown artist Will-I-Am took Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" speech and made it into a found poem, set it to music and watched it "go viral" on the internet within days, profoundly affecting history. Compare this to the resounding thud of Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem. What lessons can we learn from this?

4. Icons:

Celebrities such as Jewel Kilcher, Suzanne Summers and ex-President Jimmy Carter have written books of poetry without much critical or commercial success. Meanwhile, aside from Dr. Seuss, the most successful recent U.S. poets have been Billy Collins, Charles Bukowski and Maya Angelou, all of whom had to augment their income in order to survive. Even their fans are hard pressed to quote their work from memory. Indeed, New York Yankee baseball player Yogi Berra has contributed more to modern idiom and culture than all six of these "poets" combined. How can we expect this art to thrive with no commercial, cultural or aesthetic success stories? Art without money? Maybe. Art without impact? Unlikely. Art without art? No, thanks.

4. Development:

Online educational resources, coupled with Internet workshops, offer unprecedented opportunities for aspiring poets to develop their technique and critical judgement. Those who don't avail themselves of this information will have difficulty competing against those who do. What does that say about the quality of poetry in future generations?

5. Convenience and Economy:

The online version of the same poem, published by the same editor, will get many times the viewers than the print version will. This is true even of archives, where the reader has to wait a month or more. E-Book sales are gaining on books purchased from brick-and-mortar stores. What opportunities and challenges does this present editors?

6. E-Commerce:

The Internet is in its infancy. E-commerce standards and prices are downright antediluvian. At present, tiny amounts are simply not worth collecting; the online banking concern scoops up all such proceedings. What might happen if this were to change? Bearing in mind that it is all automated, who would turn down even a fraction of a penny every time people arrive at a popular commercial site? More to the point, what does this have to do with poetry?

When dealing with anything cheap and plentiful, like poetry, filters become paramount. Which of these can a consumer trust?

Let's consider some inferences and conclusions that we can draw from these observations and arguments.

  1. The "Apples and Oranges" error was in comparing the book and magazine sales of an author, Tusser, to those of a dramatist, Shakespeare. Compare book, magazine and ticket sales and we'll notice that, thanks to the latter, Shakespeare outsold Tusser, Gale and all of the other poets mentioned combined. Maybe those people in Shakespeare's pits weren't such unreliable taste indicators after all!

    Conclusion: Just as "the customer is always right", there is no better judge than the audience. We must be careful not to confuse this broad audience with the public; our purview is limited to those who enjoy any of the media that may contain poetry: dramatizations, books, magazines, movies, videos, television montages, et cetera.

  2. The broader the feedback, the more useful it is to any art or artist seeking wider appeal. The internet's ability to collect, collate and rationalize such evaluative feedback is unprecedented, thanks largely to people who were able to stay awake longer in Stats class than I ever could. Once formats are standardized a web search will be able to fetch results sorted by quality, best first. For example, were you to type "sonnet" into such a futuristic web browser you would see a list with Sonnet LXXIII at or near the top. Want something newer? "Sonnet 2006" would lead you directly to "Antiblurb" by A.E. Stallings.

    Conclusion: Poems will have to compete on merit. That's a good thing.

  3. On July 14, 2009, while Harriet was still an interactive blog, John Oliver Simon wrote:

    "We 'high culture' poets don’t like to look at categories this way,

    "Bob Dylan is the most important American poet of the last fifty years.
    By far. And he has never lacked for an audience.

    "Dylan took an end run around 'poetry' the same way Shakespeare did,
    by casting it into a popular, low-culture, out-of-category form.

    "I mean, what has Ashbery, or Charles Bernstein, or Sharon Olds, or
    Billy Collins, or anybody you love or I love, got to put up [a]gainst
    'to live outside the law you must be honest'?

    "And it’s all right, Ma."

    Conclusion: It doesn't take a Shakespearean scholar, film director or a musicologist to tell us that poetry works best when combined with other art forms into a dual- or multimedia presentation, if not a dramatization. Granted, "Yes We Can" was more rhetoric and song than poetry but it brings us closer to that one big breakthrough--the poem that everyone will know--and demonstrates that verse's future is on YouTube, not Amazon.com. As for Ms. Alexander, children may love being read to. Adults? Not so much.

  4. Have you ever noticed how the songs that made the Beatles famous (e.g. "She Loves You", "I Wanna Hold Your Hand") are not the ones being played on the Golden Oldy stations? Rather, we hear the songs that have a little more gravitas in their lyrics (e.g. "Eleanor Rigby", Lennon's "Imagine").

    Conclusion: Quality outs, although it may take its time doing so. H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) said: "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." Nevertheless, we notice how, despite the hype, Americans judiciously rejected those six "popular" "poets" (Jewel Kilcher, Suzanne Summers, Jimmy Carter, Billy Collins, Charles Bukowski and Maya Angelou), whose combined income from poetry amounts to less than Robert Service made from one poem.

  5. Thanks to online workshops and educational resources which, unlike textbooks, can be challenged and corrected in situ, the hobbyist of the near future may be more knowledgeable about the elements of the craft than today's MFA graduate.

    "The simplest schoolboy is now familiar with truths for which Archimedes would have sacrificed his life."

    - Ernest Renan

    Conclusion: The poets of 2050 will be markedly better than those of 1950. You heard it here first!

  6. "Show me the money!"

    Most webzines, including some of the better ones, are labors of love. A few receive government funding while some get advertising revenues but both of those sources of funding are drying up. Only a very few magazines and even fewer webzines are paying venues. In short, there is little enough money in print poetry and virtually none in online verse. The good news is that a webzine can cost less than $10.00 per month to maintain.

    Suppose you went to an online poetry venue and were greeted with a screen asking for a nickel per visit or $1.00 for a yearly subscription. Would you allow the charge? If you say "no" you'd be guided to a limited access, sampler version of the website. If you say "yes", you and thousands like you may have solved the venue's financial problems.

    It will take a few years before we see such integration among the web sites, personal profiles and the banks. Nevertheless, the future will involve multimedia, portability, convenience, quality, feedback, access, traffic volume and low costs for both publishers (including archived versions of print publications) and consumers.

    Conclusion: Once the educational, critical, promotional and financial considerations mature into convergence the opportunities for poetry will reach heights not envisioned in even the golden era of verse. This inevitability could take a generation or two, though.

One final thought: We speak in terms of an impatient soundbyte generation with the attention span of a gnat on bennies dispensing fame in 15 minute doses. How could that be anything but fertile ground for an art form that prides itself on concision?

Soon: Literacy's Distortions

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Poets, do you promote poetry-not-your-own?

Blogger Nic Sebastian writes: "Poets, do you promote poetry-not-your-own?

"Amy King asked this question on Twitter. She has just finished a marathon tweeting session on behalf of the Academy of American Poets, in which she spent many hours asking questions, promoting poets, poetry, poetry presses and poetry initiatives."

Do I promote poetry other than my own? Were I a human I would answer "yes" without thought or hesitation. After all, in addition to this blog I write critique, reviews and articles ranging from the anecdotal to the technical. I am the only one at our local open mic who has ever performed a contemporary poem authored by someone else. True, I've never blurbed but for certain poems, collections and poets I've been an unabashed cheerleader in everything other than uniform.

For better or worse, though, I'm a squirrel. Hungry hawks hovering overhead have taught us Grays to be circumspect. Let's look twice before we cross this street. Do I promote poetry other than my own? Note, as Nic did, that we aren't talking about specific poets, poems, presses or initiatives. We're talking about poetry in toto. Thus, the "not-your-own" that is central to Nic's discussion is more or less redundant in ours.

So, do I promote poetry?

Doesn't the word "promote" suggest that you are trying to expand beyond current participant levels? Doesn't "promote" suggest bringing new blood into the arena? Doesn't "promote" imply more than energizing the troops and preaching to the converted? If Wallmart has a promotion shouldn't it be aimed at more than their staff and existing customers? How about an enterprise that doesn't have customers yet? Would it make any sense if their promotions were targeted strictly at their employees?

So, do I promote poetry?

Do I really need to specify poetry consumption? With the current rate of overproduction?

So, do I promote poetry?

No. I may try but I'm just a squirrel chirping into the blathersphere.

Does anyone promote poetry these days?

Not effectively. Not in North America, at least. As with any guild, the League of Canadian Poets does a fairly good job of promoting poets to those with a modicum of interest. If anyone needs a demonstration of the difference between highlighting poets and poetry they need only watch the "Heart of a Poet" series. Blurber host Andrea Thompson does her best introducing the poets but, with a few exceptions, the poetry samples on display are bad.

How bad? Groundhog Day bad: if the public were watching we could expect six more decades of oblivion. As for attention to potential readers, never has disregard been so palpable.

Despite Christian Wiman's good intentions, the Poetry Foundation's focus is on a tiny fringe element of contemporary poetry. Both Wiman and the organization bear the scars of a losing battle against Content Regents shilling anti-aestheticism. The $200,000,000 Ruth Lilly grant insulates them against the public's concerns. The Poetry Foundation's one outreach is a remarkable idea: Poetry Out Loud, a contest to make videos of classic poem recitations. Unfortunately, their silent war with the pre-existing online community prevented them from enlisting aid, causing that initiative to suffer as the interactive Harriet blog did.

In many ways, the Academy of American Poets is the mirror image of the Poetry Foundation. With their learning resources and workshop, Poets.org is not held hostage to Content Regents. Unfortunately, their Poem-A-Day intiative suffers from inflexibility. Instead of a hodge-podge that pleases no one they could consider individual genres (e.g. Check one or more of: metrical, non-metrical, traditional, modern, contemporary, literary, popular, romance, drama, comedy, et cetera). If nothing else, the statistics might prove interesting.

To my knowledge, not one of these organizations polls the public for its opinion on defining issues. All are more interested in dictating taste than catering to it. Do we really need a degree in marketing strategy to spot the flaw here? Is it any wonder that there is no public outrage when government funding for the arts in general and poetry in particular is cut?

"Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people."

- Adrian Mitchell

Coming Soon: Time for some good news

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