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, April 18, 2011

Who Killed Poetry?

This mystery survived for almost a century after the crime. Forensics determined that the fatal blow was struck in the 1920s, the patient lingering for a while afterwards. Suspects and speculations were legion. My favorite crackpot theory is that bridge was to blame. You know, the card game. It's not quite as outlandish as you may think. The timing is right: bridge was invented in the late 1920s. The demographics are right: bridge supplanted poetry as a social medium for young sophisticates before the 1970s and is still the favored diversion of retirees. Perhaps most importantly, bridge became the venue for celebrities including, among many others, John Wayne and Omar Sharif 30-40 years ago, Bill Gates and Alan Alda today. By contrast, poets didn't tend to be as photogenic or refined. In the 1980s I suppose you could, with some effort, dress up Charles Bukowski and Alan Ginsberg but you certainly couldn't take them anywhere.

The prime suspect had always been Modernism in general, non-metrical poetry in particular. This theory fails for a simple reason: the suspect wasn't within a continent of the crime scene. Indeed, the two are not even in the same dimension. Before giving up entirely, trade magazines and newspapers published almost exclusively popular verse. Free verse and prose poetry are and were largely limited to literary magazines. Poetry's death scene was far more public than that. Thus, when we say "poetry is dead" we really mean "commercial poetry is dead" or, if you prefer, "'popular poetry' is an oxymoron". Academic poetry is doing just fine, thanks to the largesse of taxpayers and, occasionally, patrons.

Question: If John Q. Jones pumps a dozen bullets into someone and, much later, an attending doctor removes life support, who killed the victim?

Today, we will finally unmask the gunman, whose identity will surprise many. We will reveal his motive as being, essentially, what we now call "identity theft". We begin, though, by unveiling the physician who put the patient out of its misery by removing the lifeline.

Ah, the lifeline. That was the clue. There are so few people who were alive when poetry mattered that our CSI team was forced to rely on historical accounts. Our investigation indicates that poetry's lifeline--its lifeblood--was the free and open exchange of verse among those who loved it. This knowledge led to us to the physician.

The doctor was born in Berne, Switzerland, in 1886, and graduated on July 1, 1909. Starting on January 1st, 1923, as a precaution against possible pandemics, this physician initiated a worldwide quarantine, preventing the free proliferation of poetry. This isolation, which was intended to protect poetry, cut it off from its life source. Worse yet, because poetry could not breed in captivity, it perished without issue.

Discovering the role of Copyright Law didn't bring us much closer to the shooter, though. Who and where was the mysterious Mr. John Q. Jones?

"Follow the money."

Who profited from this unspeakable crime?

Our historical research proved that before WWI people could recite dozens of recent poems but could sing along to only a few contemporary songs. Why? Convenience. Poems appearing in magazines and newspapers might be heard in bars or parlors later that same day. Songs required either a touring band or the purchase of sheet music and considerable practice. One rarely heard the same song more than once a week.

Radio reversed this, starting in the early 1920s. With the drop of a needle listeners from L.A. to New York could hear the same song. If a hit, they'd hear it again and again. Immediately, the poetry/songs ratio reversed. Today, the average individual can recite the words to thousands of contemporary songs but nary a single contemporary poem.

Indeed, the complete disappearance of poetry has given rise to conspiracy theories, speculating that poetry staged its own death, had a makeover and is living on in lyrics.

Songwriters who have profited from poetry's demise or metamorphosis don't deny this.

Do you, Mr. Jones?

Coming Soon: Time for some good news

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