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, 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

Want to be Earl Gray for a Day? Email your tongue-in-cheek rant to p.gardener123@gmail.com . Feel free to use simple HTML tags as necessary.

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