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

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Three Dimensions of Poetry

     In my previous post I asked: "What is your impression of this?"

     If you would like to comment on this video please go to that blog post and do so now. Your response will be appreciated. In any event, I invite you to view the piece and formulate an opinion of it before scrolling further.

     The responses here, on social networks and in my own live surveys have been mostly negative. What is more telling, though, is how the remarks have reflected which poetry dimension that critic claims as his or her own. Commenters ignored aspects of the presentation that were not definitive to their realm. To wit:

The First Dimension

Dennis Hammes
     Chances are, the poets you know reside in the Print and/or Pixel World, the latter of which is divided into Usenetters and Webbers. For North Americans, at least, knowing names such as Christian Wiman or Marjorie Perloff identifies you as being from or familiar with the Print World. Similarly, if you know who Dennis Hammes was you can count yourself a Usenetter. Familiary with Margaret A. Griffiths or Jaimes Alsop during their lifetimes would qualify you as a Web poet.

     Taken together, these worlds form the Text dimension, relying as it does on the written word. This reality involves books, magazines and webzines. Performance is limited to a poet giving a reading from a written text.

     As an example of a Text poet commenting exclusively on the text, one Usenetter remarked on a friend's Facebook page:

     "I tell you when I heard 'swallowing the electricity of our lives' my mind went to sleep..."

The Second Dimension

     Performing poets are not merely a separate community that rarely interacts with text poets. They are a different species entirely, one with few if any icons. Open mics, slams and spoken word or performance events are not their venues, they are their media. Even the physics of their environment differ: poetry is seen by text fans, heard by performance afficionados.

     For better or worse and for what little it matters, the performance world has won the battle for the public's attention.  Witness the parody, Tom Hanks Performs Slam Poem About "Full House" (Jimmy Fallon):

     In commenting on Michael Lee's "Pass On" Performing poets invariably focused on the narrator's performance: tone, timing, gestures, etc. "Danish Dog", a rare crossover, was the only respondent to mention both dimensions:  

Text:  "I found the content banal and over-sentimental bordering on cliché."

 Performance: "I found the presentation melodramatic bordering on the hysterical..."

 The Third Dimension

     Once we have our text and can perform it we need to produce it, as with pictures, still or moving, and, perhaps, other effects. It can be a narrative with or without a visible narrator. It can be a documentary or the poetry equivalent of a music video.  It should probably be something more than a performer at a microphone.  Above all, we have to be able to watch it.

      "Pass On" by Michael Lee is a peek at poetry's future. At the same time, it is everything its critics say it is: crude in design and execution.

      Prototypes always are.

Next: Poetry 'n Politics

Monday, September 17, 2012

Apples and Orange Juice

Willard Spiegelman
     The story begins innocently enough.  Southern Methodist University English Professor and Southwest Review editor in chief Willard Spiegelman published a fluff piece, "Has Poetry Changed? The View From the Editor's Desk", in Virginia Quarterly Review.

      Naturally, it contained nothing of note except for a peculiar view of this medium.  Under the subheading "The State of American Poetry" Mr. Spiegelman wrote:

One earnest woman raised her hand. "Don’t you think that the Internet is a wonderful thing, because it allows more voices to be heard?" she asked hopefully.

"Not at all," I shot back. First of all, there are too many voices. Dr. Johnson complained more than two centuries ago that more people were writing than reading. And, besides, I retorted, "How much time do you spend reading the work of other poets you find on websites, rather than reading your own postings there?" She sat down, saddened and abashed. I did not mean to offend, but rather to make some obvious points.

     I would encourage Mr. Spiegelman to compare the sales of VQR to the hit counts on a popular webzine.  Even accounting for looky loos and repeaters, common sense dictates that the economy and convenience of online writing leads to greater readership.  I invite you to put this to the test:  send emails to half your friends encouraging them to buy a magazine in order to read an article.  Provide an online link to the other half.  See who bothers to read the underlying piece.  Thus, the dilemma of insufficient numbers of readers is far more acute in the print rather than the pixel media.  In short, that "earnest woman" was correct.

     The treatise rambles on anecdotally without ever touching on its theme:  changes in published poetry.  End of non-event, right?

     Not quite.

William Childress

     Enter William Childress with "Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?"

     If you've been reading this blog for a while your problems begin with the first word in the title.  "Is...Killing Poetry"?  This "news" comes (2012-1922=) 90 years--and counting--too late.  As you know, poetry received a mortal blow when the first note was sent out over public radio.  This is but one of many ironies:  poetry died not for lack of metered poetry (as Mr. Childress argues) but for a glut of it [in music].  The popularity of song, not of vers libre, supplanted that of poetry.  As I've pointed out many times here, the average person today can sing along to thousands of contemporary tunes but cannot cite a single line of poetry written in the last half century.

        A cynic might say of these two men's theses:  "No one can kill a corpse.  Of course poetry has changed.  It's decomposing."

     The examples Mr. Childress chose don't help his case.  As "Jason" points out in the comments section, the free verse example is, in fact, iambic trimeter.  The sample from  "Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter" is non-descript.  That both he and Mr. Spiegelman say they "don’t read much modern poetry" inspires no confidence.

     "Who determines what’s poetry and what’s not?" Mr. Childress asks.

     The audience, of course!

      Oh, wait...

      "Poetry needs readers, not writers," he continues, "but how many poets read any poetry but their own?"

      This is a non sequitur.  Yes, poetry needs readers as opposed to writers, so what does it matter what writers read?

      I can't address his comments about Poetry magazine beyond confessing that, despite Christian Wiman's statements, if Poetry publishes significantly more verse than other print outlets it has escaped my notice.

      After blasting blurbing--a target that never goes out of season around here--he lurches into Content Regent territory, implying that poets have an obligation to agree on and champion political causes.

      He finishes on an interesting note, albeit one that I would [and] have expressed differently.  The dominance of any single form (of which free verse is but one) during an era is limiting.  If 95% of the turn-of-the-17th-century poems were sonnets we might never have seen Shakespeare's dramatic poetry.  And vice versa.

      While I am naturally inclined to agree with much of his argument, as sloppily as it is presented, I cannot shake the feeling that Mr. Childress is comparing apples and orange juice.  While they share the same obscurity, poetry written for a non-existent public audience and that written for an indifferent literary reader are two entirely different art forms existing in two entirely different containers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Entertaining Boredom

Earl the Squirrel's 25th Law

"Leave it all and like a man,
come back to nothing special,
such as waiting rooms and ticket lines,
silver bullet suicides,
messianic ocean tides,
racial roller-coaster rides
and other forms of boredom advertised as poetry."

   - Leonard Cohen, "Field Commander Cohen"


    What is more boring than watching paint dry?
Alexander Fleming
Watching mold grow.  Nevertheless, that is precisely how Alexander Fleming developed penicillin.

    Who among us hasn't attended a dull performance, let our minds wander, and come up with a fruitful idea?  Okay, our brilliancies don't necessarily change the world the way wonder drugs did but their source is often no more exciting than [Archimedes] watching bath water rise.  A hundred attendees at a mordant council meeting can, depending on their occupations or interests, ponder a hundred problems ranging from mathematics or clothing design to plumbing or beating a Tampa-2 defense.  As the performer prattles on and we float in our mental miasma, random juxtapositions conjure strange analogies and metaphors, provoking lateral thought.  I'm told the Four Point Principle was created while the innovator was trying to avoid listening to an ear-gouging rendition of "Four Strong Winds" (not this one, certainly).  Speaking for myself, I came up with my most successful thesis while watching--or not watching, really--a television show so vacuous I refuse to divulge its name.

    Without unbearable reality television, the neighbors' holiday slides, our niece's school play, senseless lyrics on the radio, information overload and serendipity human progress might come to a standstill.

     You cannot live forever but if you want it to seem so watch a lot of C-Span.  Ignore those rumors about it permanently lowering your metabolism. 

    Currently, then, the poetry reading serves as a cornucopia of boredom--a vital if common resource.  Nota bene:  a performance doesn't have to be remotely competent or interesting in order to inspire great thoughts or accomplishments.  Indeed, a terrible product can be more inspirational and influential than a classic;  the viewer sees a mess and says:  "Hell, even I could do better than that!"  And they're often right!

    The challenge is to either synthesize the byproduct (creativity) without being forced to undergo the treatment (boredom) or to find a more palatable treatment.  For example, if worried about rickets would you rather take cod liver oil or a vacation in sunny Rio de Janeiro?

Enter Entertainment
Max (Kat Dennings) and Caroline (Beth Behrs)
For fans, sitcoms such as "Two Broke Girls" or "Mike and Molly" can provide welcome "veggie time":  half an hour of freedom from our worries and obsessions.  While tedium slows time to a crawl entertainment causes it to blur past.  None of us glanced at our watches the first time we watched "Star Wars" or "Casablanca".  In every sense, then, entertainment is the antipodal opposite of the typical poetry reading.

At the end of this "time well wasted", though, what do we have to show for it?


    If we have monotony to stir creativity and entertainment to satisfy an audience where is the need for art?  Or, more specifically, poetry?

    Art/Poetry combines the worst aspects of boredom and entertainment:  the need to escape from the former and the time-collapse of the latter.  In essence, it multiplies two significant minuses to produce a profound positive.

    If you are a frequent reader of "Commercial Poetry" you know that poetry is verbatim:  a quoteworthy product that survives not on book shelves but in our memory and speech.  It inspires various endeavors, including its own replication.  Poetry's medium is entertainment and its currency is, at once, time and timelessness.  It is what remains.  As such, while boredom may provoke thought once, well-written and well-performed verse can do so forever, and without causing the adverse reaction that "poetry" readings do.

     It's not just the real deal.  It's the Rio deal.

Friday, August 17, 2012

This is not about politics.

    Imagine a man who is never criticized.

    Perhaps he is a Pol Pot, Stalin or Hitler whose wont is to shoot messengers.  Perhaps he is a tycoon surrounded by yes-men or simply a spoiled enfant terrible whose applecart friends and family don't wish to upset.

    Such an individual would, predictably, be unable to inspire or entertain, having relied on coercion, money or familiarity for support.  He would not be aware of any need, means or talent to appeal to anyone beyond his circle of enablers.  He may be a great businessman but he'll be a godawful marketer.  A skilled haggler but a lousy negotiator.  A horrible speaker and a horrendous listener.  A voice without an audience, oblivious to oblivion.

    Such an individual would, even if he went through law school, find it difficult to string together convincing arguments.  This reflects a lack of practice.  Who among us bickers with a tyrant, a boss or someone we know will never change?

    Such an individual would have difficulty with empathy.  Many of us did stupid and cruel things as teenagers, perhaps including bullying.  While we learn to regret our behavior this person won't.  Unlike his friends, this man continues such treatment of others, perhaps including pets, into adulthood.  He may even joke about it, oblivious to how this looks to the world at large.  He does not improve because no one has pointed out the need to do so.

    Such an individual would be utterly self-absorbed, perhaps seeing himself as the only source of perfection in an otherwise flawed universe.  So say his reviews!

    Such an individual might seek, purchase or even usurp the spotlight, confident that everyone will be dazzled by their brilliance.  Under no other circumstances would people notice the utterings of so profoundly uninteresting a character.

    Such an individual would be compelled to socialize, if at all, with others of his ilk.  Over time, these people and their following (if any) would create an echo chamber of mutual praise, a bubble entirely separate from reality.

    Such an individual would disdain both government and the public it serves yet would be the first in line for state handouts.  His interest in politics, if any, is usually related to economics or ego, occasionally ideology, but never public service or altruism.

    Is this the morality, model or mindset that we should use as an exemplar? 

    If not, then why would any of us support the blurbosphere?

    (I told you this wasn't about politics.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Facebook Poetry

    Verbal entertainments range from word games (e.g. Boggle, Charades, Scrabble, etc.) to books, plays and video.  The two most popular forms are television sitcoms and romantic comedy films.  The second least appreciated are home movies;  who among us doesn't dread an invitation to watch vacation slides?  The least popular?  Why, poetry, of course.

    As it continues to develop, the social media promises to be a boon for anyone bright enough to avoid referring to their work as "poetry".  No doubt we've all seen full or partial poems or links to them on Facebook.  This includes videos--performances and slide shows--on sites such as Vimeo and YouTube.  We've also seen photographs with poems, stories, and witticisms written on them.  These may be a couplet taken from a larger work:

     ...or a complete poem:

    Recently we are beginning to see verse on or beside pictures in a series.  If you'd like to see a complete example please "Friend" me, Earl Gray, on Facebook.  Look for "Lover's Will".

    Here is how to create and post a Facebook Poem:
  • Write or select a poem, preferably a vivid one.
  • Collect still pictures or video clips for each image, phrase, line or sentence.
  • Collect an introductory/title image and a coda ("The End") picture.
  • Ideally, use a graphics package to print the title, text and endnote on these images.
  • Write down the names of these image files in the order that they appear in the text.
  • In your "Post" window on Facebook click on "Add Photo / Video".
  • Hit "Create Photo Album" then, if necessary, "Create Album".
  • Select "Only Me" so that no one can see what you're working on.
  • Hit "Browse" to upload your pictures, beginning with your title picture and ending with your coda image.  It's okay to load, say, five at a time, hitting "Upload Photos" (twice, if required) after each batch, Hit "+ Add Photos" to begin the next batch.
  • Give your slide show a name and description (e.g. "A photo story") at the top left.
  • Once it's ready, make it "Public".
  • Hit "Done".
    Your readers will learn to select the largest picture first and then click on the Right Arrow to peel through the remainder of the slide show.

    Here is a sample of photos comprising the public domain poem, "Lover's Will":

     We can, of course, wish for better poetry than this example. Feel free to right click on these images and save them if you wish to practice uploading a Facebook photo album.

      Plan B is to post a link on Facebook to a slide show like this one:

  Lover's Will from Earl Gray on Vimeo.

Squirrel Sex

Female Sciurus Carolinensis
     It has come to my attention that humans, including scientists (who should know better), are spreading the myth that it is difficult to tell male from female gray squirrels.  This is outrageous enough, without mentioning the fact that there doesn't seem to be much consensus as to what to name our genders.  The dispute seems to come down to "buck and doe" ("Oh, deer!") versus "boar and sow".  If I dared to call my sister, Pearl the Squirrel, a "sow" I would never be able to sleep with both eyes closed again. 

    For what it's worth, we prefer "studs and vixens", thank you very much.

Male Sciurus Carolinensis
     Male squirrels are fashion plates.  We groom ourselves much more than our sisters and no self-respecting male sciurus carolinensis would ever be seen in public without a tuxedo.  Note the smooth fur and the clean lines between the white and gray--the shirt and the jacket--on our chests.  Note how we keep our cylindrical shape, at least until we reach my age and have eaten too many peanuts.

    Stud squirrels are typically more independent, less sociable.  If you find a squirrel eating from your hand it is far more likely to be female.  During courting season we boys will challenge each other but will avoid physical conflict as much as possible.  We chase the females until they let us catch up to them.
Pearl Gray
     By contrast, even before pregnancy, adult female squirrels tend to be more pear-shaped.  As my sister says, "we don't remain tubular belles for long".  More telling, though, is the fur on their bellies:  far less defined or napped, more swirly and expansive.  If you see a squirrel from the side and a lot of white peeks out on the underside it is almost certainly female.

    Vixen squirrels are slightly smaller but tend to have more "personality".  They are more adventurous than their relatively skittish male relatives, although this difference narrows as we all enter our dottage.

    Hey, if you think discerning the gender of squirrels is a challenge, when was the last time you went downtown on a Saturday night?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Difference an Audience Makes - Part II

Poetry's Revival

    In "The Difference an Audience Makes - Part I" we discussed how, without an audience, criticism inevitably comes to mean its opposite, blurbing.  That is but one of hundreds of effects, almost all of them deleterious, of not having an audience. 

    Just yesterday, July 15th, 2012, in "On the Power of Positive Poetry-Reviewing", one of my poetry heroes (a word I don't use lightly), Seth Abramson, asked this astonishing question:  "You might well tell such a person, 'Look, telling me not to purchase a Ford Flex or a Honda CRV still leaves me with 69,998 car models I know nothing about, and I need and want to buy a car now, so how is this helping me?' And you might well add to that admonishment, 'Can't anyone out there help me figure out which cars I should buy?'"

    The problem is that, if we've ever read a back cover, we know that we can always find someone to blurb anything.  If all 70,000 different brands are being praised--and they will be--how is that remotely helpful?  Might as well just leave such "evaluations" to advertisers, no?  Or cheerleaders.  Why do you suppose a Consumers Guide is a blend of positive and negative?

    The very last thing we need is more blurbers.  At a macrocosmic level, until and unless objective authorities stand up and say "Hell, no!" lazy producers and publishers will continue to crank out unspeakable shite, all of which will be "given unqualified praise."

    If everything is "mahvelous" then nothing is "mahvelous".

Obscurity Equals Failure

    When we are in the entertainment business, which includes but is not limited to art, comedy, film, music, fiction and, lest we forget, poetry, the unknown is the unsuccessful.  Why that obscurity occurs (e.g. our lack of energy, commitment, talent or luck, a heartless public, an unfair system, the numbers game, etc.) matters far less than some may think.  All of us know some very talented artists who, by any practical measure, have failed.

    All of this is equally true at the global level.  Poetry has failed to capture an audience for more than half a century.  The questions are many:  Will it regain its place in the public consciousness?  If so, how and when?  How will we know if it has?  By book and magazine sales?

Lest we have forgotten

    Consider these seemingly unrelated points:

  1. Poetry existed for eons before the written word.

  2. Poets used to be "rock stars", appearing in public theatres and in private gatherings organized by wealthy hosts.

  3. In the seven years since its launch Youtube has resulted in more people viewing contemporary poems than reading them in books, magazines and webzines.

  4. Most cell phone, video camera or webcam owners know how to make and upload videos and/or slide shows.

  5. More than 98% of lyrics searched online are of songs the user has already heard.

  6. More than 90% of scripts purchased are for productions the buyer has attended.

   performance:  Noun

  • the act of performing  a ceremony, play, piece of music, etc.

  • ...the efficiency with which something...fulfills its intended purpose.

    With prose, performance (if it happens at all) usually follows reading, as in a movie based on a novel.  With film, theatre, music, and poetry, performance precedes reading.  Shakespeare's plays were published years after they were staged, and only because the productions were as successful as they were.  Today, the poetry reading tries to encourage poetry reading but fails because it is--you guessed it!--a poetry reading.  As opposed to a performance.  Imagine the prospects of an unknown rock band whose idea of "performing" is limited to reading lyrics aloud onstage.

    Without performance, poetry remains as obscure as sheet music or theatre/film scripts would be without performances.

The good news

    Not only is the sorry state of poetry criticism, publication and acceptance changing but the speed of that metamorphosis is increasing geometrically.  Evolution is occurring at speeds previously associated with revolution.  By the time we formulate predictions they are already the status quo.  We need to "predict" in the present progressive tense.

    So, what grand transitional event is happening?  I am betting that before 2020--perhaps today--poetry produces something for the first time in half a century:  iconic words.  That's right.  By 2020 we will no longer be able to say that the average person is unable to cite a single line of poetry written since 1970.  All it takes is one poem going viral.  How long will this take?  Personally, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already!

    Let's break the sequence of events down.  Almost all print venues have a web version and almost all of those feature videos:  interviews, readings/performances, and slide shows.  With this in mind, submitters are beginning to include URLs of their poems on video to permit the editor and no one else to view the performance.  (Currently, the easiest way to do so is to upload it to YouTube and mark it as "Private".) 

    In a choice between texts of equal caliber a video could be the deciding factor.  Even if it isn't up to the publisher's professional standards the video helps the editor envision the motif.

    The next hurdle is the publishing world's fixation on first serial rights.  In due course, some practical editors--assuming that isn't an oxymoron in the poetry world--will realize what an opportunity they are squandering.  They will go from demanding YouTube videos be Private to insisting that they be Public.  By doing so editors can see how many viewers it attracts and what their opinion of it is.  In both senses of the term, editors can see how the poem performs.  Think test marketing here.  If and when the piece is accepted its author will be asked to change the YouTube title to include the periodical's name before the poem's (e.g. Pat's Poetry Review:  "Proof Rocks") and include a link to the webzine.  In this way, every work published becomes an advertisement on one of the highest trafficked sites in the world.  Now that there's a link to something with broader appeal than text we can add social media into the mix.  Poetry could go from being dead to being a centerpiece of our culture in the space of 24 hours. 

    Magazines and webzines are by no means the only ones that benefit from the web's multimedia options.  Individual books have pages on publishers' and booksellers' sites.  These will accommodate videos or links to them as they are created.  Inevitably, people will purchase poetry collections for the same reason they bought music CDs:  because they already love one or more of the pieces included.  Let's not forget the effect of participation.  Having acquired the book or e-book, readers might become video producers of other poems from it, creating an upward spiral of success. 

    A new paradigm is being born.

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012

    The Jury Is Excused. Or Not.

        I know what you are thinking:  "What does this have to do with poetry?"

        Everything.  Trust me.  If not, then humor me.

    Michael Cunningham

        The announcement in April that, for the tenth time, there would be no 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction seems to have astonished the literary community.  I have no idea why.

        Michael Cunningham's inside view of the process, "Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury:  What Really Happened This Year", continued here, was illuminating--perhaps more so than he realized.

        As always, the 3-reader jury rendered up three finalists to the 18 member board.  These tomes were regarded with such disdain by the final arbiters that they didn't bother to ask for other submissions.  Did they feel that this particular trio, Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan, and Susan Larson, would not produce a candidate worthy of a Pulitzer?  If so, was it because there were no great novels proffered in 2012?  Can 300+ sets of blurbers all be wrong?  Possibly.  Otherwise, we turn to the jury, a remarkably homogenous group (i.e. "three slices of academic NPR white bread") embracing a single, peculiar aesthetic.


    Maureen Corrigan
         Some of their predilections would raise eyebrows, at least.  According to the standards they defined for themselves, the "visionary" was to be preferred over the "modest", even if the former lacked the wherewithal to bring that dreamscape to life.  That "every line should be a good one" would be a stringent requirement even in poetry (pacing, anyone?).  The writing must have an "original voice" (WTF?) and a "solidly crafted structure" (apparently, nothing else needs to be solidly crafted, just the structure).  As every soap opera or Gothic Romance fan knows, love stories must all "depict the body of darker emotions that are integral to love: moments of rage, disappointment, pettiness, and greed, to name a few."  I guess anything else would be...what?  Insufficiently clichéd?  For me, the smoking gun was this sentence:  "We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature."  In other words, they wanted ramblers, not economy, purple rather than tight prose.  That's right.  Concision would be regarded as a liability.  Leave brevity to poets, I suppose!

         For example, this elephantine excerpt from Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams", a train wreck complete with questionable em dash and semicolon use, superfluous cliché (e.g. "vividly", "ever", "white", "wondrous"), ending only eventually and with a moribund personification, is touted as "magnificently written, stylistically innovative, and...profoundly American":

    "All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking--the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utter still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world."

         All three jury members have taught creative writing or literature.  Perhaps their next course could be on everything that is wrong with Johnson's sentence.

         A similar ouverture from David Foster Wallace’s "The Pale King" begins with the same conjunctionitis, turns into a seed catalogue and then, like so much roughage, ends as tripe:

    "Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all head gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek."

         Could you imagine not knowing the difference between that and Pulitzer Prize winning writing?  If these are the exemplars shouldn't the also-rans be reported to the EPA and the rejects quarantined with the Spanish Flu virus?

    Susan Larson
         Had the same tastes and acumen been shared by jury and board the latter would have either liked one of the nominated tomes or asked for a fourth.  Can we draw inferences about the expectations of the board, whose members were described as "primarily journalists and academics"?

         Actually, yes, I believe we can.

         The who-what-where-when-why journalists weren't going to like the florid passages.  Similarly, at least some of the academics were likely to have more experience with poetry, such that they might hold a far more positive view of the succinct.  Among the eighteen, some may have been more perspicacious about proper grammar and punctuation than Larson, Corrigan and Cunningham.  Clearly, the board understood that there could have been dozens of Pulitzer-quality books in that pile but that these three screeners wouldn't find one before the deadline.

        "When Maureen, Susan, and I talked Big Book," Mr. Cunningham explains, "we were thinking almost literally--a book that was, if not over five hundred pages long, vast in its scope, enormous in its concerns."

         Gee, how can we argue with this bigger-is-better "logic"?  After all, at used book stores all over America literature is occasionally sold by the pound.  Why should Pulitzer judges use a different scale? 

         In lamenting the inability to find a winner, Mr. Cunningham says that an "American writer has been ill served and underestimated."  We can only hope he understands that the odds are better than 100-to-1 that he and his two fellow jurists were the ones doing the underestimating.  To wit, the jury read and tossed over 300 books;  the board received and rejected only three and, from what we've seen, those were eyesores.

         This debacle confirms a few points I may have touched (read:  harped) on in the past:

    • Cudgel #1:  Except as a voting bloc, three heads with a single thought are not better than one.  Save money and dump two of them.  Remember:  you're trying to create a judge's chamber, not an echo chamber.  Having three jurists is a luxury that other contests can only envy;  use it to include three different sensitivities or perspectives and more than one community.  Don't worry if your selectors don't get along as well as these three did.  You're dealing with High Art, not High Tea.

    • Cudgel #2:  Juries need to be charged.  Even the broadest aesthetic needs to be presented as such, lest it be abridged, as it was here.  The mandate from the Committee was simple:  find exceptional writing.  That is the kind you would recommend to your mature offspring, the kind you remember long after you forget reading "Zen Zombies and the Art of Trailer Park Maintenance".  The mandate made no mention of "insufficiently complicated" plots.  We aren't talking about dime store Indiana Jones travelogue thrillers.  Indeed, Hemingway managed to win a Pulitzer by writing about an old man, a fish, and the sea.  That's it, the whole plot line, character list and setting:  man, fish, sea.

    • Cudgel #3:  The Pulitzer Prize is an award, not a contest.  It isn't about "the best entry submitted" or even "the best of 2012";  it's about the best.  Period.  If the 18 panelists didn't see anything of the calibre of "The Stone Diaries", "The Executioner's Song", "To Kill A Mockingbird" or "Tales of the South Pacific" then they made the perfect choice.

    • Cudgel #4:  Don't select jurists who worry about being "seduced by the language".  That is what good writing is all about.

    Monday, July 9, 2012

    The Difference an Audience Makes - Part I

    A Public Safety Officer sees a blind woman walking toward an open manhole. Should the PSO warn her?  Or say nothing?

    You might expect that, barring a psychopath or two, everyone would say "Yes, warn her!" even if it were not the PSO's job. What ethical person would remain silent there?

    Jan Zwicky
    This is what reviewers do. They buoy works, boosting the profiles of great novels such as "Stone Diaries" while placing markers over "Howard the Duck" so we'll avoid it. In fact, it doesn't even have to be a full review; a rating on a "Best of..." list might suffice for the impatient web surfer. For this service we are all grateful.

    Thus, when some ignore my advice to the contrary and read "The Ethics of the Negative Review" by Jan Zwicky they are gobsmacked. It's not merely the sloppy editing; much of the verbiage is an argument against bringing up various tangents in the first place. We can only guess Ms. Zwicky's DELete key is broken. No, what amazes many is the central thesis that reviewers, not to be confused with blurbers, are meanies. In addition to all of the objections raised by Michael Lista in "On Poetry: The good in bad reviews", there is the painfully obvious point that the "ethics" of bad reviews is the very same as the "ethics" of good ones: "Ya calls 'em as ya sees 'em."

    End of story, right?

    Michael Lista
    People from outside the poetry worlds would certainly think so. Of what use would Rex Reed or Siskel and Hebert have been if they didn't pan clunkers? Ditto fiction critics.

    Online poets certainly don't have a problem with negative feedback. (Feel free to test this with your own discussion thread:  blog, Facebook, newslist, etc.  Ask:  "How do you feel about negative reviews in poetry?"). By definition, online workshoppers regularly engage in constructive critique, based as it is on a negative premise: this poem isn't perfect yet. That is their focus:  poems, not poets.  As a group they discuss technique and originality, always with a view toward the existing poetry audience.

    The problem with "the existing poetry audience" is that it doesn't actually exist, which makes any question about reviews--or poetry itself--all the more existential. If there is no audience--and there isn't--then there is no blind woman striding toward an open sewer. Indeed, there are no residents at all. What does it matter if there is a pitfall in a ghost town?  What purpose is served by pointing out this carelessness beyond gratuitously embarrassing the worker who forgot to replace the manhole cover?  Someone's job could be on the line here.

    We need another analogy.

    By definition, those in the careerist world endeavor to create an attractive CV and acquire a job teaching poetry. Get a book or two published in a local/university press and a few poems in high profile literary magazines, none of which are targeted beyond their academic contributors. Virtually any wan, allusive, intellectualized prose will suffice. Get a few well known friends to blurb it and you're good to go.

    Seen in this light, negative reviewers become unwelcome interlopers. It is as if they are barging into a job interview to tell the prospector employer that the applicant is a poo-head.


    Thursday, June 21, 2012

    Great Poems of Our Time: "Auditing the Heart"

        After a half-decade wait we have finally seen the sixth shoe drop:  Tim and Megan Green have published Frank Matagrano's "Auditing the Heart" in the Summer, 2012 edition of "Rattle" magazine.  Of the six 21st century poems we honor here, this is the first written by a {gasp!} male.  Hey, stranger things have happened.

        As with another in our "Great Poems of Our Time" series, "How Aimée remembers Jaguar", Frank's poem was posted on The Alsop Review's Gazebo workshop before being housecleaned away.  Unlike Erin Hopson, who vanished while completing her college degree, this time only the poem dropped out of sight.  Frank Matagrano has remained a presence on Gazebo, Eratosphere and elsewhere.

    Auditing The Heart (by Frank Matagrano) from Earl Gray on Vimeo.

         Like our #1 poem, Margaret Ann Griffiths' "Studying Savonarola", "Auditing the Heart" is about romance, distance and time.  It treats the latter theme even better than Maz's masterpiece.  Like "Savonarola", "Auditing the Heart" starts very slowly.  Perhaps too slowly.  It isn't clear what the first three couplets add beyond a missed opportunity to create more ambiguity by using "was" rather than "meant" in S3-L1.

         In terms of sounds and rhythms, "Auditing the Heart" is not the masterpiece that "Studying Savonarola" and "Beans" are but S4 to S6, inclusive, constitute a clinic on remarkable linebreaks.  Teachers and students:  take note!

    Auditing the Heart - Frank Matagrano

    One mother who owned
       the sea, one father who walked

    on water, and in a row boat,
       one brother who believed

    marriage meant becoming
       the roof over a woman's head.

    A room for the night with a view
       of the water, the moon a quarter

    less than it should have been,
       the shape of my wife drawn

    into the empty bed one memory
       at a time.  There were too many

    stars to count, a registry
       of old gifts and receipts strewn

    across the sky, a mess
       of things that died getting here.


    1. "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths

    2. "Beans" by D. P. Kristalo

    3. "Antiblurb" by A. E. Stallings

    4. "How Aimée remembers Jaguar" by Eric Hopson

    5. "There Are Sunflowers in Italy" by Didi Menendez

    6. "Auditing the Heart" by Frank Matagrano

    Wednesday, May 30, 2012

    The Blurbosphere

        "...and other forms of boredom advertised as poetry."

        Contrary to popular belief, the blurbosphere is not a pejorative term for the blogosphere.  Don't get me wrong;  it is pejorative but no more so than calling an earlier generation "old-fashioned" or "slightly technophobic".  Also, it refers to the most visible aspects of careerism, including but in no way limited to the blogosphere.  It is usually a cynic's view of untenured, publish-or-perish academia and the attendant print world.  When I use the term it describes any professional community or mindset where poetry is not judged but showcased, typically on the basis of the writer rather than the written.  In short, it is a place where actual criticism is pointless, if not verboten.

        Normally, I would just "let the circus keep the tent", as the quaint saying goes.  Recently, though, a Facebook friend of mine asked for interpretations of a poem for a critical article she was writing.  This person is someone I like and admire, more so than the expression "Facebook friend" may suggest.  Nevertheless, she is from the blurbosphere, where "criticism" translates to "interpretation", not [technical] "evaluation".  In that topsy-turvy world "criticism" means its opposite:  "praise".  The fact that one bothers to write an interpretation of a poem is, itself, flattering. It's a cozy, compartmentalised world.  Works by poets unknown to both critic and reader are rarely reviewed.  What would be the point?  (Bear this factoid in mind.  There will be a test later.)

        Unfortunately, the poem in question was completely devoid of artistic merit or coherence at any level.  It was authored by a retired professional but if I told you it was produced by a semiliterate teenager using a dictionary as a dartboard you'd have no cause for doubt.  Call me "old-fashioned" or "squirrelly", but I advocate the notion that bad writing doesn't make good poetry.  Feel free to check my arithmetic:

     Bad grammar + sloppy punctuation + Tamarian syntax + tedium ≠ poetry 

        If my friend were a fellow onliner I could be frank with her.  Both of us would have seen each other critiquing work honestly.  She would know to expect candor and that is what she'd get.  Were the poet--not my critic friend but the author of the underlying piece--to have posted this dreck to a serious critical forum he could expect a response similar to this oft-quoted Usenet classic:

        "Please give me one reason why the aforesaid could be
    classified as anything other than badly written, unimaginative
    and cliché-festooned. This poem, for lack of a more appropriate
    term, seems to represent, to me, everything poetry is not about,
    that is: vague references to vaguely traumatic personal events
    renumerated listlessly as a piece of abstract journalistic
    schlock (with random line breaks to disguise it as poetry)
    superimposed on a bland moral-aesthetic grid. Superficial in
    every way, and lacking any sort [of] effect."

            - Aidan Tynan (2002-07-17, a.a.p.c., re:  "Facade") 

        How do you deal with this in the blurbosphere, though, where real critique is viewed as catty, if not vicious?  For all we know, someone's job could be at stake.  Remember:  the blurbic language has no word for "shit".  So how do you tell your academic friend that the poem she is about to praise/interpret is, in fact,  unprocessed sewage?

        The answer has to lie in why your friend is suffering from such an acute case of amaurosis poetica.    (I told you there would be a test later.)  There is only one possible explanation.

         Ask your buddy this:  "Do you know this poet personally?" 

        That should get the ball rolling. 

        If not, give up;  it's a lost cause.

    Saturday, May 26, 2012

    A Brief History of Time Online

         From "Exploding the Groupthink Myth":

         Factoid from Facebook: A group comprised of fewer than 1 in 10,000 living poets has quietly produced, in addition to the bestselling personal poetry collection (not including educational sales), one third of the speakers at the 2012 West Chester convention and all of the last ten¹ Nemerov winners. Who are these poets and what is the source of their mojo? Do they have a secret handshake?

    Dennis Hammes (1945-2008)

         If your exposure to e-poetry is limited to a few webzines and the blogosphere you probably think of "online poetry" as...well, poetry that is online:  ditties on Facebook, collections on vanity pages or the blogosphere, or quality works on e-zines (e.g. TheHyperTexts, The Pedestal, etc.) and e-versions of magazines (e.g. Rattle, Poetry, etc.).

         Those who have been part of the online poetry community for more than a few years use the expression to describe someone whose aesthetics were, in whole or in part, developed and/or shared in online workshops.

         If this group were to have a motto it might be:  "Be teachable.  We can work with the clueless but not the clueproof."  More succinct is Scavella's Mantra:  "You aren't as good as you think you are."

         The core difference between the print and pixel mindset is the immutable versus the improvable.  This is reflected in the media themselves.  When a number of critics and advisors pointed out errors in a popular textbook the author did a recall and reprint--an awkward process in a hardcover listed at $95.00!  When we bloggers or e-zine editors make mistakes we thank the reader, make the correction without much cost or bother, and move on.  By definition, onliners invite critique;  criticism of printed work is rare and not always welcome.

    Seamus Heaney
         It would be hard to imagine Seamus Heaney as an attendee, as opposed to a facilitator, of a live workshop.  Can you envision Derek Walcott posting his drafts to an online critical forum?  No.  Print poets don't want a reader to see the sausage being made.  They want to continue the Mosaic illusion of words coming straight from some divine source onto stone tablets.  Immutable.

         Other poets of their calibre, some of whom may be familiar to you, do present their works-in-progress for constructive critique.  Theirs is an equally simple motivation:  they believe in improvement of poems and poets.

         The preamble to this article hints at the significance of this tiny community.  We might wonder:  how did it come into being and what else has it contributed to the whole?

    Origins of Online Information Exchange:

    Michael McNeilley (1947-2001)
        The Finger program, written in 1971 by Les Earnest, facilitated access to university databases.  This later morphed into much more sophisticated search engines like Google or Bing.  It was the first major civilian Internet application. 

        Email protocols, standardized in 1973, added a carbon copy feature soon afterwards.  This paved the way for the discussion list:  roughly, people sending out Round Trip Memos.  After Information Technologists and other scientists, English Departments were the third to employ this new technology and the first to expand Internet use to non-academics:  journalists, novelists and poets.


    J. R. Sherman
        Implemented in 1980, Usenet is an online bulletin board service (BBS), divided into "newsgroups".  One of the first of these was rec.arts.poems, joined much later by its echo chamber, alt.arts.poetry.comments.  For 13 years before the World Wide Web a thriving poetry community discussed and analyzed poems online.  Terms describing people and behavior, including "crosspost", "flaming", "kill file", "plonk", "lurk", "postcount", "CABAL" (technically, the group that started Usenet but, more commonly and metaphorically, a term used to aggravate egomaniacal paranoids), "spam", "sockpuppet", and "troll", were popularized on Usenet.  For better or worse, what we now call "chat-speak" began there, highlighting "acronyms" such as  "LMAO", "BTW", "AFAIK", "FWIW", "IIRC" and "IMHO".  Before Usenet, "LOL" meant "Little Old Lady".  Because rec.arts.poems habitues were among the most literate and vociferous Usenetters many, if not most, of these expressions can be attributed directly to them.

         Here is a provocative factoid for you:  had people cared to use the available technology, the rec.arts.poems newsgroup would have been the first venue where all poets in a postliterate society could have been gathered in one location.  If humankind had produced an iconic poem in the half century before Facebook it would probably have happened on Usenet.  It was the only game in town.

         Not counting Dr. Seuss nursery rhymes, would you care to guess the title² of the best known poem among poets in the last three decades? 

    Peter John Ross
        If you have learned anything about poetry technique, but especially about scansion, on the Internet there is a good chance that you can credit Peter John Ross, directly or indirectly.  If you are not familiar with this guy you are either not a poet or not a Usenetter.  Author of the satirical "rulez 4 aspiring ~poets~", PJR is a mainframer, linguist, wit, critic and one of the world's leading authorities on matters prosodic.  Unfortunately, along with Gary Gamble, "J.R. Sherman" (aka "The Value Added Savior"), and the late Dennis Hammes, Mr. Ross spent most of his time on unmoderated Usenet forums fighting trolls or TORLLS [sic] (i.e. illiterate trolls).  These reprobates were so odious and numerous that a search engine was developed to track them:  "Kookle". 

         No, really.

    World Wide Web:

         The World Wide Web started in 1993 but it wasn't until the mid-to-late 1990s that browsers and public interest developed.  Among the first critical sites was Bela Selendy's "Poetry Free-For-All" or "PFFA", which grew directly out of the need for Usenetters to find a moderated forum, sans trolls.  People who complain about how sharp some of the PFFA critics and moderators can be need do no more than Google "rec.arts.poems" to understand why.  Today, when you see the guidelines of an online workshop you are reading the "don't-crit-the-crit" ethos developed by Usenetters.

    Rik Roots
        Along the way we saw the egoless experiment:  two sites where poems and critiques were posted anonymously.  The first of these was "The Lathe", created by English poet and programmer Rik Roots.  On Egoless, poems and critics earned performance ratings.  Among other innovations, the egoless format originated the "thumbs down" and/or "thumbs up" (then called "me too" or "chime") buttons used by social networks and discussion software today.

        What were the lessons we could draw from from the egoless experiment?  Nothing onliners didn't already know, really:
    1.  Selfless, informed critiquers like Hannah Craig and Aidan Tynan are gold;

    2. very few poets are interested in a careful, objective evaluation of their work, even if rendered politely and received anonymously; and,

    3. the social aspect of a workshop is important.
        Today, the egoless format survives in business, scientific and political discourse models.    Among poets, its legacy is in its motto:  "If you don't think your writing is competing against the works of others you're probably right."

    Christine Klocek-Lim
        Soon after PFFA came Eratosphere, run by Alex Pepple, and Alsop Review Gazebo, established by the late Jaimes Alsop.  A few years laters we saw the first of two incarnations of the now defunct Poets.org forum, headed by Autumn Sky Poetry head editor Christine Klocek-Lim.  When we speak of the pre-existing World Wide Web community, these are some of the key figures.

         Which of these venues would I recommend to those eager to improve their technique?  Such individuals should join and lurk on all of them, really, but if new to the study of the craft--regardless of how many decades they've been writing or teaching poetry--I'd encourage them to learn the basics before joining in.  Those who know that Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Moriturus" is neither iambic nor free verse should consider Eratosphere.

    In Conclusion:

    Margaret Ann Griffiths
        The history of online poetry may be obscure to most but it accounts for much of our modern language (mostly tech- and text-speak), a claim that page and stage poets cannot match.  It is a story of struggle against trolls and between aesthetics, often punctuated by brilliant one-liners and rants.  Stay tuned for more on this subject in upcoming posts.

        Let me leave you with one final touchstone.  It doesn't matter if you edit or have been published in a hundred webzines, have run a popular blog for years and have the world's largest poetry newslist.  If you don't know who Margaret Ann Griffiths is you are not an onliner.  Period.  It follows that if you want to understand this community you will find no better starting point.


    ¹ - Make that 11.  Since we posted this, Gail White won her second consecutive Nemerov.  Congrats, Gail!

    ² - The ultimate filler-and-killer poem, "Hookers", written by Marco Morales in 1995, is familiar to all rec.arts.poems denizens--that is, to everyone who engaged in any open online poetry discussion at that time.

    Missing you again
    I embrace shallow graves.
    Pale faces, doughlike breasts
    help me forget.

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    Earl Gray, Esquirrel