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

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Poetry in 2032 - Part I: Overview

"We are living in the future.
Ask me how I know.
I read it in the paper
fifteen years ago.
We're all riding rocket ships
and talking with our minds,
wearing tourquois jewelry
and standing in soup lines."

- John Prine, "Living in the Future"

What will poetry and the poetry world be like in 2032?

The most obvious change will be in the print medium, where e-readers will obsolete paper. According to Don Pacheco's "Pew Report: Tablet Ownership Doubles. What's Left for Print?", the number of tablet owners almost doubled over the holiday season at the end of 2011, from 10% to 19% of the population. Count on this continuing, with readers downloading e-books from I-Tunes, Amazon.com and other sources, including their local libraries. The only forseeable twist in this progression is that, as prices fall, consumers will prefer multi-purpose machines like the Ipad, palmtops and blackberries rather than dedicated e-readers like the Kindle and Nook.

The net effect will be the disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores, already well underway. This shouldn't affect sales of poetry collections significantly, if only because the sales totals themselves aren't significant. As you know, the problem with poetry books was not so much that they wasted trees--my habitat--but that they were poetry and, worse yet, whole books of it. The trend in the next two decades will be toward granularization: the distribution of individual poems rather than compendiums. Less is more.

Technology will continue to give us quicker connection speeds and greater storage capacities. The hardware and software are already in place to give us Voice Recognition, auto-captioning and translation. In 2032 this blog could be a video, as might many of your responses. All communication will come in audio and textual translations. That is, I will be able to chirp in my native language and, if your machine is set to English, you will hear and read my words in that language. If I don't feel presentable I could scurry over my keyboard as I do now to type in English; you won't see anything beyond the text and graphics visible now but you will have the option of reading and hearing my words in the language of your choice.

If the sender provides a Sound Profile (i.e. a recording of the person uttering words that contain all 44 phonemes in the English language, the audio equivalent of "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog"), you could listen to emailed text in the originator's voice. Otherwise, you could go with your own or anyone else's. Ever wanted to hear your office's Round Trip Memos read aloud by Donald Duck? We could have Whitman (or Eliot or anyone else) "recite" any of his unrecorded poems. Again, the resources to do everything I'm "predicting" are, in fact, already in place. They just need to be integrated and exploited.

Consider the audience, as evident in the YouTube experience. We might watch a video about a dog chasing butterflies, then link to a political rant, a song, a clip from a talk show, a prodigy amazing us with some spectacular ability, a poem, a news report, a sports highlight and then whatever is going viral that day. Anything more than a few minutes will tax our attention span. The verser's challenge will be to capture the person's interest before they shout "Eww! I've been poemed!" and escape to some other video. Yes, "to poem" will be a verb, like "to text", "to Skype" and many other "nouns", proper or not (excuse the pun), in our language.

The success, as measured in hit counts, of whatever good performers there are will raise the bar for poets from all three worlds: stage, page and pixel. The most profound change to poetry, then, will be the appearance (in both senses of the term) of authenticity. That omnipresent phony flat reading voice, sounding like a drowsy telemarketer, and that hurried slammer's buzz, sounding like an auctioneer's blur of gibberish, will die. In the soundbyte universe of multi-channel television and URLs the poet's challenge will be what it has always been: to say more with less and to say it without artifice.

The poetry of the future will be a relating, not a lecture or overdramatization. It will be speech, not a speech. It won't announce itself. With or without accompanying pictures, poetry will be words--a story, a report, a perspective--which "just happen" to contain repetitive devices (e.g. sonics, anaphora, anadiplosis, the occasional natural sounding repetend and, possibly, meter and subtle rhymes). As with any storytelling, the voice will rise in intensity as the rendering reaches its climax, falling with anticlimax. Remember: the sooner web surfers detect poetry the sooner they'll move on. At the end of the day, though, the words that surfers recall will be those of the poet.

In short, poetry will return to its prehistoric roots. We can ponder the irony that this will come not in spite of our advancements, including writing itself, but because of them.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Dumbest Poetry Treatise Ever Written

From "The Nine Dumbest Things Poets Say":

"It's [just] verse, not poetry."

This works as humor, similar to Truman Capote's assessment of Jack Kerouac's "spontaneous prose": "That's not writing, it's typewriting." When people say it in earnest, though, they cross a line into imbecility. Were Shakespeare's sonnets "not poetry"? Even if we apply this "standard" only to bad verse we're confronted with the question: "So William McGonigal's 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' is...prose?"

Some poetry is very bad. Hell, most of it is.

Deal with it.

"Poetry has to..."

It really doesn't matter how you finish this sentence; it belongs on this list. Has to...be profound? So humorous verse like Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" and emotive entreaties like "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" aren't poetry? Has to...be passionate? So didactic, mnemonic and most modern works aren't poetry? "Poetry has...to have a moral or political imperative?" Oh? Whose morality? What if, like most adults, I'm happy with my sense of morality and don't care to be lectured--subtly or otherwise--on the subject? Is poetry not me for? Should only Jehovah Witnessses and Mormon missionaries be allowed to write it? Do those politics have to be of the left or of the right? All that romantic and light verse isn't poetry?

There are plenty of candidates for the title of most idiotic article ever written on the subject of poetry. As you may know, that dubious honor has always been reserved for Edgar Allan Poe's "The Rationale of Verse", where he concluded, after many risably misguided attempts, that a section of Byron's "The Bride of Abydos", which any grade 6 graduate of his time understood was anapestic tetrameter, "refuses to be scanned".

Personally, I never expected anyone to match Poe's historic flameout. Imagine my surprise when I first read "Is It Poetry or Is It Verse?" by the Poetry Foundation's Chairman, John Barr. We need to bear in mind that this is coming from someone overseeing, among other initiatives, a magazine that, in its mission statement, expressed a "desire to print the best English verse".

In case you haven't been following my blog, I need to point out that I have been and remain an admirer of the Foundation, of "Poetry" magazine's editor, Christian Wiman, and of senior editor, Don Share. Even in regards to this article, I applaud the Foundation's willingness to retain it on their website as the monument to stupidity that it is. This isn't a personal attack on the John Barr we know today who has, as his other 2006 essay, "American Poetry in the New Century", suggests, grown into the job and, we hope, distanced himself from the folly that follows.

The article begins with dreadful examples of verse by Wallace McRae, Tupac Shakur, and Jack Prelutsky. Is this really going to be his argument? Pick the worst examples of something, tar all of it with the same brush, and hope no one picks up on a tactic most eight-year-olds have outgrown? I understand that this may work for John Barr's political party but we're talking about people sufficiently literate to read poetry.

"Efforts to define the difference between poetry and verse...have been with us for a long time."

Not really. Verse is poetry with meter. It's in all the books. Look it up.

"Verse is often a term of disparagement in the poetry world..."

Not by those who study, read or write verse. Perhaps he should have spoken in terms of "the exclusively free verse and prose poetry communities".

"Somewhat defensively, the serious poetry crowd dismisses such work as verse, not poetry..."

No. They dismiss it as doggerel, a key word that Mr. Barr needed to add to his vocabulary.

"It also matters to the Poetry Foundation and organizations like it..."

Not one of which explicitly shares John's bias against verse. Doggerel? Certainly. Verse? No. (Granted, some magazines do, just as others discriminate against non-metrical poetry, but, fortunately and unsurprisingly, none of the top print publications--including "Poetry" magazine--share Mr. Barr's prejudice.)

I know what you're thinking: As other non-metrists have done, John was merely abducting the term "verse", collapsing it down to a subset of itself so that we'd have two words for lousy metered lines, "verse" and "doggerel", and no common term for competent metered lines. (I won't ask: "To what end?") What about the classics, most of which were metrical? He didn't acknowledge their existence but let's presume that he would call them "[metrical] poetry". In his idiolect, then, "poetry" must have been the good stuff, not to be confused with "verse/doggerel" and, we imagine, prose-with-linebreaks.

Sadly, this theory didn't survive the next turn in Mr. Barr's rabbit hole:

"Yes, there is plenty of poorly written verse out there, but there is also plenty of poorly written poetry..."

Huh? What, then, would be the difference between that "poorly written poetry" and "verse/doggerel" or, if unmetered, prose-with-linebreaks?

"To use verse as a pejorative term, then, is to lose the use of it as a true distinction."

Normally, we'd be saying "Duh!" here but, for John, this sounded like a revelation. Could it last?

Not a chance.

He proceeded with a complete misreading of some comments by George Orwell, overlooking the fact that Orwell used the terms "poetry" and "verse" more or less interchangeably, in sharp contrast to the point Barr was trying to make. Later, he misrepresented Orwell's comments by dropping the critical qualifier "good bad" before "Verse":

"Verse, as Orwell says, tells us something we already know—as often as not something we know we already know."

Perhaps John believed that we'd read this as carelessly as he wrote it. He then went from the moronic to the oxymoronic in saying that verse does not or can not address the same themes that every mode of communication (of which poetry and verse are subsets) can:

"Verse, I have come to think, is poetry written in pursuit of limited objectives: to entertain us with a joke or tall tale, to give us the inherent pleasures of meter and rhyme. It is not great art, nor is it trying to be."

I'm sure we all agree that Homer's "Iliad", which is, indeed, a "tall tale", is "not great art". Right?

"Writers of verse have done their job when they make lines that conform to the chosen meter..."

What versers was this guy reading?!?"

Oh, sorry, I forgot: Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Edgar Guest, Wallace McRae, Tupac Shakur, and Jack Prelutsky. Carry on, please.

Wait! You'd never guess what poet's name begins John's very next sentence: "Frost's"! You know, Robert Frost, the guy who apparently never wrote a line of poetry in his life.

Mr. Barr then confirmed our worst suspicions about his familiarity with excellent verse:

"Verse does not seek to know the unknown or to express the unexpected, nor does it undertake the risk of failure that both entail."

What versers was this guy reading?!?"

Sorry. I promise not to ask that question again. Back to Mr. Barr:

"'Serious' poetry, on the other hand, is..."

If you read "The 9 Dumbest Things Poets Say" you just know this statement ain't gonna end well. Sure enough...

“Serious” poetry, on the other hand, is written in pursuit of an open-ended goal."

If only he'd reviewed the Poetry Foundation's mission statement and stuck with:

"'Serious' poetry, on the other hand, is written in pursuit of the largest possible audience."

But I digress.

As with Orwell, he then quoted Frost, unaware that the latter was contradicting everything John himself was saying, from definition and premise to conclusion.

Undaunted, John continued:

"Verse tells us, finally, that all is well."

Yes, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Beans" are all about sunshine, lollipops and roses.

John then goes nuclear with:

"Verse does not ask us to change our lives. Poetry does."

[Earl faints.]

My apologies for the interruption, but even with everything he'd written thus far we really should be warned when something this asinine is coming. It's hard to measure which contention is the sillier.

  1. "Verse does not ask us to change our lives." So, in none of their verses did Donne or Shakespeare ever encourage audiences to change their lives?

  2. "Poetry does." Asking people to change their lives is a defining element of poetry? So divorce papers, eviction notices and arrest warrants are poetry? Leaving aside verse, how does this separate poetry from prose in general, rhetoric in particular? How does this co-exist with John's position that poetry deals with "the unknown"? We're encouraged to "change our lives"...to what, exactly? To becoming philosopher wannabes with no sense of humor, logic, adventure, irony, romance, conviction, drama, or the beauty of the classics?

It gets better. He raises another brief, faint flicker of hope:

"At its best, verse can cross over into the realm of serious poetry."

His example? Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky".

I'm not making this up.

Fittingly, Mr. Barr ends with a statement of policy which his own "Poetry" editors have wisely ignored.

I rest my case.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Nine Dumbest Things Poets Say

No doubt I've missed a few but here, off the top of my head, listed in ascending order of obvious stupidity, are the nine most asinine things I've heard poet wannabes utter:

"It's all just a matter of taste!"

See also "Different strokes for different folks" and "De gustibus non est disputandum." How, you may wonder, can something rendered in Latin be considered idiotic? Consider this all-too-common exchange:

"Is this any good?"

"I didn't like it."

It is in the nature of non sequiturs to be moronic even when true.

This dull old saw about taste is dragged out by all failed poets to dismiss any form of criticism. Some hopeless cases even invoke the dreaded coprophagia clause:

"Hey, some people eat dirt--or worse! So it all comes down to taste."

I might not admire such-and-such but as a reviewer my job is to predict whether or not most others will, buttressing that prognostication with arguments and examples. That even some critics aren't clear on this concept illustrates how ubiquitous this silliness is.

"We are ignored today but future generations will love our stuff."

This is how failed poets deal with obscurity and dismissal.

I can't think of many examples of poets being completely ignored in their time--as virtually all are today--only to become famous after shaking off this mortal coil. Emily Dickinson's name often comes up in this context but, personally, I don't consider being solicited twice for submissions by the editor of "The Atlantic Monthly" as "being completely ignored". Such posthumous glory is even less likely now because, unlike the world before WWI, we live in a century when no contemporary poetry is iconic. It's like being among the best alchemists or phrenologists in your time.

All of this comes before "generational narcissism". What are the odds of our grandchildren being more interested in the past than their parents were? Remote, at best. Future academics will, eventually and with difficulty, coalesce around someone of our era but it certainly won't be a stranger to us, even though it will be to the population at large, then as now.

"This work is great because it's written by so-and-so."

These people must wonder why writing contests are judged blindly.

Want to get a rise out of someone? Pick their favorite poet's worst work--almost all of the masters wrote some doozies--and tell the person that that poem is unmitigated trash.

Which it probably is.

"Poetry has to..."

It really doesn't matter how you finish this sentence; it belongs on this list. Has to...be profound? So humorous verse like Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" and emotive entreaties like "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" aren't poetry? Has to...be passionate? So didactic, mnemonic and most modern works aren't poetry? "Poetry has...to have a moral or political imperative?" Oh? Whose morality? What if, like most adults, I'm happy with my sense of morality and don't care to be lectured--subtly or otherwise--on the subject? Is poetry not me for? Should only Jehovah Witnessses and Mormon missionaries be allowed to write it? Do those politics have to be of the left or of the right? All that romantic and light verse isn't poetry?

While we're at it, has the statement that begins with "My poetry was rejected because..." ever finished with "...it wasn't good enough"?

"If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all."

...and the Emperor will continue to think himself well attired. This kind of "thinking" has given birth to the blurbosphere, such that what few filters poetry had have been rendered utterly useless.

Seriously, who is teaching literary criticism these days? Dale Carnegie?

"Poetry was never popular."

I suppose it was inevitable that bullshit would start coming in different flavors, this pile being Sour Grape. Even the most cursory glance or thought puts paid to it. Before radio, poets were the rock stars of their era. Shakespeare kept two theatres alive with verse. It was in almost every newspaper and magazine. It was how people could flirt with each other, even in their parents' presence. Robert Service made $500,000 from one poem. Need I go on?

Do people actually think before they say these things?

"It's [just] verse, not poetry."

This works as humor, similar to Truman Capote's assessment of Jack Kerouac's "spontaneous prose": "That's not writing, it's typewriting." When people say it in earnest, though, they cross a line into imbecility. Were Shakespeare's sonnets "not poetry"? Even if we apply this "standard" only to bad verse we're confronted with the question: "So William McGonigal's 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' is...prose?"

Some poetry is very bad. Hell, most of it is.

Deal with it.

"Find your voice."

Gag me with a shovel.

"Write from the heart."

Gag me with a steam shovel.

Multimedia - Part II

"If you don't think your poetry is competing against the works of others you're probably right."

- Egoless maxim.

A buddy--the word "mentor" would be equally apt--of mine told me about his plan to promote a poetry anthology through "tourney marketing". Modest to a fault, he claims that he stole the idea from the admirable "Poetry Out Loud" project created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation and applied it to a 21st Century collection. Whatever.

Start by publishing a collection of poems that have "significant performance and youth appeal", to quote my friend. The example he gave was, of course, Margaret A. Griffiths' Grasshopper: The Poetry of M A Griffiths. I agree that Maz's masterpiece has many appropriate examples, starting with "Studying Savonarola", but I'd be thinking in terms of a more selective, eclectic anthology. No matter. Your definition of "significant performance and youth appeal" will undoubtedly do as well as mine. Just remember to get your authors' approval of your plans before including their work.

Hold a contest with a sizeable prize, challenging people to create videos based on the poems in your book and post them to YouTube, using the title of your book followed by that of the poem (e.g. "Grasshopper: The Poetry of M A Griffiths - "Studying Savonarola""). This will allow your judges to find the entries easily while promoting your book with thousands of YouTube posts bearing its name.

That's the whole idea. The rest is fine print:

  • other than the poem itself, only original material (e.g. pictures, film, music, et cetera) is permitted;

  • contestants are free to use the text only for the purposes of this event, with all other rights retained by the copyright holders;

  • winning contestants agree to allow the sponsor to use the videos for promotional purposes;

  • offer void where prohibited by law, et cetera.

Your prize fund could be awarded any way you choose, from winner-take-all to dividing it by status (e.g. students versus non-students) and/or format (e.g. separate categories for performance versus montages and slide shows). The contest can be promoted without cost through national poetry organizations, web sites and university publications.

Repeat annually.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Multimedia - Part I

"There isn't a lack of money in poetry. There's a lack of marketing imagination."

To recap:

We know what killed poetry: music on the radio, starting in the 1920s.

We know what prevented its resurgence and why its decline was peculiar to anglophone countries: lousy performance.

Take a look at Lola Flores performing a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca:

You don't need to speak a word of Spanish to see how vital these words are not just to the long dead poet's legacy or to this particular performer. Watch the audience. Note all the other performances of Lorca's verses available on YouTube. Lorca's words are important, so much so that whole generations have grown up memorizing, quoting, performing, and recording them.

Decades ago, high school English departments used to introduce students to Shakespeare by reading it. More progressive schools today show it being performed, either live or, more often, on video, before studying it on the page. Similarly, students in Spanish-speaking countries are introduced to Lorca's work almost invariably through performances like the one above, usually involving a professional actor/singer. The 2007 release of "Beowulf" sparked interest in the poem on video and in print. Whether we speak of dramatic, lyric or narrative poetry, then, it is always better introduced to audiences live or on the screen rather than on the page.

As dismal as textual poetry sales are, those of poetry audio recordings are lower still.

Painfully obvious conclusions:

  1. Poetry is a multimedia art form.

  2. To compete, we'll need to apply the basics of multimedia.

  3. The best person to present the poem is usually not the one who wrote it.

  4. We need to write in a manner that exploits multimedia.

In Preservation, Presentation and Promotion - Part II we discussed multimedia performance, which typically involves presenters in front of a video recorder or a live audience. If we are not great performers--and few poets are--we'll need to work with someone who has theatrical talent. Know any actors?

Montages and slide shows are easy to put together: write your poem, take some pictures or video clips, slap them together with a graphics package like Adobe Flash or Roxio Creator, add some music, perhaps, and post it to Vimeo or YouTube. No musical talent? Do a web search for "creative commons music" and download whatever seems most appropriate. Don't own a graphics package? Go to the Poets.org or Eratosphere discussion forum and ask for help. In the meantime, do your planning: which files in which order?

A similar idea is to write a poem that mentions anything sold on the open market. We're not talking about slogans or jingles. A serious poem. The more artistic, the better. You've probably already written dozens of such efforts. Scan your archives. Alternatively, use a excerpt from a canonical poem. Think of Levi's "Whitman" ad but with a direct tie to a product. Make a video that uses the logos and promotional material of a manufacturer of that item. Post it privately to YouTube and ask the supplier for their opinion. Swap in the visuals of another producer of that item and repeat the process until one of the companies shows interest.

"Okay, but how does one make money giving their work away?" a newcomer to the Internet might ask. By fame equaling fortune. If one or two of your videos "goes viral" you could be the next Lisa Donovan (aka LisaNova).

The most ambitious and possibly lucrative option is the ekphrastic trailer. Pick a movie--ideally, a recent or, if you can obtain a copy, an upcoming film by an established production company. Write a poem that follows its plot. Contact the producer and ask for permission to create and upload a video using parts of their film. With luck, they'll send you a DVD of the movie. Download and install a shareware video cutting program such as FreeStar. Create your video by combining your words--spoken or written--with clips from their film. Post it to YouTube, using the "Private" option until the producers can view and approve it. Then change "Private" to "Public" so that everyone can see your video. Watch the hit count soar.

If you do a good job there's every chance the producers will think of you for their next feature. If not, try another company.

Part II: A friend of mine came up with a brilliant plan to market a poetry anthology. Yes, we're talking about an actual book here. Paper, binding, the whole nine yards. Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Take a moment to read up on the U.S. House of Representative's H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act ("SOPA"), along with the U.S. Senate's Preventing Real Online Threats of Economic Creativity (when did "Economic Creativity" become a "threat"?) and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP or "PIPA") Act (S. 968).

The article mentions movies and music but among the contraband are video games, e-books, television shows, programming and anything else that can be copyrighted--even "knockoff" cloths and accessories. Congress soon backed off from DNS filtering (i.e. forcing Internet Service Providers to black out offending domains in their entirety) due to freedom of speech concerns detailed in this article on the University of Pittsburgh's "Jurist" site.

The objection to DNS filtering was collateral damage. Copyrighted material on one, tiny subsection of a website could shut down everything on that domain name, including unrelated web sites. Disagree with something you see on a web forum? Upload some copyrighted files or text to that venue and have everything on that entire domain disappear!

Yesterday, SOPA and PIPI were "postponed" in the face of massive protests from internet users and providers. On the same day, the owners of Megaupload, a popular download site, were arrested for copyright infringement in New Zealand. This suggests to SOPA opponents that current law, if enforced, is adequate to protect copyrighted material.


How much money is involved? Forget all the other forms of trademarking and intellectual property being pirated; if just the copies of computer programs, including operating systems, were legitimized world-wide the taxes collected on the income would pay off the entire U.S. national debt in a decade. Even without the financial support politicians receive from content and merchandise suppliers, we can see why Congress was so gung-ho about SOPA and PROTECTIP.

If every video that contained unauthorized material were removed from YouTube it would be reduced to little more than some home videos and promotionals. That third party music slide show video you watched the other day probably involved dozens of infringements: the music and most, if not all, of the pictures. Its creator asks: "Have you ever tried tracking down those who took 36 different unattributed photographs you found on the internet?"

To say that this was a divisive issue is an understatement. My sister, Pearl Gray, was a stalwart supporter of the bill. Like most internauts, I was appalled by it. This disagreement threatened to ruin our family's celebration of Squirrel Appreciation Day today, January 21st.

Anything that can be stored electronically can be either downloaded directly from sites like FilesTube or file-shared as torrents from venues such as PirateBay or Isohunt, assuming there are seeders.

Let's define some of these terms:

  • Direct download involves taking the file from one large depository (e.g. MegaUpload, Rapidshare, Oron, FileSonic, et cetera). The file is often cut up into smaller ones, in which case one has to "unzip" or stitch it back together, as with WinAce.

  • A torrent is a URL pointing to where a file is being gathered.

  • If direct downloading can be compared to buying a house, file-sharing is analogous to a community barn-raising. Instead of taking a file that is there waiting for you, file-sharing involves constructing one on demand from a variety of contributors called "seeders". In the Windows environment this may require installing a special browser, "Cometbird", and a file handler, "BitComet".

  • Seeders are uploaders who have the entire file and are sharing it with downloaders, called "leeches". The more seeders there are, the faster the download.

Once saved, movies can be watched on one's monitor or on one's television by transferring the file to a flash drive or external hard drive and viewing it either directly, if the TV has a USB port, or through PlayStation or a Media Player. If we missed Season 3, Episode 12 of our favorite show we can search for it (e.g. "Two Baroque Girls S03E12") and, within 90 seconds, we're downloading it.

Let's remove the freedom of speech issues (which Pearl labels "a smoke screen") and focus on copyright issues.

Pearl's position is simple: "This is theft."

That is true only if there is no explicit or implicit consent from the creator. Suppose you're at a party and start dipping into the food without a voiced invitation to do so from your host. Is that "theft"?


A friend of mine had a hit song or two in the 1960s. She hadn't collected a dime from it in decades. A while ago, royalty checks started arriving. When she asked her agent about it he asked if she'd searched the title on YouTube recently. Sure enough, she found copies of it there, explaining the sudden surge in sales, mostly to nostalgic listeners. None of these videos were authorized, of course, but the copyright holders--publisher and artist--were delighted by the attention.

By contrast, other artists--especially those still earning income from their works--comb YouTube, torrent and direct download sites daily, getting webmasters to remove the videos and links. These people object to having to make this effort, saying that the system is like "negative option marketing", where an asset is taken from us unless we object.

Does it matter if the person taking the item does or does not use it for commercial purposes? Not really. The issue isn't the pirate's ability to make money; what matters is whether or not the artist can--an opportunity limited by anyone else distributing it.


"The solution is to respect the law," my sister argues. "If you want to use someone else's property ask for their permission! What's the problem?"

Well, the problems are too many to list. There is the issue of access: what if you can't find or contact the copyright holder? Once you do, what if they don't respond? Qui tacet consentit? That is, does silence imply consent? Are the artists too busy to reply to the thousands of requests they receive? As with party snacks, doesn't the fact that the file is there suggest that its owner doesn't mind you taking it? Doesn't exposure to previous work increase the prospects of the artist's next one? More to the point:

"How can we have an Information Age if most of the sources are protected from use?"

Pearl suggested a central database where those who want their material protected could register their titles. This works on YouTube, where one posts a music video, the site finds the signature on the music file itself, checks its database for restrictions determined by the copyright holder, and tells the poster which countries--Germany is especially strict in this regard--will block the presentation from its citizenry. On direct download or file-sharing sites, though, this would be a waste of time and effort since the files are not played onsite.

Does "postponed" suggest that SOPA and PIPA will return in some form or another? Count on it. Predictably, it will be more specific in targeting the files themselves rather than the sites. My guess is that it will involve absolute prohibition for newly released material and negative optioning for the remainder of the copyright period. A book, song or movie released in the last, say, three months could be reported by anyone to the domain registry and/or the ISP. After that [three month?] period the copyright owners would deal with the offending site, involving ISPs, domain registers and, ultimately, the courts only if the sponsoring venue fails to act.

In the end, it's all about creating icons in a culture that has 1,000 television channels and sees dozens of feature films, books and songs released daily. Contemporary masterpieces have to be able to rise above all this noise and bustle; strict adherence to copyright impedes that process. Taken together, the Internet, copyright concerns, media, artists, fans, critics and looky-loos create a broth of contradiction, conundra and paradox, even within the poetry community, where a great poet can become well known without ever publishing anything or making a personal appearance anywhere.

People raised in the Internet Age expect everything they find online to be free. This has the net effect of exporting the content's largely American values and viewpoints. Inevitably, this will find its way into the law of the land. Not before SOPA and PIPA, though.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Blank Verse

Let's take a break from our usual banter to take a look at some technical questions. If you find such discussions too dull for the blogosphere please don't hesitate to say so. We'll start with this one: How is a listener able to discern blank verse from an unmetered string of iambs (and substitutes)? Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" has whole paragraphs of the latter:

"I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.

Yonder, by the ever-brimming goblet's rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun -- slow dived from noon -- goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear?"

How does the ear distinguish this iambic prose from, say, Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet"? How does it discern that Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" is free verse...

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.

...and not enjambed iambic pentameter (i.e. with a lame foot after the semicolon)?

The apparition of these faces in
the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough.

Let me deconstruct the question for clarity:

  • A reader can look at the page, see the boxy text, and recognize that the lines all have approximately the same number of syllables. Voilà! Blank verse!

  • Rhymes would go a long way toward defining the meter.

  • Detecting the rhythmic feet is easy enough but how does the ear, not known for its counting ability, notice their quantification into meter?

  • Note that, while blank verse itself is rare enough these days, heterometrical blank verse is virtually non-existent. Even an experienced ear--one that can discern the four meters in "Prufrock" thanks largely to the rhyming--would have difficulty detecting different meters within blank verse.

The short answer is that something happens at the end of each line.

"Beowulf" was written as one long string of text, metered accentually. For convenience, we'll confine our discussion to accentual-syllabic verse. Let's examine some strategies, listing them in rough descending order of frequency, for forming feet into meter without using rhyme. To demonstrate the ubiquitous nature of these techniques--to say nothing of the genius of the Bard--I'll draw all of my examples from Mercutio's speech in "Romeo and Juliet", Act I, scene IV.

1. Poem length. It takes blank verse more time to establish and confirm its meter than rhyming verse requires. Not surprisingly, almost all blank verse is sonnet length or longer.

2. Rhythmic attenuation. Lines "find the cadence", the poet front-loading most of the noisy substitutions, especially inversions (i.e. trochees, in this case). Acephaly and, to a lesser extent, anacrusis are more common than catalexis or hypercatalexis (which is rarely more than a shwa-based semi-syllable in blank verse).

Drums in | his ear, | at which | he starts | and wakes,

The trochaic inversion is followed by four perfect iambs.

3. Endstopping, partial and full. Completed phrases and/or punctuation end each line. All other things being equal, blank verse tends to exhibit slightly less enjambment than rhyming verse. In this excerpt we see every line ending in punctuation: colon, semicolon, period or comma.

Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court'sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier's nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;

4. Breath pauses. Poets create enough--ten, generally--distinct, unpunctuated syllables to force a breather at the end of the line.

And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two

If "being" and "prayer" were not compressed this line would be twelve syllables long. Meanwhile, the sibilance and long vowels contribute to the actor's need to come up for air after this unbroken line.

5. Echoes other than rhyme. Sonic devices (e.g. assonance, consonance, alliteration or, to cheat a little, pararhymes) end the lines.

Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,

The assonance of "blades" and "wakes", "Mab" and "backs", "bear" and "hairs", along with the alliteration of "bodes", "backs" and "bear", demonstrate how the repetition of sounds announces the ends of lines, albeit less conspicuously than rhymes would.

6. Irregularities. Enjambments pose a challenge that can sometimes be handled with either sonic surfeits or metrical irregularities at the start of the subsequent line.

And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig's tail
Tickling a parson's nose as a’ lies asleep,

The trochaic bump, "tickling", and the tongue-twisting overalliteration of "tithe-pig's tail tickling" combine with the lack of punctuation (see #4, "Breathe pauses", above) to force a tiny lacuna after "tail".

7. Classical diaeresis. This, the rarest and most subtle of these techniques, involves using cadential words (e.g. iambic words in an iambic poem) at line or stanza breaks. Here we see that "asleep" and "anon" are the only iambic words in the whole section. They come with a sense of finality, even though neither ends a sentence.

Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier's nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig's tail
Tickling a parson's nose as a’ lies asleep,
Then dreams, he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier's neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two

"But virtually no one writes blank verse anymore," one could say, "so why is any of this important?"

Verse is making a comeback. Granted, it is almost exclusively rhymed verse but look at the nature of those rhymes. As modern metrists move toward more and more imperfect rhymes the importance of these other meter-markers rises in lockstep. Regardless of circumstance, they identify the poet as a master of the craft.

Preservation, Presentation and Promotion - Part IV of III

Imagine two people standing directly in front of you arguing about and guessing as to whether you like green versus yellow string beans.

What is wrong with that scene?

This is the fourth in a three-part series on contemporary poetry communities: page, stage and pixel. Today we discuss the Demand Side; we do so as an abstract afterthought for the simplest of reasons: the Demand Side doesn't exist.

Like Billy Collins before him, U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser endeavors to repopularize poetry. Say what you will about their poetry but, among us squirrels, Billy and Ted are among the good guys.

Under the auspices of The Poetry Foundation, Mr. Kooser runs the American Life in Poetry column, citing examples of poetry that he thinks would appeal to the American reader.

"American Life in Poetry provides newspapers and online publications with a free weekly column featuring contemporary American poems. The sole mission of this project is to promote poetry: American Life in Poetry seeks to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture."

"The poem in each column is brief and will be enjoyable and enlightening to readers of newspapers and online publications."

(Emphasis mine.)

What kind of verse does Mr. Kooser think will appeal to avid American prose readers? Not wanting to single anyone out, I took the first poem with a permanent link at the time of this posting. Please take a moment to click on this link to read Column 354, "Sometimes, When the Light" by Lisel Mueller, which ends with these scintillating, original and non-manipulative Show-Don't-Tell lines:

so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

Just for the sake of argument, let's say that I don't share Ted Kooser's opinion that "readers of newspapers and online publications" would be enthusiastic about this poem. I suppose we could argue about aesthetics, back and forth, forever. Due to the sample size, such a disagreement between the two of us would be pointless even as a move toward consensus. Here's a radical thought, though:

If we want to know what the reading public thinks of poems like this, why not ask them?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Preservation, Presentation and Promotion - Part III

Impressions: William Shakespeare understood that, in order to survive, verse needed to be meaningful, entertaining and adroit. That the three current supercommunities each specialize in a different one of these aspects is a reflection of their media--most notably their media's lifespans. To wit:

  1. the Page poet hopes to address the ages and, naturally enough, chooses the format that lasts longest;

  2. the Stage poet speaks directly and literally to those present with less regard for those beyond earshot, including future generations; and, finally,

  3. the Pixel poet concentrates on technique as it affords the same portability that the Internet itself does.

When we speak of someone as being from the Print World we don't mean a one-time vanity author who thinks "Christian Wiman" involves pious ladies from the Ozarks. By the same token, a 3-minute recitation in an open mic doesn't make us a Presentation Poet. We refer to an individual who has been around since dirt was dust and knows the ground rules and major players.

An e-poet's attitudes reflect the pre-blogosphere online experience and ethos. These were forged in web-based critical forums (late 1990s to the present) which, in turn, were fashioned after Usenet newsgroups (starting in the early 1980s). Such discussion groups are a far cry from the peer workshops we see in the Face-to-Face ("F2F") world. In online forums, most of which are tiered according to experience level, poems are analyzed in depth by critics of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities. Imagine how this would go over in the other metacommunities! Picture an open mic where, instead of the usual polite applause, audience members would stand up and go through your performance, word by word, gesture by gesture, pointing out strengths and weaknesses.

Why is the blogosphere excluded? Because while it is, in theory, where the three supercommunities can intersect, in practice it has become largely the domain of Print Worlders, used primarily to discuss the PoBiz.

The world wide web's poetry community is still in its first generation. Future participants will undoubtedly be much better equiped to exploit its capabilities, including those yet to be developed.

Overview: Consider the difference in environments to appreciate how Shakespeare's "meaningful, entertaining and adroit" aesthetic has been splintered into a trichotomy. Book publishers serve a few hundred readers. The collections are blurbed but few are reviewed by strangers, rarely for technical rather than interpretive merit. Live performances meet with tepid, obligatory clapping. The detailed critique that onliners receive in workshops encourages audience orientation and technical expertise. E-poets also produce the widest variety of form (starting with more metrical poetry) and genre. To wit, the two best received e-poems are both elegies, one of them unabashedly romantic, the other in a form seen only twice in the Print World.

Pixel poets are a cautious, humble lot. Having every word you write analyzed by the greatest critics alive does that for you. Bearing in mind that anyone can start their own vanity website, online poetry exhibits, by far, the greatest range in quality. I don't care how awful last night's newly published reader or open mic performer was; I can show you dozens of onliners infinitely worse. On the other hand, this same community produces some of the greatest contemporary verse you'll find. The trick is knowing where to look.

While critical sites form the backbone of the online community, webzines complete the skeleton. These rarely have any financial backing, if only because governments and universities are usually focused on local talent and audiences. Not surprisingly, these e-zines are labors of love and rarely survive ten years; a page can last ten centuries while a performance rarely last ten minutes. Just weeks ago two eminent webzines, Christine Klocek-Lim's "Autumn Sky Poetry" and Paul Stevens' "Shit Creek Review" went on indefinite hiatus. Yes, I realize that print magazines go under every day but at least some of them survive for generations. The instability of the online platforms, coupled with the modesty of the denizens, makes filtering difficult.

Paradoxically, the editor of "TheHyperTexts.com", one of the best and longest-standing webzines, is decidedly not an onliner.

What identifies the Pixel poet? A shared view which includes among its aspects:

  • familiarity with key organizational figures such as the late Gazebo founder Jaimes Alsop, Poets.org administrator Christine Klocek-Lim, Eratosphere Head Moderator Alex Pepple, Poetry Free-for-all moderator Gary Gamble, and editors Mike Burch and Paul Stevens.

  • recognition of the great crossover poets (e.g. A.E. Stallings and 3-time Nemerov winner Michael Juster) and, for sure, of the Internetter selected as the one critics would most like to read in an anthology: the late Margaret A. Griffiths;

  • gratitude toward selfless, authoritative critics like John Boddie, James Wilk and Richard Epstein, to name only a few;

  • a concentration on how good we'll be in the future rather than on how good we are now;

  • an understanding that the person who took the time to call our last poem "unspeakable shit" was doing us a favor;

  • a skin thicker than the earth's crust;

  • a greater interest in poems than poets;

  • a waning interest in the Print World;

  • a nascent interest in the Presentation World;

  • a more technically centered and, dare I say, technically informed view;

  • an understanding well beyond lip service that poetry "isn't about what you say but how you say it";

  • a preference for candor over diplomacy;

  • a disdain for blurbing;

  • a palpable contempt for Convenient Poetics; and,

  • a healthy lack of interest in the blogosphere.

Perspective: Given that they are, by definition, computer literate, we might expect online poets to be at the forefront of multimedia presentation and technology. In truth, they are a distant third. Every minute of every day another slam poet posts a webcam performance on YouTube. Host venues archive their latest open mic. Meanwhile, magazines sport spiffy e-versions of their issues and recordings of poetry readings and lectures. Only recently have blogzines like Nic Sebastian's defunct Whale Sound offered voice recordings.

The Internet is the most cost-effective way to promote anything. The onliners' focus on poems, the readercentric nature of their work, and free access to it combine to raise e-poetry's profile. Compare a webzine's hundreds of hits per week to a slam conducted in front of a few dozen people or a "successful" book that goes out of print after selling a few hundred copies. Show any editor a list of the top online poets and they'll report, often to their own amazement, that many of their favorite contributors are included. As mentioned in Part I, the best selling book of 2011 (excluding educational sales) was authored by a Pixel poet. In short, e-poets are beating Print poets on their own turf. How? Easy. Over and above the sales to alumni, associates, friends and relatives that all poets enjoy, Internetters can sell dozens or even hundreds more to fellow onliners.

Conclusion: Personally, I'd urge ever poetry fan to reach beyond the limits of their community and closer to the Shakespearean model. Not familiar with the Print World? Check out some of the blogs and online newsmagazines, beginning with the Poetry Foundation's "Harriet". Click on their Blogroll links. If you're on Facebook, befriend "Poetry" Senior Editor Don Share; those who have attest that he's always good for an interesting link or two.

New to the Performance World? Drop in at your local open mic to develop your performance skills. Don't be put off if the calibre of presentations is poor...all the less reason for you to feel nervous!

Interested in online poetry? Lurk on Eratosphere (coincidentally, an online workshop created by a print publisher, Able Muse), The Alsop Review - Gazebo, the rough-and-tumble Poetry Free-For-All or the friendly tiers of Poets.org for a year or so to appreciate the critique found in their expert forums. Note how different their conversation forums are from those on the blogosphere.

The future of poetry is its past: audiovisual presentation. Think YouTube here. Practice your delivery in front of a webcam and, as they say, "post it when you nail it". In addition to performances, options include videos and slideshows. Along with some recording equipment, consider purchasing a video editor. Adobe "Flash" is the industry standard but Roxio "Creator" is cheaper and, in my experience, more user friendly (especially in a Windows environment).

Scant seconds may be all that is required to distinguish inhabitants of the three supercommunities from each other. In theory at least, immersion in the pixel, page and stage subcultures can triple our appreciation of this multifaceted art form.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Preservation, Presentation and Promotion - Part II

"Verba volant, scripta manent."

- "Spoken words fly away, written words remain."

The written word, then, usually comes with some assurance that we can return to it later. This, in and of itself, discourages memorization.

The spoken word may be no less a mandala than existence itself but, in a field where participants could synchronize their watches and argue about the time of day, there is an almost unanimous consensus that:

Why, then, do so few poets, professors, MFA and English graduates learn the rudiments of performance?


Impressions: Based on the paucity of crossovers (i.e. well known active members of more than one group), the society of performing poets has to be the most isolated of the three metacommunities. The average age seems to be lower, the gender mix similar to the Print World. The Presentation World certainly takes pride in its "democratic" nature but I'm not convinced that the word "anarchic" wouldn't be more apt. Surprisingly, its aesthetic may be the most narrow, rarely straying far from the stereotypical impassioned rant. As with Print Poetry, whole genres (e.g. elegy, allegory, epic), including the three most popular with audiences (i.e. comedy, romance and third party narrative), are largely ignored.

Overview: Performance poetry is a reserved expression describing "anything goes" stage poetry. It tends to eschew competition but allows props, costumes, music, actions and whatever else the poet deems appropriate. By contrast, slam poetry is a competitive format that permits nothing but words and gestures. The most common live venue is the open mic[rophone], many of which follow a reading from a recently published book.

Perspective: The medium that will likely take center stage in poetry's revival is YouTube (and sites like it). Consider this contrast in mindsets: those from the Print World despair at how difficult it would be to resurrect interest in poetry. Performers marvel at how easy it would be: two or three poetry videos going viral might be all it takes!

For a state-of-the-art view go to YouTube and search for "Poetry". The unfiltered results are unlikely to impress you. Indeed, it confirms the Crap Constant, 98.3%, that we discussed here. There is a wrinkle, though. Just as bad verse is more noticeable than bad free verse, the visual effect makes terrible performance more evident than terrible writing. This leads to the misimpression that all presentation poetry, like all doggerel, is awful. This problem is exacerbated by performed verse, a double-whammy often riddled with clanging rhymed couplets and bone-jarring meter. In that vein, here is some gratuitous advice for new presenters:

  • Poet, look the bastards in the eyes...

    You need to look at your audience, if only to know when you may be losing them. Pick two or three prominent listeners, spaced evenly about the audience, and speak exclusively to them. Make it intimate. Let some hear while others overhear.

  • while not allowing yours to rise.

    When looking away to avoid staring and/or to feign thought peer down and to the side, so that you don't appear to be reading from notes, or turn your entire face upward. Do not roll your eyes upward and to the right; that is a sign that you are trying to recall something you've read or seen. (Upward and to the left means you're performing a calculation rather than a poem.)

  • Imagine patrons in their drawers.

    Unfortunately, for me, this brings up a disturbing mental image:

    I hope this bit of advice works better for you than me. In one variation, we're also supposed to imagine that everyone in the audience owes us money. I'm not sure what that is about. In any case, remember that everyone is there to be entertained; they're pulling for you.

    There is no need to be nervous. Consider practicing on your webcam. Oh, and remember to breathe!

  • Don't read from scripts, from books or scores.

    Teleprompters? Maybe. Reading prose? Sure, but that is the difference between prose and poetry. If your verse isn't memorable to you, it won't be to anyone else (even if your message is). You wouldn't tolerate this level of unprofessionalism from performers in a movie or a play, would you?

  • How much of verse resides in pace,

    Close your eyes and listen to the rate of a performer's words. Notice how uniformity, lack of pauses or undue haste adds an alienating level of artifice.

  • in body and expressive face?

    Study how much a great Shakespearean actor's gestures add to context, clarity and emphasis.

  • Speak at, not to, and none will heed...

    I can't stress this enough: there is no special voice for poetry. Talk to your audience exactly as you would to three buddies in a diner booth.

  • as auctioneers blur words with speed.

    Rookie open-mikers and slammers make the mistake of trying to cram too many words into the allotted time. Pick shorter pieces. Better to leave them wanting more than less.

  • Performers pause for thought, not breath...

    The essence of performing is in the apparently impromptu nature of the speech. Act as if your words never existed before you spoke them. Own them. This cliché is fundamental to all theatre, of which presentation poetry--if not all poetry--is a subset.

  • as monotones bore all to death.

    All too often, slammers scream non-stop, without variation in pitch, pace, tone or volume. This is no more interesting than a reader droning.

Samples: There is no shortage of examples of how not to perform poetry. Here are the two best known recent cringefests, one from each of the Poetry Worlds we've discussed:

  1. Elizabeth Alexander's dismal outing at Obama's inauguration gave us Rule #24: "Poetry's only selling point is that it is cheaper than tear gas."

  2. Not to be outdone, Shane Koyczan's beer commercial ripoff, "We Are More", at the 2010 Olympics demonstrated once and for all the danger inherent in mixing nationalism, "art" and laziness.

It wasn't easy to find examples of well-performed poems. If you can link to a convincing one, please do so in the Comments box below. There are a few at "Poetry Out Loud: Learning Recitation", including:

  1. Allison Strong

    Sonnet CXXX: My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun
    by William Shakespeare

  2. Shawntay A. Henry

    Frederick Douglass
    by Robert E. Hayden

Many of these efforts illustrate how difficult some modern poems are to perform. IMHO, great poems have to be written with performance in mind yet still stand up to review as text. Due to the isolation of the three Poetry Worlds, few contemporary poets have exhibited both talents.

Conclusions: We can blame music for the precipitous drop in poetry's fortunes between 1920 and now. How do we explain the gap between poetry's popularity in anglophone versus other modern cultures, though? The lack of theatre in our prosodies and prosody in our theatre seems the only explanation.

We can and should preserve on video the best performances of our time. Nevertheless, there will always be a you-had-to-be-there presence to them. As such, this critical aspect of the art form has to be reinvented and reiterated by each generation. That this transitory magic cannot be preserved like text is its charm--a strength, not a weakness.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Preservation, Presentation and Promotion - Part I

In addition to the usual spate of anthologies throughout the year, the end of 2011 was marked by foundations, publishers, critics and commentators making lists of top ten books. Missing from all of these is an English language poetry collection that:

  1. outsold any of these books;

  2. received more praise from arms-length critics than all of these books combined;

  3. was written by a poet voted by 133 of the world's toughest critics as the one they'd most want to read;

  4. was written by a poet of whom few, if any, critics or readers had seen a photo, let alone met; and,

  5. contained the closest thing to a serious (i.e. not a nursury rhyme, bawdy limerick or efforts like those mentioned here) iconic poem this century has produced.

So why was this compendium overlooked by all of these listmakers? Was it a deliberate snub? Politics? Discrimination? A conspiracy? A scandal?


It is merely a reflection of the fact that there are three discrete poetry worlds with varying degrees of awareness of the others. Each of these has its own raison d'être, promotional models, media, ethos, aesthetics, prominent figures and institutions. The tome in question was written by a leading denizen from another milieu.

The most obvious upshot of this narrow focus is that, if dramatic poet William Shakespeare were alive today, his work would appear in none of these lists or anthologies. If page poets were even vaguely aware of their counterparts we might see anthologies entitled "Best [insert nationality here] Poetry in Print".


In general, paper outlasts electromagnetic storage which, in turn, survives longer than speech. Each of the three metacommunities derive their identity and Prime Directive from these lifespans. Thus, the Print World's principle role is the preservation of poetry, much as Dark Age Irish scribes protected so much classical literature against the ravages of time, ignorance and outright persecution. Every aspect of this subculture reflects this shared, noble goal. Today, Print Worlders range from vanity authors who want their thoughts and experiences archived to mentors who hope to obtain or retain a job teaching the thing they love to new generations of mentors. Due to the latter and depending on how sympathetic the speaker is, "professional" and "careerist" are terms commonly used to describe this environment.

So why does no one (at all, according to Giles Coren) except, perhaps, one's associates (according to Robert Archambeault), want to read the poetry produced here?

A cynic might answer with another question: "Would anyone want to watch football games played by NFL coaches?"

This isn't far from:

  • "Those who can't do, teach" (Charles Shultz, "Peanuts")

  • "Those who can -- do. Those who can't -- teach."
    H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)

  • "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."

    George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) "Maxims for Revolutionists"

  • "Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym."

    Woody Allen (1977)

  • "Those who know do. Those who understand teach."

    - Aristotle

The last view may be the healthiest and most apt. As long as we're using sports-related analogies a better question might be: "Would anyone want to watch football games played by NFL referees, commentators and statisticians?"

Members of the other two supercommunities will likely never understand the concept or purpose of "art without audience". Nevertheless, the "publish-or-perish" need to create and sustain a CV based on prestigious publication of criticism and poetry serves a literary academic population competing for fewer and fewer positions. Here we observe a behavior that must baffle outsiders: having been published in an esteemed magazine, page poets tend to be less likely to resubmit.

"Once I can include that venue on a resumé why not move on to newer pastures?"

Print publishers face two challenges relating to the poetry they produce:

  1. It is inaccessible.

  2. It is inaccessible.

Debates rage elsewhere about poetry needing to make sense. Remove the audience from the equation, though, and this issue becomes moot.

Physical inaccessibility of today's print poetry would be the greater dilemma if the purpose were to promote the poetry rather than the poet. The chances of two people--even two poetry lovers--having read the same contemporary poem are remote--yes, even if the poem were to appear in "The Atlantic Monthly", "The New Yorker" or "Poetry" magazine. It is largely a matter of cost and inconvenience limiting the creation of icons. We can quote or paraphrase a movie (e.g. "May the force be with you!"), confident of recognition, but not a contemporary novel, let alone a recent poetry book. Even here in the poetry blogosphere we can and will discuss aesthetics, trends and poets but rarely individual poems (unless we bring everyone up to speed by including it, perhaps via a link). Not surprisingly, magazine publishers are branching out with webzine versions.

Notwithstanding the efforts of Helen Vendler and William Loman, criticism in the print world is rarely critical. Jobs are at stake here. Typically, it is blurbing and/or interpretive--"glorified footnoting" in one cynic's view. "From all appearance," said one observer, "its central purpose must be to serve as a lesson guide for teachers, uncovering all the clever [usually literary] allusions and references that can fill up classroom time."

Add up all the factors--the absence of audience and criticism, the professionalism/careerism, the focus on poets rather than poems, etc.--and the Print World's relativistic, laissez faire attitude toward "new prosodies" begins to make sense. Why get involved in definitions and aesthetics when the other person's future may rely on their acceptance? The banana you're trying to take away means much more to the gorilla.

Page Poetry is serious business! How different an enterprise would it be if its purpose were to sell books and magazines?

Next: Presentation Poetry

Monday, January 2, 2012

Numbers - Part II

In "The Jewel-Hinged Jaw", a 1978 essay collection, Samuel R. Delaney said: "...today, there are fifty times six major poets (about three hundred)..." As Mark Halliday did in Robert Archambeau's blog, Delaney is just throwing out numbers, in this case to make a case about the paucity of objective criticism inflating the stats.

In truth, the last half century has produced a grand total of one major poet, defined traditionally and logically as the author of an iconic body of work. We can predict that Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, might be remembered for as long as the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose and Aesop.

Not only have no other major poets appeared since Robert Frost (March 26, 1874 to January 29, 1963), there have been no minor ones either. (Lest you be thinking of Allen Ginsberg, he came onto the scene in the mid-1950s while Frost was still very much alive. Ditto Leonard Cohen.) Indeed, aside from Geisel's nursery rhymes and that limerick about the man from Nantucket, there have been no iconic lines, let alone poems or poets, during this period. Works that have come closest to it in this century won't remind anyone of Shakespeare:

  • "Al Bundy Christmas", from the "Married with Children" Season 4 episode, "It's A Bundyful Life", aired on Fox Network in 1989 to a viewship of millions, many more watching it in syndication.

  • "Lost Generation", a reverser by "metroamv" (aka Jonathan Reed), went viral on Youtube, boasting 15,659,066 hits at the time of this writing.

Of course, you know all this. The "market" has spoken. Still, it adds a humorous perspective of Helen Vendler's numbers: "No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading..."