Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Monday, 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.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. That was, indeed, gloriously stupid.

    If we were being supremely charitable, I suppose we could presume him to be using "verse" as a rather sloppy synonym for "light verse", which seems his main point of reference throughout. The article becomes slightly more coherent then, though it still doesn't excuse what is apparently his remarkable ignorance of perfectly standard terminology, which can be looked up in the dictionary in about three seconds, removing entirely the need for his specious, floundering misdefinition.

    I don't feel like being charitable, though. The whole article reeks of mendaciousness to me. Normally if a person is making an honest attempt to explain the meanings of particular terms, they will begin by providing basic definitions from a standard, reputable source (such as a dictionary) then attempt to put these in further context in the process of explanation. To go half way through an article which purports to be all about disambiguating two related terms, then essentially make up your own definitions for both, while acting as though no alternatives exist, then failing to use your own definition consistently in any case, is the work of someone who is fully intent on using those words equivocally to confuse the reader. His own narrow and eccentric definition of “verse” isn’t even useful to him, except as a stalking horse for his real purpose, which is why he shows no inclination to stick with it. I suspect that the real purpose for burbling such vacuous intellectual froth is to be found in this sentence:

    “It also matters to the Poetry Foundation and organizations like it, which must make choices and use their finite resources to support some kinds of poetry while not others.”

    This is to say that, since he has provided a satisfactory distinction between “Verse” and “Poetry” (satisfactory, that is, to the supporters and members of the Poetry Foundation, who are far too clueless to know when they are being taken for a ride, as evinced by the comments on the article), it should be obvious to everyone (who is a moron) that “Poetry”, is a far more valuable and precious activity than “Verse”. Therefore, it is evident that Poetry, and not Verse, is the form that deserves our moral support and financial backing. However, we shouldn’t knock poor inferior Verse TOO much, because it does serve the valuable function of engaging with its crude and infantile techniques the attention of those who are not yet capable of understanding true Poetry. Perhaps one day, with sufficient maturity and education, these neophytes will come to appreciate our true depths and (unrhymed, unmetered) subtleties of our Art.

    At this point, a lot of lazy ignorant people who fondly believe they are poets, and that they have a superior understanding of poetry to the foolish, barely literate, verse-loving mass of humanity, pat themselves on their metaphorical backs, secure in the knowledge that all’s right with the Poetry world. And by such means the Status Quo blunders on down the road to nowhere, earnestly gazing at its own navel as it goes, feeling perfectly vindicated in its own boundless self-regard.

  3. Well said, Ragashree. Myself, I don't have a problem with the Poetry Foundation per se. As a Raider fan, it was the Commitment to Failure (i.e. they won't support verse because people like it) that baffled me.

    Thanks for responding, Ragashree!


  4. Well, I don't myself exactly have a "problem" with them, for they have personally done me no harm yet.

    It IS discouraging however, to see people who are supposed to be in the business of promoting poetry (and are presumably being funded and subsidised, with actual money, to do just that) displaying at once that they have little knowledge of poetry itself, and no idea of how to promote it effectively.

    I don't know for sure whether I'm on the right track with the supposition that (to distill my rather verbose analysis into something a bit more pithy) this peculiar, audience-rejecting attitude, along with the insipid, fallacy-riddled non-logic that is used to sustain it, is actually purposeful, not due to random stupidity. I.e. a number of rather foolish individuals who know little about poetry wish to maintain their comfortable positions (heads down insensate in the sand, exposed rears rather absurdly waggling in the passing winds) as part of modern poetry's ostrichy self-declared elite; and articles like this are a way for them to rationalise satisfactorily their desire to do so.

    Perhaps it IS just foolishness and a failure to think things through, but either way the contemporary crisis in poetry's popularity won't be solved by perpetuating the same old errors of judgment as have driven it to dwindle to its present position. The belief that Poetry (the "serious" kind of poetry, of course, whatever that is taken to be) is an art so sophisticated as to be able to appeal only to a tiny and expert "Elite" is one of the most damaging of those errors, because ultimately self-perpetuating.

    I would have thought anyone who truly cared about promoting poetry as an art form would realise THIS, at least, however compromised their aesthetic judgement and knowledge may be. But maybe I expect too much of the self-proclaimed sages of contemporary poetry, they don't seem like a very bright bunch on the whole. Anyway, that's more than enough ranting, I'll be wanting to start a blog myself at this rate, but I think if I want to affect anything I'm better off writing some actual poetry, that someone somewhere might want to read. ;)

  5. D'accord.

    Your comments got me thinking again about two mysteries: Why does someone dedicate their career to something whose elements don't interest them (i.e. "atheist priests), something that they don't care to see re-popularized (i.e. "orphaned poetry").

    Thanks, Rapashree.



Your comments and questions are welcome.