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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Performers: The Auctioneer

Sean Matthews "People Smoking Out my Window":

Among pixel, page and stage poets, the one that sticks closest to stereotype may be the last, especially the slammer. It is a young (i.e. fewer than 5% that I've seen were over 40) man's (i.e. more than two thirds of those I've encountered were male) world of cliché, platitude wannabes, constant shrieking, narcissism, and self-promotion. It is the mirror image of Tim Murphy: slammers generally make good eye contact and [over]use gesture and facial expression but don't modulate their tempo, tone or volume any more than John Marcus Powell does. Almost without exception, they speak so fast their words blur; combined with their excessive enthusiasm, they seem like overeager salesmen or auctioneers.

Eric Darby's "Scratch & Dent Dreams" from the 2005 National Poetry Slam Individual Semifinals:

Is it poetry? Not by any useful definition. It seems memorable enough for the orator but not for those who count: the attendees. In the slam world, the ultimate compliment a viewer can render is requesting to see the words. Such flattery rarely occurs. Even the national championships don't draw more viewers than participants. In all my research I have never seen a slam offering being presented or quoted by anyone other than the author. Rhetoric with rhyme (if present) could be a more apt description; other aspects of technique are conspicuously absent. The presentations and comments feature passion and message (neither of which vary much from one performance to the next), making most slammers a fatal combination of sentimentalist and Content Regent.

"We Are More" by Shane Koyczan for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics:

On the plus side, it would be impossible to create a composite "perfect poet" without the slammer's assertiveness in public.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Performers: The Cylon

Please take a break to view Tim Murphy's recital at the 2004 National Book Festival. If your computer won't play the video just click on "Launch in a new window" and wait a few seconds.

"Wait a minute," you wonder, "what is this guy doing in this discussion? Tim Murphy is one of the best poetry presenters on the planet! He is that rare poet who has mastered the craft and respects the art form and audience enough to memorize his work."

True, there aren't many presenters in Tim Murphy's class. I'll leave it to you to decide whether this says more about the state of the art than this particular artist, though. In any event, Mr. Murphy exhibits two of the three characteristics of the Cylon poet:

  1. Lack of eye contact.

    Tim's eyes flit back and forth across the room like a Cylon raider or centurion from "Battlestar Galactica". He speaks over the audience, not to it.

  2. Lack of gesture, movement or facial expression.

    Note the complete lack of mobility in Tim's arms as he speaks. In short, Tim recites rather than performs poetry. To his credit, he doesn't look up and to his right, as amateurs do when they're trying to remember their lines.

  3. Monotone.

    Mr. Murphy modulates his tone rather well, although he occasionally hammers on accented syllables--a common error among metrists. This overemphasizes the rhythm just as John Marcus Powell's ham-fisted, random overstressing underscores the lack of it.

    Graft the voice of Tom o' Bedlam onto Tim Murphy, add a smidgeon of computerized echo effect, and you would have the perfect Cylon poet.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Performers: The Tortoise and the Brulber

The Tortoise

A British actor who goes by the pseudonyms "Spoken Verse" and "Tom o' Bedlam" is well known by YouTubers for two reasons:

  1. He successfully fought YouTube to have his slide show rendition of Michael Ondaatje's "The Cinnamon Peeler" reinstated after it was removed because it contained a brief, semi-nude artistic photo.

  2. He swears he records his voice on a Rode Podcaster microphone but it seems more likely that he uses Optical Character Recognition and voice generation software to create the robotic effect of an old Englishman about to fall asleep, dragging all of us down with him.

There is a lot to admire about this man. He seems to have excellent taste in both poetry and hardware. He got YouTube to revise and expedite its policy regarding artistic nudity. He makes some lovely videos, using stanzaic text rather than the more common subtitle approach. He might be the second best known voice in poetry after Garrison Keillor, a thought that may disturb more people than it comforts.

How, then, could anyone this clever be so utterly lost when it comes to poetry presentation? (Mr. Bedlam shies away from the word "performance".) He can't possibly think that this is how humans want to hear anything, can he?

Actually, he addresses this very question in one of his videos. In doing so, he makes a number of insightful observations. Unfortunately, none of them support the point he's trying to make, which is that the solution to poets reading too fast is to read wa-a-a-a-a-a-ay too slowly and without inflection or intonation of any sort. He addresses the stark difference between himself, the omega, and those of the underlying poet, a near-alpha by the name of Tim Murphy:

"In fact, I read this poem as 'ponderously' as I could: more so than I usually would, in fact. I did so to demonstrate and defend a principle, and then to explain why I read the poem this way.

"If you hear most people read poetry, even poets themselves, it tends to go in one ear and out the other. To be understood, any speech has to be delivered slowly and expressively enough for the listener to grasp what is being said, consider it and form mental images, draw differences and inferences. A printed poem can be studied at length but a reading has only one shot at getting through to you: it's the difference between a movie and a novel.

"Shakespearian actors will deliver lines more quickly than they could possibly have occurred to the speaker. It's a common problem, particularly in amateur dramatics, where the cast speed up as the play progresses, delivering their lines instantly on hearing their cues. As Shakespeare himself said, they imitate humanity abominably."

So far, so good, although I could quibble about judging performance on the basis of bad performers. As they say, bad actors pause for breath, good ones pause for thought. Now Mr. Bedlam begins to overreach:

"The poet has a problem - he knows the poem too well. Asking him to read it is like asking the guy who designed something to write the instruction manual. What's obvious to the inventor isn't obvious to everybody else. It's the same trap as asking an artist to explain his own work: the artist is often unaware of what art he has created. The artist shouldn't explain for fear of limiting his genius and perhaps the poet shouldn't read for fear of trivialising his poem."

A quick straw poll: Who would pay a sizeable sum to watch William Shakespeare perform "Sonnet LXXIII"?

Thanks for your participation. You may all put your hands down now.

It is one thing to say that poets are terrible performers. Most are. It is quite another to suggest that their performance has no value, especially in discerning authorial intent.

"You can brood for hours over a written poem, thinking about nuances of meaning and imagery: not so, a poem read aloud. The reading has to bring out what Ezra called the melopoeia, the sound that the poem makes, its rhythm, alliteration, rhyme, assonances, onomatopoeia, etc.

"If this is the only time anybody is going to hear one of Mr. Murphy's poems, then this is his only shot at grabbing their attention and impressing them. And making them want more."

This point is worth highlighting since it is one that many contemporary poets fail to grasp. Our first exposure to a poem should be audiovisual, watching it being performed. Not recited, and certainly not read by or to us. And, yes, a good first impression can, indeed, inspire replay, just as it does with music, but not for any recording by Mr. Bedlam. Once is quite enough, thank you.

"But there's an inherent limitation in reading aloud too: a reading is only one 'take' and can only approach the ideal, it can never quite make the most of a lovely cadence that rings so perfectly in your mind's ears; it can only be one interpretation of what might have many nuances of meaning. Reading is more about the audible qualities of the poem than the sense of the poem: these are often mutually exclusive to some extent. A poem that sounds jaunty can be quite sinister etc."

Surely a key "audible quality" is the vitality, tone and inflection of natural speech, though, all of which are conspicuously absent from Mr. Bedlam's renditions. Now he ventures off the ledge, demonstrating some legerdemain and no small amount of hubris in comparing--favorably, no less--his meager talent with that of Mr. Murphy, sampled here (if your computer won't play the video click on "Launch in a new window" and wait a moment).

"I suggest that you listen to Mr. Murphy reading his own work, and see if you can remember anything he said afterwards. Then compare and contrast my manner of reading."

Mr. Bedlam is inviting comparison between his studio version of Mr. Murphy's best poem and a noisy, live performance of a number of lesser original pieces. (I have always argued that, regardless of material, performer or author, more than one poem at a time risks an overdose.) One could hardly imagine a sober, sane individual outside of his immediate family preferring Mr. Bedlam's tortoise nervosa version of any poem to the same one delivered by Tim Murphy.

As we saw with John Marcus Powell, Mr. Bedlam makes the error of confusing the part with the whole; performance involves much more than clarity of enunciation. As for it being memorable, is it memorably good, like sex and William Shakespeare, or memorably bad, like root canals and William McGonagall? Personally, I rarely remember things that lull me to sleep. I'm funny that way.

The Brulber

Like all too many others in the poetry world, Mr. Bedlam adopts an ostrich approach when faced with criticism. He has set his YouTube posts to not allow thumbs up or down, no doubt because of a preponderance of the latter. He deletes any comments that aren't flattering. This Convenient Poetics activism is rampant among careerists. It's like blurbing in reverse. We need to coin a new term for this turtle shell stance: "to brulb".

In light of his rationalizations and brulbing, prospects for Mr. Bedlam improving are bleak, at best.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Performers: The Librarian

Here's a tip: If voice is the best thing a blurber can say about a poet, run like a scalded dog. Chances are, the blurber is actually talking about the poet's style as opposed to the persona's idiolect. If so, the tout is saying the poet is different as opposed to good.

A collection by "poet/performer" John Marcus Powell was recently published on TheHyperTexts. As a general rule, I don't write reviews but, to speed discussion along, here are my impressions of what I read:

Every option or reference, no matter how trivial or tangential, is pursued in parentheses, em dashes or obliques as if by a paranoid pedant. At every point the audience expects to hear "But I digress..." That moment of self-awareness never arrives. Each "poem" is a tedious argument of insidious intent, spread out like yellow fog, causing those who have come to go, lest they be etherized. Modifiers are chosen at random and rendered shotgun style for "poetic effect". While witty in places, the writing is utterly devoid of technique, rhythm, sonics or coherence.

In short, it's typical open mic fare. Too precious for slam. Defended only by loyal associates of the author, who assure us that Mr. Powell is a bright, gregarious fellow, one gets the sense that some people feel poetry is defined as whatever their friends write. All of this being the case, Mr. Powell doesn't warrant this or any other kind of attention. So why do I mention him?

Mr. Powell is described as a struggling actor and poetry performer. His supporters assure us that if we were to hear his work delivered in his voice we'd enjoy it and, more specifically, we'd hear the rhythm that is missing from the page. I've seen this movie before. We check out the audio, only to find it even less rhythmic than the page, or we witness it being delivered in an affected manner to effect a cadence. Occasionally we hear both, as here:

176 views at the time of this writing. Two "likes". A more self-conscious performance would be hard to imagine. Mr. Powell overenunciates in his readings. The exaggerated articulation suggests that he feels his words are memorable, a notion contradicted by the fact that he himself doesn't bother to memorize them. He stresses words at random, apparently astonished by desultory events in his own narrative, often punctuated by him looking up to see if his audience is similarly surprised.

"I was sitting at my table...having LUNCH!"

Gee, what an odd thing to do at a table!

I knew I'd seen this kind of reading before but it took me hours of scouring my memory banks to bring to mind the source. Finally, it occurred to me: this is almost identical to Billy Van's comedy skits as The Librarian on "The Hilarious House of Frightenstein", an old children's show we might find in reruns on the Space channel. We half-expect Mr. Powell to look up and ask "Are your frightened?" Were he to do so, that alienating device would be the only technique found in his writing or performance.

Rhythmic? Hardly. If anything, this weird syncopation is less so than a natural reading would be. The stresses occur with the same patterned regularity and predictability as bingo numbers do. Nevertheless, Mr. Powell's shills insist that he is a better performer than most poets.

What is truly frightening is that they may be right.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Kudos Again to Contemporary Poetry Review

If you have not already done so, please take a moment to read "Short Cuts: Roy Nicosia on a Post-Dementia Poet" on Contemporary Poetry Review. We see the critic make a number of excellent points.

  • "Forty years ago, Randall Jarrell sadly proclaimed that the gods who had taken away the poet’s readers had replaced them with students. These days, the students have disappeared as well, and been replaced by prizes."

  • "Some might call this exciting or interesting, the pure play of language, but once you’ve watched every poem in the book metastasize after a few lines into an absurdist doodle, it’s no more interesting than wading though your computer’s spam filter."

  • "Beyond here, the reader cannot go: parody becomes impossible in the midst of such self-parody."

  • "The problem with banality is that it’s merely the pleasant face of hardened indifference. To have an audience, you must care about a reader: that statistical non-entity who must purchase your book, read your poems, and be moved enough to remember or even memorize a line or two. So much contemporary poetry seems written for the void, for no one at all— like spam email, it is merely sent out by publishers conditioned to shrug at the public’s indifference."

That's almost the whole article! Brilliant!

Mr. Nicosia cites Ms. Hughey's “What Bird” to make a point:

Bulbs, gravel, driveway.

I had hyacinth on my mouth.

The city, without thinking,

will arrive with photographs.

Or it could, even in winter,

Tap at the glass, at the birdbath,

to be asked to speak.

When I first read this piece I said to myself: "That ain't poetry, it's homework."

Roy Nicosia goes on to argue that this effort is typical not only of Ms. Hughey’s work but of contemporary print world poetry in general. The poem is an assignment and we're supposed to go home and decipher it.

It would seem, then, that Roy and I are in agreement on this point. We are, but my initial reaction was that it was a finished homework assignment. That day's class had to have been on the subject of assonance and Elizabeth Hughey returned with an effort which illustrates that technique and nothing else: not rhythm, not finely wrought metaphors (as Roy points out), not even other aspects of sound (e.g. consonance, alliteration, etc.).

I'd have given it an "A+".

Saturday, February 18, 2012

20 Minutes that Can Change a Poet's Life

"I always joke with my students that, if poetry was as hard as you think it is, poets wouldn’t do it because poets are among the stupidest and laziest people I know."

- Christian Bök in "The Cage Match of Canadian Poetry"

Let's revisit an old theme with a tiny test, shall we?

1. T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is:

  • Free verse.
  • Metrical.
  • Someone told me it was free verse but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • Someone told me it was metrical but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • Other/unknown.

2. William Blake's "Tyger, Tyger" is:

  • Trochaic tetrameter.
  • Iambic tetrameter.
  • Someone told me it was trochaic tetrameter but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • Someone told me it was iambic tetrameter but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • Other/unknown.

3. Elizabeth Bishop's "Sonnet (1979)" is:

  • Free verse.
  • Accentual meter.
  • Accentual-syllabic meter.
  • I've been told it's free verse but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • I've been told it's accentual meter but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • I've been told it's accentual-syllabic meter but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • Other/unknown.

If you got these three simple questions right on your own then, unlike more than 70% of PhD holders, more than 80% of MFA graduates and almost 97% of total poets (with or without degrees) tested, you understand the rudiments of scansion. You can probably recognize meter within three lines, know why some poets' popularity rises or falls in inverse relation to the public's ear for scansion, and prefer root canals to most poetry readings. You don't need to be told the distinction between verse and free verse or between free verse and prose poetry; your refined ear detects the difference immediately. Nor do you need to be told whether or not free verse poems are written by someone who understands verse; that, too, is usually obvious. You likely find the PoBiz, the blogosphere, and Content Regents unbearable. You couldn't write as badly as Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Carol Ann Duffy if your life depended on it.

"Why," a neophyte might ask, "should I learn about scansion? I write free verse!"

No, you don't. In fact, you'll win two lotteries before you write your first free verse poem. A "poet" with no grasp of meter is like a doctor who doesn't know what blood is.

"But I'm a dermatologist!"

Not mine, certainly.

If you are among the vast majority of poets who didn't ace this test or aren't entirely sure about the answers I have some wonderful news for you. There is a site where, 20 minutes from now, you will comprehend scansion better than the authors of at least two well known technical manuals and better than some famous poets, including Edgar Allan Poe. Here's the kicker: this lesson can be encapsulated in a grand total of eight words--five, if you don't mind an acronym! (The rest of the treatise involves supporting examples, jargon and explanations.)

I have one caveat, though: do not try the tests at the end yet. Practice your skills for a year or so before attempting the easier quiz, a decade or so before the tougher one.

The site is called "How to Scan a Poem".

P.S.: The correct answer to all three questions was the second one.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Dumbest Things Poets Do - Part I

Put freedom to a vote.
Just let the people choose
and in the end you'll note
that it will always lose.

Ever wonder how I got all these gray hairs? Would you believe that I started life as a red squirrel? This graying is from worrying that my focus on the inane things that some poets say might cause us to overlook the idiotic things that some poets do. We've all heard of versers accosting shoppers outside mall entrances. In "The artist vandalising advertising with poetry" we read of a more egregious example.

"Scottish artist Robert Montgomery goes about at night illegally plastering over advertisements with posters covered in his poetry."

Just as "stupid is as stupid does", imbecilic actions are often supported by imbecilic people. Arguments about illegality will make no impression on the incorrigibly moronic. They'll blather on about "speaking truth to power", "occupying", "sticking it to the man", blah, blah, blah. They present it as a political statement. Needless to say, crosscultural references to Chileans on the right and left plastering over each others' signage until the posts fall down will be a waste of breath. This is the Ido Effect: Part of being a dumbass is not knowing you're a dumbass.

They argue about freedom of expression, unaware that this is, while simple enough for a squirrel to grok, a concept as far beyond their comprehension as Alpha Centauri is beyond their doorsteps. Who wants to try to explain to them that, in covering the ads, Mr. Montgomery is curtailing the free speech of the person who bought and paid for that space? Surely they wouldn't object if, tit-for-tat, the billboard owner were to cover their front windows with ads, would they? They wouldn't complain if someone sent them a computer virus that replaces whatever they post online with "news" of an Erectile Dysfunction cure, would they?

In their perfect world semiliterate wannabes like Mr. Montgomery would have the final word on who gets to say what and where, irrespective of who rented the space or owns the property. If only someone had invented a medium where everyone could post whatever "very pleasing verse" they choose without affecting the rights of those whose speech they find unpalatable.

Oh, wait...

Directions - Part III: Criticism

"A poem about daffodils! I love daffodils! Great poem!"

When German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated the likely site of Troy in 1868 he dug down until he found the appropriate level and then branched outwards to explore the city. Is this process vertical, horizontal or the safe answer, both?

It is vertical only in the same sense as you reaching for a book on a lower or higher shelf. Only after you've found what you are seeking does the real work begin. In the case of Schliemann's dig, such work would involve few, if any, modern tools; even a shovel could damage a valuable artifact.

It's horizontal.

It is logical that scholarly criticism of canonical works and anthologies should be horizontal, branching out to investigate influences and where a piece or collection belongs in literature's pantheon and lineage. In trying to understand and describe the milieu of a certain era we need to adopt a mindset consistent with it.

Obviously, the critique of drafts is vertical, as we try to build a higher quality poem. Where does book reviewing stand, though?

Most scholarly reviewers today treat recent titles as they do the classics, tracing references and providing interpretations. This makes sense when tracking the influences of a masterpiece that has stood the test of time. When misapplied to a contemporary piece it is about a century premature. Even if their prediction turns out to be prescient, potential readers today want to know if the book will appeal to them, not their descendants.

The other half of the equation is interpretation. If correct, it serves as a footnote, although one could wonder what this has to do with quality. Are poems about daffodils, literally or figuratively, inherently superior to those about petunias? As for "depth" and ambiguity, are open-ended poem like "The Red Wheelbarrow" better than direct ones such as "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"? Of course not.

One of the unfortunate effects of this reviewer-as-interpreter role is that straightforward poems probably won't be reviewed at all. Unaccustomed to the vertical approach of critiquers, the scholarship-style critic has little to add to the conversation when interpretation isn't required. At the same time, many "constructive" critiquers may be disinclined to write reviews because it's like closing the barn door after the horse is gone. "Academic" reviews come centuries too early, critiques come months too late.

The more vague/multi-faceted pieces are like the little black dress of poetry, suitable for any application. Why, then, should we give authority to any one interpretation? Why would a gardener care how a plumber, tailor or MFA graduate understands something before the gardener reads it? Aside from being presumptuous, it's like presenting the answers and then the crossword puzzle. Cart. Horse. Spoiler. A reader might say: "I don't need you to interpret this for me. Not yet, at least." In cases where authorial intent matters it would be up to that author to make things clear. Thus, we have a lose-lose situation: if the interpretation is wrong it is open to ridicule; if correct it is insulting to both writer and reader.

Aside from "terms and times" footnoting designed to bring people up to speed with jargon and conditions understood by the target audience, there isn't much room for interpretation and allusion in reviews. This explains why they are largely absent from movie and prose reviews, even of films and novels that are as subtle and profound as verse. To decide whether or not they want to partake, consumers need a brief synopsis (in case they like only material about daffodils) and an analysis of the quality of writing. What, if anything, is wrong with this work? Reviewing is critique, employing every tool in the box.

It's vertical.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Eleventh Dumbest Thing Poets Say

"...the best way to find out about poetry is to read the poems."

I can never rest. I take a day off, only to return and find this statement by Louis Zukofsky in "A Statement for Poetry". Were people to give this a nanosecond's thought they would agree that, of the options, reading poetry is easily the worst way to be exposed to poems, just as it would be the worst way to be introduced to film or theatre. Aren't these are the same sources who emphasize poetry's oral tradition and the importance of sounds?

It would be a challenge to visualize conditions on the home planet of anyone who believes that text is the proper medium for being exposed to poetry. The inhabitants would have to be deaf, which would preclude the development of spoken language altogether. Meter would quantify the number of characters or words in a line since syllables and beats would be foreign concepts. Naturally, sight rhymes would be the only kind found.

Imagine if no one had ever recorded a song by the Beatles, including John, Paul, George and Ringo themselves. How well would their lyric and music sheets be received? Can you name a single well known composer today whose work was never recorded by anyone? Who survives only through live performance? What kind of venues would bother to book such an unheralded act?

These questions are important because they illustrate two key points:

  1. Poetry is meant to be performed before being published in print.

    Have we learned nothing from the mistake of teaching Shakespeare's plays from scripts before or instead of watching a performance?

  2. Touring and sheet music sales were exactly how music was distributed before radio.

    Have we learned bupkes from music's challenges before radio and its subsequent success at poetry's expense?

So why do these people repeat this nonsense about an art form that predates writing by eons?

  • Publishers: Some may argue that the book producers' profit motive dictates that they protect and promote their turf. What profits, though? The irony here is that the profit motive may the solution, not the problem.

    Consider the relative success of "poetry" books written by celebrities ranging from Suzanne Somers and Jewel Kilcher to ex-President Jimmy Carter. Celebrity sells, right? Not so fast. Poetry collections by sports figures, dancers or graphic artists are ignored. This is what these publishers miss: it isn't celebrity that sells poetry, as it does cars, running shoes or deodorant; it is the public performance of words.

    There is nothing new in this. Since the advent of the printing press publishers have refused to put their own resources behind poets who couldn't sing for their supper or inspire others to do so.

  • Rationalization: My very life depends on my olfactory organs' ability to detect predators and peanuts at a distance. I smell Convenient Poetics here. What do you want to wager that those trying to promote written versus performed poetry are, themselves, horrible public readers? $10,000?

    Remember the scene from "Sex and the City" where Carrie Bradshaw asks Mr. Bigg "Have you ever been in love?" I'd bet my tail that these poets have never seen a brilliant performance of fine contemporary poetry. Like the one my sister, Pearl, described here, for example. If they had, the experience would spoil them, making poetry readings themselves even more excruciating and obviating any serious discussion of print verse instead of performance.

  • Aesthetics: Some don't seem to understand that reading forgettable words is the definition of prose. Quoting and retaining unforgettable words is the definition of poetry. Of course, it may be that they comprehend this distinction all too well but are armed with nothing more than a talent for prose and an errant ENTER key.

    As I've said before, we can't know where the stupidity ends and the disingenuity begins.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Directions - Part II: Architecture

As Lenny Bruce taught us in "Thank You, Masked Man", some actions create and solve a problem simultaneously and continuously. As we build skyscrapers we create vacancies, encouraging urban drift. New arrivals start families which, in turn, leads to skyscrapers expanding goemetrically in size and number. If our purpose is to build a larger community this "build-it-and-they-will-come", "big tent", "upwards, ever upwards" dynamic is key.

With a site and Foundation in place, we need four more things for this project:

  1. Vision:

    What talent we have has hitherto constructed only single dwellings, often created by and for no one other than the builder. At least some of these creators will have to cease their navel bombardment of self-interest to fashion rooms/stanzas for strangers. They will need to break out of the strict, stultifying cells--prison and corporeal--of self-absorption that restrict their scope and passions.

  2. Artisans:

    Skills will have to be upgraded and either orchestrated or diversified. Without effective guilds, which would be less likely in a civilization still living in row houses, the plumber may have to help with the wiring, painting, landscaping and even promotional efforts.

  3. Material:

    Mud bricks won't stand up under the strain so new materials will have to be developed and tested. The latter could be a challenging concept for this group.

  4. Occupants:

    Potential tenants have to be shown--not told but shown--the advantages of apartment living.

Motivation shouldn't be a problem. These edifices will be erected for the same reasons Shakespeare "built" (in the sense that Yankee Stadium was "the house that Babe Ruth built", at least) the Globe and Blackfriars theatres: survival and prosperity. (The bulk of Shakespeare's wealth came only indirectly from his plays; it was theatre ownership that made him rich.)

Designing for those beyond our immediate community is revolutionary even if archeological digs reveal that previous societies beat us to the punch by centuries. Our dictionaries may downplay to quaternary importance the fact that revolution is circular but, with luck, our historians and architects won't.

Coming soon - Part III: Criticism

Directions - Part I: Up Versus Out

"Make it new." - Ezra Pound

Before the age of skyscrapers, settlements grew into cities by expanding outwards until they ran out of room, then inwards, crowding buildings and people closer together. Modern cities grow upwards and sometimes, where the ground permits it, downwards.

This trend is universal. For example, crude predators like cats look for new ground to despoil while we more sophisticated squirrels expand our population upwards into trees.

In the search for new things to say a writer stretches our borders laterally, bucking against the "nothing new under the sun" brick wall.

It's horizontal.

Even if the author succeeds, someone else could come along and produce a superior work on the same theme. We don't remember the first, we remember the best. Expressed in clichés, then, the search for excellence is a "rise for the prize" as we "stand on the shoulders of giants".

It's vertical.

Barring a few obscurities, poetry added new forms until free verse, which had been around for more than half a century, established itself in the 1920s and 1930s. Having expanded as far out as it could, poetry moved inward thematically, as with confessionalism, and structurally, with a marked reduction in the variety of forms used. As universities crank out so many new poets things are getting crowded. It's time to move upwards.

Thanks to YouTube, we have the site. We even have a Foundation. Now we need to develop a new architecture.

Next: Directions - Part II: Architecture.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Tenth Dumbest Thing Poets Say

I need to correct a gross oversight, an idiocy conspicuously absent from my list of "The Nine Dumbest Things Poets Say". In my own defense, I did predict such omissions and, frankly, it's impossible to keep up with all the stupid things that poets utter.

"Poetry teachers, editors, judges and critics should be free of any aesthetic understandings."

The speaker isn't referring to a narrow perspective of poetry, as in Frost's "tennis without a net" view of free verse. No, this isn't about form, style or genre. The statement is that judges, editors, critics and teachers should have or, at least, exhibit no pre-existing understanding of poetry whatsoever. They cannot apply even the most quantifiable technical criteria, lest they discriminate against "new" (read: pre-prosodic) schools that reject all of these "antiquated ideas". In the words of someone who should know better, poetry is best evaluated by someone "who is not bound by what she or he thinks poetry is supposed to resemble."

What is this? The Schrödinger's Cat Theory of Criticism?

Slams are, indeed, often judged by innocent bystanders who harbor no expertise or interest in poetry. Is that the model being championed here?

Let's leave aside the impossibility of finding anyone with no predispositions regarding the many "forms of boredom advertised as poetry". We'll overlook the paradoxical requirement that poetry teachers not seem to know anything about poetry's components; that one is too convoluted for my tiny squirrel brain to grok. The fact is that even the most rudimentary knowledge of technique is, itself, an aesthetic. What is the purpose of learning what an iamb is if there is no implication that such cadences help make poems more effective?

Once you remove all of the crowd-pleasing but "prejudicial" techniques that have been handed down to us through the eons what criteria remain?

If everything is poetry, nothing is.

What if this anti-aestheticism were to become widely accepted? My fear is that mealy-mouthed relativism would prevail; poetry would be assessed according to substance with no regard to rhythm, sonics or performance; criticism would be reduced to annotation and blurbing; coherence, grammar and punctuation would be sold as aesthetic issues; and, prose writers could narrow their margins and win poetry awards.

Oh, wait...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pearl Gray Speaking

While he recovers from the excitement of Superbowl XLVI, my brother Earl has asked me to fill in here. An odd request, me not being a poet. I'm not sure what to discuss.

Hey, ever ask yourself why people don't like today's poetry? They still attend Shakespeare's plays. They buzzed about those poems on "Four Weddings and a Funeral". They adore Loreena McKennitt's song versions of "Lady of Shallott" and "The Highwayman". They like the old stuff and they are delighted when it's performed well. Still, I doubt there are many alive who would rather go to a poetry recital than a concert.

Earl used to drag me to readings. My body weight doubled before we discovered the cause: I was so bored by those droners that my metabolism had been permanently lowered.

My brother mentioned in "Poetry in 2032 - Part III: Integration" that poetry needs "one breakthrough performance". He and I have attended exactly that many, and count ourselves fortunate.

Here's the tale: Earl's favorite poet happened to be making a very rare public appearance on Earl's birthday. It was part of a local theatre festival. Earl hadn't heard about this, though, so I had to run out early each morning to hide the newspapers. I also had to gnaw through his monitor cable to prevent him from reading about it online. His friends and our family were in on the secret so no one spilled the beans.

For me, it was a win-win situation. If it was good I'd actually enjoy myself. If awful, it would be a fitting revenge for all the snorefests he'd put me through.

After his birthday dinner of roasted chestnuts, unroasted peanuts and pecan pie for dessert the two of us scampered down to the old theatre house in the center of town. They don't sell tickets to squirrels so we had to squeeze through a hole in the basement. A rafter above the audience served as the best seats in the house.

We hadn't passed the marquee at the front of the theatre. The poet came onstage without introduction and began. Earl had never seen a picture of her so it wasn't until the second piece that he clued in to who it was. Earl gasped when he caught on. Then he started identifying the form and meter for me as he recognized them. (That's Earl for you.)

I have never seen the likes of this effort, before or since. It was a series of stories, many of them outrageously funny. Not that droll "aren't-I-clever?" humor you normally get at readings where the poet actually looks up to see if everyone got it. I mean pissed pants funny. The transitions between introduction and verse were so seamless and the language was so natural that if you didn't have a good ear for meter the entire performance would seem like one fascinating conversation.

The finale ripped the breath out of our lungs. Lighting was reduced to what came from projections on the walls: pictures like the one seen here. This sonnet was the story of Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the child burned during the napalm bombing of her village, Trang Bang. At one point the poet ran in short, hopping steps down the aisle, screaming "Nóng quá, nóng quá - too hot, too hot" and begging for help. Everyone was immobile. They weren't in their seats. They were in Trang Bang and the sky was on fire.

I won't forget that final couplet:

"A ghostly soldier looked at me and then
away. He crossed himself and fired again."

The poet continued on out the front entrance and was gone. No encore, no bouquet, no farewell bow.

"This," Earl pronounced, "was the greatest birthday gift ever. Better than any concert."

I should have stopped there but who can resist pushing Earl's buttons? Certainly not his sister.

"What about the bait-and-switch, though?" I asked. "Bringing 'em in with the promise of theatre--in a festival, no less--and then ambushing 'em with poetry?"

After what we'd just witnessed, that night would have been a poor time to argue with Earl's riposte:

"Pearl," he intoned, "poetry is theatre."

Friday, February 3, 2012

Poetry in 2032 - Part III: Integration

"Always take known luck over purported skill."

- William Treble

Poetry needs to get lucky.

It is caught in a chicken-and-egg Catch-22: it needs one--not a hundred, not a thousand, but one--breakthrough presentation to convince those who write, those who perform and those who support it to coordinate in creating such a presentation in the first place. Put bluntly, we need a second Shakespeare who, in turn and like the previous one, will require actors and backers.

Sounds simple, no? It might be if it weren't for a fundamental assumption that pervades every phrase of every argument, from the "those-are-our-choices!?" Hill-Duffy and Vendler-Dove controversies to the neverending "accessibility" debate. It is both endemic and pandemic, cancerous and carcinogenic. It is a mindset too universal to merit or require expression. It is the dumbest thing never said by poets. It is not the elephant in the room but the steaming pile behind it. I speak of the self-fulfilling prophecy that poetry cannot appeal to both academia and the public, to balcony and pits.

It is as if the first Shakespeare didn't exist, let alone a second.

The Past:

The relationships between the three poetry worlds, page, pixel and stage, have ranged from benign neglect to outright hostility.

The print community has largely ignored stage poetry but has been "all over the lot" in its treatment of onliners. Take the two major American organizations, for example. The Academy of American Poets (AAP) is forward-thinking, to the point of sponsoring one of the four major Internet workshops, the "Poets.org Discussion Forums". By contrast, The Poetry Foundation's and "Poetry" magazine's treatment of the pre-existing internet community has been marked by many lows:

  • Allowing trolls to force "Harriet" to go from a blog (i.e. open to discussion) to a webzine rather than seek or accept advice from web administrators and staff with decades of experience in dealing with cyber-sociopaths in general, including most of those in question.

  • Being the only major publisher to declare: "Work that has appeared online is considered to have been previously published and should not be submitted." This included any draft that appears in an online workshop "unless it is exceptional". Cynics may wonder what other kind of poems they publish.

  • Refusing to acknowledge the passing of one of the greatest and most beloved online poets, critics and editors of our time.

  • Banning an online community official from submitting to "Poetry" magazine for echoing advice given by one of its favorite contributors.

That last one is so bizarre that I had to check my facts and wording. How did Internauts react to all of this? By shrugging and walking away from the PoBiz in general and the Foundation in particular. Both subjects have been conspicuously rare in online fora.

This does not bode well for the prospects of any Lilly grant funds going toward popularizing poetry in the near future. As the parable about the miller's son demonstrated, it is facile to criticize an organization that endeavors "to keep free from entangling alliances with any single class or school" in order "to print the best English verse" "regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written." The Poetry Foundation, with its size and please-everyone support for everything poets claim as an aesthetic, will undoubtedly be among the last to join any communal effort. An army moves slower than a soldier.

The Present:

In addition to the AAP there are progressive e-zine editors like John Amen of "The Pedestal" and print editors such as Tim Green of "Rattle" who can lead the way. Indeed, "The Pedestal" has a "Spoken Word/Slam" video section. True, the examples confirm every stereotype we have of performers: in addition to the lack of subtlety and technique in the material there is considerable "who-talks-like-that?" artifice in the delivery. Nevertheless, one community featuring another is a step in the right direction.

There are a few aesthetic issues to settle. YouTube has plenty of classic poems being performed brilliantly. None has caught fire. Similarly, the Poetry Out Loud project serves up examples of good performance but the poem choices are arbitrary and not designed for a wide contemporary audience. Here, the "artifice" is in the language, which might appear dated or overly "poetic" to non-poets today. Whatever video goes viral, it will almost certainly be something timely, in today's language and addressing today's sensibilities.

"Where does money enter the picture?" you ask? Attracting initial attention on YouTube requires paying them in order to feature the video. It may take a few tries before something catches on. Production values and test marketing wouldn't hurt the cause.

Understanding that popular poetry doesn't equate to bad poetry is not the only attitude that will need to change.

Ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw someone, acting on his or her own initiative (as opposed to the NEA's and the Poetry Foundation's laudable Poetry Out Loud initiative), choose and perform a poem by another living poet? It's illegal at slams but why is it so rare at open mics, on YouTube and elsewhere? It doesn't seem likely to me that many authors would refuse permission.

How can poets--not publishers or blurbers but individual poets other than the author--expect the public to take great contemporary poems to heart when they, themselves, do not?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Poetry in 2032 - Part II: Criticism

"Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the
Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo." - Don Marquis

"It is impossible to predict the future."

Actually, it is child's play if we understand where we are and where we've been. It is arithmetic that even I can understand: on a straight line track a train that was 100 miles east of us an hour ago and is here now will be 100 miles west of us in another hour. Human nature being what it is, few things surprise historians.

The Present:

Cynics may view "Carol Ann Duffy is 'wrong' about poetry, says Geoffrey Hill" as a schoolyard tiff between a Christian Bök wannabe and Edgar Guest's lovechild, while wondering why anyone would wannabe Christian Bök. If we ignore the article itself, though, and focus on the comments we see a visceral disdain for criticism. If we look at similar responses to the contributions of other critics (e.g. Marjorie Perloff, William Logan and, especially, Anis Shivani), contrasted to the reception that greets blurbers, we see how the print world feels about negative reviews. These are often regarded as attacks on the author or the art form itself, leading to questions about the critic's credentials or motives. Contrast this to the online community in general, online workshoppers in particular, and you see two starkly opposite attitudes: the print world actively discourages critique while internauts actively encourage it.

Live poetry stands somewhere between these extremes. At slams, only polite applause is permitted from audience members, similar to the blurbs-only ethos of the print world, but performances are judged, similar to the online experience. Even though open mics allow clapping only, one would have to be deaf to not notice the difference between polite and enthusiastic applause.

Open online platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube are and will continue to be the proving ground for all audiovisual art, including poetry. In their default modes, these are much closer to the workshop experience than the print medium. Viewers can vote thumbs up or down and leave comments. Granted, the original poster can delete critical remarks but people who commented earlier will receive notice, if not the content, of these. This is much closer to the onliners' approach than that of the print or stage media.

The Past:

If you think the offerings of Hill, Perloff, Logan and Shivani are harsh, consider how writers and performers were treated when poetry's fortunes were peaking (or should I say piquing?). Literary criticism was bloodsport! Shakespeare, the consensus choice as the greatest poet of all time, worked in a milieu where unsatisfied attendees threw things at those onstage.

The Future:

Clearly, environments where a poet is exposed to the honest, undisguised reactions of audience members produce better work.

By any measure, the poetry of 2032 will be better than what we've seen in the last half century. As the print medium winds down and its publishers and organizations migrate to the Internet they bring considerable gravitas and resources. The pre-existing online community adds its expertise and a workable, candid critical ethos. Performers bring it all to life. In the coming years we can watch these three communities cross-pollinate, if only to acknowledge whatever successes they enjoy.

Will this melange translate to greater popularity, though?

Over time, yes.

It is a positive causal spiral, fueled largely by something as unsophisticated as the comments box you see below. Greater appreciation of the audience and its participation improves the product, product improvement increases audience appreciation and participation. Around and around we go.