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 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.

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