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, 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.


  1. Fascinating blog, Earl. I stumbled upon it while trying to understand what it is I like about the poetry I like. One theory (which I'm trying to disprove for obvious reasons) is that perhaps I'm a lazy reader to dislike so much of what I find... and though I'm trying not to too quickly jump on your bandwagon, I'm relieved to find that my dislike is perhaps warranted.

    I've no experience with the poetry "industry" though I don't mind navigating academic texts and digging through theories of poetics, and while I might have once been kind of turned off by the implications of the term "commercial poetry" (see, those prejudices get inlaid in all of us, even without an MFA), I'm finding your opinions good for challenging my assumptions and for sparking my own thoughts on the matter.

    I'm not usually incapable of understanding humor, but in some of your posts, maybe given the ambiguity of the written word, I've had a hard time separating snark from honest opinion and wonder if you'd be willing to do a straight-forward post on contemporary poetry that meets your criterion for greatness (and why). Granted, I've not read all your archives and maybe you've already done just that. If so, please disregard this...

  2. @neighbor:

    "...perhaps I'm a lazy reader to dislike so much of what I find..."

    I agree that this blame-the-victim, steak-without-sizzle attitude is pervasive in some circles. Many simply don't understand that, if the surface isn't attractive no one is going to dive in. This is why I tend to focus on what is missing: technique, humor, drama, narrative, performance, et cetera.

    "I've had a hard time separating snark from honest opinion..."

    Often, snark is my honest opinion.

    "...and wonder if you'd be willing to do a straight-forward post on contemporary poetry that meets your criterion for greatness (and why)."

    "By your command." (Just kidding!) As per your request, I will address that subject soon. First, though, I have two or three other posts in the works, starting with at least one more installment in this series. Stay tuned!

    Thanks for your interest, neighbor.


    Earl Gray

  3. Excellent, I'm really looking forward to it.

    I've been on a sort of poetics/poetry crit binge (surprised me from me out of the blue) and in reading some of your archives I found references to Margaret Griffiths whose poetry I hope to read more of.

    Also, I should've been more clear - it's not that I don't get the snark (which is actually just sarcasm), it was just hard for me to differentiate between true praise/sarcastic praise/criticism (ie., saying one has to slog through penance of 24 Billy Collins vs. approval of his efforts to popularize poetry vs. saying he's an archetype of content regency).

    I think I opened a can of worms in trying to understand my own preferences... oh boy, wish me luck!

  4. @neighbor:

    I'm working on it now. My prologue, explaining why I'm citing so few poems, is so long that this will have to be a series. I hope that's fine with you.

    I understand the problem with discerning tone in text. I know you're only citing Billy Collins as an example but, lest there be confusion on that narrow issue, the man can't write poety but his prose-with-linebreaks comments on rubber hosing poems were spot on and his service as U.S. Poet Laureate was more than laudable. Indeed, I'm coming around to the theory regarding value as a poet and value as a Poet Laureate forming an inverse relationship.

    If you're on a "poetry crit binge" allow me to repeat my stock recommendation that you start by lurking at Eratosphere, the busiest of the four advanced online forums.



Your comments and questions are welcome.