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

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.

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