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, May 30, 2012

The Blurbosphere

    "...and other forms of boredom advertised as poetry."

    Contrary to popular belief, the blurbosphere is not a pejorative term for the blogosphere.  Don't get me wrong;  it is pejorative but no more so than calling an earlier generation "old-fashioned" or "slightly technophobic".  Also, it refers to the most visible aspects of careerism, including but in no way limited to the blogosphere.  It is usually a cynic's view of untenured, publish-or-perish academia and the attendant print world.  When I use the term it describes any professional community or mindset where poetry is not judged but showcased, typically on the basis of the writer rather than the written.  In short, it is a place where actual criticism is pointless, if not verboten.

    Normally, I would just "let the circus keep the tent", as the quaint saying goes.  Recently, though, a Facebook friend of mine asked for interpretations of a poem for a critical article she was writing.  This person is someone I like and admire, more so than the expression "Facebook friend" may suggest.  Nevertheless, she is from the blurbosphere, where "criticism" translates to "interpretation", not [technical] "evaluation".  In that topsy-turvy world "criticism" means its opposite:  "praise".  The fact that one bothers to write an interpretation of a poem is, itself, flattering. It's a cozy, compartmentalised world.  Works by poets unknown to both critic and reader are rarely reviewed.  What would be the point?  (Bear this factoid in mind.  There will be a test later.)

    Unfortunately, the poem in question was completely devoid of artistic merit or coherence at any level.  It was authored by a retired professional but if I told you it was produced by a semiliterate teenager using a dictionary as a dartboard you'd have no cause for doubt.  Call me "old-fashioned" or "squirrelly", but I advocate the notion that bad writing doesn't make good poetry.  Feel free to check my arithmetic:

 Bad grammar + sloppy punctuation + Tamarian syntax + tedium ≠ poetry 

    If my friend were a fellow onliner I could be frank with her.  Both of us would have seen each other critiquing work honestly.  She would know to expect candor and that is what she'd get.  Were the poet--not my critic friend but the author of the underlying piece--to have posted this dreck to a serious critical forum he could expect a response similar to this oft-quoted Usenet classic:

    "Please give me one reason why the aforesaid could be
classified as anything other than badly written, unimaginative
and cliché-festooned. This poem, for lack of a more appropriate
term, seems to represent, to me, everything poetry is not about,
that is: vague references to vaguely traumatic personal events
renumerated listlessly as a piece of abstract journalistic
schlock (with random line breaks to disguise it as poetry)
superimposed on a bland moral-aesthetic grid. Superficial in
every way, and lacking any sort [of] effect."

        - Aidan Tynan (2002-07-17, a.a.p.c., re:  "Facade") 

    How do you deal with this in the blurbosphere, though, where real critique is viewed as catty, if not vicious?  For all we know, someone's job could be at stake.  Remember:  the blurbic language has no word for "shit".  So how do you tell your academic friend that the poem she is about to praise/interpret is, in fact,  unprocessed sewage?

    The answer has to lie in why your friend is suffering from such an acute case of amaurosis poetica.    (I told you there would be a test later.)  There is only one possible explanation.

     Ask your buddy this:  "Do you know this poet personally?" 

    That should get the ball rolling. 

    If not, give up;  it's a lost cause.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Brief History of Time Online

     From "Exploding the Groupthink Myth":

     Factoid from Facebook: A group comprised of fewer than 1 in 10,000 living poets has quietly produced, in addition to the bestselling personal poetry collection (not including educational sales), one third of the speakers at the 2012 West Chester convention and all of the last ten¹ Nemerov winners. Who are these poets and what is the source of their mojo? Do they have a secret handshake?

Dennis Hammes (1945-2008)

     If your exposure to e-poetry is limited to a few webzines and the blogosphere you probably think of "online poetry" as...well, poetry that is online:  ditties on Facebook, collections on vanity pages or the blogosphere, or quality works on e-zines (e.g. TheHyperTexts, The Pedestal, etc.) and e-versions of magazines (e.g. Rattle, Poetry, etc.).

     Those who have been part of the online poetry community for more than a few years use the expression to describe someone whose aesthetics were, in whole or in part, developed and/or shared in online workshops.

     If this group were to have a motto it might be:  "Be teachable.  We can work with the clueless but not the clueproof."  More succinct is Scavella's Mantra:  "You aren't as good as you think you are."

     The core difference between the print and pixel mindset is the immutable versus the improvable.  This is reflected in the media themselves.  When a number of critics and advisors pointed out errors in a popular textbook the author did a recall and reprint--an awkward process in a hardcover listed at $95.00!  When we bloggers or e-zine editors make mistakes we thank the reader, make the correction without much cost or bother, and move on.  By definition, onliners invite critique;  criticism of printed work is rare and not always welcome.

Seamus Heaney
     It would be hard to imagine Seamus Heaney as an attendee, as opposed to a facilitator, of a live workshop.  Can you envision Derek Walcott posting his drafts to an online critical forum?  No.  Print poets don't want a reader to see the sausage being made.  They want to continue the Mosaic illusion of words coming straight from some divine source onto stone tablets.  Immutable.

     Other poets of their calibre, some of whom may be familiar to you, do present their works-in-progress for constructive critique.  Theirs is an equally simple motivation:  they believe in improvement of poems and poets.

     The preamble to this article hints at the significance of this tiny community.  We might wonder:  how did it come into being and what else has it contributed to the whole?

Origins of Online Information Exchange:

Michael McNeilley (1947-2001)
    The Finger program, written in 1971 by Les Earnest, facilitated access to university databases.  This later morphed into much more sophisticated search engines like Google or Bing.  It was the first major civilian Internet application. 

    Email protocols, standardized in 1973, added a carbon copy feature soon afterwards.  This paved the way for the discussion list:  roughly, people sending out Round Trip Memos.  After Information Technologists and other scientists, English Departments were the third to employ this new technology and the first to expand Internet use to non-academics:  journalists, novelists and poets.


J. R. Sherman
    Implemented in 1980, Usenet is an online bulletin board service (BBS), divided into "newsgroups".  One of the first of these was rec.arts.poems, joined much later by its echo chamber, alt.arts.poetry.comments.  For 13 years before the World Wide Web a thriving poetry community discussed and analyzed poems online.  Terms describing people and behavior, including "crosspost", "flaming", "kill file", "plonk", "lurk", "postcount", "CABAL" (technically, the group that started Usenet but, more commonly and metaphorically, a term used to aggravate egomaniacal paranoids), "spam", "sockpuppet", and "troll", were popularized on Usenet.  For better or worse, what we now call "chat-speak" began there, highlighting "acronyms" such as  "LMAO", "BTW", "AFAIK", "FWIW", "IIRC" and "IMHO".  Before Usenet, "LOL" meant "Little Old Lady".  Because rec.arts.poems habitues were among the most literate and vociferous Usenetters many, if not most, of these expressions can be attributed directly to them.

     Here is a provocative factoid for you:  had people cared to use the available technology, the rec.arts.poems newsgroup would have been the first venue where all poets in a postliterate society could have been gathered in one location.  If humankind had produced an iconic poem in the half century before Facebook it would probably have happened on Usenet.  It was the only game in town.

     Not counting Dr. Seuss nursery rhymes, would you care to guess the title² of the best known poem among poets in the last three decades? 

Peter John Ross
    If you have learned anything about poetry technique, but especially about scansion, on the Internet there is a good chance that you can credit Peter John Ross, directly or indirectly.  If you are not familiar with this guy you are either not a poet or not a Usenetter.  Author of the satirical "rulez 4 aspiring ~poets~", PJR is a mainframer, linguist, wit, critic and one of the world's leading authorities on matters prosodic.  Unfortunately, along with Gary Gamble, "J.R. Sherman" (aka "The Value Added Savior"), and the late Dennis Hammes, Mr. Ross spent most of his time on unmoderated Usenet forums fighting trolls or TORLLS [sic] (i.e. illiterate trolls).  These reprobates were so odious and numerous that a search engine was developed to track them:  "Kookle". 

     No, really.

World Wide Web:

     The World Wide Web started in 1993 but it wasn't until the mid-to-late 1990s that browsers and public interest developed.  Among the first critical sites was Bela Selendy's "Poetry Free-For-All" or "PFFA", which grew directly out of the need for Usenetters to find a moderated forum, sans trolls.  People who complain about how sharp some of the PFFA critics and moderators can be need do no more than Google "rec.arts.poems" to understand why.  Today, when you see the guidelines of an online workshop you are reading the "don't-crit-the-crit" ethos developed by Usenetters.

Rik Roots
    Along the way we saw the egoless experiment:  two sites where poems and critiques were posted anonymously.  The first of these was "The Lathe", created by English poet and programmer Rik Roots.  On Egoless, poems and critics earned performance ratings.  Among other innovations, the egoless format originated the "thumbs down" and/or "thumbs up" (then called "me too" or "chime") buttons used by social networks and discussion software today.

    What were the lessons we could draw from from the egoless experiment?  Nothing onliners didn't already know, really:
  1.  Selfless, informed critiquers like Hannah Craig and Aidan Tynan are gold;

  2. very few poets are interested in a careful, objective evaluation of their work, even if rendered politely and received anonymously; and,

  3. the social aspect of a workshop is important.
    Today, the egoless format survives in business, scientific and political discourse models.    Among poets, its legacy is in its motto:  "If you don't think your writing is competing against the works of others you're probably right."

Christine Klocek-Lim
    Soon after PFFA came Eratosphere, run by Alex Pepple, and Alsop Review Gazebo, established by the late Jaimes Alsop.  A few years laters we saw the first of two incarnations of the now defunct Poets.org forum, headed by Autumn Sky Poetry head editor Christine Klocek-Lim.  When we speak of the pre-existing World Wide Web community, these are some of the key figures.

     Which of these venues would I recommend to those eager to improve their technique?  Such individuals should join and lurk on all of them, really, but if new to the study of the craft--regardless of how many decades they've been writing or teaching poetry--I'd encourage them to learn the basics before joining in.  Those who know that Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Moriturus" is neither iambic nor free verse should consider Eratosphere.

In Conclusion:

Margaret Ann Griffiths
    The history of online poetry may be obscure to most but it accounts for much of our modern language (mostly tech- and text-speak), a claim that page and stage poets cannot match.  It is a story of struggle against trolls and between aesthetics, often punctuated by brilliant one-liners and rants.  Stay tuned for more on this subject in upcoming posts.

    Let me leave you with one final touchstone.  It doesn't matter if you edit or have been published in a hundred webzines, have run a popular blog for years and have the world's largest poetry newslist.  If you don't know who Margaret Ann Griffiths is you are not an onliner.  Period.  It follows that if you want to understand this community you will find no better starting point.


¹ - Make that 11.  Since we posted this, Gail White won her second consecutive Nemerov.  Congrats, Gail!

² - The ultimate filler-and-killer poem, "Hookers", written by Marco Morales in 1995, is familiar to all rec.arts.poems denizens--that is, to everyone who engaged in any open online poetry discussion at that time.

Missing you again
I embrace shallow graves.
Pale faces, doughlike breasts
help me forget.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Politics of Coincidence

(as seen on Facebook)

      Consider the following bio:
  • His mother was a member of the ethnic majority; his father was of the largest ethnic minority.
  • He attended school abroad, including the U.S. mainland, earning a degree from Harvard University.
  • He excelled in law school and joined the more liberal of the nation's two major parties.
  • He was married only once, currently with two children, both of the same gender, from that union.
  • His campaign began with controversy over radical past associates and his second name (questioning his loyalties). Rather than duck these issues he confronted them head on and put them to rest.
  • A consummate campaigner, speaker and intellect, he was elected his country's leader, largely due to unprecedented levels of participation by excited young voters.
  • In his third year of office he battled terrorists, acting decisively and without regard to niceties.
     Who are we talking about here?

     Well, you're probably thinking about this guy:

Barack Obama
If you guessed Barack Obama you have passed the test with a 50% score so far. However, there is another correct answer, a leader who preceded Obama by a generation. Can you divine his name as well for a perfect 100% score?

This elegy to him may serve as a hint: "Once again he has made us accept something better denied: one more rose on his breast before infinite moments alone, one more snowfall to face. It is just as old Rex eulogized: he has gone to his grace, leaving us so much less of our own."

Once you've made your guess please scroll past this unrelated photo to see the video and annotative notes.

Un Drapeau pour Trudeau

    Once again he has made us
    accept something better
    denied: one more rose
    on his breast before infinite moments
    alone, one more snowfall to face.
    It is just
    as old Rex
    he has gone
    to his grace,
    leaving us
    so much less
    of our own.

Form: Concrete curginic elegy
Meter: Anapestic pentameter
Rhyme: ABAB

L1: In patriating the Constitution, Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves Elliott Trudeau made Canada a nation.
L2: Trudeau's 16 year reign featured many social advancements.
L3-L4: Trudeau's trademark was a red rose in his lapel.
L5: In 1984, Trudeau took a walk in the snow and decided to leave politics. While skiing in November of 1988, his son, Michel, died in an avalanche. It snowed on October 3rd, 2000, the day Pierre Elliott Trudeau was buried.  Winter came early that year.
L6: Before becoming Prime Minister, Trudeau served as Justice Minister. It was he who coined the expression "a just society".
 L7-L13: CBC Commentator Rex Murphy's actual quote was: "He has gone to his grace, and that leaves so much less of ours."


Once again he has made us accept something better denied:
one more rose on his breast before infinite moments alone,
one last snowfall to face. It is just as old Rex eulogized:
he has gone to his grace, leaving us so much less of our own.