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

Monday, September 17, 2012

Apples and Orange Juice

Willard Spiegelman
     The story begins innocently enough.  Southern Methodist University English Professor and Southwest Review editor in chief Willard Spiegelman published a fluff piece, "Has Poetry Changed? The View From the Editor's Desk", in Virginia Quarterly Review.

      Naturally, it contained nothing of note except for a peculiar view of this medium.  Under the subheading "The State of American Poetry" Mr. Spiegelman wrote:

One earnest woman raised her hand. "Don’t you think that the Internet is a wonderful thing, because it allows more voices to be heard?" she asked hopefully.

"Not at all," I shot back. First of all, there are too many voices. Dr. Johnson complained more than two centuries ago that more people were writing than reading. And, besides, I retorted, "How much time do you spend reading the work of other poets you find on websites, rather than reading your own postings there?" She sat down, saddened and abashed. I did not mean to offend, but rather to make some obvious points.

     I would encourage Mr. Spiegelman to compare the sales of VQR to the hit counts on a popular webzine.  Even accounting for looky loos and repeaters, common sense dictates that the economy and convenience of online writing leads to greater readership.  I invite you to put this to the test:  send emails to half your friends encouraging them to buy a magazine in order to read an article.  Provide an online link to the other half.  See who bothers to read the underlying piece.  Thus, the dilemma of insufficient numbers of readers is far more acute in the print rather than the pixel media.  In short, that "earnest woman" was correct.

     The treatise rambles on anecdotally without ever touching on its theme:  changes in published poetry.  End of non-event, right?

     Not quite.

William Childress

     Enter William Childress with "Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?"

     If you've been reading this blog for a while your problems begin with the first word in the title.  "Is...Killing Poetry"?  This "news" comes (2012-1922=) 90 years--and counting--too late.  As you know, poetry received a mortal blow when the first note was sent out over public radio.  This is but one of many ironies:  poetry died not for lack of metered poetry (as Mr. Childress argues) but for a glut of it [in music].  The popularity of song, not of vers libre, supplanted that of poetry.  As I've pointed out many times here, the average person today can sing along to thousands of contemporary tunes but cannot cite a single line of poetry written in the last half century.

        A cynic might say of these two men's theses:  "No one can kill a corpse.  Of course poetry has changed.  It's decomposing."

     The examples Mr. Childress chose don't help his case.  As "Jason" points out in the comments section, the free verse example is, in fact, iambic trimeter.  The sample from  "Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter" is non-descript.  That both he and Mr. Spiegelman say they "don’t read much modern poetry" inspires no confidence.

     "Who determines what’s poetry and what’s not?" Mr. Childress asks.

     The audience, of course!

      Oh, wait...

      "Poetry needs readers, not writers," he continues, "but how many poets read any poetry but their own?"

      This is a non sequitur.  Yes, poetry needs readers as opposed to writers, so what does it matter what writers read?

      I can't address his comments about Poetry magazine beyond confessing that, despite Christian Wiman's statements, if Poetry publishes significantly more verse than other print outlets it has escaped my notice.

      After blasting blurbing--a target that never goes out of season around here--he lurches into Content Regent territory, implying that poets have an obligation to agree on and champion political causes.

      He finishes on an interesting note, albeit one that I would [and] have expressed differently.  The dominance of any single form (of which free verse is but one) during an era is limiting.  If 95% of the turn-of-the-17th-century poems were sonnets we might never have seen Shakespeare's dramatic poetry.  And vice versa.

      While I am naturally inclined to agree with much of his argument, as sloppily as it is presented, I cannot shake the feeling that Mr. Childress is comparing apples and orange juice.  While they share the same obscurity, poetry written for a non-existent public audience and that written for an indifferent literary reader are two entirely different art forms existing in two entirely different containers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Entertaining Boredom

Earl the Squirrel's 25th Law

"Leave it all and like a man,
come back to nothing special,
such as waiting rooms and ticket lines,
silver bullet suicides,
messianic ocean tides,
racial roller-coaster rides
and other forms of boredom advertised as poetry."

   - Leonard Cohen, "Field Commander Cohen"


    What is more boring than watching paint dry?
Alexander Fleming
Watching mold grow.  Nevertheless, that is precisely how Alexander Fleming developed penicillin.

    Who among us hasn't attended a dull performance, let our minds wander, and come up with a fruitful idea?  Okay, our brilliancies don't necessarily change the world the way wonder drugs did but their source is often no more exciting than [Archimedes] watching bath water rise.  A hundred attendees at a mordant council meeting can, depending on their occupations or interests, ponder a hundred problems ranging from mathematics or clothing design to plumbing or beating a Tampa-2 defense.  As the performer prattles on and we float in our mental miasma, random juxtapositions conjure strange analogies and metaphors, provoking lateral thought.  I'm told the Four Point Principle was created while the innovator was trying to avoid listening to an ear-gouging rendition of "Four Strong Winds" (not this one, certainly).  Speaking for myself, I came up with my most successful thesis while watching--or not watching, really--a television show so vacuous I refuse to divulge its name.

    Without unbearable reality television, the neighbors' holiday slides, our niece's school play, senseless lyrics on the radio, information overload and serendipity human progress might come to a standstill.

     You cannot live forever but if you want it to seem so watch a lot of C-Span.  Ignore those rumors about it permanently lowering your metabolism. 

    Currently, then, the poetry reading serves as a cornucopia of boredom--a vital if common resource.  Nota bene:  a performance doesn't have to be remotely competent or interesting in order to inspire great thoughts or accomplishments.  Indeed, a terrible product can be more inspirational and influential than a classic;  the viewer sees a mess and says:  "Hell, even I could do better than that!"  And they're often right!

    The challenge is to either synthesize the byproduct (creativity) without being forced to undergo the treatment (boredom) or to find a more palatable treatment.  For example, if worried about rickets would you rather take cod liver oil or a vacation in sunny Rio de Janeiro?

Enter Entertainment
Max (Kat Dennings) and Caroline (Beth Behrs)
For fans, sitcoms such as "Two Broke Girls" or "Mike and Molly" can provide welcome "veggie time":  half an hour of freedom from our worries and obsessions.  While tedium slows time to a crawl entertainment causes it to blur past.  None of us glanced at our watches the first time we watched "Star Wars" or "Casablanca".  In every sense, then, entertainment is the antipodal opposite of the typical poetry reading.

At the end of this "time well wasted", though, what do we have to show for it?


    If we have monotony to stir creativity and entertainment to satisfy an audience where is the need for art?  Or, more specifically, poetry?

    Art/Poetry combines the worst aspects of boredom and entertainment:  the need to escape from the former and the time-collapse of the latter.  In essence, it multiplies two significant minuses to produce a profound positive.

    If you are a frequent reader of "Commercial Poetry" you know that poetry is verbatim:  a quoteworthy product that survives not on book shelves but in our memory and speech.  It inspires various endeavors, including its own replication.  Poetry's medium is entertainment and its currency is, at once, time and timelessness.  It is what remains.  As such, while boredom may provoke thought once, well-written and well-performed verse can do so forever, and without causing the adverse reaction that "poetry" readings do.

     It's not just the real deal.  It's the Rio deal.