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.

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