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, January 31, 2013

Practical Poetry: Subjects and objects

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #21
    Find someone or some thing more interesting than yourself.  The value of your life will not be halved by the relative inattention.  It will be doubled.  This is the mitotic paradox of art, of love and of life.

    Aside from encouraging the writer to find engaging topics there is not much to be said about content.  Nothing that follows will help students become good poets.  It might help them avoid becoming bad ones, though.  Bear in mind our ultimate goal:  to write something that people, including but not exclusively poets, might enjoy.

Busting the Onion Myth

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #9
    The Onion Effect is the notion that poems must come in layers.  Every performance is a Dance of the Seven Veils, the verses revealing more details with each exposure.  Yes, excellent poems do bear revisiting but so do films (how many times have you watched "Miracle on 34th Street"?), plays, television sitcoms and, especially, songs.  Fans may want to recapture the pleasure of earlier viewings.  Many are hoping for the same elements in a subsequent view as they sought in the first one:  the intellectual is looking for more philosophical points;  the drama regent seeks poignant details that escaped previous notice; and, the humor-lover watches for punch lines and sight gags overlooked earlier.

     The same person will apply different analogies according to mood and age.  This is true even if the piece is not ambiguous by design.  In such cases it isn't the poem losing layers;  the viewer is adding them.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #2
     If the idea were to glean more information with each pass poetry would be easy to write:  just pile up more imagery and references than anyone can absorb in one pass.  Like Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues", most of Walter Bargen's book, "Remedies for Vertigo", does precisely that.  It's an effective approach until someone points out that such efforts are to poetry what a nautical encyclopedia is to "Moby Dick".

     Insisting that poetry must reveal greater truths with each visit isn't just the typical confusion between the tiny vatic/didactic subset and the much greater whole.  It is a fundamental misapprehension of what some poetry does with what
all poetry is.  To appreciate this distinction let's review how poetry came into being:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #15
     Cave-dwellers standing around a fire would tell stories.  Their material would be as limited as their experience:  no Internet, no television, no writing, no Tim Tebow.  No matter.  Eventually, one of the brutes would "nail it", relating a narrative so well that it would be memorized and preserved as poetry.  Thus, while prose is about the message poetry is about the words.  What made words poetry wasn't the speaker saying so (as Leonard Cohen says, "Art is a verdict, not a claim.") but the audience's willingness to hear it again and again, verbatim, until many could recite all or most of it in real time.  In this way, when people derive pleasure by watching "It's a Wonderful Life" or listening to "Dust in the Wind" over and over again they are treating it as poetry.  Re-reading something for its truths is the defining purpose of an instruction manual, not poetry.

     At a party we ask others to stop us if they've heard this misadventure before.  No one wants to encounter the same schtick twice, right?  Well, people will watch the same standup routine or comedic play/movie/sitcom episodes over and over again, such that it seems people do want to encounter the same joke twice.  What gives?  Why the difference?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #6

     The distinction is between form (e.g. inventive storytelling, performance, compositional technique, original expression, everything except the content) and substance.  If our communication amounts to no more than information there is little sense in repeating it.  Message sent.  Message received.  How many times do you want to watch today's weather report?

     The more form it includes the more repetitions the communiqué can sustain.  As long as it doesn't require technical knowledge, watching anyone do anything well can be entertaining for a while.  As banal as they are, unicycling, juggling and wrestling can hold the casual observer's attention longer than the average contemporary poem.  At the other end of the complexity scale, bridge and chess may fascinate their afficionados but those passing by?  Not so much.  Everyone who stops to watch chessplayers in the park knows what the word "fianchetto" means;  those who don't will walk past. 

     So what is the learning curve for a poetry audience?  For poetry to survive a viewer needs no more technical knowledge of what is transpiring than a patient etherized upon a table requires.  Shakespeare made as much from the pits as the balcony.  For verse to thrive might require familiarity with some of the fundamentals we're discussing here, rudiments that should be taught in grade school, as they were before poetry's demise.

Interpretations, Applications, and Allusions

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
    Ideally, your work should be self-contained.  Toward this end, avoid asynchronous explications.  That is, do not preface your performance with why you wrote this stuff or what it signifies.  Worse yet, do not write cryptocrap and rely on friends to write annotative "criticisms" or "reviews" later.  If no one is going to have any understanding--it needn't be the correct understanding--of what you're saying then either change your words or use another medium (e.g. video with captions, hypertext, et cetera).

    If T.S. Eliot wrote the heavily allusive "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" today he would use hypertext links rather than footnotes.  These don't help performers, though.  The challenge is to write pieces that, like Prufrock, succeed on their own, allowing supportive annotation to add the dimension of breadth later. 

    Above all, avoid the trap of requiring multiple exposures or "close reads" before initial appreciation.  A sargeant instructs his troops that, if their bayonet gets stuck they can dislodge it by firing off a round.  One soldier responds:  "Sarge, if there's a bullet in my gun there ain't gonna be no bayonettin'!" 

    If viewers don't enjoy the initial encounter there ain't gonna be a second one.

Authorial Intent and the Intentional Fallacy

    Many new writers assume that their meaning, "authorial intent", is the final word on interpretation.  Actually, that is not true in poetry, in law, or in life.  What matters is how the average observer will understand the text.  The median is the message.

     Some critics, including this one, consider this the finest sentence written in the 21st century:

"You wrote your verses
with your veins,
cold against the wall."

     The author intended this to be literal:  a prisoner using his blood (and urine, according to the poet) to write poetry on the wall of his cell.  Any disinterested, middle-of-the-road party would take it as a metaphor.   

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #17
     Few, if any, revered poems say anything that hasn't been said before.  The originality is in the language and the tropes, not the message.  When Homer spoke of the "wine dark sea" he captured more than the water's color.  He helped landlubbers everywhere understand the intoxicating lure of the ocean.  Unfortunately, this message is lost on most poets, who translate "original" as "different to the point of being weird" rather than as "insightful".  As for being different, if you can write competent verse it will be sufficiently distinguished from most of the "poetry" we encounter today.

Practical Poetry: Forms, media and venues

     At this point, the student is expected to understand the basics:

  • The definition of poetry (i.e. verbatim speech);

  • scansion;

  • that song lyrics have eclipsed [spoken] poetry in our culture; and,

  • that a market for [spoken] poetry will have to be created.

     In this installment we flesh out the student's understanding of technique and discuss how and where an audience for poetry might be built. 

The Elements of Form

     Because it needs to be memorized and reproduced word-for-word, all English language poetry, as opposed to prose or the hybrid, prose poetry, has one thing in common:  mnemonics.  The simplest of these is concision.  It isn't a chore to memorize William C. Williams "The Red Wheelbarrow".  Even epic poems exhibit an economy of language. 

     The longer the piece, the more repetitions the poet uses, including:

  1. Choruses

         A chorus virtually ensures that we'll recall at least part of a song we hear.

  2. Repetends  

         Sections of Federico Garcia Lorca's "Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías", arguably the greatest poem of the 20th Century, featured lines like "a las cinco de la tarde" ("at five o'clock in the afternoon") and "¡No quiero verla!" ("I don't want to see it!").  Villanelles and some other forms rely on repetends.  The issue is:  "Why is this person saying the same thing over and over again?"

  3. Anaphora and Anadiplosis

  4.      Starting sentences with phrases from the beginning (anaphora) or ending (anadiplosis) of the previous sentence is an effective way of building drama.

  5. Sonics

         Along with rhythms, the judicious use and melodious repetition of sounds is what distinguishes poetry from prose.  The master of craft employs long (e.g. "shawnee") sounds to slow down the pace, sharper ones (e.g. "pit") to build excitement.  Repetitions include alliteration, consonance, assonance and, most saliently, rhyme (which deserves a discussion of its own).  The general rule for rhyme is this:  the less serious your poem the more perfect and proximate your rhymes should be.

         Consider all the repetitions in this uniquely effective advertising jingle:

    You'll won|der where | the yel|low went
    when you brush | your teeth | with Pep|sodent!

         Note the assonance of "You'll"/"you" and "won"/"brush" in the first foot and in all three syllables of "yellow went"/"Pepsodent", along with the alliteration of "w" sounds throughout.  Together with the iambic tetrameter and the alliterative anacrusis of "when" after "went", it's easy to see why this brainworm survives as the single most brilliant couplet of the 20th Century, if not of all time.  Even those who would dearly love to forget it cannot.  That is what poetry does.  That is what poetry is.  Nothing more, nothing less.  This is a point that every succcessful poet knows and that no failed poet understands.

  6. Rhythms

        Patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables form feet in verse and rhythm strings in free verse.  After a pattern like "de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-", knowing that the next syllable is probably stressed can help a forgetful reciter.

  7. Meter

        Meter is the quantification of something, usually either feet (accentual-syllabic) or beats (accentual).  Notice that "The Red Wheelbarrow" has the same number of words (three then one) and beats (two then one) in alternating lines.  Such poems with two or more meters (i.e. accentual dimeter and monometer in this case) are called "heterometrical".  T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has no less than four meters (trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter and two heptametric lines) but only one rhythm (iambic).

Paradise Has No Colonies
     There are two aspects of a poetic form:  structure and application.  Structure is the more visible:  a villanelle has repetends and rhymes in set places, a sonnet is usually 14 lines of rhyming iambic pentameter, et cetera.  Anyone can invent a new structure but, until it has a "killer application" and is emulated by others, it isn't considered a form.  For example, "Paradise Has No Colonies" (on left) is a "cada línea"*, a structure wherein the whole sounds like a prosey, prosaic story while each line, examined in isolation, addresses a different aspect of that theme.  Until others write successful poems using this format it is not a form**.

     During this process a general purpose develops.  For example, the sonnet usually entails a condition in the octave and then a turn ("volta") toward a resolution in the sestet.  Traditionally, sonnets have tended to pursue romantic motifs but I see no reason why a poet couldn't use the form to expound on, say, politics (i.e. where the condition is dire and the resolution is the writer's proposed political solution).

     The theme of a villanelle rests on the purpose for repeating a line over and over again.  Is the person crazy?  Often, yes, with worry in the case of "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas.  Sometimes an event is being repeated.  In "Holly Would" an old Parisian man remembers his bride doing a striptease:  "another pearl black button comes undone".

      Other forms include the rondeau or rondel, the triolet, limerick, pantoum, ghazal, and sestina.  Coincidentally, the two most famous poems of the 20th Century were both in form--a sonnet and a rondeau--and were written by members of the Canadian armed forces who died scant months later.

     Forms can be combined.  "¡Ni Una Más!" is both a sonnet and a glose.

Media and Venues

     Poetry can be presented in written, oral, audiovisual or multimedia format.  One might think that print and pixel poetry would be similar.

    "Text is text, right?"

      Well, for starters, internet text has many advantages over books and magazines, among them:

  • Multimedia

         The same poem can be presented as a text, audio, audiovisual or as background to a video.  Just as it is best to watch a Shakespearean play first and then study the script, text usually works best as secondary exposure.  Enjoy first.  Study later.

  • Hypertext

          One can link the words and phrases not only to references (such that there would be no need for T. S. Eliot's footnotes) but to related videos.

  • Graphics

         Web sites can employ pictures with far greater ease and far less expense than print publications.  Some of these can be moving GIFs or, of course, videos.

     Even without these extra capabilities, comparing print text to pixel text without embellishments, there is a qualitative and quantitative difference.  The underlying reason for this can be described in one word:  readership.  Magazines that mirror their content on the web soon discover that the same poem by the same poet gets significantly more attention online.  Over time, this creates [gasp!] competition for that attention***.  Eager for any edge, students learn the elements of the craft, which is the raison d'être for this course and blog. 


* A "cada frase" would do the same thing, changing subthemes in each phrase.

** It may be worth noting that, without an audience--a testing ground--for poetry, it is difficult to establish new forms.  Structures, yes.  Forms, no.

*** In the current print world competition ends with publication.  Online, the competition begins with publication.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Practical Poetry: Markets

    The first rule for marketing poetry is:  "Don't."

    Even in the Golden Age of Poetry it was not usually presented as such.  Shakespeare sold drama, comedy and tragedy that "just happened" to be largely iambic pentameter.  It seems that, to have any public appeal, poetry must be contained within or presented as something else.  It might be described as "entertainment", "stories" or "A Night of Wit and Wisdom with So-And-So".  Poetry being a mode of communication, one would no more describe an offering as "poetry" than one would advertise "Gone with the Wind" as "two hours of phony southern accents". 

    Anyone who accuses you of being a poet should be sued for defamation immediately, as they should if the charge were sex offender, teabagger or Dallas Cowboys fan.  Again, Shakespeare identified himself as a dramatist and, later, a theater owner, not a poet.  Other greats would confess to being priests, bankers, even lawyers and other thieves but never, ever poets.  Today we invent silly euphemisms such as "slammer", "spoken word artist" or, my favorite, "wordist" (WTF?) to avoid that Kiss of Death.  Indeed, the last prominent individual to identify himself primarily as a poet was William McGonagall.  Need I say more?

    Now imagine if movies were packaged as poetry is.  The films would lack any overriding theme or narrative.  They would have no genre:  not drama, humor, romance, or tragedy.  They would lack the commonalities of even the most diverse short story collection.  Even the forms might change.  All titles would be long and precious, having little or nothing to do with the bulk of the opus.  Each collage would be a disjointed autobiography of a nobody, minus any central characters, significant events, chronology or anything else that might make a diary interesting.  In short, if we wasted celluloid like this every theater on the continent would close within a month.

    After the first installment attendees understand what poetry is (i.e. verbatim), what terminology describes it and how meter works.  They are beginning to understand the differences between the rhythms of singing versus speaking.  Is it too early to discuss markets?  Hardly.  The time to consider the interests of the audience is before and throughout the writing process. 

"Read a lot of poetry."
Jeff Bahr

    For new poets there can be no better advice than this.  There is a twist, though:  they must concentrate on the type of poetry they wish to pursue.  If your interest is in teaching business card poetry you will want to read the kinds of poetry magazines listed in Jeff Bahr's "An Approximate Print Journal Ranking".  As mentioned in "Writing Postmodern Poetry", such work is remarkably easy to produce.  What matters most is your biography, which should include two namedroppings among the braindroppings.  "I studied under Schnevmolnikahauten and partied with Ginsberg" is a typical example.  Don't sweat the fact that Mrs. Schnevmolnikahauten was your high school geography teacher;  it is standard hipster practice to spout obscure names, implying that those who don't recognize them are "out of the loop".  As for Ginsberg, everyone partied with Allen;  you probably did without knowing it.  (For what it's worth, a popular poet's biography details failed relationships, drug addictions, alcoholism and the STD du jour.)

Michael Burch

   If your interest is in poetry that people might actually want to hear or read it stands to reason that you don't go to places that offer publication credentials instead of entertainment and have so little exposure to the public (i.e. beyond other poets).  In this case, "exposure" translates to "the Internet".  Some of these webzines have more hits in a week than a poetry magazine's entire print run.  Perhaps more important, though, is the type of reader these venues attract.

     Compare "The Hypertexts" to, say, "The Paris Review".  Visitors to the latter are more interested in the index (to see who's "getting ink"), editorials, biographies, and articles that support their particular "aesthetic".  Actually reading the poems would appeal only to those trying to get a sense of the editor's preferences with a view towards submitting work.  Once published there, many won't bother to submit again.  

     By contrast, in addition to being far more numerous, visitors to "The Hypertexts" have no reason to be there other than the poetry;  it's not a place that will help your resumé much, the articles and bios are sparse and the editorials are off-topic and strident.  While I wouldn't want to defend every poem there, "The Hypertexts" is the best source of technically sound, reader-oriented (if not audience-oriented) poetry in the world.  Alternative sources would include "Pedestal Magazine" and two now-defunct journals:  November Sky Poetry and Shit Creek Review.  That said, I'd like to see a source that integrates audio and performance;  we'll address this issue in subsequent installments of this series.

     Do not presume that editors have studied the elements of poetry.  In my experience, most haven't.  I could recount innumerable horror stories but I'll settle for this anecdote:

     The editor of a very popular poetry magazine has confided in me that he doesn't know a lamb from an iamb.  Having read his magazine, this came as no surprise.  My friend judges work based solely on the narrative, making his "poetry" periodical seem like The Reader's Digest with linebreaks.  What amazes me are the long hours he puts into his labor of love--an affection not attended by any interest in the attributes of the beloved.

     Jerry (we'll call him Jerry) contacts me, depressed that his publication isn't winning any awards or critical attention and that he is beginning to suspect that the reason isn't politics.  I can't tell him that he is caught in a Shit Cycle:  he puts out crap, produces guidelines telling submitters to send only that which is similar to what he currently publishes and, lo and behold, they send him...more crap!  Rather, I introduce him to some critically acclaimed unpublished works.  He chooses one based entirely on its storyline.  At year's end it doesn't appear on his "Best Poems of the Year" feature.  Examining the "poems" that did make this list singed my retinas.  For Jerry, the Shit Cycle is clearly the effect, the cause being that he wouldn't recognize a poem if we tattooed it inside his eyelids.

     The harsh truth is that there isn't much to be gleaned from the offerings of those who think AnaDiPlosis is an Italian porn star.  Worse yet, this is something that is apparent in every line they write and every poem they promote. 

The Hitch

John Prine

     We come to a minor inconvenience relating to the poetry market:  it doesn't exist.  To finesse this, we turn to the more inclusive and correct definition of poetry, which includes song lyrics.  We invest time investigating "singability":  our ability to remember and sing some lyrics easier than others.  In technical terms, very roughly, this translates to accentual or, better yet, accentual-syllabic verse where the beats fall strongly on or within important words.  No one writes a more singable song than John Prine, so we look at his early work (i.e. up to and including "Bruised Orange") for examples. Many of those can be viewed on YouTube.    Singability is most evident in songs that have relatively little (e.g. "Hobo Song") or no accompaniment, as with "Diamonds in the Rough":

     "It ain't purty but try getting that damned earworm out of your skull!"

     Having done that, we look at what is required for less singable tunes to succeed, like those of Joni Mitchell.

    Those not musically inclined (i.e. those who "couldn't hold a note in an envelope") can collaborate with a musician;  in some parts of town there is one on every street corner.  With luck, the Practical Poet could be the next Bernie Taupin.  ("Who?" you ask?  Never mind.  You're too damned young.  Suffice it to say he writes lyrics and his checks don't bounce.)
Joni Mitchell

     For the most part, though, Practical Poets will have to create their own markets.  Check out our original blog post, "Commercial Poetry: Definition and Overview", for more on this.

     Above all, the student needs to understand that poetry is nothing more or less than a mode of communication.  It can be put to any purpose and can cover any subject.  It does not need to be profoundly funny, profoundly emotional or profound.  It can be anything.  Anything. 

     Hell, it could be a weather forecast.  We'll save that story for another day, though.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Poetry 'n Politics - Part II - Occasional Poems

    What happens when you give a business card poet the job of an audience-oriented poet?

    As you are no doubt aware, today was Squirrel Appreciation Day.  This year we are proud to share our special moment with two great humans:  Martin Luther King and the reinaugurated U.S. President Barack Obama.  Both of these fine men are revered among us squirrels because of their unmatched ability to bring out the nuts.

    The inauguration offered another rare opportunity for English language poetry to make a positive impression on the country, if not the world.  Poetry lovers looked forward to this with some apprehension after the debacle in 2009 with Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day".

     My apologies to those who were trying to forget a crowd-clearing disaster so complete that one pundit quipped:  "Poetry's only selling point is that it is cheaper than tear gas."

     So how did it go with Richard Blanco's "One Today"?

     Compared to what?  "Praise Song for the Day"?  Well, by a factor of infinity, a person with a penny is wealthier than someone who is broke, but both are extremely poor.

     Compared to the words and delivery of the two men being honored today, Barack Obama and MLK

     On my Sonic Rhythms Meter Richard Blanco's cringefest demonstrated fewer repetitions than three prose samples:  a snippet of Twitter banter, a paragraph from a mathematics text and a transcript of commentary from yesterday's San Francisco 49er - Atlanta Falcon NFL game.  The run-on sentences sustained by ubiquitous, random em dash abuses disqualify it as good writing.  It is far too rambling for prose, taking as long as five sonnets would take in order to say far less than we'd expect from one.  Worst of all, it was boring and, especially given that it's a poem written for a historic occasion, it was self-absorbed.

     That said, unlike "Praise Song for the Day", "One Today" was not entirely devoid of poetry.  After a clumsy single repetition of "Great" in Strophe 1 we hear:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,

     Fair repetitions of "face[s]" and nice "m" alliteration, presaged in the previous line with "moving".

the empty desks of twenty children marked [as] absent

     Good short "e" assonance and strong iambs until the missing "as".  Unfortunately, like the movie "Lincoln", which should have ended with the natural exit line "I'd love to stay but I have to go", Mr. Blanco blows it with the maudlin and redundant "today, and forever."  For God's sake, man, let the audience do some of the work!

     I suspect that those will be among the very few fragments remembered in the next few days.  For the most part, though, this was at best an outline for a poem, the penultimate paragraph of which should never have made it to, let alone past, the first draft:

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

     As a whole, the "poem" was wordy to the point of chatty, endlessly iterating quotidian details like dead-end crime scene clues in a dime store mystery.

     How did others view it?  Predictably, the blurbosphere loved it.  As you know, some believe that dull, forgettable* prose largely bereft of technique qualifies as poetry.  Oblivious to the irony, a group of these people ridiculed the "10 People Annoyed That [the] Inauguration Poem Didn't Rhyme".

     And you humans call us squirrely?

* Nota bene:  Even its author didn't bother to memorize and recite/perform "One Today", despite the importance of the event and with more than a month to do so.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Practical Poetry: Introductions


     One of the complaints we hear from English literature and Creative Writing teachers involves attendance, especially at the college level.  Horror stories abound of 50% or higher dropout rates and individual classes attracting 10% of the original enrollees.  The solution is no secret:  find a way to relate to the students and their common interests.  In regards to poetry, "common interests" translates to "song lyrics".

     This course could be anything from a one day seminar to a full semester.  Its instructor will benefit from a laptop, some speakers, an overhead projector, a screening surface and an internet connection.


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #25
     "What would a Creative Writing course look like if it were geared toward producing poetry that people might actually want to hear?"

     Like any course, it would start with the teacher and students introducing themselves.  Similarities with existing literature courses would end there.  As the word "producing" suggests, the emphasis is on writing, not interpreting, poetry.  "People" refers to everyone, not just other poets or editors.  "Want" suggests a pleasure-driven desire for, in this case, entertainment.  Finally, "hear" implies venues beyond text.

     A definition of poetry needs to be established.  That's easy.  Poetry is verbatim.  Knowing our destination, it is a relatively simple, if tedious, process of eliminating fatuous Convenient Poetics and Content Regency arguments along the way.  In this regard, what students have learned in English Lit classes can become a liability;  much of it will have to be unlearned.

     At this juncture, attendees will likely need to be prepared for what comes next.  As a whole, the lessons will be light and fun.  Not so the ensuing hour or so.  Duly warned, the group will then be introduced to poetry's blood (i.e. scansion) and language.  As you can see, most of the work has been done by onliners.  In the case of terminology, the teacher need only select the logical, grammatical, structural and poetic terms deemed vital.

     Once the students understand the jargon and the basics of meter they can be congratulated.  They now know more about the workings of verse than most MFA graduates.  This will be invaluable.  Among many other benefits, it enables critiquing/critical skills.  This means that workshopping will amount to more than "the blind leading the blind".

     The 5 Ws of Poetry:  "If you know where and why poetry will work you might be able to predict when, whose and what poetry will work."

     To end on a lighter note, students will be asked to contribute the titles and lyrics of their favorite songs.  Having them recite the lyrics as best they can will illustrate how sonics (i.e. alliteration, consonance, assonance, rhymes) and meter (i.e. accentual versus accentual-syllabic) help us remember some sections as we forget others within the same song.

     As an example, these newfound technical/critical skills might be tested by playing Paul Simon's "Hearts and Bones":

     Why do we remember that phrase "Sangre de Cristo, Blood of Christ Mountain" but lose so many of the other lyrics?

     Poetry doesn't sell.  So how can we say that one poem is better, more practical or more commercial than another?  In short, as a teaser for the subsequent installment (on "Markets"). we ask:

    "How can we know what people like when they don't like anything?"

     Consider this experiment:  Find two mediocre contest-winning and/or published poems that have been blurbed.  Add this poem and this verse into the mix.  Ask your students which two of these four poems are the better than the other two.  Record your results but do not discuss them yet.  Repeat this survey during each of the last three lessons of this series to see if opinions change after we add production, performance and an understanding of technique into the mix.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Business Card Poetry

Arielle Greenberg
    If you see the poetry lectures, criticism/blurbs or articles being produced today you may notice a whole glossary of expressions describing crowd-pleasing tricks, concepts and forms absent from the discussion (and, to press a point, the underlying contemporary poems, if any).  Given how little these English and MFA graduates know or care about poetry technique, you have to wonder what they are being taught.  After a brief web search I stumbled upon a lecture on the craft of poetry wherein the closest the professor came to technical matters was at the 33 minute mark when she mentioned her favorite font.  Moments later I found "A (Slightly Qualified) Defense of MFA Programs: Six Benefits of Graduate School" by Arielle Greenberg on Poets.org:

  1. MFA programs are where you find out what to read.

  2. MFA programs are where you find out how to read.

  3. MFA programs can make workshop [sic] wonderful.

  4. MFA programs are where you find community.

  5. MFA programs are where you make connections.

  6. MFA programs are where you find yourself.

     Obviously, the interest in poetry is strictly social and/or professional.  Such poetry is like a business card, used to impress those who can advance our prospects.  Usually, this entails self-perpetuation:  teaching such networking to the next generation of networking teachers...and on and on it goes.  Their motivation is neither cynical nor sinister.  It is practical.  There is no thought of an audience because poetry doesn't have one.*    There is no thought of technique because there is no one to appreciate it.**  There is no thought of mnemonics because that which everyone ignores isn't worth memorizing or quoting.  Instead, these academics, actual or aspiring, are like 7th-9th century Irish monks preserving literature against the indifference, repression and upheavals of their Age (Dark or Modern).  It is a noble and vital endeavor.

     Still, you have to wonder:  "What would a Creative Writing course look like if it were geared toward producing poetry that people might actually want to hear?"

     Stay tuned!

New Creative Writing Syllabus for Poetry:

  1. Introductions

  2. Markets

  3. Forms, media and venues

  4. Subjects and objects

  5. Critique: Workshopping with knowledgeable peers

  6. Criticism versus promotion

  7. Presentation


* That this might be a causation spiral would be dismissed as mere speculation.

** For what it's worth, slam poetry isn't drawing a lot of nonparticipants either.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Seamus Heaney
    When people debate this issue, as they often do (i.e. "My favorite songwriter is a poet, for sure!"), they don't mean "poetry" in the technical sense of lyrics being verse which is, in turn, poetry (as opposed to prose).  No, they mean good, spoken/written poetry, like Shakespeare, Donne, Heaney or Maz.  Obviously, few lyrics rise to this level so let's lower the bar slightly.  What lyrics can work sans music or singing?

    In the course of a newslist discussion one of our followers came up with an interesting challenge that you may wish to try with some of your fellow onliners.  Type out the lyrics to a song that your counterpart will recognize and that you think would work at an open mike.  Put them into an envelope and mail them to each other.  Each of you then gets up in front of an audience, opens your envelope, and reads the poem aloud.

    Last night, my buddy opened his letter and, I'm told, smiled.  Being a Canadian and noting that the envelope would have been postmarked on December 30th or 31st, he really should have known what was coming.   

     At approximately the same time, a jillion miles away, I stood in front of a similar crowd and opened the missive.  I didn't smile, nor did I have the good grace to say "Well played, friend", as my opposite did.  Close, though.  My actual words were:  "Well played, you son of a bitch."

     Knowing that our group has a much longer time limit than his, my buddy had me perform this:

     I suspect my friend fared better onstage than I did.  He says he's not a good performer but that he is improving thanks to doing open mikes and joining a slam group (much to my surprise!).

     Do you know someone who needs some encouragement to get into performing poetry?  Consider this challenge.  It's fun!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Poetry 'n Politics

     The role of poetry in politics moves in lockstep with poetry's status in the society at large. Currently, that translates to excerpted song lyrics and lines from popular movies. Memes.

     Typically, politicians have used portions beginning and ending with accented syllables. The first captures the listener's attention while the stressed terminus suggests resolution. If dealing with iambic verse, then, the initial syllable is either omitted (acephaly) or stressed (spondee), as Ronald Reagan did in various usages of that opening line from "High Flight":

 [Oh,] I | have slipped | the sur|ly bonds | of earth

     Another ploy is to invert the first iamb, as in the William Henry Harrison (the "hero of Tippecanoe") and John Tyler 1840 U.S. presidential campaign song:

 Tippe|canoe | and Tyl|er, too

     An exception is this quote from John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address, which begins and ends with unstressed syllables:

  "Ask not what your country can do for you;
   ask what you can do for your country."

     At first blush this is a rhythmic hodge-podge but if we sense pauses after the first "do" and second "you" we get perfect amphibrachs (de DUM de). To wit, where "[x]" marks missing unaccented syllables (i.e. the iambic substitutions), we see:

 "Ask not what | your country | can do [x] | for you; ask
  what you [x] | can do for | your country."

     There is another technique illustrated here--a rather common one that, as far as I know, doesn't seem to have a name in any human language: "country" is featured because it is the only dysyllabic word amidst exclusively monosyllabic ones. At least as often we will encounter the opposite: a string of polysyllabic words coming to a thudding conclusion with a monosyllabic one. If you have spent any time on a park bench you know that this is the basis of squirrel communication. We call it "chekla". But I digress...

     Given that the English language itself, along with its verse, is predominantly iambic, it follows that the poetry in contemporary politics would be as well. That is entirely logical. And entirely wrong.

     Consider these examples:

Go ahead. Make my day.

 - Ronald Reagan, quoting "Dirty Harry" (see also "Do you feel lucky, punk?")

 Yes, we can.

 - Barack Obama, derived from "Si, se puede" (see also "Hope and change" and "Please proceed, Governor")

     The dominant cadence in today's sloganized politics is the cretic (DUM de DUM), also known as the amphimacer or "the rocking rhythm". Dislodging entrenched voters is, apparently, analogous to rocking a vehicle out of a quagmire.

     Of what importance is poetry? If you were watching as Barack Obama gave his "Yes we can" speech you didn't need to be a poet, a prosodist or a songwriter like will.i.am to feel history turn.

     Many of the examples we see above are as bad as poetry gets: clichés, platitudes and vacuities. Nevertheless, the next time people quote W. H. Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats", saying that "poetry makes nothing happen", ask them how many poetic phrases from losing candidates they can bring to mind. More than polls, pundits or promises, the single most accurate predictor of politicians' fortunes is the quantity (if not the quality) of poetry in their speeches.