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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Novels versus Poetry - Part I

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #26
    From "Where have all the young poets gone":

   "Sales figures reflect this;  only around £13 of the £2436 million pounds revenue from 2004 book sales was generated by poetry."

    Not only is fiction outselling poetry 200 to 1 but most of those poetry sales are of classical verse.  The number of poetry readers--most of whom read far more prose than poetry--is also dropping.  From "Newsweek" via "The Daily Beast":

   "Yet according to the NEA report, in 2008, just 8.3 percent of adults had read any poetry in the preceding 12 months. That figure was 12.1 percent in 2002, and in 1992, it was 17.1 percent, meaning the number of people reading poetry has decreased by approximately half over the past 16 years."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #32
    Thus, we're seeing fewer people reading less poetry, very little of which is contemporary.  The basis for optimism is tiny:  of the classical literature that people are buying today, the majority is verse.  This makes it easier for us to accept the fact that there was, indeed, a time when fiction took a back seat to poetry.

    With the advent of various modern forms of mass communication everyone predicted the demise of literature.  Why read poetry when you can listen to [verse set to] music on the radio?  Later, the question arose:  why read novels when you can wait for the movie to come out or watch television instead?  Later still, would Internet options, including social network banter, replace novels?  In an instant gratification generation with no attention span, would consumers be willing to invest hours into any endeavor?

    As we know, the Cassandras were right about poetry (i.e. music on the radio did replace verse), wrong regarding fiction.  Not only did the novel not perish at the hands of audiovisuals, it thrived!  Why so?  How so?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #20
    The answer, in a word, was performance.  Poetry needs it.  Fiction benefits from production without requiring it.  In poetry, the order of occurrence--performance before reading--matters;  not so with prose.  To wit, we might watch a film, video or play before or after reading the book;  one begets the other in a chicken-and-egg scenario.  By contrast, poetry sales figures make it abundantly clear that no one buys poetry without performance of that poem, of that poet's work or of poetry in general.  Aside from the paltry numbers involved, the model of publishing a tome and then doing readings for a few dozen friends and fellow poets fails for two reasons:
  1. it must be a performance, not a reading;  and,

  2. it is ass-backwards:  live, film or theatrical production comes before any expectation of profitable text publication.
Earl the Squirrel's Rule #31
    This was true even in poetry's heyday.  Shakespeare's plays were not collected and published until well after he retired.  How many copies would his scripts have sold without production?  Just as you don't buy MP3s of songs/artists you've never heard, interest in individual poets usually began with seeing their work performed, not necessarily by the poet*.  If enough of that writer's work caught your fancy you might buy the book or catch the author on tour.  Contrast that to poetry's status quo:  to no one's surprise, people who have never encountered a contemporary poem being performed competently are not enthused about reading any particular poem or poetry in general.  How many Superbowl tickets are purchased by those who have never seen a football game?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #21
    We don't need to guess how modern audiences read poetry.  They don't.  In centuries past, though, poetry was a primary source of entertainment.  It was incumbent on you to perform it well, if only because it permitted you to impress not only the community at large but that certain someone with whom you were "sparking"--even with all four parents present.  As people read poems for the first time they envisioned it being acted out, perhaps by themselves.  In this way, text could never hope to precede performance, real or imagined.  Chances are good that, for those who didn't grow up with poetry performance, no one will be able to explain this paradox;  for those who did grow up with poetry performance, no one needs to.

    Poetry isn't about audience;  it's about audience participation.


* The notion that anyone other than the author would want to perform a contemporary poem seems utterly foreign to today's poets.  As long as this is the case there is no hope for poetry's reanimation.


  1. I linked to this interesting post on my blog yesterday and there have been some comments that may interest you: http://verylikeawhale.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/poetry-doesnt-sell-because-it-isnt-performed-well-enough/. Best wishes, Nic

  2. Thanks for the heads-up, Nic. As you may know, we here at Earl's have long admired the pioneering work you've done to promote multimedia at "Whale Sound", "Very Like a Whale" and "Voice Alpha". We've added the links to our Blog List. The comments are interesting; some of them may be addressed in future posts here. Feedback, whether direct or indirect, is always appreciated.

    Keep up the great work, Nic!


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