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, February 27, 2013

Novels versus Poetry - Part III

    In Parts I and II we discussed the value and nature of performance.  Now it's time to revisit an old theme to examine the approaches of prose versus poetry.  If you're a regular here you are more than familiar with the Watermelon Problem:  how do we get readers to notice exceptional writing?  What pedestals do we use to highlight masterpieces?

    Prose writers have the luxury of using an axe to cut through this Gordian knot.  Reviewers do help but novels are so popular that, as long as we get their genre right, they will usually find a readership.  As long as it makes it into the stores or libraries, the worst whodunit of 2013 will fetch far more readers than the best contemporary poetry collection.  Once the work finds its audience reader discussion, critics and the passage of time will separate the Timothy Findleys from the Stephen Kings.

    The novel's size will force a consumer to devote a whole day's leisure time to it.  He or she will stay up late trying to finish it before sleeping on it.  No film or poem will be accorded such time and attention.  In essence, the fiction world solves the problem by growing a watermelon so humungous that nothing else will fit on the cart.  Crude, but effective.

    Compare this to what little individual attention poems will receive from consumers, nestled in collections with other pieces.  Things are even worse at the wholesale level, where great verse might be overlooked by overworked editors.

    So far this century the poetry world--print, pixel or stage--has not solved the Watermelon Problem.  No best sellers.  No viral YouTubes.  No memorable movie or television dramatizations.  No iconic verse, even within the fragmented community itself.  True, every Usenetter knows "Hookers"* by Marco Morales and all webbers beyond the blogosphere are familiar with Maz's "Studying Savonarola" but even these classics are unknown outside their medium.  If we can't popularize the signature poem of the greatest poet of our time, what chance do the rest have?

    Whatever the solution, it doesn't start with a poetry magazine that has a circulation lower than a campus newspaper.  It may begin with their staff, though.  Imagine a forward-thinking editorial group, organization or individual searching for the word "poetry" on YouTube, contacting the authors of the very best offerings to get permission, and creating an eclectic series based on such efforts.  In time, a publication could get the word out to encourage YouTube poets to include the name of the periodical in their posts (e.g. "Could you please mention our magazine/webzine, 'Rattling Pedestal', when you post your videopoems?  This will help us with our searches and signal your willingness to participate.").  Meanwhile, existing 'zine fans could be encouraged to post audiovisual productions of their work to the Internet.  Indeed, one could save resources by creating a videopoetry channel like Nic Sebastian's "Whale Sound Poetry" and linking to it.  What could be simpler?

    Indeed, that may well be the future of the poetry 'zine:  to address the Watermelon Problem by highlighting and documenting the best written, performed and produced poetry of our time.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #33
    One final point:  Poetry needs to get over itself.  Let's stop promoting by mode.  Seriously.  Who does that?  Do we go to movie theaters to see films or cinematography?  Do we go to bars for drinks or liquids? 

    Imagine if people used the term "prose" in the same way, [correctly] describing everything other than poetry.  The reason no one ever says "Hey, let's go check out some prose" is that it could mean anything from political speeches on C-Span, a contemporary play on Broadway, a novel or an instruction manual to the latest Star Wars movie.  There is nothing prose can do that poetry can't.  In dealing with the public, at least, let's remove the words "prose", "poetry" and "verse" from our focus.


* "Hookers", by Marco Morales:

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

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