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

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Zombie Poetry Part I

    For reasons no one can fathom the question reappears:  "Is Poetry Dead?"

   As a participatory sport golf is booming.  Duffers take to the links in unprecedented numbers, many without any care that they will never get a tour card and compete professionally.  Teaching golf can provide a steady, if not spectacular, income for some.  In these two senses poetry thrives, too.  There is more verse being produced and published today than at any time in the past.  Creative Writing and MFA programs are cranking out graduates in near-record numbers.  Conducting poetry seminars and workshops augments many an income.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #5
    As a spectator sport golf is doing well, bouyed by lucrative television contracts, thanks to millions of faithful viewers.  Poetry?  Not so much.  A century ago every newspaper and most magazines had a poetry column.  Now?  Not so much.  Before the effect of mass media, starting with radio, poets were rock stars.  Now?  The 2009 death of the woman voted the greatest poet of our time barely made the local news outlets.  People used to recite contemporary poetry often and at length.  Now?  Few people today can recite a single line of poetry written in the last half century.  In his May 4th, 2003 Newsweek article Bruce Wexler said, "poetry is the only art form where the number of people creating it is far greater than the number of people appreciating it."  As Dylan sang, "I heard 10,000 whispering and nobody listening."

    In short, poetry is booming on the supply side, moribund on the demand side.  No one needs a degree in Economics to grok that demand can create supply but supply does not create demand. 

    "Anyone can write a bad poem," continues Mr. Wexler. "To appreciate a good one, though, takes knowledge and commitment." 

     As long as this is the case--or even the perception--debate is over.  Poetry is history.  Of course, there will be glib namedroppers,, self-interested deniers, knee-jerkers and the-customer-is-always-wrong shamers but the coroner's report is in:  poetry is dead and has been for more than half a century.  Why else would we be trying to reanimate it?

     As we'll see, even those who understand the obvious can still say some silly things.

Nathan A Thompson

     In "Poetry slams do nothing to help the art form survive" Nathan A Thompson expresses agreement.

     "Poetry is dying. Actually, it's pretty dead already for all intents and purposes..."

      He quickly goes off the rail, though:

     "...the rise of performance poetry slams is doing nothing to help matters. I know, I used to be a performance poet."

     It's a tiny point but "performance poet" is a reserved phrase for something quite separate from "slam poet".  The former exists in an "anything goes" environment;  typically, slam does not allow costumes, music or props.  Call it quibbling, but such incautious use of language bodes poorly.  Sure enough, he soon lapses into nonsense:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #23
     "There was no cabal of posh people who had purposely made poetry unintelligible."

      L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.  Postmodernism.

     "Poetry has always been words on a page..."

     ...if we don't count the eons and cultures that produced poetry without benefit of literacy.

     "The politicisation of art and the drawing of sectarian lines continues to damage poetry to this today."

      Can anyone name a single competitive or artistic endeavor that hasn't benefitted from stylistic differences and strategic/aesthetic arguments?  No?  Neither can I.

     "I have taught poetry to hundreds of children aged seven to 14 and not one of them could name me a poet beyond Shakespeare."

      Then WTF were you teaching them?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #26
     "A further nail in the coffin is the rise of poetry slams."

      Oh, this should be good.

     "I have performed at many slams and the audience is almost always half drunk..."

      Not to be confused with habitués at poetry readings, all of whom wish they were falling-down drunk.

     "The only division in poetry is between those people willing to take the time to read it and those who will not."

      What about those willing to watch it?  In addition to slam, open mic and performance fans, were Shakespeare's theatre attendees not poetry lovers?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #16
      "Most slam poems are not strong enough to be published in even minor poetry journals."

      And do those "published in...minor poetry journals" routinely win slams?  Is this an "apples make poor orange juice" argument?  Are we forgetting that most poems published in minor poetry journals "are not strong enough to be published in even minor poetry journals?"

     "It's like there is an oedipal urge to kill the art that made it."

     Did I miss a memo?  When did it become illegal to enjoy contemporary, modern and classical poetry?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #2
     "We cannot allow slam poetry to replace the role poetry plays in our lives."

     Bafflegab.  "We cannot allow...poetry to replace...poetry...?"  Says who, why not, and how so?

     "There is a school of thought that thinks slams are the answer."

     And what was the question again?

     "Poetry, like all art, whispers its message and we must learn to slow down and take the time to hear it."

     "Whispers?"  I thought poetry had to be read.  I'm so confused!

Bottom line:  Don't confuse a mode (i.e. poetry versus prose) with a medium (i.e. text versus speech).

Alexandra Petri

     Because it appeared in the Washington Post Alexandra Petri's "Is poetry dead?" drew a lot more fire.  Actually, it made a number of good points but couldn't seem to get the time of death right.  The last anglophone who could eke out a meager living from writing for adults died in 1953, 60 years before Richard Blanco's inaugural effort.

     "You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question:  Can it change anything?"

     Again, it's mode, not medium.  Changing things seems an odd criterion.  What if we simply want to report things?  Or praise them.  Or commemorate them.  Or laugh about them.  Not all communication is exhortation.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #7
     "... a very carefully gated medium that requires years of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines..."

     Okay, so we've established that Ms. Petri has never been to a slam.

     "All literature used to be poetry."

     Yes, as we all know, cave-dwellers spoke only in rhyming couplets that were memorized and recited by everyone else in the tribe.  Storytelling came later. 

     "But then fiction splintered off."

     Do people actually think before they write this stuff?

     "All the things that poetry used to do, other things do much better."

     Name one.  She mentions visual art, which has coexisted with poetry for almost as long as we've had caves.  True, songwriting did replace [spoken] poetry in popularity but, aside from lyrics being a subset of verse, too often the music overwhelms the words.

Gwydion Suilebhan
     At this point playwright Gwydion Suilebhan steps up to the plate.  No one knows why.

     "What pretends to be poetry now is either New Age blather or vague nonsense or gibberish. It's zombie poetry."

     As are many plays these days.  All are easily ignored without abandoning the art form.  Speaking of form...

     "There is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible."

     Wow.  Curginas, corata, cada líneas, cliché collages, reversers...  Such profound ignorance* leaves me speechless. 

     But not for long.

     "The constraints of meter have long been abandoned."

     By whom?  Those incapable of recognizing, let alone employing, meter in the first place?

     Alexandra goes on to make some valid points.  Yes, Blanko's inaugural poem was an embarrassment.  Public funding for poetry, while meagre, is a serious controversy, but one I'll leave for another day.

     And, yes, poetry is dead.

     But not for long.


* To be fair, if Mr. Suilebhan were using his terms advisedly he would be correct.  We cannot create new forms without an audience to serve as a testing ground.  (By that token, we can't have poetry--or any other mode of communication--without an audience.)  He means that we can't have new structures, though, which is ridiculous.

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