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

Friday, March 8, 2013

Everybody is a Poet?

     Marjorie Perloff's "Poetry on the Brink - Reinventing the Lyric" begins with an engaging question:

   "What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?"

    "It thrives, of course!" was my kneejerk response.  The last time poetry was part of people's lives, such that even grade six graduates understood the difference between an iamb and a trochee, poems were quoted everywhere and poets were rock stars.  The average 12 year old in 1913 had a far better claim to the term "poet" than the average MFA grad in 2013.

Giles Coren
     The problem with my viewpoint is that it presumes we're talking about poets who actually care about poetry other than their own.  (In fact, given their lack of interest in craft, make that including their own.)  As Giles Coren makes clear in "Let us go then, and feign our love of verse", poets today rarely read poetry, especially from outside their own aesthetic.  Beyond the PoBiz echo chamber we encounter Adrian Mitchell's causation spiral:  "Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people."  In short, all the parameters have changed since 1913.

     Ms. Perloff has a much narrower perspective.  Even in transcribing a reference by Jed Rasula (i.e. "to say nothing of all the Web-zines" [sic]), she reveals her lack of awareness of the more audience-oriented, technically informed poetry produced and published by onliners.  Her interest begins and ends with the PoBiz where, paradoxically, no audience is evident or sought.  Given this specialization, it shouldn't surprise us that her description of that milieu's output is spot on: 

Marjorie Perloff
     "Whatever the poet’s ostensible subject...the poems you will read...will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called 'the word as such'; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of 'poeticity'); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one."
Jed Rasula

      Next came another startling statement, this one regarding Rasula's estimates of how many poets academia is spitting out:  "What makes Rasula's cautionary tale so sobering is that the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety."

      First off, Rasula is concentrating on those with degrees related to literature.  Anyone who has attended a slam, an open mic or an independent online forum knows that these grads are a small part of the total poet population.  This diversity is true even at the highest levels.  Of the five best poems written in this century only one was produced by an academic.  For what it's worth, that resonates with my anecdotal experience:  I estimate that no more than a fifth (Henry Gould estimates a tenth) of those who like to think of themselves as poets have a degree in related studies.  If Ms. Perloff finds Rasula's numbers "cautionary" and "sobering" how would she feel about quintupling them?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #17
     Even more counterintuitive is her statement that this abundance "ensures moderation and safety."  This may strike onliners as odd, akin to the silly notion that critical forums develop their own in-house style.  In fact, impatient Internet critiquers and editors will react negatively to the same-old-same-old, such that the variety in forms (which is quantifiable) and styles is inevitably wider online than elsewhere.  Nevertheless, again, Ms. Perloff's point is well made and isn't limited to her section of the poetry community.  Even absent concerns about editors, critics and potential employers, slam poets fall into the same trap.  After hearing the previous dozen slammers scream non-stop, unattenuated angst for their allotted time there is a natural apes-mimicking urge to follow suit.  The bad scores one incurs for not doing so will hasten this conformity.

     Before trailing off into examples, Ms. Perloff makes one final incisive, defining point:

Ezra Pound
    "Poet X has produced two or three successful books and keeps on writing in the same vein, but somehow the fourth book, no better or worse than the previous ones, gets much less attention for the simple reason that, in the interim, so many new poets have come on the scene. The newcomers are not necessarily better than their elders, nor do they write in an appreciably different mode, but the spotlight is now on them. Ezra Pound’s 'Make it New' has come to refer not to a set of poems, but to the poet who is known to have written them."

     Because the object is to find teaching/editing jobs the focus is on poets, not poems and certainly not audiences.  If a graduate has attained suitable employment in the field the problem is solved;  no more need for writing, publishing or promoting their business card poems.  If no position has been attained the graduate has missed his or her shot;  perhaps they should find work elsewhere.  The online environment operates as the real world does:  one's efforts benefit from one's previous triumphs.  Why else would anyone have purchased Bob Dylan's "Planet Waves"?  Again there is a parallel in the slam world, where attention spans are short, impressions shallow and glory fleeting.  Naming last year's Individual Champion would be a challenge even among avid slammers.

     No doubt, history has produced stranger bedfellows than the PoBiz and slam communities.

     Offhand, I can't think of any, though.

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