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, June 26, 2013

Orphaned Poetry?

The reason "criticism" of poetry devolved from why-people-like-it to why-people-should is simple:  they don't.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52
    It has been so long since poetry had an audience that some revisionists are beginning to say it never did.  For the purpose of our discussion, an audience involves people motivated not by a relationship to the poet (i.e. not a friend, relative, teacher, student, publisher, editor, etc.) but by pleasure (as opposed to critics on assignment, curious first timers¹, poets checking out the competition, students required to attend, venue staff, barflies too drunk to scatter when a poetry event commences, etc.).

     In past centuries poetry sold as well or better than novels.  Today, that ratio is about 200 to 1 in favor of fiction.  Most of that decline has taken place in the last half century, a period which hasn't produced a single line of broadly recognized verse.  We ask:   "Why has contemporary poetry failed to find an audience?"  Perhaps the answer is the simplest of all:  much of it isn't trying to.

     Consider the two types of publishers:

1. Indies:

     These labors of love almost always confine themselves to the owner's aesthetic.  Many are not students of the craft, meaning that they neither know nor care what general readers like.  Those who do often don't survive the realization that, like everything else, now as ever, good poetry is rare and outlets are many.

2. Academics:

     By definition, university-based presses and related literary magazines serve as labor exchanges for poetry teachers rather as sources of pleasure for the literate public.  To show how bizarre this will seem to anyone outside the PoBiz, imagine Poetry Foundation President John Barr saying that his organization refuses to help doggerel not on aesthetic grounds, as they should, but because it is successful.  In other words, they express a "Commitment to Failure", regarding poetry like an orphan drug.  Apparently, "the mission of the Foundation is to discover and address poetry’s greatest unmet needs", which obviously excludes retaining or regaining an audience, has replaced "exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience" in their mission statement.  Sure enough, these outlets have moved in lockstep, producing a remarkably limited collective poetic:  roughly, obscure [lineated?] prose.

     After months of thought I have finally found an analogy from real life.  It wasn't easy.  Consider the dog show.  To a casual observer, the judges look at all the dogs, assess them by some criteria, and announce a winner.  Best dog wins.  What's the problem?

     We should know that the organizers and participants are not particularly concerned with entertainment value.  Dogs need to win enough tournaments to become champions, after which they can bring forth a new generation of that breed.  Similarly, poets need publication credentials in order to obtain positions where they can bring forth a new generation of poets.

     These dogs are not pets, with lives dedicated to being loved by owners and their families.  The job of these canines is to conform to a very narrow, immutable¹ standard better than their competition.  Likewise, the aspiring academic.  In addition, a unique and technically brilliant poem creates a different kind of standards issue:  How can the publisher maintain the new standard set by this game-changer?  What will instructors do with a poem that demonstrates techniques they have neither taught nor learned?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #45
     The parallels don't end there.  The criteria that the judges use may have nothing to do with that breed's traditional purpose.  The winner in the Herding Group has likely never guided anything into a pen.  Indeed, breed standards may evolve, albeit slowly¹, away from that purpose towards, say, durability or adaptability to other environments.  Similarly, poetry editors and judges may feel that the ability to please a poetry audience is no longer relevant, given that--"Duh!"--there is no poetry audience.²

     One final similarity:  Much of the fun in watching a dog show is in cheering on your favorite breed--probably one you have called your own.  How many poets check out periodicals solely to see how those who share their particular aesthetic are faring?  Even accounting for lenders, including libraries, poetry's readership may be less than its sales.

Bill Parcells
     We shouldn't expect change to come quickly.  Both types of publishers, Indie and Academic, seem happy in their current role, irrespective of poetry's overall stagnation.  As NFL coach Bill Parcells said in 2006:

      "Don't try to talk a cat down from a fish truck."


¹ - To change these standards, even slightly, would adversely affect every single existing breeder.  Not surprisingly, evolution is slow, careful not to obsolete present stock.

² - Of course, this creates a vicious cycle.

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