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

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Voice of a Generation

Want to make popularity based on sales as the criterion of poetic worth? Think about the following:

Bestselling poet in England between 1560 and 1640 (the era of Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, and the early Milton, to name just a few) -- Thomas Tusser (he outsold most of those poets even when you take all their works sold during that period combined).

Bestselling English poet between 1890 and 1914 (era of Housman, late Tennyson and Browning, Hardy, and numerous others of note) -- Norman Rowland Gale.

     - Howard Miller (Gazebo, 2007-03-19)

      Fifty years ago, among poets, the "voice of a generation" would probably be the Beat poet of your choice, most likely Allen Ginsberg.  Today, it could be a slammer, probably Shane Koyczan, if only because, in a rare moment when the world experienced poetry (if we can call it that), he did slightly better at the 2010 Olympics than Elizabeth Alexander or Richard Blanco fared at Obama's inaugurations.  If nothing else, at least one person was animated by Koyczan's performance:  Koyczan himself.

      You think this is a frightening thought?  Consider this:  the alternative is that today's poets don't have a voice. In any event, comparing Ginsberg to Koyczan, it is clear that poetry's voice is nowhere near as prominent or clearly defined as it has been in the past.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #56
      Being the voice of a generation will help your pocketbook but, as Howard Miller indicates, it won't further your chances of leaving anything behind.  The very qualification, "of a generation", suggests that our children will find someone else to speak for them, leaving us to be forgotten.  Still, by targeting a younger audience the poet may enjoy twenty years of fame followed by forty years of nostalgia.  Not a bad gig, really.

      By emphasizing advocacy rather than artistic value, "voice of a generation" also implies that the work is lacking in technical merit.  Not surprisingly, onliners and geeks could produce a very different list of greatest contemporary poets than Page or Stage poets might.

      Imagine that era, 1560 and 1640, without the likes of those poets Mr. Miller mentions:  "Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, and the early Milton, to name just a few."  What if they'd never been born, never picked up a pen or never attracted notice?  Thomas Tusser would the best poet of that time!  Instead of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets we could be reading verse like:

A foole and his monie be soone at debate,
which after with sorrow repents him too late.

      Why, we might be quoting such epic epigrams as:

Who quick be to borrow and slow be to pay,
their credit is naught, go they ever so gay.

      [We pause to shudder.]

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #24
      In fact, that could be a reasonable assessment of our current situation.  To the vast majority, including the [fiction] reading public, Alexander, Blanco and Koyczan might not just be the best active poets they know, they may well be the only active poets they know.

      There are no Shakespeares alive today, keeping theatres open with their verse and forcing us to forget the Thomas Tussers of our era.  No poet is changing our language or adding a single phrase to our idiom.  Yes, there are a few great poets around but the public can't name one and the cognicenti can't agree on many.  This may create a vacuum in our present environment and a dead spot in poetry's history. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #19
      Every failed poet chants the Emily Dickinson Myth as a mantra, telling themselves that their work, so cruelly ignored during their lives, will be discovered and loved by future fans.  Leave aside the fact that Emily was directly solicited twice by the Atlantic Monthly's Editor-In-Chief for submissions (which hardly sounds like a "nobody" to me).  There is a critical piece missing:  It is one thing to emerge from obscurity when poetry outsold prose;  it is quite another to emerge from obscurity in an era when all poetry is being ignored.  This is even more obvious if all subsequent generations continue to ignore poetry, as this one does.

     Put simply, why should future generations take an interest in us when we ourselves don't?


  1. Byron dealt with the failed poet's appeal to posterity as well as I remember seeing:

    "He that reserves his laurels for posterity
    (Who does not often claim the bright reversion)
    Has generally no great crop to spare it, he
    Being only injured by his own assertion;
    And although here and there some glorious rarity
    Arise like Titan from the sea's immersion,
    The major part of such appellants go
    To - God knows where, for no one else can know."

    And, BECAUSE he had dealt with this as well as I had seen done, I was able both to recall the stanza and quote it in illustration, several years after reading and nearly two hundred years after it was writen.

    There is a moral to this observation. I wonder whether any of the contemporary poets who nobody is reading NOW are capable of appreciating what that is.

  2. You are one step ahead of me, Ragashree, perfectly anticipating the topic of my next post. Stay tuned!


Your comments and questions are welcome.