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

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Why has contemporary poetry failed to find an audience?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #51
     The "Why is Modern Poetry So Bad?" "debate" rages on.  Realists who want to see poetry regain a following are citing facts, stipulations, and polling data.  Opposing them, those quite comfortable with the status quo ignore argument, consensus and the obvious, cheering the most demagogic denier and questioning the loyalties and motives of those who want to improve the situation.

     Sounds like Washington!

     It is time to stop the fight, as any compassionate referee would.  Reality triumphed.  It always does.  Hey, what would you expect when one side enters the fray with only one weapon, unaware that it is a hara kiri knife? 

    "There is more poetry being written and published today than ever before."

     Yes, we all understand that poetry is overproduced now more than ever.  Why did no one stop to point out that, in quantifications, over-anything (e.g. overreach, overstock, overkill, etc.) is, by definition, a bad thing?  What enterprise produces more of something in a tiny, flooded market?  Wouldn't it make more sense to concentrate on the demand side?

     It's time for everyone to hold hands and sing the opening stanza of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows".

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

     We can now ask in the past tense:  "Why has contemporary poetry failed?" 

     Actually, we need to be more specific, lest some cheerleaders pretend to believe that an endeavor with zero successes over 50 years--even among its aficionados¹--isn't a complete failure.  Ergo, we must add a redundancy for the disingenuous:  "Why has contemporary poetry failed to find an audience?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #24
     All of the usual suspects will be rounded up, starting with music replacing poetry in the 1920s and dominating every radio station, Ipod and public sound system since.  There is the decline in technical skills.  The rise of other options (e.g. television, the Internet, video games, et cetera) factors in.  The quality and scarcity of performance.  The disappearance of venues and media.  The choice of subject matter and form, perhaps?

     I would like to add another aspect, one that may be both cause and symptom:  the lack of engagement, something so rare in poetry that I'll need to define it.

     At their conventions most dentists enjoy the lectures and presentations.  When they break for sustenance they talk about their families, practices, golf games, retirement plans and the prospects of the Dallas Cowboys--anything other than the seminar they just attended.  Who but a complete nerd wants to talk shop over lunch?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #28
     Go to a poetry reading.  Open mics often have them.  They're like those time share spiels you must endure in order to participate in the fun later.  Typically, once there is an intermission and everyone mulls about to socialize, not one word will be spoken about the Guest Poet's performance or words. 

     Like dentistry, then, contemporary poetry creates a very low level of engagement.  No "buzz", if you like.  Attendees might be excited about the poet--I would give my right forepaw to see DPK!--but will usually not discuss the individual poems or lines they just heard and are already forgetting.  How absorbing is a pursuit that people never discuss, even immediately after it is shared?  Is an unexamined experience worth reliving?

How to play 5D on a Spade Jack lead?
     For a point of reference you need to attend a Bridge tournament.  If you live in North America, you can find an event on the American Contract Bridge League's tournament calendar.  Elsewhere, check out the World Bridge Federation's International Events Calendar.  You don't need to know a Heart from a Spade for this;  you won't be kibitzing, let alone playing in, the event.  Show up three hours after starting time, find out where everyone is likely to eat, and plant yourself there.  Get used to players beginning every sentence with the words "You hold..." before they proffer a particularly interesting hand for appreciation and analysis.  Don't expect chitchat, niceties, reminiscences or gossip.  You will get nothing but an exhaustive analysis of the session these people just played, conducted in terms, names, and acronyms completely foreign to you:  Stayman, Blackwood, Jacoby, Michaels, Masterpoints, SAYC, 2/1-GF, IMPs, finessing, LHOs, stepping stones, and beavers.  At first, it is the detail and intensity of the conversation that will strike you.  Later, you will be overwhelmed by the fact that participants, most of them of retirement age, remember the position of all 1248 or more cards they just played.²  An hour later another session begins.

     If people expressed 1% of the interest in poems--not poets, aesthetics or career opportunities, but poems--as bridgeplayers do in hands we wouldn't be having this conversation.


¹ - In the first half of the 20th century almost everyone--poet or not--could recognize, if not recite, Robert Service's second most successful poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee".  Not counting occasional poems [that we are all trying to forget], can anyone cite a poem written in the last 50 years that even 5% of the world's 6,000,000 English language poets or 1% of the public can quote?  Neither can I.

² - Compare that to Guest Poets who have to read a few of their own poems from a book. 

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