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, June 21, 2013

"Why is modern poetry so bad?" - Part II

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #11
    From Part I:  "Speaking of challenges, can anyone present a coherent, logical case in favor of modern poetry?"

    I have seen a few such attempts.  None of the treatises incorporated any of the crucial issues I mentioned in Part I.  They didn't address the demand side or even its non-existence.  In essence, readers and audiences were treated like Schrödinger's cat.  None could expand their definition of "bad" to include an endeavor with a zero percent track record in the last half century, even among its own practitioners.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #15
     Reading these arguments, one might guess that the problem is an undersupply of poetry!  (In a perverse way, this is, indeed, the case.  There is a dearth of poetry:  that thing where words matter more than messages or messengers, that thing we memorize and quote, that thing that only "poets" can forget¹, that thing that cannot exist without an audience.)  They listed no examples, confining their focus to poets rather than poems.  Gee, who could have predicted that?  Speaking of listing, I'll adorn this post with the fundamentals that these contributors might wish to review.

     Before we proceed, let me interject for the record that extolling the therapeutic effects of writing poems, which I acknowledge, does absolutely nothing to convince me of their aesthetic value.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #9
    Imagine going into an empty restaurant and being served dog food.  While a canine might find it delectable, you're one of those strange people who doesn't eat dog food.  You foolishly voice your distaste, only to be informed that you are an ignorant plebian for not knowing that all restaurants are serving dog food these days.  What is more, you are informed that the chef is from a fine culinary arts school (which was subsequently closed by the Health Department) and that the Restaurateurs Association has certified this meal as both nutritious and delicious. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
    That is the status quo for Page poets.  Don't take my word for this, though.  Poll the authorities of your choice, asking who the greatest living poet is.  I predict each respondent will give an answer that, to borrow the Ron Charles phrase, "leaves no poet standing" and leaves you wondering:  "What part of 'greatest living poet' in the singular did you not understand?"  Maybe they worry that suggesting, even by omission, that any competitor is less than great would be catty.  Or perhaps the lack of serious criticism, variety or fitness for human consumption stems from a fear that if they admit that one poet is awful we'll clue in that, as the empty chairs suggest, almost all of them are².

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #13
    One of the responders got off to a shaky start.  Perhaps wanting to one-up the original author's slight against Canadians, this debater decided to snub all anglophone nations other than his own by narrowing the topic from modern poetry in general to American poetry.  Perhaps he wanted to make the point that he only follows or values U.S. poets, thus adding nationalistic solipsism to the list of reasons why poetry is as bad as it is.  If so, I applaud his subtlety and sense of irony.  Or perhaps he forgot that, aside from Maya Angelou, the two most famous living poets are Canadian, that the experts' choice as greatest poet of our time was British, that the American president's favorite living poet is not Elizabeth Alexander but her Saint Lucian mentor, and that the most knowledgeable 21st century editor was the recently deceased Australian, Paul Stevens.  I could go on.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #18
    Our man soon settled into the thrust of his defence:  that there are so many people writing poetry today that some of them must be great!  Hey, who can argue with the Law of Averages?  Who can argue with that cliché about 100 monkeys taking 100 years to produce Shakespeare?

    I could quibble about the numbers.  Yes, there are more poets than ever before but that is a reflection of the growing population.  There are also more geophagics, alchemists and cross-dressing janitors than ever before.  That doesn't suggest that the pursuit is more popular.  I estimate that the percentage of the worlds anglophones writing poetry today is about 1%, much less than it would have been centuries ago when poetry was "the only game in town", published in almost every magazine, newspaper and newsletter.  Still, that 1% amounts to more than six million English language poets worldwide, almost two thirds of which will hail from North America.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #20
    The issue becomes:  does having more poets necessarily mean great poetry?  The backgammon player in me wants to say "yes".  The more you roll a die the more 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s and 6s you will get.  What is more, flukes do happen;  two of the top five poems in this century were amazing coincidences:  "There are Sunflowers in Italy³" and "How Aimée remembers Jaguar". (Do note that neither of these was penned by an English, Creative Writing or Fine Arts graduate.)  Even if more poets writing did guarantee better poems, would our filters be able to detect them in such a decentralized milieu or would we simply exacerbate the dreaded Watermelon Problem, reducing them to trees falling in the forest?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #25
     In any event, unlike monkeys at keyboards or tumbling dice, this isn't random.  We have one generation of poets, teachers and editors who couldn't produce a single iconic line, let alone poem, passing on its experience to a second and, eventually, a third generation.   The lowering of standards has snowballed, creating a legacy of failure and concomitant fan departure.  Forget the students for a moment.  Forgive my bluntness, but few of the current crop of teachers can scan, perform, innovate or distinguish anaphora from poetry.  Not surprisingly, almost every poem we see published today is a lineated prose homily wannabe.

  These dice won't roll.


¹ - Thus requiring authors to keep re-reading it from a book.

² - It was always thus.  In every endeavor and at any point in history there are thousands of William McGonagalls for every William Shakespeare.  Can we guess why an industry tied to providing degrees to poets might not be quick to acknowledge this fact?

³ -To be fair, as a "killer and filler" effort, "There are Sunflowers in Italy" might be better described as a great sentence rather than a great poem, but there you have it.

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