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

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

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #55
     Contrary to what you hear from too many "theorists" these days, good poetry instructors are primarily scientists, not gurus.  As prosodists, they examine what has worked in the past, preferably with some calculable consistency, and record those crowd-pleasing gadgets for posterity.  They do teach magic, but in the practical sense of passing on marvelous tricks to a new generation of illusionists.  A young man once approached me after a lecture, informing me that "poetry can't be taught."  My response was terse:

    "I agree.  Poetry can't be taught.  To you."

     What serious professors do not do is argue that poems about blue jelly beans are superior or inferior to poems about red jelly beans, or that an interpretation that proves a poem is about blue rather than red ones is a prosodic or critical exercise.  They do not maintain that didactic or philosophical poems are inherently superior or inferior to funny, emotive, romantic, dramatic, or narrative ones.  They may mention but do not dwell on inspiration, usually resorting to it in order to fill up empty classroom time.  Speaking metaphorically, they are far more concerned with pottery than potters or the wheel within the clay.

     When "poets"¹ complain about how lousy poetry is they mean that it is not in accordance with their taste or, more to the point, their style.  If only the world could see that only their aesthetic is transcendent!

      Needless to say, publishers and editors roll their eyes and move on.

Theodore Sturgeon at 67
      When technicians declare that poetry is lousy they aren't stating an opinion, let alone a self-serving one.  They are stating a fact, buttressing it with statistics, trendlines, and, not surprisingly, prosody.  What is more, they are factoring in Sturgeon's Revelation, thus stating that much more than 90% of contemporary poetry is crud.  In essence, the technique freak is saying, while pointing to a graph:  "This doesn't work now and never has in the past."

      The incontrovertible evidence has been listed here and elsewhere:  poetry sales going from parity to a 200-to-1 underdog compared to fiction sales;  no iconic lines, let alone poems;  concentration on poets, not poems;  blurbing rather than criticism;  no presence beyond literary magazines;  across-the-board technical deficiencies in poems and poets;  etc.

     By any objective measure, including prosodic ones and especially the [over]production/consumption ratio from which cheerleaders seem to derive such odd comfort, contemporary poetry is worse now than ever before.  This is not the same as saying that "poetry is dying", something that occurred more than half a century ago.  We're not talking about palliative care;  we're talking about a rotting corpse that should be reanimated sooner rather than later. 

     Perhaps we should hold a funeral to give the Glee Club some closure.


¹ - By "poets" in scare quotes we mean those who don't know poetry's basics and read only their own works and those like it.


  1. Some good points about the value of objectivity in poetry criticism here. This post had me wondering whether the current state of poetry, particularly the widespread refusal to to learn, teach, or use the basics of form and prosody, exemplifies the prevailing supposition that there is a vast intellectual chasm between the arts and sciences in our society, which there is little to be gained from trying to bridge.

    I get the impression that many contemporary poets share a revulsion against engaging with anything that looks like it might be too “technical”, systematic, or ordered, because they intuit them to be the sort of devices the “other side”, those terrible grey stuffy scientists, would approve of. Also of course, it would inhibit their all important “self -expression” of their precious, unique, interior worlds – without which, what would their poetry be? Surely it would not even be THEIR poetry any more, if its uniqueness had to be compromised by externally devised “Rules” that limited it in some way! (Of course, it matters not that poetic technique exists not for its own sake, but to make the poetry speak more effectively, if you are not attempting to speak to anyone besides those who adhere to precisely the same narrow aesthetic as yourself.)

    I was a little alarmed by your conclusion however (albeit I’m sure it was made with tongue firmly in cheek). I agree that the contemporary corpus of poetry is in just the state you describe, but this is my take:

    The LAST thing we need to do is to go about performing unholy necromantic rituals on the rotting corpse that modern poetry has become. This will just extend its current shambling unlife even further, and people are already (with good reason) terrified of meeting the dread abomination in all kinds of unexpected places and having it force its noisome attentions on them as they try to go about their daily business. The only action that can possibly improve matters now, in my view, is to kill off this nasty perversion of living art properly, with a stake right through its cold heart, and make sure the decaying monstrosity can never come back to trouble us again by thoroughly incinerating the remains.

    I would be inclined to the use of sharply pointed, solidly constructed, well directed satire as the stake, with the derisive public laughter and scorn this may arouse acting as the final consuming flames.

    This procedure should moreover be performed as publically as possible, in a grand display of ritualised anihilation, so that the uneasy population can feel secure in the knowledge that "Modern Poetry" has indeed been put to its final rest, and will never be coming back to haunt the dark shadowy corners of their bars, schoolrooms, bookstores, public ceremonies, etc, again. They have been terrorised by the thing too long, and have very reasonably learned to turn and flee at the mere mention of the word "Poetry", at least if they detect even a whiff of contamporaneity. You can't really blame them for wanting to protect themselves from having their very life force Poemed away.

    I think that once they come to see that the source of their fear and dismay has been finally laid to rest (or at worst, is banished to mere shadowy existence in some remote academic sepulchre, where it can bother no one) they will cease to fear the mere WORD “Poetry” as they presently do, and therefore be more inclined to tolerate it in their presence, if only out of curiosity. Having to resort to subterfuge to get poetry anywhere near people is a little sad, frankly, not to mention that (as numerous movies have taught us) the undead have a pretty good line of their own in sneaking about unseen and ambushing their hapless prey.

    What do you say? :)

  2. You've got me thinking that we make poor salespeople. We don't sell technique and we don't sell the importance of repopularization very well. More on this in an upcoming blog. Stay tuned! And thanks for your comments, as always.



Your comments and questions are welcome.