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, December 27, 2013

12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XII

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #17
     What things do the majority of new poets get exactly wrong?  I can think of at least twelve.  Let us consider them in ascending order of importance. 

     We begin by examining the nature and value of originality.  This may be the least significant of the twelve aspects of poetry we'll examine but, as anyone falling from great height can attest, gravity dramatically affects all of our lives despite being among the weakest forces in physics.

     There are three conceivable approaches to novelty:

 1.  NNUTS - The Nothing New Under The Sun school punts the issue.  These prosodists trace the influences of poets and poems, apparently hoping to prove that no one has had an original thought since cave dwellers moved into huts.  For example, Tony French and others have shown that so many lines of John Gillespie Magee's "High Flight" were lifted from other sources that it could be considered a cento.  That doesn't change the fact that it is one of the two best known and best loved poems of the 20th century.  The cliché collage is the most visible product of the NNUTS view.

    You want your words to survive their telling.  Given that recognition is the goal why should incorporating the familiar into the process be such a crime?

    In short, these people don't sweat originality or content at all.  The hypothesis is that if you write well you'll be different enough.  To NNUTS advocates, a poem is "a little machine for remembering itself", as Don Paterson said.  This makes them good critics, critiquers and teachers but, because they insist that aspiring poets should take time to learn the elements of the craft, NNUTS proponents do not exert much influence within the lazy majority.

    For what it's worth, their patron saint is Algernon Charles Swinburne.

2.  MIN - At the opposite end of the spectrum is the "Make It New" crowd, a group of anti-aesthetics who face the originality issue head on, even as they exaggerate its importance.  In essence, they argue that we should abandon what has succeeded for millennia in favor of what has failed for almost a century.  Some call themselves "experimentalists" but ignore the results of their own tests.  Others refer to themselves as "avant garde", presuming to know the tastes of future generations despite a zero percent record of success in the past.  (What failed artists don't consider themselves ahead of their time?)  The rest identify themselves using wide-ranging [usually content-driven] nomenclature:  "conceptualists", "ideationalists", other euphemisms for "Convenient Poetics", etc.  What unifies these commentators, aside from a complete disregard/disdain for broader audiences, is their attempt to repackage the prehistoric.  Modernism began, more or less, with T.S. Eliot's hetrometrical "Prufrock" (1915) and then "The Waste Land" (1922) and "The Hollow Men" (1925).  It has since deteriorated into the artless prose with linebreaks we see today.  As such, we have retraced in reverse the steps of ancient prosodists who went from grunts with pauses to the dawn of meter.  An entire industry has been built around performing cosmetic surgery on prose qua poetry, the original failed aesthetic.

     As an aside, let me say that it is difficult to find anything weighty or fascinating to say on a regular basis.  If you doubt this, try blogging for a year or so.  We have to regard Edgar Guest with at least grudging admiration;  he wrote and published verse every day for thirty years!  Granted, it was insipid dreck, but in being metrically sound it showed familiarity with at least one more aspect of the art form than most of today's MIN "poets" can demonstrate.

     By definition, a cliché is trite, something everyone understands because they've seen it many times before.  The polar opposite of the clichéd/trite is not the new but the incoherent (i.e. that which no one comprehends).  Thus, we have postmodernism.

     It is difficult to imagine a role for MIN types.  In practice, they dominate "theoretical" discussions among Content Regents who think WCW's "The Red Wheelbarrow" is free verse.

3.  Good Stories Well Told ("GoStWeTo") - Is it really too much to ask that poets have something interesting¹ to say and know the difference between trochees and iambs?


¹ - "Interesting" does not necessarily imply "profound".  It can mean, among many other possibilities, "informative", "funny", "entertaining" or "moving".  That I feel the need to explain the term speaks volumes.


  1. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part I

  2. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II

  3. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part III

  4. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IV

  5. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part V

  6. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VI

  7. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VII

  8. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VIII

  9. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IX

  10. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part X

  11. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XI

  12. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XII

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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