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, December 12, 2013

Poetry: Dead or Alive

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #69
    In our last post, "Writing Song Lyrics", we discussed the technical differences between poetry and song stemming from the fact that poetry is spoken while songs are sung.  Today, let's discuss the practical differences stemming from the fact that poetry is dead while song is very much alive.

    The delusion that poetry is alive has become a central tenet of Convenient Poetics, if only because verse being dead is such a terrible inconvenience.  A large part of the problem is that poetry has been gone for so long that few can recall what it was like when poetry was part of our common culture.  If not our past, we can look at other, non-anglophone societies to glimpse what life would be like in such an environment. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #45
    That said, it is hard to find precedents or analogies.  The best I can do is point out how, in a matter of a few generations, spoken French lost its past perfect tense.  Today, only non-francophones are baffled by this.  How can you have a language in which one cannot say "I did that" as opposed to "I have done that"?  The difference is that, while French lost one of many tenses, except in the written word, anglophones lost one of only two entire modes of speech, except in song.

     Let me draw a picture of what it's like when and where poetry is alive within a society.  Can you imagine:

  1. ...expressing dismay because your favorite 2013 poetry release sold only 200,000 copies?

  2. ...making $5,838,560.00 in 2013 dollars from one poem, it not being the one for which you are best known?

  3. ...popular poets (e.g. Robert Frost) out-earning popular musicians (e.g. the Beatles)?

  4. ...random schoolchildren reciting a half-hour long poem? 

  5. ...being able to recite more contemporary poetry than contemporary song lyrics?

  6. ...poets filling not just concert halls but football stadiums to capacity?

  7. ...non-poets quoting contemporary verse in missives (e.g. letters or, more recently, text messages, emails or social media posts) and speeches?

  8. ...every significant newspaper, tabloid and magazine publishing poetry?

  9. ...prominent families in your area competing to see who could attract the most famous poet to their parties?

     Boggles the mind, doesn't it?  Nevertheless...

  1. Let's do some arithmetic, shall we?

         Since the advent of language, at least 1% of every human population has been comprised of poets, amateur or otherwise.  To hear the Death Deniers speak, you'd think the figure today were closer to 10%!  No matter.  Let's say only half a percent are dabblers in poetry--a number smaller than in any other culture or era in human history.  That's about 2,000,000 poets in North America alone. 

         Now, what percentage of novelists will buy a best-seller, even a terrible one, if only to see what the buzz is about?  60%?  80?  Again, let's take a ridiculously low estimate:  10%.  If that same percentage of poets were to buy the same popular tome, without so much as a single educational, overseas, personal¹ or pleasure² sale, a poetry volume would sell 200,000 copies.

         Bottom line?  No one buys poetry books, including poets.  This isn't just a "coal to Newcastle" problem, with poets hoping to sell rather than buy.  It's a question of deficiency breeding deficiency.  How many failures to find a readership do people need to examine before they discern what can be learned from the exercise?

  2. Robert Service is said to have made $500,000 from "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" back in the day when that wasn't chump change.

  3. Had Frost and the Beatles lived a century earlier the latter would have toiled in obscurity.  You can probably name many 19th century poets and poems.  How many popular musicians and songs from that century can you identify?

  4. Even today, in some cultures kids can recite long poems at will, some written in the last half century. 

  5. Before music came onto the air waves in the 1920s poetry travelled much better than music, with its groups and instruments.  Few people heard more than one new song a month, and that tune was not played repeatedly for days or weeks on end, as they are on hit parades today.  The average person knew many more contemporary poems than songs. 

  6. Pablo Neruda, among many others, attracted such crowds.  On one occasion, when he couldn't recite an old poem the audience did it for him.

  7. Not only is contemporary poetry absent from our interpersonal and broader public discourse but it is becoming progressively less common and regarded as more pretentious or geekish to quote classical poetry.  That is, not only is poetry dead but the collective memory and use of it is fading, despite the admirable efforts of more [English Literature and Creative Writing] teachers than ever.

  8. Even medical journals included poetry!

  9. Touring poets would encourage bidding wars between sponsors, pitting crosstown rivals against each other.

     I know what you're thinking.

    "No radio, television, Internet, texting, cell phones.  Of course poetry was popular.  It was the only game in town!  We could never recapture that exclusivity today."

     All true.  This is no small challenge.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #51
     The question becomes:  Other than the usual benefits of living in the real world, why should poetry's cheerleaders face the painful but obvious truth? 

     The answer remains:  Because it allows a person to engage in the three greatest debates in the history of communication arts:

1.  Why were radio songs able to kill English poetry so quickly, especially as compared to verse in other technologically advanced cultures/languages?

2.  Why did it not affect sales of novels?

3.  How can we revive poetry?

     Food for thought.


¹ - personal sales involve guilting friends, relatives or attendees at a reading into purchasing a book

² - pleasure sales involve strangers buying a poetry collection because they hope to enjoy reading it, as one might a novel

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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