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 13, 2013

Why Few Read Poetry - Part I

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #35

     As you know, songs on the radio dealt poetry a death blow in the early 1920s.  It stands to reason that if poetry is going to be revived it will have to reclaim some of that audience.  This will require an understanding of why people read poetry before 1922...and why they don't now.

     Before the 20th century poetry and music were both performed.  Indeed, because verse required neither an instrument nor the ability to play one, a person might have encountered more poetry recitals than songs.

     How can we measure their relative popularity, though?  There were no albums, CDs, DVDs or MP3s so we cannot compare the sales of songs versus verses during that time.  We do have a common yardstick, though:  poetry sold as well as novels, both outselling musical scores (i.e. unperformed songs) by more than 100 to 1.  Nowadays, poetry is sold as text to be read by or to the end user but rarely performed, before or after publication.  Lo and behold, poetry sales are now on par with the scores and scripts of songs and films.  Today, novels outsell poetry collections [and sheet music] by 4-digit factors.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #43
     The obvious and inescapable conclusion is that if we want people to read contemporary poetry we need to show good verse¹ being performed well².  This is true both generally and specifically.  That is, we need people to hear a lot of poetry but especially the poem(s) that we're trying to sell them.  Who buys an MP3 without hearing the song first?  Thus, the typical publisher's insistence on being the first to present a piece is not just questionable;  it is exactly wrong on every conceivable level.

     Put another way, when people bought a book of poetry in, say, 1893 they could at least imagine it being performed before a breathless audience, perhaps by the purchasers themselves.  Poetry was useful, if only to spark such dreams, even within the most timorous souls.  Practicality was never an issue;  a 90 year old woman in a wheelchair can fantasize about being a prima donna...but only if she has seen a ballet.   

     The math is simple:

     No performances = no dreams of performing = no sales


¹ - As self-defining as it may be, in this context "good verse" refers to poetry that works on the page and stage.

² - By "performed well" we mean as a Shakespearean actor might present it, as opposed to three minutes of unmodulated screaming or what seems like hours of droning.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel


  1. I enjoyed this a great deal, though I disagree with much of it. I might try chiming in at length a bit later. (On break at work for the moment.)


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