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, May 29, 2013

Free Speech

     Speech is free.  Writing costs.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #19
     In a Facebook discussion with one of our favorite editors (stemming from our previous post entitled "What poetry was, is, and will always be"), the question arose:  "will we ultimately reach a point in our evolution when written prose is more common than oral prose?"

     Will we type more than we speak?

     When people discuss "free speech" they are usually talking about its possible political rather than its actual economic price.  Other than commercials, we rarely have to pay money in order to speak;  reading is another matter.  In centuries past publication was well beyond most people's budgets.  Earlier, carving on stone tablets was, at least in terms of work hours, expensive.  (Perhaps it is no coincidence that writing has invariably developed along with a currency, giving rise to conjecture that writing methods may have begun as accounting systems.  Instead of the wisdom of the ages, could our first recorded words have been tax code?)

     Today, text is a booming industry:  Internet Service Providers, book and magazine publishers, dating websites, newpapers, advice lines for sports, investments, etc.  The telephone was one of the primary sources of conversation but is now ceding ground to text[ing].  Turn on your television and see how much information is moving across your screen. 

      For the first time in modern history reading and writing are free:  anyone with access to a public WiFi outlet and a tablet or laptop can enjoy and contribute to the world wide web's cornucopia of text, including this blog, at zero cost.

     Speech and writing are free.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #20
     All of this is great news unless your concern is the quality rather than the quantity of discourse.  Enter poetry.  Lots of it.  Printing costs are falling and, absent funding, there is always the Internet.  From stone tablets to papyrus transcription, then from moveable type to deskstop publishing, there has been a cheapening--in both the literal and figurative senses--of writing.  Today, most of what we read is unpublished:  texting, email, social media, blogs, etc.  Most poetry is either self-published or put out by acquantainces or hobbyists.  This makes it  more difficult to weed out the posers and prosers.  The public won't bother;  one glance is enough to tell them this stuff isn't ready for prime time.  Few will invest the time to read it.

     Even free, most poetry is overpriced.

Monday, May 27, 2013

What poetry was, is, and will always be

"The Science of Poetry: A Prehistoric Telephone Game" is one of the more interesting articles I've read in a while.  In it, Rattle Editor-in-Chief Tim Green traces a brief chronology of human and speech development.

  • 200,000 - 100,000 years ago:  "This is the timeline of human history, dating back to the earliest appearance of anatomically modern humans within the fossil record. Along this line have lived 10,000 generations of Homo sapiens, all with the same brain size and bone structure, all with some capacity for complicated thought."

  • 100,000 years ago:  "This is when the FOXP2 gene, believed to be largely responsible for our understanding of grammar, first appeared. Because this gene must have developed within a relatively stable linguistic environment, this is strong evidence that rudimentary language existed prior to this date."

  • 50,000 years ago:  "...the dawn of the Upper Paleolithic. Humans are transitioning from the common hand ax to an array of specialized blade tools for hunting, dressing meat, and working hide."

  • 25,000 years ago:  "This is the period anthropologists call the 'cultural explosion', the sudden emergence of art. All over the world, and in a relatively short span of time, human enterprise shifted from the entirely utilitarian production of hunting tools to all things ephemeral. People began adorning themselves with bead and bone jewelry. They began making musical instruments, and cave paintings, and burying their dead. This suggests they lived rich social lives, with strong interpersonal relationships and increasingly complicated mythologies."

  • 12,000 years ago:  "...the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent."

  • 6,000 years ago:  "...the first proto-writing emerges in the form of pictograms carved into tablets and tortoise shells. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform."

  • 3,000 years ago:  "...the first appearance of the Phoenician alphabet, and a genuine writing system."

      His treatise was going swimmingly.  He noted that memorization was a defining function of primitive societies.  He cites only one example, the religious, but he could have added legal, genealogical, and some culture and historical accounts to the lists of verbage that preliterates continue to memorize even today.  His "poetry telephone" analogy was a fine example of what prose, as opposed to poetry, is, although it may not have involved a failure of memory.  With a very limited collective experience (i.e. either Gronk killed and ate the beast--joy!--or the beast killed and at Gronk--tragedy!), storytellers might have been intentionally varying their performances to keep audiences amused.  In other words, "keeping it new" was a challenge primarily for prosers.  Mr. Green mentioned efforts to preserve stories intact through memorization made easy by repetitions.  Had he used the term "verbatim" he'd have rediscovered the definition of poetry.  As it was, he was within a micron of it when he derailed:

     "It was poetry that saved the things that mattered, before we had prose."

     I suspect he meant "writing";  here is a dictionary definition of prose:

noun, adjective, verb, prosed, pros·ing.

1. the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse.

    Obviously, poetry grew out of prose, not the other way around.  Our cave-dwelling ancestors weren't like Shakespearean characters, speaking in verse until prose was invented.  Indeed, this was probably true on a piece-by-piece basis as well as the cultural.  Before the development of prosody that Mr. Green mentions, poems would have been presentations so compelling that the tribe chose to preserve them in memory.

     The implication that poetry was the only way ancient societies preserved their lore would come as a surprise to any student of, say, Greek or native North American mythologies.  When the storyline or moral was what mattered prose was the preferred medium.  Poetry was employed when the actual words mattered.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Hurdles Rule - Part I

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #24
    If one group is filled with people who can't jump higher than a foot and a second group has participants who can't jump higher than three feet which group probably has the better leapers?

    While nothing is certain, the odds favor the second group producing better hoppers.

     Barring academic sales and flukes, if no one is selling more than a few hundred poetry books you won't either.  You might think this would be obvious but, in a recent blog post, "I Just Don’t Know What I’m Doing Wrong", an editor received an email from the last person on earth to discover that poetry doesn't sell.  The editor's response?

  "Lower your expectations!"

    At first blush this is excellent, practical advice.  Let's face it;  there is no significant chance that a book of verse will top the Times Best Seller list any time soon.  Given the miniscule hit counts on YouTube, we literally can't give poetry away!

    If you share our ideal of expanding poetry's audience then "Lower your expectations" is the worse advice ever given.  At the risk of stating the obvious, we need to be raising our hopes, our expectations and, above all, our limits.  It doesn't have to be--and likely shouldn't be--a book.  One famous contemporary poem would suffice.  Hell, one iconic line might do!

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #45
    Obviously, the candidate poem has to be online.  Preferably, it will have been placed into the public domain, Creative Commons, or have a co-operative copyright holder.

    In "Do you promote poetry-not-your-own?" we discussed the importance of promoting the best poetry available other than our own.  Until there is a buzz, a bustle, a clamor about a verse on Facebook, Twitter or public media, there is no real opportunity for our work to do so.  We can't have two recognized contemporary verses until we have one.  Ideally, it would be a poem that authorities are already touting.

    Success builds on success.  When we raise the visibility of one piece we raise the potential for all works, including our own.  The trick is to avoid blunting the message.  Too many authorities, when asked to cite one example, give many.  Stick to one poem.  Or, for that matter, part of a poem.



1. Poet Laureate

2. Poet Laureate - Part II

3. Hurdles Rule - Part I

4. Hurdles Rule - Part II

5. "Vegetarian Meat Lover" from "Shelf Life" (2011) by Valerie Macon, with a 2011 Pushcart nomination

6. "Detour" from "Sleeping Rough" (2014) by Valerie Macon, with a 2013 Pushcart nomination

7. North Carolina Poet Laureate (2005-2009) Kathryn Stripling Byer Reads from "Descent"

8. North Carolina Poet Laureate (2010-2012) Cathy Smith Bowers reads "Snow"

9. North Carolina Poet Laureate (2012-2014) Joseph Bathanti Reads "Knocked"

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Friday, May 24, 2013

Could poetry replace television?

    Yes, I know;  you don't like contemporary poetry performances.  Hell, I'm not sure anyone does.  Give this one a try, though.  Trust me.  Hey, have I ever lied to you?

    And, yes, I suppose I could quibble about the initial pace and tone being elevated.  Better to start both lower and build up, right?  Well, this time I think the over-the-top histrionics are entirely appropriate. 

    I'd like to thank my elaborate network of spies for bringing this to my attention so quickly.

    One has to wonder:  if all poetry were as entertaining as this why would we need cable TV?

Steve Currie:  Worst Date

    The scene was the King's Head Pub at the regional slam semifinals on the evening of May 24th, 2013.  Our hero, Steve Currie, had gone first and was the victim of some serious score creep*.  He would need a nearly impossible score to make it into the top four and qualify for the final. 

    The rest, as you can see, is history.

"Score creep" = Slams are scored by audience volunteers.  As the event proceeds the scores they give invariably rise, creating what is called "score creep".  To compensate for this, organizers reverse the order of appearances in the second half.  As Bob Dylan would say, "the first one now will later be last".  Such was the case for Steve, who capped the evening with this brilliancy to finish fourth overall.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Piñager Paradox

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #25
     We can never say "No" in response to the question "Are you awake?"

     In similar vein, the mere fact that we are reading instead of ever listening to something suggests that it is not poetry.  Text loses all the repetitions of sound that help verse fulfill its primary purpose:  to worm its way into our memory.  Reading poetry aloud privately doesn't do the job;  it's like trying to tickle ourselves.  Just as tails and gills become vistigial or disappear entirely over time, text-only editors will inevitably present prose as poetry, having eliminated the differences (e.g.  sound repetitions, rhythms, etc.) between the two.

     This is the second greatest challenge for poetry book and magazine publishers (after finding a way to compete with music).

Ye olde Churchkey
     The easiest get-around is to include [preferably audiovisual rather than sound recording] performances, typically via DVD or URL.  However, this causes many an editor to reconsider the whole endeavor, as the presentation makes evident that their "poetry" lacks performance or poetic value.  This is the dynamic nature of the Piñager Paradox, a dilemma that becomes more acute as competing poets develop their presentation skills.  Soon, any publication that does not include such videos will seem like a Black and White television or a non-zip beverage can.

     For what it may be worth, of an English teacher's many transgressions, none is more egregious than having students read Shakespearean plays without attending or, at least, viewing them.

"Piñager" is pronounced "Peen" as in "Pinot noir" and "Yeager" as in Chuck.

The Hype/Value Ratio

 Earl the Squirrel's Rule #35
    One of the most fundamental laws of marketing is the Hype/Value ratio:  the amount of [time, effort and] money needed to promote something compared to its market (as opposed to intrinsic) value.  For example, an unknown garage band will require significant bolstering, based on a speculative estimation of its commercial appeal.  By contrast, we need only announce that Justin Bieber--who embodies the difference between intrinsic and market value--has another album out and the cash starts rolling in. 

    The bad news is that poetry has no market and, therefore, no market value.  Not surprisingly, larger commercial publishers see no point in hyping it.  What promotional efforts there are amount to blurbing verse without much regard to its artistic merit.  Thus, poetry's effective Hype/Value Ratio is 0/0, a mathematically irrational endeavor.

    Here's a thought:  perhaps we shouldn't be promoting poetry.  Perhaps poetry should be doing the promoting.

"It Couldn't Be Done" - New Audi Commercial based on an Edgar Guest poem

"Oh, Pioneers" - Levi's Commercial based on a Walt Whitman poem

    Or perhaps we should let poetry do the talking:  dramatizing or telling stories, jokes, perspectives, whatever.

    It's not like anyone promotes prose in toto.  Or television in toto.  Or communication in toto.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"I Study the Craft"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #43
    What, exactly, does "I study the craft" mean?

    In my experience, it means one of three different things, depending on who is speaking.

    If English majors say they "study the craft" they mean they examine the products of that endeavor as opposed to those features specific to it.  They are superfans, Monday morning quarterbacks who might think they can coach an NFL team without knowing what a Bang 8 is.  Their favorite question is "what does this mean?"  Why?  Because if you remove the technical there isn't much left beyond the interpretive.  Their measure of a work's value is how much classroom discussion time can be wasted guessing at its references and influences.  Derivative hypertext trumps the modern masterpiece.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #44
    Creative Writing majors will, not surprisingly, focus on the elements common to all writing:  grammar, eloquence, continuity, logic, effectiveness, storytelling, clarity, et cetera.  They study the subjects of the craft, rarely its objects.  Unfortunately, even when discussing poetry they do so without referring to the elements specific to that art form (e.g. sonics, meters/rhythms, forms, et cetera).  For example, they will pontificate for hours about metaphor without realizing that metaphor has no more to do with poetry than syllogisms or dictionary definitions.  They are simply a way of conceptualizing something.  Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" is chock full of them.  Does that make it poetry?

    Both groups are inspired by Convenient Poetics and dominated by Content Regents, the difference being that Literature scholars work in all dimensions, tracking influences through time.

    To my knowledge, the only people who study the elements of the craft are the onliners.  Among many other advantages, this allows them to engage in the serious technical criticism that defines them.  It allows them to detail the difference between free verse and prose [with or without linebreaks], between the poetic and the merely profound.  And, no, it isn't largely a matter of opinion.

     The catch is that, in venues ruled by ConPoets and Content Regents, neither quality nor qualities matter.  In such forums a subjective reality pervades where technique doesn't matter because it doesn't exist [in the minds of those present].

     More on this later.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Cadas - Part IV

     Here are the two video renditions of the double sonnet:

"This Won't Make Sense" (unannotated)

This Won't Make Sense (Unannotated) from Earl Gray on Vimeo.

"This Won't Make Sense" (annotated)

This Won't Make Sense (annotated) from Earl Gray on Vimeo.

     Obviously, the video format can't hide as much as the text does, especially without the last couplet (as we saw in "Cadas - Part IIa").  This could be a rare inversion:  the poem may work better as text or audio-only first.  There is also the TMI issue:  how much information is too much?