This series is meant to be a countdown from 12 to 1. If you have stumbled onto this page thinking it begins the series please click here to jump to Part XII.
There are thousands of reasons to write poetry, among them wanting to impress prospective partners, wanting to appear clever, a burning desire to prove one's nerdiness, et cetera. Of these, the worst is that you have a message for the world. If that is the case, you're in the wrong place, switch over to prose, Ace.
It's not that we don't judge. It's just that we really don't give a damn.
Because poetry is a dead art form on the demand side (where it counts) we need to drastically scale down our expectations. To wit, "fortune" involves getting a job teaching poetry, not writing it, while "fame" involves writing something that more than a few dozen strangers might actually want to read.
|Earl the Squirrel's Rule #2|
Technique? Remember episode 110 in M*A*S*H where an outraged Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger, played by Jamie Farr, threatening suicide by dousing himself with a faux flammable, shouts "Who put gasoline in my gasoline?" That is how these poets and editors regard technique.
Not surprisingly, these publishers are often funded through educational institutions: mostly universities, but also groups with broader scopes such as the Poetry Foundation. Elsewhere, the ethos and aesthetics can be quite different. What is standard operating procedure in one can be scandalous in the other. For example, in contests, selecting poems to help a person's career caused a new rule to be named after the offending judge and her resolving to never assume that responsibility again. Because the poems we see in these award-winning publications are not designed with immediate audience appeal in mind, few would survive the early screening processes of a large contest. There is simply no time for "close reads" or academic discussions that might bring light or life to such writing.
There are dozens of things wrong with the current, purely interpretive approach to criticizing and teaching poetry (aside from the exclusion of technique), but among the worst is Merle's¹ Motto. It may be counterintuitive but having hordes of students and critics deciphering² verses amounts to nothing more than compounding the confounding. In addition to comprehension, it undermines trust. Because we can't be sure our audience will catch our drift, we can't quote many modern, let alone contemporary, poems. In what conversation could we quote, say, "The Red Wheelbarrow" or "In the Station of the Metro" without looking like idiots?
Today, only a tiny subset--less than .01%-- of poets (mostly aspiring teachers and students) will read any given contemporary poem. What if you want to appeal to those beyond such a miniscule peer or captive audience? Come to think of it, what is it that enrollees in contemporary poetry classses are examining? Failure as a cautionary tale? Certainly not success, given poetry's disappearance from our common culture. Certainly not technical merit (a subject conspicuous by its absence in classrooms and literary criticisms).
Lest we think textual poets are the only problem, let's take stock of both ends of the spectrum:
Poetry Type Focus Material Technique Performance
Academic Author Dull Non-existent Portentious Hush
Performance Author Sporatic Non-existent Over the top
It doesn't take a genius to see how a poet can stand out from these two extremes.
|Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12|
"Sarge," counters a buck private, "if there's a bullet in my rifle there ain't gonna be no bayonettin'!"
If readers don't enjoy their first encounter with your poem there ain't gonna be a second one. No "close read". No nothing. What is more, if you can't capture their attention early many people won't stay for the finale. This 1,000-channel-changing generation isn't known for its attention span.
If you never take anything else away from this blog take Rule #12: "Try to be understood too quickly."
Write interesting stories. Write them well. If they pass muster with a serious critical audience make videos out of them and post them on YouTube. If ambitious, find an authority willing to sift through such presentations and feature the best ones in a press release. Give your contest a catchy, highfalutin name. Repeat as necessary.
¹ - Merle the Squirrel is our Shakespeare.
² - The difference between annotation and interpretations is the difference between singular and plural, between fact and opinions.
³ - If you teach poetry, I implore to stop asking "What does this mean?" Instead, ask "Will your remember this?" If so, why? If not, what does it matter?
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part I
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part III
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IV
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part V
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VI
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VII
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VIII
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IX
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part X
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XI
- 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XII
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Earl Gray, Esquirrel