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

Saturday, January 18, 2014

12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part I

     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.  

     Only two goals will bring you here and sustain you going forward:  fortune and fame.  Your underlying motivation is irrelevant.  You might want money to help the homeless or feed your greed.  You might want fame to bring comfort to wounded souls or because you are a Self-Propelled Attention Seeking Megalomaniac ("SPASM").  No matter.

     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.

     If you are writing poetry in order to gain publication credits for your resumé it makes sense to compose the kind of poems that are discussed in classrooms.  Since those discussions will be almost entirely interpretive, it follows that you should write poems that require explanation.  For their part, magazines understand the influence that teachers will have and will facilitate publication by eliminating the need for technical (if not artistic) merit and innovative form or content.  The writing is obscure in both the intrinsic (i.e. the currency is vagueness) and commercial (i.e. readership is limited to friends, relatives and other careerists) senses.  Publishing in poetry 'zines is, at best, the literary equivalent of films going straight to DVD.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #2
     Clearly, if your only interest in poetry is getting a job teaching it, our Rule #2 should be your mantra:  "If you can't be profound, be vague."

     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.

Merle's Motto
    "The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place." - George Bernard Shaw

     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?

Unearned Interest:

     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
     There is an old joke about a sargeant explaining bayonetting to his recruits:  "If your blade gets stuck in your opponent's body fire off a round to dislodge it."

     "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.

     If you're feeling generous while writing a poem throw the teachers and critics a bone:  add in some allusion or derivative phrase so that they can trace its source, argue that you were influenced by its author and are a member of such-and-such a School.  Leave a gap or two so they won't consider your work facile.  Don't sweat depth.  If people can discern meaning in red wheelbarrows, rain water, white chickens, Star Wars movies, misshapen potatoes and Beatles' songs played backwards, they can overinterpret³ your verse and make you a prophet.  Maybe even a profit!


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?


  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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