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

Monday, January 13, 2014

12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #25
     Consider the following two excerpts in technical (e.g. rhythm, assonance, consonance, rhyme, anaphora, etc.) and interpretive terms:

Text sample #1:

Change is the new,


word for god,

lovely enough
to raise a song

or implicate

a sea of wrongs,
mighty enough,

like other gods,

to shelter,
bring together,

and estrange us.

Text Sample #2:

Desolation is a misty pirate.
Why does the sail wave?
Why does the moon die?
Endure quietly like a rough sail.
Shrink calmly like a grimy girl.

     Is one of these markedly and demonstrably better as poetry than the other?  If so, which?  And why?

     #1 is a series of bland, unsupported assertions broken up into short bursts of precious selfconsciousness by linebreaks and lacunae strophe breaks.  Soporific?  Twice I had to check myself for a pulse.  Aside from some short "e" assonance and the clumsy gods/god and song/wrongs rhymes, there are fewer sonic or pattern repetitions here than one might expect in prose, let alone poetry.  It might be the most humdrum text every streamed.

     By comparison, #2 is a masterpiece.  The opening metaphor is striking, even without the play on words (i.e. does "misty" refer to weepy or foggy?).  Long "i" sounds abound:  "Why...die...quietly...like...like...grimy".  Note the alliteration of "d" ("Desolation...does...does...die...Endure") and, at the end, "g" sounds ("grimy girl").  The rhythms are rather deft iambic heterometer with acephaly in the 1st and 3rd line and anacrusis in the 4th.

[x] Des|olat|ion is | a mist|y pir|      Headless iamb + 3 iambs.
ate.  Why | does the | sail wave?        3 iambs.
[x] Why | does the | moon die?           Headless iamb + 2 iambs.
[En]dure qui|etly | like a | rough sail. "En" + spondee + Double iamb.
Shrink calm|ly like | a grim|y girl.     Spondee + 3 iambs.

     Notice how both "like" iterations come after "-ly" but only the latter is stressed.  In five lines we see a noteworthy stylistic mixture of T.S. Eliot and Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Because #2 is poetry while #1 is in every aspect its direct antithesis, we can say without hyperbole that #2 is infinitely superior to #1.

     We should not miss the irony that #1 soon ends with "Please, god...change us" (indeed!) or that it was published in a magazine called "Poetry".  I would not have singled it out since it is identical to almost every other poem being published today but it was brought to my attention by the publisher.  Why?  Was I supposed to enjoy it?  Should I be insulted?

     I am not criticizing the editors, who cannot be held responsible for turns made before they were born.  In fact, I can emphathize.  Think of it:  you spend more than half a decade in university racking up a 6-digit debt, you toil away until you get your dream job, only to be forced by circumstance to put out this lifeless dreck.

     Given what they accept, can you imagine what they must reject?  I have been critiquing and publishing, on and off, for decades and I don't recall anything this vapid crossing my desk.  The notion that they must be looking at thousands of submissions worse than this would make me shiver in summer.

     #1 was obviously not written with a human audience in mind.  Was it written by a human, though?  Believe it or not, yes, it was.  In fact, it was penned by a poet I like and admire, one capable of much better work than this.  Why submit this tripe, then?  More broadly, how did the Seinfeldian¹ New Yorker poem become the industry standard?

     When did boredom become a prerequisite? 

     Well, if the rules of the game state that anything as exciting as "The Charge of the Light Brigade", as funny as "The Cremation of Sam McGee", as emotive as "Do not go gentle into that good night", or as romantic as "Sonnets to the Portuguese 43" won't be studied and, therefore, won't be published, what choice do poets have but to add to the pile of detritus being disseminated as the submission guidelines insist?  If poets can, in under a minute, write and later publish text so tedious that it permanently lowers our metabolism where is the incentive to create something people might actually want to read? 

     Would you believe that it was #2 that was computer generated?  Ayup.  I went to the Poem Generator site², hit the "Make Poem" button five times, et voilà!  With nothing but cutting and pasting to do, it took me about 80 seconds.  Thus, I spent about twice as long piecing together #2 as the author seems to have in creating #1.

     So, if writers have to write what publishers publish, if publishers can only publish what is submitted to them, and if discerning readers ignore the entire process, how can we break out of this Garbage In, Garbage Out vicious circle?  Oh, and can you guess what is the most common and egregious thing that poets do exactly wrong?  The answer to these and all your other questions will be revealed in our thrilling final chapter of "12 Things Poets Get Backwards". 

     Stay tuned!


¹ - "Seinfeldian" = "about nothing".

² -  These poetry generators are an excellent source of inspiration.  Try loading "Poem Generator" with your own word lists.  Your results may amuse and amaze you.  "Language is a Virus", "Goth-o-matic", "Jelks" and "Random Line Generator" are alternatives.

  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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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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