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

Sunday, January 12, 2014

12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part III

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #13
     I once witnessed an odd experiment:  someone read aloud three passages in Russian to a few dozen non-Russian speakers.  One was a metrical poem, one was free verse, and one was prose. 

     Not one participant had any difficulty guessing which was prose. 

     We can understand how the experimental group was able to separate the verse from prose;  the rhymes and rhythm were tipoffs.  How did they discern the free verse from prose, though?  More to the point, why do English-speaking editors have such difficulty drawing the same distinction with English language submissions?

     The answer to both questions is:  rhythms.  The listeners were able to detect their presence whereas editors today can't seem to detect their absence [or are forced to publish despite that absence].

     Let me conjure up two scenarios.

     In the first, everyone studies the fundamentals of poetry in grade school, starting with scansion, as they did a century ago.  They understand where the rhythms of song and speech differ.  Their very existence creates a demand for verse and rhythmic free verse, along with a certain "WTF?" disdain for prose trying to pass for poetry.  There are so many poets that every demographic is covered.  Thus, if a drunken, misogynistic, bomb-throwing p[r]oser were to appear on the horizon he would be instantly replaced in the public eye with a drunken, misogynistic, bomb-throwing poet.  Same clichéd message, same clumsy verbosity, same persona, same hype, different mode--poetry as opposed to lineated prose.

     In the second scenario teaching the elements of poetry is discontinued in the middle of the 20th century.  This knowledge becomes so arcane that only a few hundred--maybe only a few dozen--people on the planet can pass the simplest test.  Needless to say, there is no audience for poetry of any sort.  Good storytellers either can't write verse or choose to go where the market is:  novels.  The tiny population of poets cannot hope to cover every subgenre, topic or demographic.  Now, when a drunken, misogynistic, bomb-throwing p[r]oser appears there are no actual poets within that interest group to serve it.

     We can stimulate knowledge but we cannot simulate it.  We can show aspiring poets how learning the essentials can help them charm contest judges, editors and audiences.  We can show aspiring poets the basics in an hour.  Once they attain this wisdom we can encourage them to practice and share it, especially in critical forums.  What we cannot do as individuals is trick others into thinking we've studied the elements of the art form.  Our ignorance will show in everything we say, in the topics we discuss (i.e. content) and in the whole glossary of subjects we avoid.  As a population we cannot be expected to buy something we don't understand.  Like watching a foreign language film without subtitles, the participants in the aforementioned experiment may be able to discern poetry in Russian better than editors can do so in English but they won't report enjoying the experience.  No, not even if someone translates the pieces after the fact.  

Barring celebrity or notoriety, at least.
     I estimate that about 2,000,000 North Americans self-identify as "poets", serious or not.  The British Isles should be able to muster almost as many.  Between them, Australia and New Zealand can be counted on to kick in 30,000+ souls who at least dabble in poetry.  Ditto South Africa.  If India doesn't already have more English language poets than all of these countries combined they soon will.  Hearing this, many would conclude that the world has too many poets.

     In truth, we have far too few.


  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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