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

Friday, March 7, 2014

What You Should Already Know About Poetry

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #44
     In 2004 two of my favorite humans began a 5-year experiment on "egoless" critique.  This involved complete anonymity--not even pseudonymity--on the part of poet and critic.  Thus, there was nothing linking one poster to any other poem or comments on the site. 

     The first such forum was "The Lathe".  Comprised almost entirely of Usenetters and Poetry Free-For-All denizens, this may have been the highest concentration of experts since the Round Table.  Remember what Ezra Pound did for that Eliot guy?  Imagine a dozen Ezra Pounds commenting on your work.  "The Lathe" was fun because the anonymity lasted only a week, after which the identities of the poet and critics would be uncovered.

     Months later came the "Egoless" site, where members' names were never revealed (except when honored in the "Hall of Fame" forum).  All poems were evaluated numerically, from 1 up to 10 (best);  members were encouraged to include detailed critiques which were also judged, 1-10.  Roughly, a poem that averaged 6-out-of-10 might be deemed publishable;  7/10 would be ready for a high end periodical and anything higher than 8/10 might be anthologized.

     Over time, members established Performance Ratings (also 1-10) as poets and critics.  No poet or critic sustained a Rating higher than 7.2/10.  Tough crowd!

     The aggregate statistics were never published but here, for the first time, we can read the bottom line.  For this to make sense, though, we need to group the members into three¹ types:

1.  Technicians:

     Anyone who knows the difference between iambs and trochees.  AKA "geeks".  On Egoless, this was almost 15% of the membership--much higher than the poet population at large.  To put this in perspective, only "The Lathe", Poetry Free-For-All, Eratosphere and 'zines edited or populated largely by PFFA/Erato members could boast higher numbers.

2.  Academics:

    Anyone who can't scan but has taught English/Creative Writing or taken such a course above the secondary school level.  AKA "careerists" or "professionals".  Almost a fifth of the membership qualified here. 

3.  Non-Academics

    Anyone posting critiques or poems who is neither of the above.  AKA "amateurs", in the best sense of the word.

     Here are the egoless experiment's less-than-startling discoveries:

10. Academics and Non-Academics don't like to write critiques.

    At first, more than three quarters of the critiques were written by technicians, who seemed to warm to the task.  Quotas were introduced to share the workload.  Nevertheless, more than 55% of the subsequent critiques were from geeks.

9.  Academics and non-academics disappoint when writing critiques.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #80
    Too many amateurs--and an embarrassing number of professionals--believe in a double standard:  "Great poem!" is received as impeccable criticism while "This is crap!" is considered indefensible.  These folks will rate flattering critiques higher than helpful ones.  (For this reason, one's Critic Rating was affected only by third party evaluations.²)

     Academics can certainly write scholarly criticism and some can write book reviews [when they aren't confusing formal criticism, reviews and blurbs].  Why do academics underperform when writing constructive criticism, though?  Because literary criticism and book reviews are written by and for readers while critiques are written by and for writers.

8.  The higher the Critic Rating the more consistent the evaluations.

    Those with CRs higher than 6 (all of them technicians) averaged less than 2 points between the highest and lowest evaluation given to the same poem.  Members with CRs between 4 and 6 (mostly academics) averaged a slightly wider spread.  Posters with CRs lower than 4 varied by almost 4 points.  For example, non-academics might give a poem scores ranging from 2 all the way up to 10.  That never happened in other groups.  This may explain the amateur's belief that "it's all just a matter of taste";  to many of them, it really is!

7.  As poets, academics were models of consistency in quality and qualities.

    Not one careerist cracked the top 10 or the bottom 50.  In five years they produced a grand total of one metrical poem--a parody of a Frost piece.  The rest could most charitably be called "prose poetry", all of them in portentous hush voice and exhibiting zero performance value.  This lack of variety and imagination was remarkable.  For what it's worth, careerists were also the most breathless, producing the shortest average line length of the three poet categories.  Assessed by the number of first person pronouns, the academics' level of self-absorption was exceeded by the amateurs, but only barely.

6.  As poets, amateurs were all over the lot.

     No less than 3 of the top 10 and all of the bottom 50 poets were from this group.  As with the technicians, about half of their poems were metrical/doggerel.

5.  As poets, the geeks kicked ass.

     Gee, who could have predicted that those who study the elements of an art form would eclipse those who don't?

4.  The average Critic Rating of technicians was two whole points better than the other groups.

      Professionals and amateurs didn't like any criticism but especially not each others'.  They both had some begrudging respect for the geeks' specificity.

3.  By definition, careerists and amateurs had no option but to focus on the interpretive.

     Unless a lack of clarity was a problem, this was of little help to the poets.  Thus, their interpretive critiques generated the longest responses--almost exclusively conversation about the subject matter--but the fewest revisions.

2.  There was a strong correlation between Critic and Poet Ratings. 

     With only one exception, the top three poets in each group were also the top critics.

1.  People don't like to be told the truth about their work.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #47
    Among academics and non-academics, who, taken together, formed almost 90% of the membership, poets rated the critiques they received lower than more objective third parties did.  In the case of amateurs, this disparity was more than 3 points!²   Careerists were a little more generous in rating the critiques they received but were far more likely to quit the site after one candid response.  Fewer than 35% posted a second poem, compared to about 45% of amateurs who did.

    Why were so many put off by an honest, objective and often expert assessment of their work when their name was not even attached to it?  Because, as the name suggests, we can, more or less, eliminate the ego effect but not the Ido Effect.  These people were likely accustomed to the flattery of family, friends and friendlies³.  They undoubtedly grew up being showered with supportive praise from teachers and encouraging blurbs from fellow alumni.  Their ears might have become used to polite clapping at readings or open mics.  Their expectations may have reflected the 8s, 9s and 10s so freely dispensed at slams.  Chances are, the Egoless experience was their first and only exposure to reality.


¹ - Some scientific and corporate observers--less than 2% of the total membership--were interested in applying the egoless model to other, non-poetic applications, including "post-brainstorming conceptual development" (roughly:  evaluating ideas, largely in design and marketing).  Towards the end of experiment some of these people started evaluating (by not critiquing) the poems.  This is as close as we may get to the mythical poetry reader.

     A side note to those who think poetry contributes nothing to society:
  The egoless approach is still considered a viable alternative for product development and marketing strategy.  It marked the first online use of the "Nichts and Chimes"/"thumbs-up-or-down" system for measuring gut-level initial impressions.  These were the precursors of the cruder "Like" buttons we see on Facebook today.

² - Other statistical actions were taken to account for tit-for-tat evaluations but my pay grade ends with mention of standard deviations or logarithms.

³ - A "friendly" is a workshop more interested in encouraging writing than in encouraging good writing.  Participation over art.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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