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, April 27, 2014


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #62
     You could call it one of the greatest opening or pickup lines in history.  She approached, glanced around, looked at him and said:  "So, this is where we will have met."

     In addition to being verbatim, poetry is, by definition, predictable.  I don't mean the content (e.g. storyline, moral, theme, motif, etc.), which can be as original and surprising as prose.  I mean the actual words.  Poetry allows us to foreshadow word choices with much more than literal evidence (e.g. "the sky is...duh...blue").  After a few hours of blank verse does it take a genius to figure out that the next foot will be an iamb?  Can you guess what word the poet is going to use to rhyme with "glove"?  When referring to a "gutter-gaunt [criminal]" in "Ballroom of Mars" does Marc Bolan use the term "mobster", "thug", "hood" or the [hint, hint] alliterative "gangster"?

    Taken together, these serve as mnemonics for the singer or reciter, albeit with the "cost" (read:  benefit) of signalling the next word or phrase.  Think of how songs rely on beats, melodies and chord progressions to get people singing in the shower, dancing, and/or playing air guitar in their underwear.  Lacking music, poetry will aim for a less exuberant response, perhaps, but doesn't it make sense that poetry relies even more on repetition (e.g. sonics, rhymes, rhythms, meter, anaphora, repetends, etc.) to encourage audience involvement?

    I don't like to make analogies to deciphering; in an era of cryptocrap it is fraught with danger.  That said, poetry can work as a crossword puzzle in real time, constantly setting us up in anticipation of the next word, only to have the riddle solved immediately before another is presented.  This involves the audience not just in the piece's appreciation but in its reassembly/performance¹ as well.

    On which end of the Repeatability spectrum does poetry lie?

  Jokes        Novels         Songs

    "Stop me if you've heard this before" is a common preface, used to avoid retelling the same joke.  At the far end of the scale, radio stations are replaying the same song dozens of times a day.  Novels, short stories and movies lie in between, closer to jokes than songs.²  Poetry stands closer to its subset, songs.  Rereading poems familiarizes us with [upcoming] verses.  In this sense, at least, predictability is not just "a good thing";  it is a primary goal.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #42
    What about on the first pass, though?  Well, we hope this is just one run-through among many, as the piece introduces itself and earns revisits.  Ideally, the poem will present interesting material and language just as, paradoxically, the words find innovative ways to serve as their own foretokens.

    Consider, too, "le mot juste":  the one and only word that fits.  In describing the acrid smoke rising and descending from a crematorium, one poet knew that "falling earthward" would not do.  (Doesn't everything fall "earthward"?)  Consultation with others in an online workshop yielded the perfect solution.  It isn't a choice that we might anticipate when first we encounter the line but, like Homer's "wine dark sea" and Marc Bolan's "gutter-gaunt gangster", we'll have no difficulty reconstructing that phrase at subsequent readings.  The word will not surprise us twice.  Indeed, should I have the pleasure of greeting you 25 years from now I expect you to answer "falling" with "fleshward".




¹ - To create these fleeting expectations, free verse uses all the same tools except meter.  Indeed, that is the main difference between free verse and [lineated?] prose and the only difference between verse and free verse.

² - You watched "Breakfast at Tiffany's" a dozen times?  Okay, bow often did you hear "Moon River"?

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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