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

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Reading Fees

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #69
     Emily Harstone wrote in "Authors Publish":  "In the last two years there has been a solid shift towards charging authors submission fees. Most magazines that charge authors are not going to pay these authors even if they accept their work. This is a real issue for me."

      Me too.  I have no issue with subscription or contest entry fees but submission/reading fees are a non-starter.  As Bill Maher might say:  "New Rule:  You don't get to defend submission fees and then say that poetry isn't dead."

     This is only one editor removed from the infamous Poetry.com scam.  That editor now has more incentive to find writers than readers.  A century of experience has taught us what to expect when this is the case.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Heir Conditioning - Part II

Adam Kirsch
     Adam Kirsch, writing in "The New Republic", brings us a slightly different view of Jeremy Paxman's comments after judging the Forward Prize.  As with Martin Newell's remarks, addressed in Part I of this series, Kirsch started off well but became unglued halfway through:

    "The real problem with Paxman’s comments lies in their incoherence:  He is complaining about two different things as if they were the same thing. On the one hand, he urges poets to open up, to write for the general public, to be more accessible; on the other hand, he wants poetry to be better, to be more interesting and captivating."

     Speaking for myself, I had no problem understanding Paxman's comments or the distinctions he was making between two separate subjects.  Off to a slow start, Kirsch accelerates the derailment:

Jeremy Paxman
    "Both are understandable demands, but it’s important to recognize that they contradict one another."

     No, they don't.

    "The best poetry is not always accessible, and..."

     Actually, yes, it pretty much is, if we exclude humorous (e.g. parodies such as "Jabberwocky", nursery rhymes) and, in some cases, religious verses (the gods don't need to make sense;  humans do).  Name 50 canonical poems that have stood the test of time (let's say, written more than a century ago) without being comprehensible to contemporary audiences.  No?  Okay, how about 5?  3?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #85
     "...the most accessible poetry is usually not good."

     True, but compare it to amphigouri's 0% rate of success. 

     "Emily Dickinson didn’t write for a large public, and..."

      Almost true.  She certainly tried to the seven times she was published (which may be more than many of us reading this).  In the end she didn't publish for a large (or small) public but nothing in her verse suggests that it isn't far more audience-friendly than today's obscurants.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #77
     "...T.S. Eliot didn’t care at all about being clear, yet if you want to read good poetry, you turn to Dickinson and Eliot."

      ...and Shakespeare, Byron, the Brownings, Frost and every other poet in our canon, none of whom had accessibility issues in their day.  As for Eliot, were his monologues any more or less comprehensible than we'd expect from stressed out, neurotic characters?  We do understand the difference between voice and style, right?

     "Edgar Guest or Rod McKuen, on the other hand, were bestsellers, but who reads them now?"

      No one, because they were awful.  Does Mr. Kirsch really mean to suggest that Edgar Guest and Rod McKuen would still be popular if only they were less coherent?    

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #37
     "Reading a lot of contemporary poetry at once, the way a judge for a poetry prize does, is inevitably going to be a depressing experience, for the simple reason that most new poetry--like most new work in any art--is mediocre."

      Godawful, actually.

      "The past comes to us pre-selected: only what Matthew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and said" makes it into the Norton anthology, while a hundred thousand poems are obliterated for each one that survives. If you had to read every book of poetry published in, say, 1723, you would get equally sick of all those rhymed couplets."

      ...whereas hordes of 21st century readers never tire of prose with linebreaks, I suppose.¹

      "To say that more good poetry should be written is like saying there should be more genius in the world: a fine demand, but hard to put into effect."

      This is wobbly, at best.  Yes, it is hard to put into effect, but so is anything that requires broad education.  We should not confuse the unteachable (i.e. "genius") with things that demand study, like prosody and, come to think of it, language itself.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #50
     "Nor is it easy to make the case that poetry is more unpopular today than it has been in most of history."

      It's almost as difficult as proving that this planet has oxygen.

      How did I know he'd get around to Convenient Poetics revisionism eventually?  Maybe I've been doing this too long.

     "There have been periods when poetry was genuinely popular--a significant number of people in nineteenth-century England bought Tennyson’s books--but such ages are the exception."

      False, especially if judged from a 21st century perspective.  Poetry's popularity has, indeed, fluctuated throughout the ages but it has always been infinitely more popular than it is today.  Does anyone actually believe that there was a time in this or any other culture when the vast majority could not recite a single line of poetry written during the previous half century? 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #106
      "In absolute terms, far more people are professionally involved with poetry today--as writers or MFA students or English majors--than in the golden age of Wyatt and Surrey, when manuscripts were passed hand to hand among a small circle of courtiers."

      ...in a century that ended with Shakespeare keeping two theatres open with poetry (a thing performed), as grade schoolers learned more about poetry than most of today's PhD's know.  Mr. Kirsch now detours into an odd comparison between feudal underproduction and today's overproduction.

     "Indeed, the problem today might be that poetry has too many stakeholders--that it has lost the agility and ruthlessness that it possessed when it truly was a coterie art. A coterie at least has the advantage of definite taste and genuine intimacy.  When Ezra Pound helped to make modernism, it was because he convinced 20 other poets to follow his lead."

      ...who went on to convince thousands of others.  The difference is that, like Eliot and others of that era, Ezra Pound knew the difference between iambs and trochees.  Not so the thousands.  As one pundit said, in writing "Prufrock", T.S. Eliot didn't just outstrip the ability of modern poets to write verse;  he outstripped their ability to read it.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #74
      Note that Mr. Kirsch reserves no role for the audience in aesthetic judgements or movements.
     "Maybe the watchword of the future, then, should not be more accessibility and more popularity--the average book of poetry is, in fact, paralyzingly accessible, wearing its heart and its language on its sleeve--but rather, back to the coterie. Let the best poets find each other, read each other, and promote each other, as the best poets have always done. Let them ignore both the demands of the public and the demands of the poetry world, and write as they feel compelled to write. That is the only way to produce work that, in a hundred years, the Paxmans of the future will consider classic, and use to shame the poor poets of their time."

      We can only hope this adolescent nonsense was written tongue-in-cheek.


¹ - Seriously, why the switch from quality to form here?

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Heir Conditioning

Philadelphia Eagles Running Back LeSean McCoy
     Approximately 60% of NFL fans don't watch [regular season] NFL games.¹

    "How," you may ask, "can someone be a fan of a spectator sport without spectating?"

     Answer:  By spending almost every spare moment of every single day reading, blogging, discussing and analyzing scores, statistics and articles.  Last year, Fantasy football had 25,800,000 participants in the U.S.A., millions more abroad.  These people, in particular, do not watch single games because their interest lies in players, not teams or games.  Thus, they either channel surf the games in which their stars are playing or they ignore television in favor of the Internet, where all scores are instantly added to their totals. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #109
     The discussions these people are so passionate about are usually analytical, judging the past, current or, especially, future success or failure of players and/or teams.

    In essence, the league has found a way to involve the public by giving individual fans a vested interest in outcomes.  Saying that this has been a boon to the NFL is like calling WWII "a disturbance".

    Many who still watch the games as boosters, hoping their team wins, or for the excitement of the event.  However, what was once called a "fan" might now be considered a "purist".

    There is one other endeavor where the fans do not form audiences.  Poets might sit patiently through readings but only if there is an ulterior motive.  Slams attract the performers and their immediate entourages only.  Books sell to family, friends and those guilted into buying them at readings.

Martin Newell, beret and all
    In Martin Newell's Sunday Express article, "Harsh words for dire poets", "outgoing Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman last week accused the nation’s poets of writing for each other rather than engaging with the public."  And how effective are they at reaching even that limited audience?

    Facebook has a more or less unmoderated group called "Poetry Critique" where all 192 members have posted their work for appraisal.  Take a guess:  not counting the two administrators and bearing in mind the name of the forum, how many of those 192 participants have posted a critique of someone else's poem?

    Zero.  Not one.  All 192 arrived and started crapflooding the place with their "poetry", each expecting an avalanche of unadulterated praise.  When no comments appeared many became indignant.  How could the others not recognize the poet's genius?  Despite posted guidelines to this effect, the idea of quid pro quo never occurs to any of them.  192 writing, no one reading.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #109
    Compare the conversation in both demographics.  The NFL fan discussion is analytical, often technical.  Outside of this blog and the critical web forums (i.e. Eratosphere, Gazebo and Poetry Free-For-All), such is rarely the case in poetry.  Instead, we encounter blurbing, fawning and Content Regency. Occasionally--and never among those in denial--the topic strays into finger-pointing over poetry's demise.  In the article mentioned above, Martin Newell makes some good points about poetry not being memorable in form or fact.  He also mentions how modern poetry has failed to address, let alone involve, the public.  Along the way, though, he crosses a line:

    "The problem is that poetry has been subjected to an inelegant, greedy appropriation by the academic world, as the literature departments of our universities hunch like daft neurotic dogs over the much-chewed bones of poetry.

    "As a once-popular art form it has never really recovered."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #110
     First, I question his timeline and the root cause.  Poetry's death spiral began in the 1920s with the introduction of music on the radio.  The Rise of The Inquisitors came later.

     Second, and more important, is the point that those who took pleasure in reading wildly popular poets like Robert Service would not care what academics were saying.  These are two different worlds.  Beyond their reluctance to teach the basics (which didn't fully manifest itself before the 1950s), almost none of poetry's decline can be laid at the feet of literature departments.²  This is not to say that education isn't crucial to the fate of poetry and those inheriting its science and traditions;  it is only to say that this edification needs to start much earlier than college.  As with football, the sooner the love affair begins, the better.

     The stories behind commercial poetry's inability to retain and contemporary academic poetry's inability to attract audiences are fascinating, but separate.

Coming soon:  "Heir Conditioning - Part II"

Boring Footballnotes:

¹ - "About half of Americans say they are fans of pro football, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll, and nearly a third of those fans say they would not consider attending a Super Bowl -- even though few have any idea how much it costs."

     Actually, this Jan. 17-21, 2014 result is down 7%, 56% to 49%, from AP-GfK's 1973 poll.  At 317,297,938 as of January 1st, 2014, that rounds up to 155,475,990 football fans in the U.S. alone.

     "[CBS] said its regular-season schedule averaged 18.7 million viewers, a 6% increase over last year’s 17.7 million viewers. The 18.7 million viewers were second highest number of average viewers in 26 years for the regular-season AFC television package."

     "FOX said its regular-season schedule delivered its most NFL viewers since the network began broadcasting NFL games in 1994. The network’s games averaged 21.2 million viewers, an 8% increase over last year’s viewership (19.7 million) and 5% over 2010 for the most-watched NFL on FOX season ever. FOX said its four most-watched NFL seasons have come over the past four years (2013: 21.2 million; 2010: 20.11 million; 2011: 20.96 million, and 2012:19.7 million).

     Attendees at all 16 of the stadiums hosting games in a given week would add less than 2,000,000 more to the total number of people watching NFL games.

     "Nielsen estimates that Monday Night Football averaged 13.68 million viewers for its 17-game slate this season--up 7% from last year (12.83 million) and the best since the 2010 season, which drew 14.66 million."

     "Including the audience from over-the-air broadcasts in local markets, NFL Network’s 13-game schedule of Thursday Night Football broadcasts finished with a record-high per game average audience of 8 million viewers in 2013, up 10% from 2012, marking the fifth consecutive year that Thursday Night Football has set an all-time high viewership mark for NFL Network."

     Using these statistics, we can conclude (18.7 + 21.7 + 12.83 + 8 + 2 =) 62.23 million people, about 40%, of NFL fans watch regular season football games--and that doesn't account for duplication or the millions who turn the TV on but have their eyes pasted to their computer monitors instead (probably watching their Fantasy Football results pour in).

     Only the Superbowl, an international celebration with 111.5 million viewers, has any chance of attracting more than half of football's fandom.

     "With 111.5 million viewers, last night’s [Superbowl] game tops out as the most-watched TV show in U.S history."

² - Composition was a tiny part of literature courses.  The spread of Creative Writing courses came decades later.

    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel