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, July 16, 2014


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #43
    In "Nobody Reads Poetry" we discussed the more salient problems of simulated, supplier oriented markets.  Knowing that no one reads poetry--something that sales and hit counts could have told us--the next question is:  "Does anyone watch poetry being performed?"

    The short answer is "No."

    As the ratings of HBO's "Def Jam Poetry" demonstrate, neither poetry nor its performance is ready for prime time, literally or figuratively.  With coaching and practice, though, that can be fixed, along with the public's indifference.  A far more serious hurdle is the fact that few in the poetry world want it to succeed.  The good news?  These individuals can be easily identified by the bizarre spin they give to success, starting with the terms "commercialization" and "commodification":

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #93
    "Marc Smith, the founder of the Poetry Slam movement, is more critical of the [HBO's Def Jam Poetry] program. Smith decries the intense commercialization¹ of the poetry slam, and refers to Def Poetry as 'an exploitive entertainment [program that] diminished the value and aesthetic of performance poetry.'"

     You're probably thinking:  "When did unmodulated screaming into a microphone² become an 'aesthetic'?  When will people understand that an aesthetic entails what others like?  'Diminished the value'?  Can we even imagine what we see in slams or, for that matter, most poetry 'zines being worse?  Where is the value in writing that depreciates with exposure?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #43
     It is a fundamental principle of reality and perception that if everyone agrees the ball in the center of the room is red then it's red.  Similarly, given equal exposure, the worst poem that does have an audience is, by definition, better than the best verse that doesn't.  Sales are the crudest measure of worth, especially when many are guilted into their purchase and when so few are versed in the elements of verse, as is so often the case.  Ditto subscriptions in an era when they are given out to contributors.  Ditto Internet hit counts, even if they are distinguished from bot visits (better that they be differentiated from Looky Lous, as by length of stay).

     Neverthless, it is safe to say that 10,000 (60,000+ today, adjusting for population growth, even without accounting for the spread of English) people purchasing copies of Lord Byron's "The Corsair" on its date of publication would make it an unqualified success (for itself and, in light of many other examples, poetry in general), especially compared to any poem in the last half century.  In 1814 Byron turned down an offer of 1,000 (a little more than $100,000 today) guineas for the rights to "Bride of Abydos".

Julie R. Enszer
     Julie R. Enszer's "Are Too Many People Writing Poetry?" addressed the possibility of too many cooks spoiling the broth.  Is overproduction a good thing?  No.  Is it likely that many of those who bought Byron's verse imagined themselves poets?  Yes.  In other words, bad poets are good for the art form.  Bad poetry?  Not so much.  How do we separate the elephants from their droppings?  200 years ago the market would do so, albeit with the influence of affluence (to say nothing of the issues of nationalism/regionalism, sexism, nepotism, politics, economics, access, et cetera.) along the way.

    Today, we have a much more democratic and accurate measure of poetry's individual or collective value:  the search engine.  It records something more important that sales or readership;  it reveals poetry's impact.  Put your favorite contemporary poem's title and some phrases into Google and see for yourself that Nobody Reads Poetry.  Among the world's 2,000,000,000 English speakers, anything less than 6 digits (0.005%) is insignificant.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #85
    As far as recompense is concerned, there will always be those delusional purists who believe that "poets should be seen and not paid", that "public" equates to "morons" (despite the fact that poetry's market--when it had one--was the more literate/sophisticated half of the population), or that obscurity is a mark of genius, not failure.  At the opposite extreme will be those who use sales as their only yardstick, concluding that Charles Bukowski was a better poet than A.E. Stallings³ or that Billy Collins might be better than Margaret Ann Griffiths³.

     We can hope that the sour grapes attitude toward commercialization will be strictly a 20th century phenomenon.  Make no mistake:  It was commercialism that brought and preserved everything from "Hamlet" to "Songs of a Sourdough".  On balance, it was a good thing.  With the Internet's webzines, YouTube and social media, though, it may also be an obsolete thing.


¹ - Of course, there is no "intense commercialization" of slam.


1. to make commercial in character, methods, or spirit.
2. to emphasize the profitable aspects of, especially at the expense of quality: to commercialize one's artistic talent.
3. to offer for sale; make available as a commodity.


1. to turn into a commodity; make commercial.


1. an article of trade or commerce, especially a product as distinguished from a service.
2. something of use, advantage, or value.
3. [Stock Exchange.] any unprocessed or partially processed good, as grain, fruits, and vegetables, or precious metals.

     Let me get this straight:  these people don't want poetry to be profitable or "of use...or value", yet they don't want that value to be "diminished".  Really?

² - Marc Smith is the polar opposite of every slammer who came after him.  Believe it or not, he may be the most genuine and understated poetry performer outside of theater.  The problem is his dull, prosey material.  I challenge anyone to listen to "Small Boy" or "My Father's Coat" without wanting to cut in with "Excuse me, but why are you telling me this stuff?"

³ - It is physically painful to type out notions this foolish.  At the very least, let us acknowledge the gross disparity in exposure afforded these two men and the infinitely more skilled women.


1Nobody Reads Poetry


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Earl Gray, Esquirrel


  1. Earl, what would commercial poetry look like? Like Billy Collins or Mary Oliver? I understand what you're attacking but not what you're advocating.

  2. Kyle:

    "Earl, what would commercial poetry look like?"

    You've just asked the $64,000,000 question! I doubt you're going to like my answer, though.

    In terms of lyric poetry and not including poemlets, we are asked to imagine something which has not occurred in more than forty years. For starters, the issue isn't what a successful poem will look like but what it will sound (and look) like. We cannot forget the other two integral aspects of success: audience and presentation. For example, unlike every poem since, Ed Sabol's "Autumn Wind" had a significant [niche] audience (i.e. NFL viewers, especially Raider fans) and was recited by John Facenda (aka "The Voice of God"). Unfortunately, the original visuals are disappointing and, let's face it, the text is too hokey for audiences today.


    That this and a limerick about a man from Nantucket are the last two widely recognized poems in our culture speaks volumes about the state of the art (to say nothing of our culture).

    The good news is that we are just beginning to network, combining Internet savvy, video editing skills, and recent developments in form, prosody and education. We are lagging behind in performance and text (i.e. fusing interesting material with consummate technique) but that may simply be a matter of time.

    Speaking of time, this is the only stretch in human history when an entire linguistic group has gone four decades without adding a single line to its common poesy. Isn't it exciting to be living at a moment when that may come to an end?

    Stay tuned, Kyle!


    Earl Gray, Esquirrel

  3. Four decades, huh? Larkin's "This Be the Verse" comes to mind ("They f--- you up, your mom and dad"), a poem widely known and loved; but that was 1971. Carolyn Forché's "The Colonel" (1978) turns up everywhere. Maybe Lucille Clifton's "Homage to my Hips"? Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry"? Seamus Heaney's "Digging"? Then there are poems that I can't imagine anyone forgetting if they had read them--poems like Robert Hass's "A Story About the Body," or William Matthews' "The Accompanist," to name two examples I ran into when flipping through anthologies.

    I think the change in poetry's audience is more important than the change in the quality of poetry. Poetry is rarely taught in K-12 schools anymore, and when it is taught, it's done badly. Few people have the basic tools needed to appreciate a poem. There are good poets out there, but they can't gain an audience. You like A.E. Stallings, but I don't think her poetry has reached more than a subset of poetry's tiny audience (people who appreciate formalism). I don't think turning poems into videos is going to help poetry much--there are plenty of videos out there now, but they don't seem to be having a bog impact. Poetry slams should be promising, but the slam poets I've seen are more like grass-roots politicians, activating the audience's pre-existing passions and loyalties in verbally unsophisticated ways. The Neo-Formalists thought they could make poetry popular again, but they failed.

    I've seen your list of preferred poets now, and many of them suffer from the same alienating qualities as the typical academic poet of today: over-reliance on images detached from narrative or argument, an emotional palette that to the average literate American would seem over-refined and overwrought.

    There may be a shortage of great poets now, but there are hundreds of very good ones. (You mentioned liking Rose Kelleher, whom I also like but who isn't well-known in or out of the poetry world.) Language poetry, even good language poetry, could certainly kill most readers' interest in poetry; but there are plenty of accessible poets that no one is accessing.

    Blaming poets for the decline in poetry's audience is like blaming teachers for the (supposed) decline in student performance. I've taught high school, and I know how hard most of the teachers are working. But if the students are just not interested in being educated, there's not much teachers can do. Similarly, if people just aren't interested in poetry--if the idea of even giving poetry a try seems ridiculous to them--I'm not sure that poets can do much about that.

    Educated Victorians loved their Tennyson and Browning, but it has been centuries since poetry was a truly popular art, the way novels were in Charles Dickens' time, or the way that movies, television and popular music is now. (No written art is truly popular now: people don't read very well and don't have any interest in learning to read better.) I'm just not convinced that poetry will ever reach a wide audience again. I wish I thought it could, but I just don't see it happening.

    Sorry to go on at such length.

  4. Hello again, Kyle,

    1. Not 1 non-poet in 100 could recite any of the poems you mention, nor can we point to many inspired (or even competent) performances thereof. Only a few are good stories well written, meaning they lack two or all three of the fundamental requirements for poetry (i.e. pleasing text, audience, presentation). And, yes, just as you can't make money without money, you cannot please an audience if no one listens.

    2. The age of video poetry hasn't even begun. Patience!

    3. As you suggest, nothing matters until people find a poem they like. I certainly agree that Nobody Reads Poetry.

    4. Think poems, not poets (who are often terrible performers and even worse presenters).

    5. I'm certainly not blaming contemporary poets for losing audience; that happened 90 years ago. It is their inability to acknowledge this loss, adapt and regain an audience that disappoints. Too many are quite content with the status quo. Obviously, we need a different approach. Personally, I recommend a hypermodern one.

    6. High school teachers know their subject. Poets? Even poetry professors? Not always.

    7. Poetry is not a "written art". It is a performed one.

    8. I agree about slammers, but it is their lack of performance skills (read: their unmodulated screaming) that bothers me more than their content. As for technical merit, it is no worse than--and often better than--what I'm seeing in literary magazines (which is saying next to nothing).


    Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Your comments and questions are welcome.