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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Nobody Reads Poetry

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #114

     Insofar as reading contemporary poetry by strangers for pleasure is concerned, the title says it all.  Remember this and everything in today's poetry world will make sense;  forget it, and nothing will.  Why is so much non-poetry being published?  Why do people not study the craft?  Why do we talk about poets, not poems?  Why don't we discuss the poems of strangers on social media?  Why is there not a single iconic contemporary poem?  Why have our best writers turned to prose or song lyrics?

     Because nobody reads poetry.

     N.B.No one, least of all death deniers defending the status quo, is more optimistic about poetry's reincarnation than we.  We also understand that it isn't something an editor will concede.  Some prefer the idealistic euphemism "Poetry needs fans", perhaps adding "because it's so hot!"  Close enough.

     Julie R. Enszer's "Are Too Many People Writing Poetry?" won't win any literary awards but it lists most of the apprehensions and misapprehensions of those who ignore this reality.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #90
1.  "We are in the midst of a poetry renaissance."

     No, but we could be at the beginning of one.

2.  "Hundreds of small poetry presses. Reading series in local communities."

     Patronized by those waiting their turn, none of whom will remember a single word of it a week later.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #101
3.  "Robin Becker reports that when she began attending AWP (the annual conference of writers sponsored by the professional writers' association), about a thousand people attended each year; in 2014, over 11,000 people attended."

     Yes.  Lots of people are writing and teaching poetry.

4.  "A variety of people and organizations support the appreciation and revelry surround[ing] poetry."

     I suspect "appreciation" translates to "interpretation".  I won't make any guesses about "revelry".  Insofar as contemporary poetry is concerned, these organizations and their publications serve vital roles as proving grounds (cynics might say "echo chambers") and labor exchanges for instructors.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #70

5.  "In many ways, there is not a better moment to be a poet and love poetry."

     As long as none of those ways involves an audience.

6.  "...are too many people writing poetry?"

     Are too many trees falling in the forest?

7.  "Don't we always need more voices to assembly a polyphonic cultural democracy?"

     WTF is a "polyphonic cultural democracy"?

8.  "Yet, I want to ask a provocative question: are too many people writing poetry? This question brings a cascade of other questions. Is it possible for too many people to write poetry? Don't we always need more voices to assembly a polyphonic cultural democracy? If too many people are writing poetry, how many people writing poetry is optimal? Does it matter if too many people are writing poetry? Is there any way to stop people from writing poetry? How do we tell the people who should be writing poetry from the people who should not?  Is there any way to stop people from writing poetry?"

     Is there any way to stop people from rephrasing the same silly question eight times in the same paragraph?

9.  "More people writing poetry should translate to more people reading and appreciating poetry..."

     And yet the opposite has been the trend over the last century.  Who could have guessed that flooding the market with mediocre, unfiltered  product would actually drive consumers away?

10.  "...with so many people writing poetry, how do we recognize the best poetry?"

Julie R. Enszer

     Noting what contemporary poems by strangers we Share/Retweet, memorize, quote and/or perform would be a good start.  Oh, wait...

     As for quality, does it really matter how pretty those trees falling in the forest are?

11. "How do we ensure that the poets that we nurture are selected on the basis of talent...?"

     Why would we want to do that?  Why not select based initially on promise--including work ethic--and ultimately on the merit of the writing?  What currency is more debased than talent among the lazy?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #109
12. "Poetry is a cacophony of voices."

     Sadly, this is all too true.

13. "...not enough people are reading poetry. We need readers to make our words relevant."

     We have another Bingo!

     Who knew that communication requires an audience?

Next:  "Commercialization"


     Let's see if we can imagine what it would be like if poetry were alive today.  This is from "How good a poet are you? - Measuring":

     The population and its ability to access information has mushroomed since poetry died more than half a century ago.  Were it alive today, we would be asking questions such as these:
  • To the nearest thousand, how many times was one of your poems quoted today?  (GIYF.)

  • To the nearest hundred, how many times was one of your poems plagiarised in toto today?  (GIYF.)

  • To the nearest hundred, how many times today did someone ask you for permission to use one of your poems? (GIYF.)

  • To the nearest multiple of ten, what percentage of the population can recite your most famous poem, as they can thousands of popular songs?

  • When was the last time anyone offered you a 6-digit or larger sum for the rights to one of your poems?

  • When was the last time you stumbled upon someone performing your work?

  • To the nearest multiple of ten, what percentage of the population can recite your most famous poem, as they can thousands of popular songs?

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel


  1. Yup. All good points. But. I think the current state of things is in some ways a necessary reaction to the old state of things. Sometimes you have to tear down before you can rebuild. The old system was deeply flawed, and worse, it was believed to be purely merit-based, which was an insult to all who couldn't succeed in it. Race, class and gender were much bigger factors than most people realize(d). The arbiters who decided whose work was worth reading/teaching/preserving for posterity were nearly always rich, white, and male. They made stars of a handful of people, based on their own highly subjective criteria, and everyone else was screwed. Now there are no stars. This bothers some people. It doesn't bother the ones who know for a certaintly that they would never have been selected for stardom under the old system.

  2. Agreed, although I have some quibbles about timeline which, thanks to these thought-provoking points, I'll address in a post later on today (I hope).

    As you may know, we here at Commercial Poetry are big fans of yours, Rose. Thank you for gracing us with your comments.


Your comments and questions are welcome.