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, July 11, 2014


     When his nemesis was hypercritical about a brick wall that Sir Winston Churchill had just finished building the statesman responded:  "Any fool can see what's wrong.  Can you see what's right?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #113
     In North America, soccer is something parents take their children to play at some ungodly hour on Saturday morning.  Crowds, if that is the correct term, are limited to supportive family and friends.  Despite its popularity in all other cultures, soccer has resisted every attempt to revive its fortunes in English-speaking North America.

     The parallels between the fortunes of poetry and soccer are unmistakeable.  Soccer has been replaced by faster games that feature unlimited substitutions, sensible off-side rules (where applicable) and more scoring opportunities:  hockey, basketball and the other kind of football (i.e. CFL or NFL), all developed in North America and all making greater inroads elsewhere than soccer is in these two countries.  As one cryptic commentator quipped:  "Football has made a better export than import."

     While rules committees in these other sports have made significant improvements each year, soccer remains stuck in an era that predates the stopwatch.  This is why people say:  "Soccer is America's sport of the future...and always will be!" or, perhaps more tellingly, "Of course millions play soccer;  that way they don't have to watch it."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
     Similarly, poetry was beaten at its own game--being memorable--by modern innovation when radio facilitated the distribution of songs in the 1920s.  Today, people who can sing along to thousands of tunes can't recite a single contemporary poem.  In the 90 years since that death blow we have seen the proliferation of other, unrelated media (e.g. CDs, DVDs, MP3s, videos, movies, television, the Internet, etc.) and pursuits.  Meanwhile, poetry is a verbal art largely stuck in anachronistic text mode.  In North America it is, at best, a participation sport, not conducive to spectating.  This is true even for slams, where everyone present is a participant or tagalong.

     Soccer is currently at the height of its popularity worldwide.  What can it learn from a moribund art form like poetry?  Where is the cautionary tale?

     Soccer risks losing its status to more modern pastimes over the coming decades, just as poets lost their audience to songwriters.  Both could stand to be more commercial-television-friendly.

Fans and Critics

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #55
     What can poetry learn from soccer's failure in North America?    

     To answer that question we must first ponder a more personal one:  When someone hands you something you've never seen before what is your first thought?  Its properties or how they could be enhanced?

     Some people, individually and collectively, are able to "see what's right", appreciating the existing, intrinsic merit of whatever they encounter.  Among other things, these people tend to make better students, teachers and graphic artists.  They often have better memories and presence of mind.  No doubt they are happier and live longer lives.  Call these people "happy-go-lucky", "survivors", "optimists", "realists" or "fans".

     Others will spot imperfections at a glance and begin wondering about improvements.  These are the mechanics and innovators.  The creative.  They might not be able to recall their own phone numbers but they can solve a Rubik's Cube in seconds.  Call them "pessimists", "analysts", "perfectionists", "idealists", "coaches" or "critics".  Their obsessions won't win them many friends, especially when they turn their reconstructive attention to those around them, but they'll earn dozens of patents, trophies and Nobel Peace Prizes before any realist will.  True, their sanity can often be called into question but this is because they deal almost exclusively with things that don't exist.  Yet.

     The joke about optimists constructing the airplane while pessimists invented the parachute may be technically true but every modification that brought us from Wilbur and Orville Wright's "Flyer" to the modern jumbo jet was created by someone who saw the inadequacies of existing technology.

     Most will agree that poetry needs more fans.  This is entirely obvious, intuitive and logical.

     It is also entirely wrong.

     Today's poetry fans aren't like those of other eras or endeavors.  For starters, they don't exist.  That is, virtually no one seeks out  poetry written by strangers with the idea of memorizing, performing or quoting it.  Instead, poetry "fans" publish stuff like this and this when not bestowing national awards on writing like this:

filled with love, delirious with love, lift up
your heart and sing, my heart dancing, how i
longed for you, all my life,

     Fans are the ones who insist poetry isn't dead because--get this--so many eye-gougingly bad examples of it are being produced every second of every day.

     Fans insist that poetry is about poets, not poems.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #45
     There is an old joke about two gentlemen in Las Vegas, standing around a craps table in the wee hours of the night.  An attractive woman enters and asks if they'd like a game.  The men nod.  She is about to make a throw when she stops and inquires if it would be okay if she removed her clothes, explaining that it brings her luck.  Again, they assent.  Once nude, she tosses the dice, shouts "I win!", and collects their bets and her clothes before exiting.

     A few minutes transpire before one man turns to the other and asks:  "By the way, what did she roll?"

     Comes the reply:  "I thought you were watching the dice."

     Fans don't bother to learn the fundamentals because they naively trust editors and poets to understand them.

     Fans are Gresham's bad money, driving out the good.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #58
     Fans delight in lowering technical standards to levels that even they can reach.

     Everyone in North America is aware of the extremes:  kids' soccer and the exploits of the American squad in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.  Few could name any players, teams or leagues in between, though.  Similarly, the average Canadian or U.S. resident might be able to recognize Leonard Cohen and the late Maya Angelou.  They may have seen teens enjoying slams.  Few could name a poet or poem from between these high profile bookends.  To put this in perspective, imagine everyone knowing the players in their child's Pop Warner league and in the NFL ProBowl but none of the NFL or college teams.  This is the surest sign that the endeavor is light years from the nation's zeitgeist as a spectator sport.  To get to that stage we don't need cheerleaders and blurbers.  We need informed and credible audiences, coaches and critics, people who can see what's wrong and work to fix it.  

    In the words of Thomas Edward Graves, "This is what poetry needs:  more hecklers."

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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