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, August 29, 2014


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #69
     There is an old joke about a guy concerned about his sudden weight loss.  The doctor tells him he has a tapeworm that is impervious to all pharmacological remedies.  Not to worry, though.  The patient is told to return the next day with three cookies and a hammer.  When he does, the medico shoves a cookie into the patient, waits one minute, pushes another cookie in, waits a minute, and, ultimately, inserts the final cookie.  Then the physician waits, hammer in hand. 

     Two minutes pass.  Three.  Four.  Five.

     Finally, the tapeworm pops out, saying "Alright, where's my cookie?"


     Problem solved.  Another triumph of modern medicine!


     You're driving down the dullest stretch of divided prairie highway on the planet.  We're talking about a patch of pavement that makes contemporary poetry seem interesting by comparison.  The locals call it "Death Row" in honor of those who have fallen asleep at the wheel here.  Suddenly, in the ditch between the eastbound and your westbound lanes you see a light purple sign with this text:

"The world won't change for one so small"

     What gives?  Soon you see a second sign of the same color, this one reading:

"that teardrops wound with gravity."

     Clearly, these are related.  As you continue, another iteration appears every kilometer (i.e. every 5/8th of a mile).  After a few phrases you figure out that it is a story, a tribute to someone.

Sign #1:  The world won't change for one so small
Sign #2:  that teardrops wound with gravity.
Sign #3:  We braced ourselves with weights and walls.
Sign #4:  You faced strict winds with levity,
Sign #5:  with your coat buttoned tight, still green
Sign #6:  and brown with Dead Sea mud and kelp.

Sign #7:  When what was whole is lost we lean
Sign #8:  on rain, on roots and suds for help.

Sign #9:  When you died and the bees did not mourn, did the crickets
Sign 10:  hesitate? Did they draw long blue chords on each thigh?
Sign 11:  Did they speak? Did they say "She is gone. Face that fact."?
Sign 12:  It's the truth but, in every other sense, it's a lie!
Sign 13:  You remain, sui generis, one light that beams
Sign 14:  as the guide of my passing and mother to my dreams.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #72
     Not until the final couplet do you realize it's a poem.  Weird!

     Unfortunately, by the time you discern the sonnet format and get used to reading a line every 36 seconds the damned thing is over!  You feel like the aforementioned tapeworm.  Speaking of worms, it's similar to that earworm on the radio;  you try putting the words out of your head but they keep bouncing around like dice in the cup of your skull.  What or whom was all that about?

     Speaking of cups, some coffee would be an idea.  A few minutes later you see an announcement of the next exit to a service station and diner.  At the bottom, in that now-familiar pale purple, are the words:

    "Poem details."

    You turn in, as much out of curiosity as caffeine withdrawal.

     Once inside, you see photomemes on the wall, each depicting an aspect of the poem, its subject or author.  You sit down, order some java and discover that your paper placemat features the words of the poem, some explanatory text and a note saying that, if asked, the waiting staff will step onstage and perform the verse for you.  (That explains the microphone and tiny bandstand in the corner.)

     At the cashier's counter on your way out you find copies of the book containing the roadside verses.  Motorists buy them not only as souvenirs and as gifts for readers but to help them explain the experience¹ they have just enjoyed.  Thousands of copies are sold each month by a staff oblivious to the fact that Nobody Reads Poetry.

 Earl the Squirrel's Rule #20

¹ - Unbeknownst to you until your return trip, on the back of those billboards was another poem for eastbound travellers--why waste sign posts?--leading to a similar themed restaurant and gas bar on the other side of the superhighway.  Months later, two other poems replace these two.  For some reason, the locals turn down the government's offer to provide modern electronic signage which would allow unlimited, instantaneous changes. 

     This was part of a local initiative in conjunction with the department of transport.  Business, including tips for the talented staff, has exploded and highway fatalities in that stretch have disappeared since the plan, called "AutoMau[ti]ve", was initiated.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Simple Question

Catherine Stukel
An Open Letter to "The Chronicle of Higher Education":

    Whom do we want teaching our young?  A heartless semiliterate or Ned Balbo?

     Unfortunately, this is not an entirely hypothetical question.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Spoken Word and Slam...Poetry?

Kyle "Guante" Tran Myhre
     Kyle "Guante" Tran Myhre's "Both Sides of the 'Is Poetry Dead?' Debate Miss the Big Picture" doesn't really address the title's topic for long.  The text is wordy.  He engages in the typical synecdochical fallacy, wantonly conflating "poetry" with two of its supersets, "slam" and "spoken word".  He confuses form, medium and content in places.  He doesn't seem to understand what poetry is...but there's a lot of that going around.  Like his textual counterparts, he wastes verbage on discussions of content:  "Everyone Has a Story", "Every Story Has Value", there's politics, "social justice issues", abuse, healing power, etc.  Having established that, as a mode of speech, poetry can be used to address every genre and topic imaginable, why get into content at all?

     Nevertheless, he [perhaps inadvertently] raises an interesting point.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #62
     For this to make sense, we need to go over a few basics.  Poetry is verbatim.  It is learned and reproduced word for word by others over time.  It isn't "dead because fewer people buy poetry books";  it is dead because no one, usually starting with the author, cares to commit it to memory and present it.  Where would film and theatre be if there were no performances? 

     I agree with the thrust of "Guante's" thesis:  a slam might include things closer to poetry than the typical reading simply because at least some of the competitors will have bothered to memorize their work and all of them understand the need to present it to viewers.  What we see in 'zines and books may be better written than most spoken word but, with few exceptions, it satisfies neither of the requirements¹ for actual poetry.  Still, the open mic is the closest facsimile of the gatherings that led to the first poetry.  What is missing is that one speech that so impressed the listeners that they preserved it in memory and culture, much as we do today with song lyrics.  What is missing is people who give a damn.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #9
     Mr. Myhre correctly surmises that YouTube serves and will serve as the proving ground.  He errs in assuming that the measure of poetry is how many people view it.  If this were the case, the average SuperBowl commercial would be considered Shakespeare.  A better indicator would be how many people cover or quote it.  That is, how many others reproduce that piece, in whole or in part? 

     When that happens we can talk about "slam-" or "spoken word poetry".  Or contemporary print poetry, for that matter.


¹ - The two requirements being that it be reproduced verbatim and for an audience.  Put simply, a person is not a poet until others choose to perform his or her work.

Monday, August 18, 2014

How to Win a Whitman

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52
     Poetry institutions exist for two purposes.  In order of importance, these are:

1.  to continue existing; and,

2.  to promote poetry.

     #2 is impossible without #1 and #2 isn't what many expect.  Above all, know that #2 means "to promote writing poetry" since, as we all know, Nobody Reads Poetry.

      This is about production, not consumption.  If readers played any role writers would, at least, be encouraged to produce work that is engaging (e.g. as entertaining as Chaucer or Shakespeare, as gripping as Byron or the Brownings, etc.) but, aside from being seen as frivolous, this would drastically limit participation.  (If their material is any guide, most poets are not the life of the party.)  Thus, drama, emotion and humor exit the scene.
      Is it any wonder that these organizations actively discourage criticism?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #70
The Central Question

    What inspires new poets more:  reading marvelous, audience-pleasing poetry or judge-pleasing, prize-winning dreck?  For example, which is more likely to get the greater number of people interested in writing poetry:  Maz's "Studying Savonarola" or Tracy K. Smith's "I Don't Miss It"?

     If you chose the former then you misread either the question (i.e. no one said "to promote good poetry") or the crowd:  tentative prospects who would be intimidated by masterpieces.  Those of us who expect  most potential poets to read "Antiblurb" and say "I'm going to dedicate myself to learning about language. meter, rhythm, sonics and other techniques so I can wow an audience too!" are fooling [and dating] ourselves.  Rather, novices see writers winning contests with unremarkable lineated prose and say "Hell, I can do that!"  And, lo and behold, history proves they can! 

     "Quality?" you dare ask?  To these people there is something elitist about the word.  After all, barring a few precious flukes, most brilliancies will be created by those who know how to do so.  How is one going to create a market, let alone sustain diverse publications, promotional groups, and breathless neophytes with the one, two or three poems per annum that time will determine are worth preserving?  Can Hollywood survive on three films a year?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #71
     Enter the poetry organization.  I know from working with some of these that, contrary to popular opinion, they do not wear the mantle of "Arbiters of Taste" willingly.  If they could promote contemporary poetry writing without citing actual poems they would do so.  Unfortunately, one eventually needs to cite exemplars.  This leads to unwanted aesthetic arguments, especially from those who view themselves as underappreciated:  versers want more meter, slammers want more drama, corazoners want more pathos, and good poets demand quality (as might an audience, if it existed).  As a practical matter, the institution ducks these debates and sticks with cookie-cutter prose that even their laziest contributors can see as their own. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
     Lately, a few onliners have complained about a winner of the $5,000 Walt Whitman Award for first-time authors of poetry volumes.  Some of my fellow geeks were appalled at the artistic standards (or lack thereof).  They would have good reason to be so if quality were an issue.  It isn't.  Nor should it be if we understand and accept the sponsoring organization's two-fold mandate (i.e. survive and promote poetry writing).  Nor should it surprise us that the sponsor chooses judges that are well-known practitioners of this anti-aesthetic.  Given their lack of sophistication¹, these judges choose whichever collection most closely resembles their own writing (which disappoints us geeks all the more).

     In the end, we can get madder and madder, but that's the way the world goes 'round.  We can either walk away or roll up our sleeves and get to work winning--or helping a protégé win--the next Whitman. 

     Here are some of the judges and winners:

Year Judge          Winner              Title
2015 Tracy K. Smith
2014 Rae Armantrout Hannah Sanghee Park The Same-Different
2013 John Ashberry  Chris Hosea         Put Your Hands In

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #32
     Were there any doubt we could compare the winning work of Hannah Sanghee Park with Rae Armantrout's and Chris Hosea's to John Ashbery's in terms of form and style (but not expertise, given the experience levels).  For now, let us accept the premise, if only for the sake of argument.

     The trick in 2015, then, is to write like Tracy K. Smith.  You could go the diligent route and obtain volumes of her work but critics' descriptions may suffice.  In her Wikipedia entry, Troy Jollimore is quoted as saying she is "making use of images from science and science fiction to articulate human desire and grief".  Joel Brouwer mentions that "for Smith the abyss seems as much a space of possibility as of oblivion."  Dan Chiasson mentions "issues of power and paternalism...about race".  For an actual example, one can examine the self-absorbed, cliché-festooned "I Don't Miss It".  In short, you need to produce typical nerdy teenybopper diary entries with enough overmodified pretentious nonsense (e.g. "Recalcitrant mornings", "seasons that come when called", "scamper of feeling", "climbing the walls while the hours fall", etc.) to fool someone desperate to be conned.

      I must warn you, though:  It's not easy to write that badly.  The most delicate aspect is avoiding anything that hints of rhythm or sonic awareness.  The most practical tips I can give you are:

a) avoid reading your work aloud except to check that it sounds like cafeteria banter;

b) trust your rough draft² more than your revised copy; and,

c) look for "clever/cute" rather than original.

A Final Word:

     Let me end on a sobering note.  Perhaps we should stop blaming others for failing to do our job.  These poetry institutions are the opposite of Commercial Poetry and those poets, critics and onliners who endeavor to serve an audience.  Nevertheless, in the years since their formation these recruiting organizations have brought in hordes of new writers, producing [what they have been told is] poetry.  As such, they can cite thousands of success stories. 

     The rest of us can boast of none.



¹ - I mean this in the literal, ancient Greek sense of the word:  sophists who learned from their travels that there were effective alternative approaches.  Note that reviewers today don't bother describing the form as being "metrical", "free verse" or "prose poetry".  It is assumed that the entire "poetry" collection is prose with linebreaks.  Which it usually is.

² - Indeed, much of this text looks like it has been reverse engineered.  It's what you might end up with if you took DPK's "Joie de Mourir" and removed every stitch of poetry and continuity from it, trying to recreate the original point form notes.  To what end?  I can scarce imagine.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Episode 3 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Jonathan Hobratsch
     In answer to Jonathan Hobratsch's "On Poetry Awards: Figures and Questions":

1. What is the best nomination process for an award?


2. Who is the last judge that has awarded a poet that they have never met?

    I don't know, but I hope they had a better command of English than the person asking these questions.

2c. What is the best way to protect against biases among judges?


3. Do younger poets (under 50) win less awards because they lack name recognition, have a smaller network, or is it because it must take decades for a poet to become good enough for a major award?

    Perhaps it is their inability to distinguish when one should say "less" versus "fewer".

4. Poets rarely win an award twice or even more than one award in a year.

    From which language was this mistranslated?

5. Is one judge better than three?

    Depends.  Who is the one judge and who are the three?

6. Should specific poets have access to some sort of online electoral system in which they approve a book for an award online?

     They already have such a system in place.  It's called "Amazon.com".¹

7. What should make a judge qualified?

     A knowledge of poetry fundamentals would be a good start.²

8. How does one read all the book to make an accurate judgment?


     When did we decide this was necessary, though?

9. MFA poets outside of the legendary Iowa program are beginning to win a large chunk of the awards. Does this reflect that MFA programs are working?

     Not at teaching English grammar and syntax, certainly.

10. No contemporary poet has won the Nobel Prize. Why is this the case?

     Have you read any contemporary poetry?


¹ - Why honor failure?  Yes, I know it's a radical concept, but why not insist that poems find markets, audiences or, at the very least, readerships before being considered for an award?

² - I am well aware that this sets the bar impossibly high.


Episode 1 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Episode 2 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Episode 3 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Friday, August 15, 2014

Episode 2 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #95
     "Word for Word: To read or not to read" begins with a wonderful quote from poet/undertaker Thomas Lynch:  "For poetry readings, the general rule is that if the poet is outnumbered it is a success."

     American past Poet Laureate Billy Collins engaged in similar self-deprecating banter with:  "No matter what degree of pleasure you give an audience, there’s no pleasure greater than the pleasure you give them when you shut up!"

      On another occasion he says, with no hint of self-consciousness or irony:  "When I start a poem, I assume the indifference of readers."

      On a third occasion he gives us this WTF moment:   "It is like an eye chart, with its big E at the top, and the letters getting less legible as it moves along.  A poem should be like that."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
     Another previous U.S. Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan, is paraphrased as saying she "regards the pleasure of poetry as private, and for her the right-sized room is her head, the words speaking from the page."

      LOL!  That would explain the lack of audiences!

      The last of many punchlines is that fact than neither these people nor those reporting on them ever mentioned the words "perform" or "recite".  Even in their own estimation, is nothing these poets write worth memorizing, such that we might present or quote it later?

      Okay, maybe a person needs to be a Shakespearean actor or a slammer to appreciate this final joke.


Episode 1 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Episode 2 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Episode 3 - Poets Say the Funniest Things 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Episode 1 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Michael Lista
      It seems that, this summer, poets are popping out all over.  Indeed, I've decided to begin a comedy series based on the truly whacky things that come out of their mouths. 

      Just today I saw poet, columnist, editor and critic Michael Lista being interviewed by Jason Guriel of "Maissonneuve, A Quarterly of Arts, Opinions and Ideas".  He was asked:

JG"Who is the most underrated living poet?"

      Great question!  I'm sure all of us could answer it with a list, none of which would contain Mr. Lista's candidate:

ML:  "A. E. Stallings."

One of the most recognized faces in poetry.
      Say, what?

     Alicia Stallings is among the three greatest and most familiar poets of this century.  Her name is well known by anyone who has read Poetry Magazine recently.  She is feted here as the author of one of the five finest poems of this millennium.  She is no stranger to anyone who has spent five minutes in an online poetry forum.  Among other accomplishments, she won the 1999 Richard Wilbur Award, the 2008 Poets' Prize, a Pushcart, Eunice Tietjens Prize, a Nemerov, the James Dickey Prize, the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship.  She won $625,000 in the MacArthur Fellows Program this year (i.e. 2013, since the 2014s aren't announced yet) and has been named a Fellow of the United States Artists.

     A.E. Stallings?


     It's a good thing the question specified "living poet".  Otherwise, who knows what answer Mr. Lista might have given?



Episode 1 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Episode 2 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Episode 3 - Poets Say the Funniest Things

Sunday, August 10, 2014

"What are you afraid of learning?"

      Editors Note:  When we left our heroes they were confronted by a typical ConPoet.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #115
     "It's like they are giving PhDs in Convenient Poetics!" I said.  My friend, the Saint, nodded, conceding that they were legion.

     We ruminated together about how we dealt with disingenuous ConPoets going on about poetry being alive because so many people are trying to write it.  (Needless to say, without success.)  The Saint produced an incisive counter:

     "I ask them to recite some."


      "When they start I say:  'Contemporary poetry.'  After they pause I add:  'Written by someone other than yourself.'  That usually shuts them up."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #111
      "It wouldn't in my experience," I complained.  "They'd simply deny that people ever knew any verse."

      "How do they explain poetry in preliterate societies?"

      "They don't.  They really don't think things through."

      They never do.  It's a blissful, thought-free and fact-free existence.

     Apparently, the Saint and I were heading in the same direction as he pronounced the word:


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #124
      That's it!  ConPoets are like Faux Snooze viewers!  Oh, sure, their politics may be different, more likely liberal than conservative, but look at their need for a diet rich on confirmation bias.  Watch them parrot talking points that have already been refuted--sorry, "refudiated".  People who don't know verse from free verse love to go on and on about "poetry" in blogs, social media and preambles with no regard for responses, let alone anyone else's opinion or poetry.  The salient difference is that while Tea Partiers revel in their anti-intellectualism, ConPoets seem genuinely unaware of theirs, seeing and presenting themselves as--of all things--thinkers.  We appreciate their apparent familiarity with  other arts, with philosophy, psychology and linguistics, but where is their interest in poetry?  Why can't it sustain them for the 45 minutes it takes to read some articles on meter and sonics?

      What are they afraid of learning?

Funniest Line in August

    "Yes, how selfish of someone to spend time giving an informed critique of another's work."

        - Aidan Tynan (2002)

      If you have not read about "Convenient Poetics" please take a moment to do so.

      Let us know when you're done.  We can wait.

      I was over at the Saint's house watching him work on some correspondence.  He is one of my favorite humans.  It seems that a ConPoet had written a tiresome blog and invited the Saint to comment.  With his characteristic tact and precision, my friend alerted the blogger to a number of factual errors.  Rather than show gratitude, the ConPoet ignored the corrections entirely. 

      Over the next few weeks the pattern continued:  a requested opinion of some nonsensical, self-absorbed blather (e.g. "Why I Write Poetry") meeting with polite, intelligent compliance that is disregarded.  After many iterations it became obvious that the Saint was wasting his time.  Ever sensitive and helpful, he provided the blogger with a short list of informative articles.  This provoked a haughty response, the ConPoet informing my buddy that, unlike academics, real poets don't read about poetry.

      LOL!  They certainly don't hesitate to write about it!  They just don't care to read anyone else's contributions.  Got it. 

      I was already laughing when the Saint delivered the punch line.  He turned to me, nodded towards the text, and asked:  "Would you believe this guy is a retired college teacher?"

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Creating Buzz - Successful Poetry

Stephen Burt
"It's always wrong to judge a poem by its retweets." - Stephen Burt

     At first blush, this comes off as sounding snotty.  To be sure, it comes from one of many who, along with the public, have no interest in popularizing verse.  The problem isn't so much the sneering contempt for those who use social media or the audience poets might find there.  Rather, there is an embarrassing lack of understanding as to how social media and poetry operate.

     The fact is that, short of actually hearing a poem, there is no better measure of great contemporary verse than retweets and Facebook Shares.  What conclusion should you draw from John Doe blurbing Jane Smith's latest volume but balking at retweeting the publication announcement?  At the opposite extreme, what if we see two non-poets Sharing the same poem?  If in doubt, we can even ask the posters what they like about this poem.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #60
     At the heart of the arrogance is the notion that broad popularity is a sign of devalued plebian art.  For starters, that isn't what is happening here.  Think of it:  one's Facebook friends and Twitter followers are, generally, one's peers, friends and relatives.  At the very least, they are people with whom we share an interest.  Does Mr. Burt really mean to insult the tastes of those with whom he has so much in common?

     The fact of the matter is that there is no more honest, informal and convincing form of information exchange than social media.  It is the ultimate form of buzz.  Were this not the case, companies wouldn't spend millions trying to measure that interest and we wouldn't have social media in the first place.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #23
     The viral verse that breaks poetry's 50+ year shutout may appear elsewhere--movie, television, or stage--but, without question, it will become a cultural icon only through the Internet¹.  Today, that means social media, as opposed to Usenet, discussion sites, email lists or the blogosphere.  Verse will succeed only if many strangers pass it along to their Friends and Followers.

     What kind of poem will break the losing streak?  Well, it certainly won't be what passes for "poetry" lately:  artless, forgettable, Seinfeldian prose that, if it ever strays too close to a point, immediately invokes the Gerard Ian Lewis Rule.  That stuff disappears at the mere mention of an audience.  Perhaps, instead of worrying about aesthetics, we should look at the medium itself.  What kind of things go viral?  What kind of things do people Share or retweet?

     For the most part, this involves the cute, the surprising and the funny.  To be considered viral, a video usually has to be two or three of these.  Witness the classic:

     Still with the theme of babies or furry animals, this one is closer to my heart:  the Squirrel Obstacle Course.

     Couldn't someone write a fun poem narrating this?  Or use the various stages as metaphors in a more serious effort?

     Among others are those that use songs, celebrity and/or politics.  The good news is that injecting poetry into such discussions isn't difficult.  The bad news is that poets today rarely discuss anything at all, let alone anything current, topical or [gasp!] entertaining.  "Beans" refers to events of 1973; "How Aimeé remembers Jaguar" to WWII; and, "Studying Savonarola" harkens back to 1498.  Thus, the best poems of our time are not of our time.  What appeal will these have to a generationally narcissistic public that thinks the word "History" refers to a feature of their online browsers?

     You can't sell champagne if no one drinks.  We need to sell poetry to someone before we can sell it to anyone.

     As for humor, have you read any recent poetry?

     Surprise requires imagination in design and content;  that is in even shorter supply.  The vast majority of poetry today is in the same form, seeking the most obscure way to say as little as possible.  What if almost every poem were a vacuous limerick?  What if every painting were yellow?

     Think of how little inventiveness would be involved in taking "Hitler's Downfall" and doing yet another hilarious rant...this time in blank verse? 

     Or create something interesting from scratch?         


¹ - For example, W.H. Auden's "Funeral Blues" appeared in Mike Newell's 1994 film "Four Weddings and a Funeral" but was discussed and referenced by many more people online than watched the original movie...and that was years before social media!