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

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!

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