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, November 29, 2014


Sayre's law:  "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake."  See also:  "The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low."  See also Hutchin's Law:  "The reason the politics of poetry are so vicious is that the stakes are so low."

    We laugh when we think of the New England theater critic who allowed that Shakespeare wasn't awful, adding "I doubt we have six of his ilk in all of Boston!"

    We stop laughing when we think that there may have been six poets of Shakespeare's ilk somewhere in the anglophone world who weren't recognized because of their class, gender, ethnicity, religion, color, nationality, location, age, or politics.  Economic elitism, sexism, racism, nationalism, regionalism, cronyism, and ageism are only a few of the extraneous factors ("-isms") standing between merit and hype, between art and fad.

    Optimists, including me, argue that the democratizing Internet will eventually ameliorate, if not eliminate, these -isms.  For now, the septuagenarian son of a coal baron can still get any dreck published, even if it trivializes a tragedy (as all indolent writing does).  Yes, even if it is to prose-qua-poetry what "The Tay Bridge Disaster" was to verse. 

    "Which -ism is operating there?" you ask.

     In this case, a better question might be:  "Which one isn't?"

     In my experience, the "New Yorker" poem marks a point of no return.  That is, I cannot cite one worthwhile poem produced by a poet or editor after abandoning merit as the sole criterion for art.  Instead, there only -isms to choose from.  As for the public, why should readers take poetry seriously if writers and publishers don't?

     Arguably the most insidious and virulent -isms are those relating to geography.  Many who vehemently oppose sexism and racism will rally around a neighbor over any outlander.  This favoritism is easily institutionalised.  Because Nobody Reads Poetry, verse often relies on government funding.  At the civic level, the town's Art Council will ensure that all contracts go to local residents.  National organizations can be downright protectionist.  Flags become blindfolds.  It doesn't help when a well-known Content Regent explicitly endorses this myopia, going so far as to recommend 20 compatriots' poems based entirely on their--you guessed it--subject matter and polemics.

     As an aside, when did confirmation bias become an aesthetic?  How long before England is the only country still teaching Shakespeare to high schoolers?  Or has that boat already sailed?

     Something more basic is at work here.  The three best poets of our time are female but only the American one is recognized.  What gives?  If chauvinism is so pervasive why aren't the other two celebrated in their countries?  Granted, sexism could explain all three, since A.E. Stallings had to use her initials before editors would publish her work, but all three nations have promoted inferior poets of the same gender.  Modesty?  The other two were, indeed, pathologically shy but that doesn't explain why periodicals refused to publish Maz's obituary.  No.  Pare away the distractions.  Only one suspect remains, one that is at the heart of all prejudice.


     Worse yet, we're not talking about the run-of-the-mill idiocy we see on Faux Snooze.  We're talking about the two strains that infest and infect the pseudo-intellectual community:  disingenuousness and wilful¹ ignorance.  It is the blithe non sequitur, "Everyone is writing poetry!", parroted by sycophants when informed of poetry's demise.   It is the insipidity of editors not caring to learn the elements of poetry.  It is the spectacle of an "expert" who didn't know "Beans" was an iambic pentameter acrostic, let alone who it was about, but tells us what poems children should be learning based on, of all things, his interpretive ability.  It is like the inanity of racists and homophobes watching voting rights and marriage equality sweep the United States, oblivious to the fact that the world is changing for the better.

     The good news comes in the irony that, by definition, progress permits no bystanders.  It benefits everyone, including, if not especially, those who opposed it.


¹ - ...similar to the kind that makes some think "wilful" is misspelled.  Incidentally, the etymology of the word "misspelled" dates back to 1645-1655, making it among the first words that could be misspelled.  Before that, without the Gutenberg press (1450) or dictionaries (1604?  1755?), "standard spelling" was an oxymoron.

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