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

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why Is Contemporary Poetry So Good?

     In "Why is Contemporary Poetry so Bad?" we demonstrated that today's verse is awful.  Paradoxically, we'll now argue the opposite without contradicting ourselves.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #102
    20th century verse was jump-started with two hypermodern¹ heterometrical classics, the iambic "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"  (1915) and the accentual "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923).  Today's poets are even more innovative, producing reversers, curginas, coratas, cliché collages and other inventive approaches.  However, great poetry involves far more than form or originality;  it is about the ability to please an audience.  The question becomes:  "Will the early 21st century produce 2-6 major poets, as every other era has?"  My answer remains:  "It depends on the instructors."  You and I can name three or four contemporary geniuses whose technique, performance value and sense eclipse all others since Frost but if our literature is taught by Content Regents who think² Blake's "The Tyger" is trochaic all bets are off. 

    Advocates for overproduction (i.e. "The art form is alive, despite the fact that Nobody Reads Poetry, because more people are trying to write it now than ever before") have a point, although it may not be the one they intend.  It is true that in 100 years 100 chimpanzees with 100 keyboards might produce Shakespeare.  No less than three of the ten best poems of this new millennium were flukes.  Better yet, we have computer programs that can, in a nanosecond, spew out what those 100 simians produce.  With all of this writing to choose from--some of which is bound to be excellent--what is the problem?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #123

    Many will blame editors.  It is undeniable that only a few of them have studied prosody but, from all appearance, neither had Harriet Monroe.  It is obvious that the insistence on first serial rights has to be jettisoned, if only because it would have precluded "Poetry" magazine's republication of "Prufrock" altogether.  It is painfully obvious that the focus has to switch from poets to poems.  However, this particular failure is not about personnel.  It is structural.   

     Our selection mechanism is missing a vital component.


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #73
     The story of how "Prufrock" came to us is more than a microcosm;  it is a parable.  In my experience, editors are more than willing to listen to informed advice, as Ms. Monroe was.  Need help with basic scansion, as she did?  It is only a click away.  Constructive criticism?  Go to Eratosphere, Gazebo or Poetry Free-For-All and you'll see plenty of experts helping poets improve³ their works, as Ezra Pound did with T.S. Eliot. 

     More than any other factors, the Internet's educational and critical resources explain why today's best poetry is as good as it is.  We are seeing people who've never been inside a literature class show a better understanding of the definition and composition of verse than many English PhDs.  As for critical resources, these may be as pedestrian as posting a poem to Facebook and tossing or revising it if our friends don't gush.

     So what is lacking? 

     Consider how periodicals find candidate poems.  They are either submitted over-the-transom or solicited from a recognized poet.  The former causes overworked editors to go bleary-eyed.  The latter results in the dreaded "New Yorker" poem.  Or worse.  Care to guess how many of the six greatest poems of our time followed either course to publication?

Beans (D.P. Kristalo) posted by Earl Gray on Vimeo.

     That would be none.  Zero.  Bupkes.

     "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths was published posthumously, "Beans" by D. P. Kristalo and "There are Sunflowers in Italy" by Didi Menendez not at all.  "Antiblurb" by Alicia E. Stallings was published, but in a book

     That leaves "How Aimee Remembers Jaguar" by Eric Hopson and "Auditing the Heart" by Frank Matagrano, both of which appeared years after they were written. 

Question:  If these last two weren't submitted by their author, perhaps prompted by the editor, how did they get published? 

Answer:  The same way the best (i.e. "Prufrock") and, to stretch a point, the best known ("In Flanders Fields") North American WWI era poems did.  They were bird-dogged.  Pound championed "Prufrock", even to the point of scanning it for Harriet Monroe so that she wouldn't reject it as the rambling of an old man.  John McCrae's co-workers recommended his verse to the editors of "Punch" magazine.  This tradition is old as poetry itself but, barring agents and parents, approaching an editor to promote poetry other than one's own is a bizarre concept today.

     The next time we are inclined to cast aspersions on the caliber of work editors put out let us think of what we might do to close the gap[e] between what is being produced and what is being published.


¹ - Since then, millions who miss the whole point of hypermodernism have tried to duplicate that success.  Why is it so hard to understand that we cannot copy uniqueness?

² - They also seem to believe there may be 2-6 hundred significant poets alive today.

³ - Ignore outlets that won't accept work subjected to objective critical thinking;  aesthetically speaking, such venues are beyond hope.

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