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, January 31, 2014

If you're not talking to me why are you talking to me?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #44
    At this precise moment in some workshop a neophyte artist is responding to criticism with either:

1. "It's all just a matter of taste!" or,

2. "I create for myself."

    If #1 is true why show it to critics?

    If #2 is true why show it to anyone?





Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Malsitna

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #62
    When was the last time you got a letter, email or message quoting a contemporary poem the non-poet sender did not write?  When was the last time you saw a politician, interviewee, inspirational speaker or standup comedian quote today's poetry?  When was the last time you saw someone perform--not read or recite but perform, as a Shakespearean actor might--a poem recently authored by a third party?  These are things poetry fans used to do centuries ago.  These were poetry's lifeblood when it was alive. 

    The bad news is that, as far as we can tell, poetry has only one remaining fan and age is catching up with him.  He attends open mics and, despite a failing memory, he performs the poetry of today's best versers--something that is illegal in slams.  As things stand, when he retires the last vestige of poetry's glory will disappear.

    The good news is that this same person has come up with an idea to encourage others to revive poetry's significance in our culture...and have a lot of fun doing it! 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #18
    A malsitna is exactly like a slam except that, like the Poetry Out Loud initiative, participants must perform someone else's work.  That might sound like a minor, cosmetic change but think of how little our DNA would need to be modified to produce a gorilla, a chimpanzee or a Miley Cyrus.

    For starters, the event immediately switches from a competition among poetry's producers to one among poetry's consumers.  Since the latter are an endangered species some of the former will need to convert.  Already we can see the appeal to publishers, who could organize malsitnas where competitors choose poems from the sponsor's publications, similar to Performance Contest Marketing.  These can be either live, like slams, or online ("cybermalsitnas", where entrants post recordings of their performances to, say, YouTube).

    Text-based poetry organizers and publishers can regard the malsitna as a way to encourage reluctant poets to honor the art form onstage without encountering the perceived demographical, stylistic and aesthetic tendencies of a standard slam.  Budget?  A malsitna doesn't cost money, it makes money [if you want it to].  Regular slammers could use the malsitna not only as a fund raiser but as a way to broaden the perspectives of their poets--two vital considerations when advancing to the nationals.  Ideally, the public might notice and wonder:  "What's this?  Poetry karoake?"

     A bar could sponsor a Malsitna Night where, with great pomp and humor, the manager might award a "Golden Pitcher" (like a Stanley or Davis Cup) of beer to the winner.  A book store or library might give out poetry volumes as prizes and, perhaps, have their own Ring of Honor for recent victors.  The event could be recorded and, with the proper permissions, shown online.  If the video goes viral, in one fell swoop, a poet in Alice Springs, Australia, a performer visiting from Peoria, Illinois, and a brick-and-mortar in Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, Alberta, can get their three minutes of game.

    Use your imagination!



   Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Friday, January 24, 2014

Styles - Two Elegies for Maz

    An Eratosphere thread brought these two poems to our attention:

 "Grasshopper" by Dr. A.W. Niloc


Grasshopper uploaded by Earl Gray onto Vimeo.


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

When what was whole is lost we lean
on rain, on roots and suds for help.

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


"Margaret Ann" by D.P. Kristalo.


Margaret Ann uploaded by Earl Gray onto Vimeo.


There are no stars for us. Fate-weary heroes, roads,
and thrones won't anchor us this far from London light.
No sirens skirl for us, no crow or squirrel goads
us, sounding rancorous, as shadows turn to night.

You dreamed of holy mud, tanks melted down to spoons,
of standing by the Thames, the last of those who warred
against the staining blood, against the draining moons,
against the crippling memes, against the Vogon horde.

Time jumps, grasshopper style, as London light recedes.
Your verses, in their youth, will cross the Bridge of Sighs.
Night falls to mourning while my every breath concedes:
you spoke the wicked truth and I the honest lies.

So says Calliope: "Your orphaned words will reign
where coast ends path and sea, while time and space remain."

Margaret Ann Griffiths

    The first thing that will strike us about these poems is their similarities.  Both are written by onliners, which accounts for how distinct they are from what we might encounter in literary publications or onstage at a slam.  Both pieces are elegies for the same person¹:  Margaret Ann Griffiths (1947-2009, aka "Maz" or "Grasshopper"), author of "Grasshopper:  The Poetry of M. A. Griffiths", collected and published postumously by Arrowhead Press in the U.K. and reprinted in North America by Able Muse Press.  Both poems are licensed by Creative Commons, meaning that we can do whatever we wish with them short of claiming authorship.  Both are innovative sonnets, alexandrine in whole or part.  Both rely almost entirely on perfect rhymes--no doubt because both authors are curginistas.  Both draw heavily on the poetry of the deceased, most notably on her signature piece, "Studying Savonarola".


Studying Savonarola (by Margaret Griffiths) posted by Earl Gray onto Vimeo.

The only poetry book Earl recommends

     The shared subject matter, form and genre gives us a unique opportunity to focus on style.  The authors could not be less alike:  "A.W." is a gregarious commenter known to any poetry enthusiast who has been online for more than five minutes.  "DPK" is a recluse.  With two poems, "Beans" and "Joie de Mourir", in the critics' top 10, DPK is a solid contender for "best living poet";  as for  "Grasshopper", suffice it to say we've caught the Doctor on a good day here.

    A.W. begins with the deceased poet and ends with her poetry, switching at the volta.  The sonics are spectacular, especially in the octet.  The alliteration of "w" sounds ("world", "won't", "one", confirmed by "wound"), the assonance of long "a" ("braced" and "weights" confirmed by the rhyming "faced") and short "i" ("strict winds with levity", presaged via "with" and confirmed with "still") phonemes, and the "t" consonance ("strict" and "levity" before "coat buttoned tight, still") are exquisite.

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

When what was whole is lost we lean
on rain, on roots and suds for help.

    The key difference between these two works is in A.W.'s characteristic reporting, relying on listed details and sonics more than rhetoric and metaphor.

    At the turn the meter switches with the focus.  This is a DATIA (i.e. verse with a trinary and a binary rhythm), written by the originator of that form.  It begins with an allusion to "Studying Savonarola" colliding with a reference to "Summer Haiku" from Leonard Cohen's "The Spice-Box of Earth":

             Silence
             and a deeper silence
             when the crickets
             hesitate

When you died and the bees did not mourn, did the crickets
hesitate?

     My best guess is that this highlights the point that, while both Cohen and Maz are better known for verse--songs, in the case of Leonard--the signature poems of both are non-metrical.  These being two of the greatest poets of our time, the comparison seems not just apt but inevitable.

Did they draw long blue chords on each thigh?
Did they speak? Did they say "She is gone. Face that fact."?

     Consonantal rhymes like "fact" with "crickets" are rare.  This one protrudes slightly because it is the only inventive rhyme in the piece.

It's the truth but, in every other sense, it's a lie!
You remain, sui generis, one light that beams
as the guide of my passing and mother to my dreams.

     Maz loved double entendres.  A person unfamiliar with her respect for French author Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant might miss this one:  "guide of my passing" = "guide de mon passant" (with some poetic license).

     "Margaret Ann" uses not just a pun (e.g. "night falls to mourning") but, at one point, elicits a guffaw with "Vogon horde".  Those taken aback by humor in an elegy didn't know Maz.

     DPK's fans find two things remarkable:  "Margaret Ann" is not curginated (i.e. the verses aren't broken up "free verse style") and it relies more on anaphora than sonics.  "Grasshopper" may be more subtle than "Margaret Ann" but if you are looking for a metrical poem to practice and perform at your next open mic you have found it in Margaret Ann

     Maz grew up in London before moving out to Poole, Dorset.  The distance from "London light" could be a reference to her own shyness, to the obscurity of poetry in general or of the poet herself.

     DPK's hammer-and-tong style is unmistakeable:  typically, she blows you away with her first sentence (e.g. "Beyond this arid pit is life, lived incognito" or "September came like winter's ailing child") and never lets you recover.

    "Stars" may refer to a prominent destiny or the recognition we might see on, say, the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

There are no stars for us. Fate-weary heroes, roads,
and thrones won't anchor us this far from London light.
No sirens skirl for us, no crow or squirrel goads
us, sounding rancorous, as shadows turn to night.

     The sounds in L3 are astounding:  the long "o" assonance ("No", "for", "no crow", "goads"), the sibilance and the skirl/squirrel internal rhyme.

You dreamed of holy mud, tanks melted down to spoons,
of standing by the Thames, the last of those who warred
against the staining blood, against the draining moons,
against the crippling memes, against the Vogon horde.

    The item "against the Vogon horde" captures Margaret's role as mentor and critic at a time when poetry technique is largely ignored.  Lest we forget, it was Maz who said:  "Death is just Nature's way to tell us it is time to stop writing.  Unfortunately, she never arranged a similar signal to tell some people they should never start..."

    What words could create a better volta than "Time jumps"?

Time jumps, grasshopper style, as London light recedes.
Your verses, in their youth, will cross the Bridge of Sighs.

    Damn, this DPK is relentless!  There is barely time to breathe between stunning images and metaphors.  What is left for a climax, though, after all of this?

Night falls to mourning while my every breath concedes:
you spoke the wicked truth and I the honest lies.

    This is as fine a couplet as you will see this century.  "Wicked truth" invokes Maz's unique sense of humor and practicality.

So says Calliope: "Your orphaned words will reign

    DPK's in-your-face style, so completely masked by ambiguity in "Beans", comes to the fore with "orphaned words", a reference to today's poets' reluctance to promote or perform any contemporary verse but their own.  What will be the fate of our words without us to promote them?

where coast ends path and sea, while time and space remain."

    The hemistich before the caesura refers to a charming line in a poem posted by a novice and critiqued by Maz.  As I recall, it referred to lovers meeting where each of their boundaries ended.  "Margaret Ann" finishes with the assonance of long "i" and "a" sounds:  "while time and space remain". 

    I don't use the word "magnificent" very often but...



Footnotes:

¹ - See also "Just Rain" by Duncan Gillies MacLaurin, with its own Leonard Cohen connection.



    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Vegan Butchers

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #61
     In my estimation, 99% of poetry classes, seminars, tutorials and lectures are content-driven and, therefore, off-point and time-wasting at best, counterproductive at worst.  One of the rare exceptions is the Poetry Out Loud ("POL") initiative run jointly by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

     Add all other poetry publications, institutions, programs and events together and they don't do nearly as much for [the repopularization of] verse as POL.  What is more, it promises to get significantly better in a generation or two.

     There's the rub.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #66
     In the selection of modern poems, few of which could have been chosen with performance value in mind, and this video, "Advice for Judges", we see POL's flaw.  Some of the people running it are from an era and milieu of poetry reading[s] rather than performing.  There is also confusion arising from interchangeable use of the terms "recitation" and "performance", which are as distinct as "autopilot" versus "barnstorming". 

     To a fashion model, interior designer or chef the key aspect of a wedding is the dress, venue or dinner, respectively.  To a poet, the primary ingredient in a recitation is the poem (or its author).  To most teachers today the primary aspect is interpretation.  To everyone else it is tautologically obvious to say that the definitive aspect of performance is...well, the performance (or performer).  In this respect, a print world poet can be like a vegan butcher.  I implore these people to participate in performance--not readings--before contributing further.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #77
     Consider the perspective of poet Kwame Dawes:  "...the poem comes first."  If you've ever performed onstage you are painfully aware that the audience comes first.  He represents the stereotypical academic interest, emphasizing interpretation:  "...measure the understanding of the poem."

     Francisco Aragón reduces this to the absurd.  He mentions slams (which by definition require original material), informing us that they are about poets, not poems ("In the POL competition...the poem is the protagonist;  in a slam competition, the poet is the protagonist").  We can laugh at the irony.

     He goes on to say that "...the student should maintain his or her poise and not let the content of the poem give them license to become an actor and impose their own interpretation on the poem."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #84
     Actually, as anyone who has ever attended a Shakespearean production can attest, this is precisely the illusion that good poetry performance creates.  During the time contestants are onstage their words belong to them and no one else.  What is more, their speech has not been previously composed by anyone.  A convincing performance sounds impromptu.  Actors aren't mail carriers;  they are artists.  They don't deliver lines, they reinvent them.  Wouldn't you expect someone who has seen a play, movie or television show in their life to understand this? 

     While Messrs. Dawes and Aragón want to reduce performance to the level of a recital that will sound like a reading, others seem far less worried that students will be so excited by the material that they might modulate their voices or [gasp!] actually move onstage.  Stephen Young, Denise Low, Mimi Herman and Terry Blackhawk rendered good advice.  Not so the "Tips on Reciting".  For example, under "VOICE AND ARTICULATION", we read:

Keep in Mind: Contestants will use a microphone at the National Finals.

Tips:

    Project to the audience. Capture the attention of everyone, including the people in the back row. However, don’t mistake yelling for good projection.

     Um, no.  The whole idea of the microphone is to preclude the need for projection.  Let it do its job.

     Under "LEVEL OF COMPLEXITY" we read:

A poem with complex language will have intricate diction and syntax, meter and rhyme scheme, and shifts in tone or mood.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #46
     It may have "meter and rhyme scheme, and shifts in tone or mood", as any poem might.  Much blank verse (e.g. Shakespeare's plays) and non-metrical verse has complex language.

     Notwithstanding these nits and the soon-to-be-outgrown blurring of reading, recitation and performance, I predict the POL project will continue to lead the way in poetry's slow road back.



    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Saturday, January 18, 2014

12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part I


     This series is meant to be a countdown from 12 to 1.  If you have stumbled onto this page thinking it begins the series please click here to jump to Part XII.






     There are thousands of reasons to write poetry, among them wanting to impress prospective partners, wanting to appear clever, a burning desire to prove one's nerdiness, et cetera.  Of these, the worst is that you have a message for the world.  If that is the case, you're in the wrong place, switch over to prose, Ace.  

     Only two goals will bring you here and sustain you going forward:  fortune and fame.  Your underlying motivation is irrelevant.  You might want money to help the homeless or feed your greed.  You might want fame to bring comfort to wounded souls or because you are a Self-Propelled Attention Seeking Megalomaniac ("SPASM").  No matter.

     It's not that we don't judge.  It's just that we really don't give a damn.

     Because poetry is a dead art form on the demand side (where it counts) we need to drastically scale down our expectations.  To wit, "fortune" involves getting a job teaching poetry, not writing it, while "fame" involves writing something that more than a few dozen strangers might actually want to read.

     If you are writing poetry in order to gain publication credits for your resumé it makes sense to compose the kind of poems that are discussed in classrooms.  Since those discussions will be almost entirely interpretive, it follows that you should write poems that require explanation.  For their part, magazines understand the influence that teachers will have and will facilitate publication by eliminating the need for technical (if not artistic) merit and innovative form or content.  The writing is obscure in both the intrinsic (i.e. the currency is vagueness) and commercial (i.e. readership is limited to friends, relatives and other careerists) senses.  Publishing in poetry 'zines is, at best, the literary equivalent of films going straight to DVD.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #2
     Clearly, if your only interest in poetry is getting a job teaching it, our Rule #2 should be your mantra:  "If you can't be profound, be vague."

     Technique?  Remember episode 110 in M*A*S*H where an outraged Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger, played by Jamie Farr, threatening suicide by dousing himself with a faux flammable, shouts "Who put gasoline in my gasoline?"  That is how these poets and editors regard technique.

     Not surprisingly, these publishers are often funded through educational institutions:  mostly universities, but also groups with broader scopes such as the Poetry Foundation.  Elsewhere, the ethos and aesthetics can be quite different.  What is standard operating procedure in one can be scandalous in the other.  For example, in contests, selecting poems to help a person's career caused a new rule to be named after the offending judge and her resolving to never assume that responsibility again.  Because the poems we see in these award-winning publications are not designed with immediate audience appeal in mind, few would survive the early screening processes of a large contest.  There is simply no time for "close reads" or academic discussions that might bring light or life to such writing.


Merle's Motto
    "The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place." - George Bernard Shaw

     There are dozens of things wrong with the current, purely interpretive approach to criticizing and teaching poetry (aside from the exclusion of technique), but among the worst is Merle's¹  Motto.  It may be counterintuitive but having hordes of students and critics deciphering² verses amounts to nothing more than compounding the confounding.  In addition to comprehension, it undermines trust.  Because we can't be sure our audience will catch our drift, we can't quote many modern, let alone contemporary, poems.  In what conversation could we quote, say, "The Red Wheelbarrow" or "In the Station of the Metro" without looking like idiots?


Unearned Interest:

     Today, only a tiny subset--less than .01%-- of poets (mostly aspiring teachers and students) will read any given contemporary poem.  What if you want to appeal to those beyond such a miniscule peer or captive audience?  Come to think of it, what is it that enrollees in contemporary poetry classses are examining?  Failure as a cautionary tale?  Certainly not success, given poetry's disappearance from our common culture.  Certainly not technical merit (a subject conspicuous by its absence in classrooms and literary criticisms).

     Lest we think textual poets are the only problem, let's take stock of both ends of the spectrum:

Poetry Type  Focus  Material Technique    Performance

Academic     Author Dull     Non-existent Portentious Hush
Performance  Author Sporatic Non-existent Over the top

     It doesn't take a genius to see how a poet can stand out from these two extremes.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
     There is an old joke about a sargeant explaining bayonetting to his recruits:  "If your blade gets stuck in your opponent's body fire off a round to dislodge it."

     "Sarge," counters a buck private, "if there's a bullet in my rifle there ain't gonna be no bayonettin'!"

     If readers don't enjoy their first encounter with your poem there ain't gonna be a second one.  No "close read".  No nothing.  What is more, if you can't capture their attention early many people won't stay for the finale.  This 1,000-channel-changing generation isn't known for its attention span.

     If you never take anything else away from this blog take Rule #12:  "Try to be understood too quickly."

     Write interesting stories.  Write them well.  If they pass muster with a serious critical audience make videos out of them and post them on YouTube.  If ambitious, find an authority willing to sift through such presentations and feature the best ones in a press release.  Give your contest a catchy, highfalutin name.  Repeat as necessary.

     If you're feeling generous while writing a poem throw the teachers and critics a bone:  add in some allusion or derivative phrase so that they can trace its source, argue that you were influenced by its author and are a member of such-and-such a School.  Leave a gap or two so they won't consider your work facile.  Don't sweat depth.  If people can discern meaning in red wheelbarrows, rain water, white chickens, Star Wars movies, misshapen potatoes and Beatles' songs played backwards, they can overinterpret³ your verse and make you a prophet.  Maybe even a profit!




Footnotes:

¹ - Merle the Squirrel is our Shakespeare.

² - The difference between annotation and interpretations is the difference between singular and plural, between fact and opinions.

³ - If you teach poetry, I implore to stop asking "What does this mean?"  Instead, ask "Will your remember this?"  If so, why?  If not, what does it matter?




Links:

  1. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part I


  2. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II


  3. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part III


  4. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IV


  5. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part V


  6. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VI


  7. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VII


  8. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VIII


  9. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IX


  10. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part X


  11. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XI


  12. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XII




    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Monday, January 13, 2014

12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #25
     Consider the following two excerpts in technical (e.g. rhythm, assonance, consonance, rhyme, anaphora, etc.) and interpretive terms:

Text sample #1:

Change is the new,

improved

word for god,

lovely enough
to raise a song

or implicate

a sea of wrongs,
mighty enough,

like other gods,

to shelter,
bring together,

and estrange us.

Text Sample #2:

Desolation is a misty pirate.
Why does the sail wave?
Why does the moon die?
Endure quietly like a rough sail.
Shrink calmly like a grimy girl.

     Is one of these markedly and demonstrably better as poetry than the other?  If so, which?  And why?


     #1 is a series of bland, unsupported assertions broken up into short bursts of precious selfconsciousness by linebreaks and lacunae strophe breaks.  Soporific?  Twice I had to check myself for a pulse.  Aside from some short "e" assonance and the clumsy gods/god and song/wrongs rhymes, there are fewer sonic or pattern repetitions here than one might expect in prose, let alone poetry.  It might be the most humdrum text every streamed.

     By comparison, #2 is a masterpiece.  The opening metaphor is striking, even without the play on words (i.e. does "misty" refer to weepy or foggy?).  Long "i" sounds abound:  "Why...die...quietly...like...like...grimy".  Note the alliteration of "d" ("Desolation...does...does...die...Endure") and, at the end, "g" sounds ("grimy girl").  The rhythms are rather deft iambic heterometer with acephaly in the 1st and 3rd line and anacrusis in the 4th.

[x] Des|olat|ion is | a mist|y pir|      Headless iamb + 3 iambs.
ate.  Why | does the | sail wave?        3 iambs.
[x] Why | does the | moon die?           Headless iamb + 2 iambs.
[En]dure qui|etly | like a | rough sail. "En" + spondee + Double iamb.
Shrink calm|ly like | a grim|y girl.     Spondee + 3 iambs.

     Notice how both "like" iterations come after "-ly" but only the latter is stressed.  In five lines we see a noteworthy stylistic mixture of T.S. Eliot and Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Because #2 is poetry while #1 is in every aspect its direct antithesis, we can say without hyperbole that #2 is infinitely superior to #1.

     We should not miss the irony that #1 soon ends with "Please, god...change us" (indeed!) or that it was published in a magazine called "Poetry".  I would not have singled it out since it is identical to almost every other poem being published today but it was brought to my attention by the publisher.  Why?  Was I supposed to enjoy it?  Should I be insulted?

     I am not criticizing the editors, who cannot be held responsible for turns made before they were born.  In fact, I can emphathize.  Think of it:  you spend more than half a decade in university racking up a 6-digit debt, you toil away until you get your dream job, only to be forced by circumstance to put out this lifeless dreck.

     Given what they accept, can you imagine what they must reject?  I have been critiquing and publishing, on and off, for decades and I don't recall anything this vapid crossing my desk.  The notion that they must be looking at thousands of submissions worse than this would make me shiver in summer.

     #1 was obviously not written with a human audience in mind.  Was it written by a human, though?  Believe it or not, yes, it was.  In fact, it was penned by a poet I like and admire, one capable of much better work than this.  Why submit this tripe, then?  More broadly, how did the Seinfeldian¹ New Yorker poem become the industry standard?

     When did boredom become a prerequisite? 

     Well, if the rules of the game state that anything as exciting as "The Charge of the Light Brigade", as funny as "The Cremation of Sam McGee", as emotive as "Do not go gentle into that good night", or as romantic as "Sonnets to the Portuguese 43" won't be studied and, therefore, won't be published, what choice do poets have but to add to the pile of detritus being disseminated as the submission guidelines insist?  If poets can, in under a minute, write and later publish text so tedious that it permanently lowers our metabolism where is the incentive to create something people might actually want to read? 

     Would you believe that it was #2 that was computer generated?  Ayup.  I went to the Poem Generator site², hit the "Make Poem" button five times, et voilà!  With nothing but cutting and pasting to do, it took me about 80 seconds.  Thus, I spent about twice as long piecing together #2 as the author seems to have in creating #1.

     So, if writers have to write what publishers publish, if publishers can only publish what is submitted to them, and if discerning readers ignore the entire process, how can we break out of this Garbage In, Garbage Out vicious circle?  Oh, and can you guess what is the most common and egregious thing that poets do exactly wrong?  The answer to these and all your other questions will be revealed in our thrilling final chapter of "12 Things Poets Get Backwards". 

     Stay tuned!




Footnotes:

¹ - "Seinfeldian" = "about nothing".

² -  These poetry generators are an excellent source of inspiration.  Try loading "Poem Generator" with your own word lists.  Your results may amuse and amaze you.  "Language is a Virus", "Goth-o-matic", "Jelks" and "Random Line Generator" are alternatives.



Links:
  1. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part I
  2. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II
  3. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part III
  4. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IV
  5. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part V
  6. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VI
  7. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VII
  8. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VIII
  9. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IX
  10. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part X
  11. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XI
  12. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XII


    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

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    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Sunday, January 12, 2014

12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part III

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #13
     I once witnessed an odd experiment:  someone read aloud three passages in Russian to a few dozen non-Russian speakers.  One was a metrical poem, one was free verse, and one was prose. 

     Not one participant had any difficulty guessing which was prose. 

     We can understand how the experimental group was able to separate the verse from prose;  the rhymes and rhythm were tipoffs.  How did they discern the free verse from prose, though?  More to the point, why do English-speaking editors have such difficulty drawing the same distinction with English language submissions?

     The answer to both questions is:  rhythms.  The listeners were able to detect their presence whereas editors today can't seem to detect their absence [or are forced to publish despite that absence].

     Let me conjure up two scenarios.

     In the first, everyone studies the fundamentals of poetry in grade school, starting with scansion, as they did a century ago.  They understand where the rhythms of song and speech differ.  Their very existence creates a demand for verse and rhythmic free verse, along with a certain "WTF?" disdain for prose trying to pass for poetry.  There are so many poets that every demographic is covered.  Thus, if a drunken, misogynistic, bomb-throwing p[r]oser were to appear on the horizon he would be instantly replaced in the public eye with a drunken, misogynistic, bomb-throwing poet.  Same clichéd message, same clumsy verbosity, same persona, same hype, different mode--poetry as opposed to lineated prose.

     In the second scenario teaching the elements of poetry is discontinued in the middle of the 20th century.  This knowledge becomes so arcane that only a few hundred--maybe only a few dozen--people on the planet can pass the simplest test.  Needless to say, there is no audience for poetry of any sort.  Good storytellers either can't write verse or choose to go where the market is:  novels.  The tiny population of poets cannot hope to cover every subgenre, topic or demographic.  Now, when a drunken, misogynistic, bomb-throwing p[r]oser appears there are no actual poets within that interest group to serve it.

     We can stimulate knowledge but we cannot simulate it.  We can show aspiring poets how learning the essentials can help them charm contest judges, editors and audiences.  We can show aspiring poets the basics in an hour.  Once they attain this wisdom we can encourage them to practice and share it, especially in critical forums.  What we cannot do as individuals is trick others into thinking we've studied the elements of the art form.  Our ignorance will show in everything we say, in the topics we discuss (i.e. content) and in the whole glossary of subjects we avoid.  As a population we cannot be expected to buy something we don't understand.  Like watching a foreign language film without subtitles, the participants in the aforementioned experiment may be able to discern poetry in Russian better than editors can do so in English but they won't report enjoying the experience.  No, not even if someone translates the pieces after the fact.  

Barring celebrity or notoriety, at least.
     I estimate that about 2,000,000 North Americans self-identify as "poets", serious or not.  The British Isles should be able to muster almost as many.  Between them, Australia and New Zealand can be counted on to kick in 30,000+ souls who at least dabble in poetry.  Ditto South Africa.  If India doesn't already have more English language poets than all of these countries combined they soon will.  Hearing this, many would conclude that the world has too many poets.

     In truth, we have far too few.



Links:

  1. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part I


  2. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II


  3. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part III


  4. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IV


  5. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part V


  6. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VI


  7. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VII


  8. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VIII


  9. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IX


  10. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part X


  11. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XI


  12. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XII




    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Friday, January 10, 2014

12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IV

Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

   - William Shakespeare, Sonnet XXI



Earl the Squirrel's Rule #11
     There is simply no way to convince producers--publishers, editors or poets--that there is more to the process of creating poetry than inserting random linebreaks in dull prose.  Accepting anything presented as poetry at face value is the only tenet of Convenient Poetics that makes practical sense, providing plenty of material to consume excess space in poetry 'zines and books.  And, hey, is mediocre lineated prose really any worse than the abject doggerel previously used as filler?  Is non-poetry any worse than godawful verse?

     Actually, yes, it is.  Infinitely so.


     First off, free verse has a tough enough time attracting an audience without being associated with prose qua poetry.  If no one can sell verse, which everyone¹ accepts as poetry, what chance is there for something that many don't?

     Secondly, take your pick of horrible versers from Thomas Tusser² (1524-1580) to Edgar Guest (1881-1959) and Nick Kenny (1895-1975).  Any of these outearned all of today's p[r]osers combined. 

     What does this prove?  That there are far more people with bad taste than good? 

     Yes.

     We need to consider a fundamental tenet of marketing and economics...and, no, I'm not talking about H. L. Mencken's "No one ever went broke overestimating the taste of the American public."
y ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/h/hlmencke137243.html#26xAuFdeI1pCbiYA.99
Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/h/hlmencke137243.html#26xAuFdeI1pCbiYA.99

     The problem with our intention to publish only great poetry isn't the fact that many of those making editorial decisions don't know iambs from trochees.  That is a matter of execution.  No, the plan is fatally flawed in its design.

     Suppose the only alcohol we sold were champagne.  No beer³.  No wine.  How would bars and liquor stores remain open?  With so few people imbibing, might not even social drinking be regarded as distinctly antisocial? 

     Suppose the only automobiles we sold were Rolls Royces.  No subcompacts.  No midsized cars.  Who would build a network of roads and highways to accommodate a few hundred vehicles?  Even if there were paved streets, would wealthy people stop driving, lest they be regarded as ostentatious? 

     Without boxed wine and shitbox cars our civilization would not exist.

     Most of us first encounter poetry through nursery rhymes.  The market for fine poetry derives from those outgrowing simpler verse.  For centuries doggerel was poetry's bread and butter.  Later it was the canary in the mineshaft whose death went unnoticed.  If no one can sell--or even give away--bad poetry then there will be nothing that distinguishes the good stuff...and no one to purchase it.

     "Some gotta win, some gotta lose..."



Footnotes:

¹ = Other than John Barr, at least.

² = From 1560 to 1640 Thomas Tusser outsold contemporaries Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, and Milton combined.

³ = Could someone please explain the "en" in "Lowenbrau", the "m" in "Schmidt", or the "l" in "Schlitz"?



Links:

  1. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part I


  2. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II


  3. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part III


  4. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IV


  5. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part V


  6. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VI


  7. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VII


  8. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VIII


  9. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IX


  10. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part X


  11. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XI


  12. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XII




    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

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    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part V

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #15

     The 15th Law of Poetry could be shortened to "Audiences don't come" without sacrificing accuracy.  Today's poetry is caught in a causal eddy.  It informs an insightful reader who, almost by definition, needs neither the stimulus nor the data.  Thus, it preaches to the choir, boring everyone else to death.

     Alas, the poet-raconteur seems to be gone, replaced by the lecturer, riddler, diarist or demogogue.

     In "Arms and the Man" George Bernard Shaw introduced us to "the chocolate-cream soldier", a combatant rendered useless by his habit of carrying sweets instead of ammunition.  Many of today's poets are similar, showing up without the materiel that defines and justifies their existence.  Where they differ is in that, instead of anything palatable, they show up with bland melanges that seem like homework assignments:  no entertainment, artistic or performance value, intended for a readership of one [teacher or editor], and rarely more than a single technique--if that!--in evidence. 

      These "poems" are supposed to be imaginative and intellectually stimulating.  Is there such a thing as too much imagination, though?  Sure.  Ask anyone who has worked in psychiatric care.  Indeed, the lack of coherence and interest to anyone but the speaker positions much contemporary "poetry" closer to hallucination than communication, let alone art.  It is as if the offerings were translated from English to English, with all of the poetry lost in the process.  Editors are confusing prose outlines with finished verse.

      If written today, we might expect Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 to be rendered thus:

Mistress eyes
coral red
snow white breasts dun
black wires grow
roses damasked
cheeks
perfumes
my mistress reeks
music more pleasing
a goddess walks
   love
   rare
   belied.

    Inspirational?  Creating a sense of wonder?  Thought provoking?  Well, the reader might be inspired to wonder how this text might be converted into what could be thought of as a poem.  Beyond that?  Not so much.

     So, what kind of imagination do we mean?  Without leaving the realm of prose with linebreaks we have the reverser, "Lost Generation".  If the reader doesn't mind some actual poetry in their poetry, there is the cliché collage

     Recently, a third example popped up briefly as a Facebook poem, complete with a photograph accompanying each line.  The author hasn't published it yet so we'll have to be content with a description.  Think of "Bambi Meets Godzilla" with a "context-is-everything" motif.  To wit:

     For the first 12 lines it seems like a touchy-feely sonnet about family life.  Instead of a closing couplet, though, it says something to the effect of "Wait, this isn't what I mean!"  The poet then reiterates the exact same poem, this time with much more dramatic, poignant pictures and, of course, a different finale.

     Now that's what I'm talking about!



Links:

  1. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part I


  2. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II


  3. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part III


  4. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IV


  5. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part V


  6. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VI


  7. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VII


  8. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VIII


  9. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IX


  10. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part X


  11. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XI


  12. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XII




    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

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    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VI

    As we cross the halfway mark some might speculate about what is the most obvious, common and egregious thing that poets get exactly wrong.  For now, we can cross Earl Gray's Law of Poetry #1 off our list.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #1
    In the adult world, bars continue to host more poetry performances than all other types of venues combined.  For the most part, we're talking about open mics and slams here. 

    Libraries are the dominant venue for poetry readings but those tend to honor poets more than poems.

    Consider for a moment the things people do and do not discuss in bars.  Of course, we can pick almost any topic but certain approaches will result in us talking to ourselves.  For example, lectures¹, sermons¹, condescension and obscurities will soon empty the chairs at our table.  Gibberish may have its place after everyone is thoroughly soused but only in tiny doses.  Thus we may have "Jabberwocky" and "Epigraph: The Pismire Oration"² but not much else.

     Politics¹ and religion¹ are borderline.  Because preaching to the choir is pointless and boring, most such conversations will concentrate on differences.  Debates are more interesting than most diatribes but there is the chance that someone is a mean drunk.  While polemics and faith may be reflected in all communication--especially before the Modern era--they were usually more visible in art forms other than poetry:  sculpting, painting, theatre, and song (with the possible exception of opera).

     Tavern conversations are not always upbeat.  The death of a close friend or relative might inspire an impromptu eulogy (in poetry, an elegy).  As with a toast, the language won't always be informal.  Similarly, poets might write occasional poems, praise poems and, yes, even toasts.


A Toast posted by Earl Gray on Vimeo.
     People can address serious issues or profound thoughts in bars [or poems³].  As Stephen Hawkings demonstrates in "A Brief History of Time", the most complex and significant concepts can be illustrated through analogy and narrative without alienating readers.  Unfortunately, poets today prefer to use figurative language to complicate rather than simplify life's mysteries.  The other key difference is that, having been left alone at a table, the drinker is far more aware of being ignored than someone publishing poems that few will read.  The imbiber understands something few poets do:  entertainment is the vehicle, if not the path or destination. 

     Obviously, sex and romance will be vital themes in bar life, as they are in poetry.  Without question, though, humor is the key.  I'm not talking about the glib, all-too-clever dessicated "light verse" and clever allusions that bring wry smiles to stony faces.  I'm talking about knee-slapping, gut-busting, piss-your-pants standup comedy.

The Evolution of Buffalo Wings


Worst Date

     If poetry is revived in this century comedy will lead the way--as it always has.

     Before I shuffle off to [eat some] Buffalo [wings], let me tie up a few loose ends.  The language in Shakespeare's plays was not what one would find in bars, even during his day.  It was frequently a lower class individual trying to guess how a lord or lady would speak, often with hilarious results.  Of course, we bear in mind that these groups didn't frequent the same drinking establishments in the first place.

     Naturally, we avoid anachronistic language unless we have a good and obvious reason (e.g. we are writing a period piece, parody or for humorous affect/effect) for using it.  What about Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnet 43", though?  Outside religious colonies, hadn't people given up on "thees" and "thous" centuries earlier?  Yes, but, among many other considerations, EBB's persona was speaking in the voice of an Elizabethan because, as prudish as they were, Ms. Browning's Victorian contemporaries were even more likely to raise an eyebrow at mention of "quiet needs", loving "freely" and "with passion".  Think "plausible deniability" here.



Footnotes:

¹ = Rants and debates?  Sure.  Lectures and sermons?  Not so much.

² = As far as I know, this is the only recording of Margaret A. Griffith's voice.

³ = Here we mean successful poems, which, in the absence of an audience today, must refer to verse of the past or, we hope, the future. 



Links:

  1. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part I


  2. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II


  3. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part III


  4. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IV


  5. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part V


  6. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VI


  7. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VII


  8. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part VIII


  9. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part IX


  10. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part X


  11. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XI


  12. 12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part XII




    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel