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, March 28, 2014

Brief Definition of Poetry

    Shortly after the development of language, primordials would gather around the fire and tell tales.  The more interesting ones might be preserved as stories, their characters and events saved for posterity.  These fables, myths or sagas might be recounted differently each time.  Thus:

    Prose is information.

    Ideally, it would be enjoyably presented information.  Occasionally, someone would "nail it", recounting a narrative so perfectly that attendees would want to preserve it exactly as performed.  This might include gestures and inflections but would, at the very least, require that the words not be changed.  Thus: 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
    Poetry is verbatim.

    Because of its cultural, entertainment, legal, religious (e.g. the verses of the Bible, Torah, Quran, etc.), and historical value, preliterate societies expended considerable resources memorizing poetry.  One of humankind's first sciences was prosody:  a collection of crowd-pleasing memory aids designed to ease the task of retention.  Thus:

    Prosody is mnemonics.

    Because it needed to be memorized, poetry became more concise and featured more repetitions:  phonemes (assonance, consonance, alliteration), syllables (rhyme), feet (rhythm), stich length (meter), words and phrases (anaphora, anadiplosis), whole lines (repetends), and stanzas (choruses).

    For more detail please click here.

    We hope you find this definition helpful.



   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, March 26, 2014

Definition of Poetry

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #22
 (Reprinted with author's permission)
     (Click here for brief version)

"Who needs a definition of poetry?"

      Poets.  Readers can pick up a poem, enjoy it, toss it aside and never give poetry another thought until they encounter it again.  They don't need to be told what they like and they don't need to be told what they should consider poetry, good or bad.  In fact, readers should be telling us what poetry is.  In a roundabout, filtered, slow, convoluted and arcane way (i.e. prosody), they do!  Or, at least, they used to.

     Only the magician needs to know how a trick is designed and performed.  Similarly, poets--and judges, editors, critics and creative writing teachers--need a workable definition simply because they are on the supply side (including quality control).  Imagine if you ordered a 6th Century European armourer to manufacture a gun, saying only that guns are things that kill people.  What do you suppose the chances are of that craftsman producing anything that fires a bullet?

     "Yes, but unlike the armourer, budding contemporary poets have seen a poem."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #78
      True, but those new poets have also seen a lot of things presented as poetry that, frankly, weren't.  Thus, they're back at square one, all the more confused. 

      What, then, is poetry?

      Definitions and evaluations of poetry fail due to a number of reasons, chief among them:

  1. They confuse an application with a definition (e.g. "Poetry is a form of seduction");


  2. They confuse the subset (e.g. metrical, formal, classical) with the whole (poetry);


  3. They confuse quality (i.e. good versus bad) with identity (i.e. poetry or not);


  4. They confuse the cause (poetry) with the (emotional, intellectual, informative or humorous) effect; or,


  5. They confuse a mode (i.e. poetry versus prose) with a genre¹ (e.g. fiction, non-fiction, horror, romance, mystery, drama, humor, etc.), the vessel (poetry) with the cargo (content).

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #53
    Because modes are independent of content, any statement that begins with "Poems must convey..." or "Poems must be about..." is demonstrably wrong.  How many times must we hear a judge or critic saying "this poem is great because of [its subject, storyline or message]"? 

     Of course, many of the definitions that we'll encounter were never meant to be taken seriously;  the commenter is merely posing for tourists.  For example, this nonsense could describe anything from the Midnight Express to a hemmorhagic fever:

Boris Pasternak: 

"Poetry is a rich, full-bodied whistle, cracked ice crunching in pails,
the night that numbs the leaf, the duel of two nightingales,
the sweet pea that has run wild ..."

      It is as if they are entrants in a contest to see who can produce the most ridiculous and useless "definition".  If so, this would be my contribution:

    "Poetry is a dagger to the heart, minus the dagger."

      Nor does it get any better when these people try to define poets, as this leg-pull suggests:

e.e. cummings:

                         What is a Poet?
  
   A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses
   his feelings through words.
     This may sound easy.  It isn't.
     A lot of people think or believe or know they
   feel -- but that's thinking or believing or
   knowing; not feeling.  and poetry is feeling --
   not knowing or believing or thinking.
     Almost anybody can learn to think or believe
   or know, but not a single human being can be
   taught to feel.  Why?  Because whenever you think
   or you believe or you know, you're a lot of other
   people;  but the moment you feel, you're
   NOBODY-BUT-YOURSELF.


      Clearly, none of these definitions would help us write a single line of verse.  Where else to look?  Why, a dictionary, of course!  How can we go wrong there?

      Well...

Collins English Dictionary (2003):

poetry [NOUN] from Medieval Latin poetria, from Latin, poeta POET

1. literature in metrical form; verse;
2. the art or craft of writing verse;
3. poetic qualities, spirit, or feeling in anything;
4. anything resembling poetry in rhythm, beauty, etc.

      Hmm.  #1 and #2 ignore free verse while #3 and #4 involve poetry as a metaphor.  How can we speak of "poetic qualities" or "resembling poetry" before we define poetry itself?  Let's try a more aesthetically inclined source:

Merrian Webster's Encyclopaedia of Literature (1995):

poetry [Middle English poetrie, from Old French, from Medieval Latin poetria] 
    
1. Metrical writing.      
2. The production of a poet; poems.      
3. Writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through its meaning, sound and rhythm.

      #1 is the usual confusion of subset and whole.  #2 is tautology.  #3 comes close but fails by stating that all poems attempt to elicit an emotional response.  

Flaubert Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880):

"I should rather be skinned alive than exploit my feelings
in writing. I refuse to consider Art a drain-pipe for passion,
a kind of chamberpot, a slightly more elegant substitute for
gossip. No, no! Genuine poetry is not the scum of the heart."

      In fact, many if not most poems in the 20th century have sought to provoke a decidedly intellectual response.  Ballads often serve no other purpose than relating the facts of an event, like a news story.  Is laughter an emotion?

      At this point, many will fear that a definition of poetry is impossible.  Think of all the conditions such a definition would have to satisfy, starting with:
  1. It must be independent of culture and language;


  2. It must be objective and verifiable, relying on identifiable and universal traits;


  3. It must not amount to "prose with linebreaks" or "whatever the writer presents as poetry";


  4. It must be acceptable to all of the different significant readerships, present and past; and,


  5. It must include all existing genres, from nursery rhymes and humor to epics and Shakespearean dramas.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #56
       So far, the best attempts to define poetry have focused on its components:  rhythm(s), rhyme, sonics, deft use of grammatical constructs and rhetorical devices, original language, trope, etc.  These are certainly improvements on Frost's synechdochical fallacy ("Poetry is metaphor") and they dismiss the legions of vendors hawking "poetry without poetry".  The problem with this approach is that by not pinpointing poetry's most fundamental characteristic we miss the one unifying principle that accounts for the very existence of all these technical refinements.  We'd like a more fundamental and succinct description, one that helps us identify what poetry was even before these techniques and devices were developed.

      It's time for some good news:  Not only can poetry be defined, it can be done so in one word!  What is more, it is a definition that I believe everyone can accept.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #87
      Before getting to that, though, we need to take two side trips.  First, we need to go to our local library and look up Aesop's Fables in a number of different sources.  Note that the wording changes from one telling to another. 

      Second, we need to travel through time back to the advent of language itself.  Standing around campfires, our cave-dwelling ancestors would have had two forms of entertainment:  prose/storytelling versus poetry/song.  What arbitrary distinction separated these two?  The answer is as obvious and undeniable as the difference between "The Iliad" and Aesop's Fables.

      Storytellers needed to get their facts straight but, beyond that, exact wording was unnecessary.  Indeed, it may even have been incumbent on them to change the wording with each recounting.  Five speakers could tell the same story and it might still be interesting due to these variations. 

      By contrast, poetry had to be presented word-for-word.  If someone liked a particular rendering of a story so much that they memorized and repeated it, that became a poem².  This, then, is poetry's definition, one that has not changed in the millennia since the dawn of language itself: 

      Poetry is verbatim.

      Of course, others have said much the same thing:

W.S. Merwin:  "Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong
at the end of a joke, you have lost the whole thing."

Oscar Wilde: "A poet can survive everything but a misprint."

Étienne "Stéphane" Mallarmé:  "My dear Degas, poems are not made out of ideas. They're made out of words."

      Yes, I know that it seems disappointingly slap-your-forehead obvious³ and simplistic, but there you have it.  Radically revise the words, but not the facts, to a story and it remains intact;  make wholesale changes to the words of a poem or song and you have a different work. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #20
      Let us not underestimate the profound impact this fact has even today, though.  It goes well beyond our remarkable ability to recall song lyrics.  We see the ramifications not only in our canon but in every poem published and in every slam, open microphone or recital ever held.  If nothing else, it explains why some performers want to shoot themselves if they mess up even one word.

      With the development of writing and, later, the Gutenberg press, prose seemed to have become a verbatim art form.  After all, your copy of Timothy Findley's "Headhunter" is identical to mine.  Nevertheless, we can finish the greatest novel of our time, not remember a single sentence of it and still consider it a classic.  Even today, some people memorize Homer's epics but not Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" or Herman Melville's "Moby Dick".  We can note how fiction outsells poetry 1,000 to 1 yet it is poetry that is quoted more often.  What about the theatre?  Scripts have to be memorized by performers but is the audience tempted to do so?  What plays are quoted other than Shakespeare's dramatic poetry?   Poetry will always remain the only verbatim art form where it matters:  in the minds of performers and, more importantly, audience members.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #76
      The memorization of poems became a major cultural, historical and religious undertaking in preliterate societies.  Prosody may be humankind's first science, predating even astronomy and the crudest medicines.  Its raison d'être was to facilitate the memorization of poetry by measuring how easy it was for reciters to assimilate and for audience members to be impressed by the phrasing.  Over the eons, whatever worked became technique or device;  whatever didn't would be soon lost.  Poetry, then, became what was memorizable for the reciters and memorable for the listeners.  In short, poetry is what remained.

      This retention wasn't left to chance.  Memory aids were developed.  Thus, if we don't mind going from the standard (i.e. verbatim) to the method we might say:

      Prosody is mnemonics.

      Of course, this is simply another view of:

Don Paterson:  "A poem is just a little machine for remembering itself."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
      The tricks used in designing these "little machines" can be categorized in two words:  brevity and repetition.  In the case of "minipoems" or "poemlets" (e.g. haiku, tanka, small aphoristic or imagistic pieces, slogans, etc.) compact size may be the only "mnemonic" required.  There is no challenge in memorizing this:

Christmas Tsunami, 2004

Look!  Starfish
on treetops.

      Some argue that this compression itself defines poetry. 

Ezra Pound:  "Poetry is a language pared down to its essentials."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #30
      The argument is that poetry is the most efficient use of language.  Aside from ignoring all of the repetitions we see in poetry, the flaw in this position is that it isn't true--or at least it isn't exclusively so.  Any imperative ("March!") or road sign ("1" on Highway #1, "55", "Stop") is at least as clear, concise and informative as any poemlet.  So why is Basho a poet while the typical drill sargeant or sign writer isn't?  The command or signage demands to be understood and, we hope, obeyed.  A poem asks only to be remembered and, perhaps, quoted.  Thus, what matters is not the language distillation itself but its purpose.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #62
      Short poems are by no means the only ones that practice concision;  even epic poets demonstrate an economy of words.  As poems get longer, though, we need to use more and more "pit stops" or repetitions.  Everything is repeated, from phonemes (assonance, consonance, alliteration) up through syllables (rhyme), feet (rhythm), stich length (meter), words and phrases (anaphora, anadiplosis) to whole lines (repetends) and stanzas (choruses).  To stretch a point, form can be viewed as one poem repeating others.  While reciting a villanelle we know that Line #3 will rhyme with Line #1.

       Stories are told.  Only poetry is recited.



Poetry                              Prose

Genre                               Genre
  - e.g. fiction, nonfiction,        
- e.g. fiction, nonfiction,
         romance, comedy, etc.          romance, comedy, etc.

Type 
  Metrical
    - e.g. trimeter, pentameter, etc.      
  Nonmetrical
    - free verse
    - prose poetry
    - pre-prosodic

Form
  - formal
      - e.g. sonnets, ghazals, etc.
  - non-formal verse
      - meter/stanzas but no

        recognized form (e.g. sonnet)
  - open
      - e.g. free verse




Footnotes:

¹ - This is the basic error that Lewis Turco made in "The Book of Forms".  Unlike a mode, a genre is defined by its content.  For example, romantic fiction must be mushy and untrue;  poetry or prose can be about anything.

² - We shouldn't overlook the fact that it was the audience, not the authors, editors, publishers or critics, who determined what was poetry.  No audience?  No poetry.

³ - Because we're trying to distinguish poetry from prose we won't get into the hybrid, "prose poetry", right now.



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


Dolphins

Dolphin embryo beside a 1-inch pin
     Did you know that dolphins have vestigial limbs and fingers?  It would seem that, at some point in their evolution, they crawled up onto land and experienced a few winters, forest fires, hurricanes and landslides before deciding:

    "Screw this!  We're crawling back into the ocean." 

     Who knows?  Perhaps their collective mythology refers to a disastrous time of dry, as opposed to flooded, land.

     Given that they have little more to do than eat, swim and chat, dolphins have developed vocal centers that are larger and more complex than those of humans, as is their overall brain size.  Dolphins emit a signature whistle--a name assigned to them before they are a year old--to identify themselves.  Just as some human societies are matrilineal, the name-sound of a male dolphin resembles its mother's more than its father's and more than those coming from a female dolphin (e.g. the sister/daughter).  This suggests highly developed social and verbal skills--quite possibly higher than ours.  If so, our scientists' efforts to learn their vocabulary might be like an infant from Beer Bottle Crossing, Idaho trying to learn Hungarian.

Bottlenose dolphin
     Is it unreasonable to conclude that some dolphin communication might be poetry?  Hardly.  Indeed, their prosody may be so superior to ours that it makes our finest verse sound like Dr. Seuss or Charles Bukowski.  Can we prove that dolphins create poetry, though?

     Actually, yes, we can.  Rather easily, in fact.

     I assume you're familiar with the "Telephone" game, where we give a message to the first person in a queue, have them repeat it along the line and then compare the final person's version to the original.

Dusky dolphin
     Try this.  Then try it again, this time using a rhyming couplet.  See how much closer that outcome is to the original than when the message was prose.

     If you understand that, by definition, poetry is verbatim, the solution is obvious.  Have a computer run file comparisons among those recordings of dolphin communication.  If spectrograms uncover identical samples too long to be dismissed as phrasing (e.g. salutation, idiom, cliché, etc.) or messaging you have music and/or poetry.  If there are words you have poetry (perhaps including one if its subsets, song lyrics).

     The next time people tell you that a definition of poetry is useless, impractical or impossible, tell 'em about the dolphins.



    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, March 25, 2014

Dansuke Watermelon

Dansuke Watermelon from Hokkaido, Japan
     Dansuke watermelon are darker and firmer than their North American counterparts.  They grow only on Hokkaido island and can cost $6,100 each.  If you owned a fine dining restaurant, would you put these on your menu?

     Of course not.  For one, there are only about 65 Dansuke watermelon grown each season.  Given the number of haute cuisine outlets worldwide, you'd be lucky to get even one of these per year.  Why create a market you can't serve?  Do you want to make this a spectacle of some sort?  Will your diner enjoy eating it in front of so many gawkers?  What will the rest of your clientele say about being passed over?  Will people wonder what else is available but not on the menu?  Might not such exotica make your normal à la carte items seem bland by comparison?  Will your suppliers and guests wonder if you are "moving in another direction" (i.e. abandoning them)?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #48
    Clearly, life is simpler if you stick closer to home, doing what you do best for your customers.  Why even bring up the subject of delights you can't provide?  Let your menu speak for itself.  No Dansukes.  Tell your staff that they should never bring such a delicacy into stock--not even as a surprise for a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.  Some owners might adopt a more proactive Dansuke Defence against such blips in quality, contacting distributors in Hokkaido and telling them that under no circumstances are they ever authorized to send their area's produce to their restaurant. 

   "That's a little extreme," you say? 

    Hold that thought.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #70
    This analogy explains the Realpolitik of "the watermelon problem".  It explains why the better funded poetry publishers are so editorially consistent, such that their output doesn't generally range from the awful to the great.  Submission guidelines tell authors to read existing issues with an eye toward contributing more of same.  MIMO:  Mediocrity In, Mediocrity Out.  Exceptional writers get the message:  they must either reverse engineer their masterpieces¹ or find another venue.  Not surprisingly, these print outlets have not mentioned, let alone published, the five greatest poems or the two greatest poets of our time.  Given that no year since Shakespeare's retirement has produced even a handful of anthologized poems, there simply isn't enough supply to incorporate such treats.  If academic readers and contributors are your bread-and-butter, why rock the boat by featuring something that crystallizes their inability to compete?  In such a symbiotic relationship, why bite the hand you feed?

     This comes before you are confronted with the central question:  "Why can't all of the poetry you put out be this good?"

    (Indeed, in an extreme case, an editor might go to a tiny milieu known for its poetic brilliancies--e.g. a third of 2013's AWP speakers, 4 of the top 5 critics' choice poems and all three of this century's best poets, the last 14 Nemerov winners, etc.--and announce a ban on all of its verse, along with that of any stranger who dares ask questions about the policy.)

    Above all, this explains why, if you want examples of great poetry, you will need to go to smaller-budget, independent publishers.  Bring your hip-waders;  you'll need to trudge through a lot of sewage.  To narrow your search, start with The HyperTexts and then look at some [mostly defunct] 'zines produced by knowledgeable editors:  Lucid Rhythms, Autumn Sky, Shit Creek Review, The Chimaera and The Flea.

    Good hunting!



Peter John Ross
Footnotes:

¹ - Ain't gonna happen.

     The issue isn't "artistic integrity" or some such nonsense.  It is exceedingly difficult for a stellar poet to unlearn everything they know, ignore every aesthetic instinct and resist every temptation to infuse some element of art into what they are writing.  No doubt you've read the story of Usenetter Peter John Ross valiantly attempting to write as badly as Billy Collins.  After 20 minutes he gave up, having authored a villanelle which, by all objective measurements, was better than anything BC has ever produced. 


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Oxygène

Jean Michel Jarre

    Mathematicians will tell you that theirs is a universal language but, trust me, anything more complex than the simplest arithmetic is well beyond most capacities to comprehend.  Especially mine.

    This is the difference between "universal" and "cross-cultural".

    In fact, music is the only truly universal language.  There is no better example of this than Jean Michel Jarre's 1976 classic instrumental recounting of the history of oxygen (along with Earth and life on it), "Oxygène".  The fact that even squirrels can understand this storyline illustrates how widespread music appreciation can be and how limiting language is.




    By contrast, we have Robert Frost telling us that "poetry is what is lost in translation."  This is cross-cultural.  For example, this couplet by Erica the Red is iconic and considered profound among squirrels:

The world loves most
whom dawn finds first.

    ...but barely makes sense once translated into any human language.  It is like the story of the expression "out of sight, out of mind" being translated into Russian and back into English as "invisible idiot".

    Since Frost's death half a century ago things have gotten significantly worse within the anglophone world, where only a tiny fraction know the rudiments of English verse.  This makes it arcane--the polar opposite of universal.  Oh, and let's not even get started on "accessibility" issues!

    Once music [on the radio] supplanted poetry in the 1920s the question became:  "How can something almost no one understands compete with something everyone does?"



    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



Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hipsters

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #102
    Previously, we've talked about technicians/geeks, jobseekers, performers, poets, editors, publishers, critics and "the public" (i.e. everyone else).  Two groups we haven't examined are audiences and hipsters.  This is because, unfortunately, the former don't exist and the latter do. 

    For our purposes, a hipster is defined as a pseudo-sophisticate.  These range from the pseudo-intellectual jabbering on endlessly and exclusively about empty, content-based "-isms" (e.g. ideationism, conceptualism, etc.) to the gadfly who knows how to enter the poetry world but not what to do once there.  If nothing else, these parrots serve to remind us of a fundamental principle of hypermodernism:  what is fashionable can never be original.  

     From the gabby to the groupie, no hipster will self-identify as such. One can always find a bevy of them barnacling themselves to the nearest critic, editor or publisher.  They are almost as numerous as cockroaches and every bit as welcome.  The only thing sadder than a young hipster is an old one.  Indeed, it seems their main function in our society's fabric is that of pity-point:

    "I may be jobless, homeless and 6 digits in debt paying for a degree that doesn't even get me into Hamburger University but, hey, at least I'm not a hipster!"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #96
    Contrary to popular misconception, hipsters come in both genders.  Or neither.  Whatever.  At least it isn't hard to distinguish them from their professional counterparts:  careerists want to get paid while hipsters want to get laid.  Similarly, the difference between hipsters and hucksters is that the latter occasionally succeed.

    Never lacking in confidence, all of these wannabes believe they live in a dark age, their prodigious genius unrecognized.  They can be spotted at open mics and slams, trying to leverage sparse talent into boisterous applause.  You've seen them laugh at random moments during poetry readings, hoping you will assume they have caught a humorous nuance you missed.  Contrary to popular misconception, a hipster does cast a reflection in the mirror, leaving us to wonder why they dress the way they do.  Because their imagination begins and ends with the delusion that they have any imagination, hipsters will often scour journals looking for ideas to borrow and trends to overanalyze.  That brings us to a sobering realization: 

     Hipsters may be the closest thing to an audience that poetry has. 



    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


Sunday, March 16, 2014

In Circles

     As you may know, there are five types of poetry, distinguished by what tools are or are not employed to make them memorable:

1.  Metrical -  Sonics (e.g. alliteration, consonance, assonance, hard versus soft and/or long versus short sounds), rhythms and, most importantly, the quantification of something (e.g. alliterations, feet, beats, syllables, etc.).  Meter dominates commercial poetry but is far less common in poetry books and 'zines.

2.  Free Verse - Sonics and rhythms without quantification.  After brief successes with monorhythms in the 1920s and polyrhythms in the 1930s, free verse soon gave way to arhythmic variations.  Today, less cautious speakers refer to all non-metrical poetry synecdochically as "free verse".  In truth, very little contemporary poetry qualifies.

3.  Prose Poetry - Sonics, but neither rhythm nor quantification.  Given that, as far as we know, ancient languages were not accented, the earliest poetry could not have been rhythmic as we anglophones define the term, at least.


4.  Pre-Prosodic Poetry - None of the above (i.e. no repetitions of sounds, rhythms or quantifications) but a basic level of congruity.  Prose, absent any vestige of poetic technique or form.  A cursory glance at most poetry being published today establishes this as the dominant form--as it was before mnemonics were developed to commit verses to memory.  Hey, we've come full circle!

5.  Computer Generated Poetry - Randomly generated text,¹ lacking not only sonics, rhythms and quantification but coherent design as well.  Many will disregard Computer Generated Poetry because of its silliness but note how difficult it is to distinguish this inchoate writing from the Pre-Prosodic Poetry in the "bot or not" Turing Test.

      Computer Generated Poetry isn't remarkable because it can speed up the "100 monkeys with 100 typewriters trying to produce Shakespeare" process from 100 years to less than 100 nanoseconds.  It isn't noteworthy because it can inspire human poets to produce masterpieces or because no less than two of the five greatest poems of this century were flukes.  No.  It is significant because, in the absence of a market, this emulation is the closest facsimile of how poetry came into being originally.  Consider the similarities:

      You hit a button and the computer produces some text offerings.  You consign most to oblivion by ignoring them.  No quota is implied.  When you see something you like you deem it a poem and you save² it.

      Were you a prehistoric cave dweller, you would hear dozens of stories and consign most to oblivion by ignoring them.  No quota is implied.  Were you to see something you like you'd deem it a poem and save² it [in memory].³

      Voilà!  Once again, we've come full circle!



Footnotes:

¹ - From "12 Things Poets Get Backwards - Part II":   "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."


² - As in saving it for future use and as in saving it from oblivion.


³ - By contrast, a modern editor would read thousands of submissions deemed as poems by their authors, pick the best [or least awful] of the lot and, having gathered enough pieces to form a book or periodical, publish them.  Rejected pieces might be saved [by their authors, at least].



    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




Sunday, March 9, 2014

Criticism Versus Critique

     From "What You Should Already Know About Poetry":  "Why do academics underperform when writing constructive criticism...?  Because literary criticism and book reviews are written by and for readers while critiques are written by and for writers."



NFL Scout Mel Kiper, Junior
     Mel Kiper, Jr. is an independent NFL scout.  With his keen eye for talent and encyclopedic knowledge of statistics, he often compares players to past greats in terms of potential and style.  He has sufficient command of English to impart his perspectives by writing authoritative, convincing reports.  He may know very little about technique and "x's and o's" (i.e. the strategy of the game).  Rather, he concerns himself with personal histories and influences:  college environments and coaches.  In spring, when the NFL holds its annual draft, such scouts are in their heydey, advising teams and bettors (starting with fantasy football enthusiasts) on whom to select.  His role diminishes sharply once the season starts.

      In short, Mr. Kiper deals with evaluating prospects.  He cares about the past and present:  how good is the player based on his performance so far?

     Bill Walsh (1931-2007) was a Hall of Fame NFL coach.  As such, he had an entirely different skill set and mission.  Unlike a scout, his job was not to recognize talent as much as it was to develop it, along with a game plan.  He was a master of tactics/techniques and strategy.  He was amazingly creative;  his "West Coast Offence" remains the most popular and successful approach in the game.  To inspire his troops he needed strong verbal, not writing, abilities. 

     In short, Mr. Walsh dealt with improving prospects.  He was focused on the future.  As they say:  "You're only as good as your next game."

     These two men worked exclusively with NFL players but were direct opposites in every discernible aspect.  There is one more contrast:  it is difficult to assess Mel Kiper's success.  Few will bother trying.  Some of his recommendations will work out, others won't.  Bill Walsh, on the other hand, would have a win-loss record and, if he had a great season, he'd win a Superbowl, news which would be in all of the newspapers.

     In every respect¹, a literary critic such as Marjorie Perloff  is like Mel Kiper, the scout.  A great critiquer such as Margaret A. Griffiths is like Bill Walsh, the coach.

     It is the difference between a judge and a midwife.

     It is the difference between prose and poetry.



Footnotes:

¹ - Both critic and critiquer use text as a medium but the latter is far more likely to engage in a detailed conversation about sonics while the former may, at most, pay lip service to "musicality".  The critiquer is helping someone write poetry worth reciting aloud;  the critic is writing prose.  It should surprise no one to learn that, in general, critiquers tend to be far better poets than critics are.


Friday, March 7, 2014

What You Should Already Know About Poetry

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #44
     In 2004 two of my favorite humans began a 5-year experiment on "egoless" critique.  This involved complete anonymity--not even pseudonymity--on the part of poet and critic.  Thus, there was nothing linking one poster to any other poem or comments on the site. 

     The first such forum was "The Lathe".  Comprised almost entirely of Usenetters and Poetry Free-For-All denizens, this may have been the highest concentration of experts since the Round Table.  Remember what Ezra Pound did for that Eliot guy?  Imagine a dozen Ezra Pounds commenting on your work.  "The Lathe" was fun because the anonymity lasted only a week, after which the identities of the poet and critics would be uncovered.

     Months later came the "Egoless" site, where members' names were never revealed (except when honored in the "Hall of Fame" forum).  All poems were evaluated numerically, from 1 up to 10 (best);  members were encouraged to include detailed critiques which were also judged, 1-10.  Roughly, a poem that averaged 6-out-of-10 might be deemed publishable;  7/10 would be ready for a high end periodical and anything higher than 8/10 might be anthologized.

     Over time, members established Performance Ratings (also 1-10) as poets and critics.  No poet or critic sustained a Rating higher than 7.2/10.  Tough crowd!

     The aggregate statistics were never published but here, for the first time, we can read the bottom line.  For this to make sense, though, we need to group the members into three¹ types:

1.  Technicians:

     Anyone who knows the difference between iambs and trochees.  AKA "geeks".  On Egoless, this was almost 15% of the membership--much higher than the poet population at large.  To put this in perspective, only "The Lathe", Poetry Free-For-All, Eratosphere and 'zines edited or populated largely by PFFA/Erato members could boast higher numbers.

2.  Academics:

    Anyone who can't scan but has taught English/Creative Writing or taken such a course above the secondary school level.  AKA "careerists" or "professionals".  Almost a fifth of the membership qualified here. 

3.  Non-Academics

    Anyone posting critiques or poems who is neither of the above.  AKA "amateurs", in the best sense of the word.

     Here are the egoless experiment's less-than-startling discoveries:

10. Academics and Non-Academics don't like to write critiques.

    At first, more than three quarters of the critiques were written by technicians, who seemed to warm to the task.  Quotas were introduced to share the workload.  Nevertheless, more than 55% of the subsequent critiques were from geeks.

9.  Academics and non-academics disappoint when writing critiques.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #80
    Too many amateurs--and an embarrassing number of professionals--believe in a double standard:  "Great poem!" is received as impeccable criticism while "This is crap!" is considered indefensible.  These folks will rate flattering critiques higher than helpful ones.  (For this reason, one's Critic Rating was affected only by third party evaluations.²)

     Academics can certainly write scholarly criticism and some can write book reviews [when they aren't confusing formal criticism, reviews and blurbs].  Why do academics underperform when writing constructive criticism, though?  Because literary criticism and book reviews are written by and for readers while critiques are written by and for writers.

8.  The higher the Critic Rating the more consistent the evaluations.

    Those with CRs higher than 6 (all of them technicians) averaged less than 2 points between the highest and lowest evaluation given to the same poem.  Members with CRs between 4 and 6 (mostly academics) averaged a slightly wider spread.  Posters with CRs lower than 4 varied by almost 4 points.  For example, non-academics might give a poem scores ranging from 2 all the way up to 10.  That never happened in other groups.  This may explain the amateur's belief that "it's all just a matter of taste";  to many of them, it really is!

7.  As poets, academics were models of consistency in quality and qualities.

    Not one careerist cracked the top 10 or the bottom 50.  In five years they produced a grand total of one metrical poem--a parody of a Frost piece.  The rest could most charitably be called "prose poetry", all of them in portentous hush voice and exhibiting zero performance value.  This lack of variety and imagination was remarkable.  For what it's worth, careerists were also the most breathless, producing the shortest average line length of the three poet categories.  Assessed by the number of first person pronouns, the academics' level of self-absorption was exceeded by the amateurs, but only barely.

6.  As poets, amateurs were all over the lot.

     No less than 3 of the top 10 and all of the bottom 50 poets were from this group.  As with the technicians, about half of their poems were metrical/doggerel.

5.  As poets, the geeks kicked ass.

     Gee, who could have predicted that those who study the elements of an art form would eclipse those who don't?

4.  The average Critic Rating of technicians was two whole points better than the other groups.

      Professionals and amateurs didn't like any criticism but especially not each others'.  They both had some begrudging respect for the geeks' specificity.

3.  By definition, careerists and amateurs had no option but to focus on the interpretive.

     Unless a lack of clarity was a problem, this was of little help to the poets.  Thus, their interpretive critiques generated the longest responses--almost exclusively conversation about the subject matter--but the fewest revisions.

2.  There was a strong correlation between Critic and Poet Ratings. 

     With only one exception, the top three poets in each group were also the top critics.

1.  People don't like to be told the truth about their work.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #47
    Among academics and non-academics, who, taken together, formed almost 90% of the membership, poets rated the critiques they received lower than more objective third parties did.  In the case of amateurs, this disparity was more than 3 points!²   Careerists were a little more generous in rating the critiques they received but were far more likely to quit the site after one candid response.  Fewer than 35% posted a second poem, compared to about 45% of amateurs who did.

    Why were so many put off by an honest, objective and often expert assessment of their work when their name was not even attached to it?  Because, as the name suggests, we can, more or less, eliminate the ego effect but not the Ido Effect.  These people were likely accustomed to the flattery of family, friends and friendlies³.  They undoubtedly grew up being showered with supportive praise from teachers and encouraging blurbs from fellow alumni.  Their ears might have become used to polite clapping at readings or open mics.  Their expectations may have reflected the 8s, 9s and 10s so freely dispensed at slams.  Chances are, the Egoless experience was their first and only exposure to reality.



Footnotes:

¹ - Some scientific and corporate observers--less than 2% of the total membership--were interested in applying the egoless model to other, non-poetic applications, including "post-brainstorming conceptual development" (roughly:  evaluating ideas, largely in design and marketing).  Towards the end of experiment some of these people started evaluating (by not critiquing) the poems.  This is as close as we may get to the mythical poetry reader.

     A side note to those who think poetry contributes nothing to society:
  The egoless approach is still considered a viable alternative for product development and marketing strategy.  It marked the first online use of the "Nichts and Chimes"/"thumbs-up-or-down" system for measuring gut-level initial impressions.  These were the precursors of the cruder "Like" buttons we see on Facebook today.

² - Other statistical actions were taken to account for tit-for-tat evaluations but my pay grade ends with mention of standard deviations or logarithms.

³ - A "friendly" is a workshop more interested in encouraging writing than in encouraging good writing.  Participation over art.



    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


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Experience is a language

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #48
"Triple x,
four dead,
two puppies,
four rags.
One no, six.
Beavered.
No Fisher.
Lead on, MacDuff."

    What's this?¹  A postmodern poem of some sort?  A disjointed cento?  Gibberish?  Actually, it was one of my favorite humans talking to someone on the phone.  Apparently, it was some kind of challenge or question.  The person on the other end of the line seemed to understand and, in fact, gave the correct response.  End of conversation.

    Weird!




    Have you ever tried to convince a technophobe to buy a computer and join the 21st century?  You iterate the advantages:  emailing, skyping, online banking, articles, social media, videos, music, downloads, et cetera.  Chances are, you are met with excuses:  "I telephone", "Don't want people to see me on Skype", "I have my newspaper and magazines", "WTF is 'social media?'", "I have my movies and albums", "My cousin's friend caught a virus downloading something", etc.

    Somehow, you just know that, if you could get them to try the Internet on a regular basis they'd soon be Private Messaging you about the "LOLs and lulz" they saw on Facebook.  In little time they would outgrow the need for your help.  The Catch-22 is that you can't get them to try this technology until they appreciate its uses and they won't appreciate its uses until they try it.

    The poetry world is rife with such people.  For many, the fear is of technique rather than technology.  For others it is more analogous:  glossophobia (fear of public speaking).  As you know, this blog is a tireless advocate for learning poetry's components and for performance.  Countless listicles detail the benefits but, as with the technophobe you tried to bring online, one can always find an excuse for not improving one's condition.²  Is it fear?  Laziness?  Stubborness?  Pride?  Vanity?

     Who knows?

     Who cares?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #90
     Experience is no mere teacher.  Experience is a language.  It has its own vocabulary.¹  It has its own referents and references.  It has its own allusions, inside jokes and heuristics.  It can communicate through omissions (e.g. two old pros don't need to mention that which they would need to spell out for a rookie).  Its effectiveness can thrive during the longest lacunae.  Two lawyers [or doctors or ditchdiggers] meeting at their 20th high school reunion haven't drifted apart.  Quite the contrary, their mutual comprehension has improved in lockstep with their shared experience.

    Trying to get poets to study the art form³ doesn't fail because we lack the words. 

    We lack the language.



Footnotes:

¹ - As anyone who has played the game for a while will understand, it was a bridge problem, to which the right answer was:  "I lead my higher Diamond."

² - Given my overeating and refusal to exercise, I'm well aware of my inconsistency here.  However, we're not talking about giving up someone you like or beginning something you won't.  We're talking about education and fun (although it might not seem so at first).

³ - Not to be confused with studying the products of the art form.



     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, March 1, 2014

Metacritique

    It begins, as always, with an author posting a piece, asking for advice.  Let's use Sharon Hurlbut's "Specimen #31, Adult Female" (posted to Zoetrope on May 4th, 2005), as an example:

Sharon Hurlbut

Follow the fluid curve
of the iliac crest, sashay of bone
tilting into jutting hips.
Mirrored innominates flower
like twisted figure eights,
a triangle of sacrum wedged between
to form the ossified cup of the womb.

Run fingers over the narrow bridge
of the pubis, reading a braille of birth
in pits and scars. The bones, still damp
from eight hundred years in earth,
hold a smell of thick life, reeking
rich decay.

Brush away the dirt with delicate tools
until only breath and a sliver of steel
can work the grains one by one
from the secret within --
an origami of eggshell bone,
the one unborn.


     The only difference between normal workshop critique and metacritique is that, with an eye toward publishing it as an audiovisual presentation (if not performance), the poet might include a [slapdash] sound or, in this case, video file:


"Specimen #31, Adult Female" by Sharon Hurlbut (Text) uploaded by Earl Gray onto Vimeo.


     Assuming the poem is neither unsalvageable nor perfect (in which case one should say so politely and move on), critics will respond in kind, addressing multimedia and networking concerns along with the text:

Evaluation:

     This is an exquisite, understated narrative that would, even in its present form, add lustre to any of the largest poetry magazines.  To be an actual poem, though, its words--not just its storyline or message--will need to be memorable.

Voice and Presentation:

     For dramatic effect, I'm thinking of an authoritative whisper, similar to the .wav file contained in this video:


Specimen31Voice uploaded by Earl Gray onto Vimeo.


Horse head squirrel feeders.  Pun by Michael Doucette.
     Nic Sebastian at "Very Like a Whale" might be perfect for this.  Dr. Niloc is finished his wordshop initiative so he might be pressed into service as videographer.  I would have done the recitation myself but I'm feeling a little horse.

     I think the presentation would work best as docuverse:  narration, film and background noises of someone scraping, brushing and sifting. 

Rhythm:

     Creating a scientific report that happens to be a poem will require consistent cadence, especially since rhyme seems unlikely.  Depending on whether these patterns or quantified or not, this translates to either blank or [High Modern monorhythmic] free verse.  Of the three possible dominant rhythms (dactyllic, trochaic and iambic) that fit the key words (e.g. "iliac", "innominates", "sacrum", "ossified", "origami", "eggshell" etc.) only one can add diaeresis to the ending ("the one unborn"):  iambic.

Sonics:

     As is evident when we recite or hear the text, there are more tongue twisters than pleasing phoneme repetitions.

Brevity:

     The second strophe works in prose, underscoring the slow pace of excavation.  In poetry, though, such filler might be shortened or dropped without losing any of the storyline.

Text:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #42
     Normally, a complete rewrite would be innappropriate but this is merely an example of a metacriticism (which, parenthetically, may illustrate the difference between prose and poetry renderings):

Follow the fluid curve
of the iliac crest, sashay of bone
tilting into jutting hips.
Mirrored innominates flower
like twisted figure eights,
a triangle of sacrum wedged between
to form the ossified cup of the womb.

Follow fluid curves
of iliac crests, sashay of bone
protruding into broken hips.
Symmetrical innominates still flower
like twisted figure eights,
a triangle of sacrum squeezed between
to form the ossifying pelvic cup. 

     The only significant change was in dropping "of the womb", since it gives away the ending, as would the next line as written:

Run fingers over the narrow bridge
of the pubis, reading a braille of birth
in pits and scars. The bones, still damp
from eight hundred years in earth,
hold a smell of thick life, reeking
rich decay.

     This is another problem solved by the plural:

     Run your fingers over its ridge,
reading the braille of births
in pits and scars.  The damp bones
hold a smell of thick life, reeking
rich decay.

     The plethora of stresses slow the recitation down, reflecting the pace of anthropological discovery.

Brush away the dirt with delicate tools
until only breath and a sliver of steel
can work the grains one by one
from the secret within--
an origami of eggshell bone,
the one unborn.

With delicate tools, brush away the dirt
until your breath and slivers of steel
can work each grain, one by one,
from the secret hidden within--
an origami frame of eggshell bone,
the one unborn.

     There are a few liberties taken with the iambs here, starting with ignoring the semisyllable "slivers" and with the lame feet before and after "one by one", but nothing that would be out of place in metered lines. 

     As the critical thread continues, gathering suggestions from other sources, the poet might post updates--text and, perhaps, sound or video files--in the original post.  Of course, the author makes all the final decisions.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #6

Addendum:  Prose and Poetry:

Original:

Follow the fluid curve
of the iliac crest, sashay of bone
tilting into jutting hips.
Mirrored innominates flower
like twisted figure eights,
a triangle of sacrum wedged between
to form the ossified cup of the womb.

Run fingers over the narrow bridge
of the pubis, reading a braille of birth
in pits and scars. The bones, still damp
from eight hundred years in earth,
hold a smell of thick life, reeking
rich decay.

Brush away the dirt with delicate tools
until only breath and a sliver of steel
can work the grains one by one
from the secret within--
an origami of eggshell bone,
the one unborn.

Suggested version:

Follow fluid curves
of iliac crests, sashay of bone
protruding into broken hips.
Symmetrical innominates still flower
like twisted figure eights,
a triangle of sacrum squeezed between
to form the ossifying pelvic cup.

Run your fingers over its ridge,
reading the braille of births
in pits and scars.  The damp bones
hold a smell of thick life, reeking
rich decay.

With delicate tools, brush away the dirt
until your breath and slivers of steel
can work each grain, one by one,
from the secret hidden within--
an origami frame of eggshell bone,
the one unborn.

     Note how few changes needed to be made to turn the original outline into rhythmic, "sound sound" (i.e. sonically competent) poetry.

     N.B.:  Stating that the original is prose is no insult.  People who feel that poetry is inherently more elegant, eloquent or powerful are reading the wrong prose.  They should treat themselves to some Timothy Findley or Carol Shields before concluding that poetry has some monopoly on compression or beauty.

     Just as many will prefer the movie to the book or vice versa, some will prefer the original outline to any final poem, beginning with these suggested changes.  The difference between modes is that, if reading is our only exposure to prose, we aren't missing nearly as much.