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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Talk is Cheap

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #42
     We could view human history as one long devaluation of words.  In eras and cultures where life expectancy is little more than a generation the only currency is time.  Preserving speech verbatim--a process we call "poetry"--was a significant investment for ancient tribes.  Such words were, as the conquistadors were to discover, regarded by preliterate societies as more precious than any metal or gem.  These recitations were everything to the community:  genealogy, law, literature, history and, while sagas or myths could be passed on through prose, the moment accounts became "The Word of God" they were preserved in verse.      

     The development of writing was as monumental to prosodists as abandoning the gold standard was to economists.  Over time, the distinction between poetry and prose became blurred.  Today, even poets don't bother to memorize their own work or use mnemonics to facilitate others doing so. 

     Because handwriting was so laborious, verse continued to dominate prose.  Both were well out of the average person's budget, though.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #62
     Whether it be the implementation of the Gutenberg press in 1450 or Chinese block printing a millennium earlier, the development of mass publication made words all the more economical and accessible.  Families could now afford to buy a few books, usually starting with a bible and branching out to include writing that might merit rereading.  Even without factoring in religious texts, poetry continued to outsell novels until the advent of cheaper dime store novels and paperbacks in 1839.  Not counting Dr. Seuss, the last poetry volume to eclipse all contemporary novels was Robert Service's "Songs of a Sourdough" in 1907.

     As our environment became more and more verbose the use and popularity of verse continued to decline.  Poetry was dealt its fatal "Et tu, Brute?" wound in the early 1920s, when music became as cheap and easy to disseminate as turning on a radio.  The spoken word could no longer contend with song, music being the "value added" in the public's mind.  True, verses were still being memorized but these were lyrics and, with few exceptions, clearly subordinate to melody.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #95
     While all of this was occurring, newsprint flourished as the most tangible evidence of textual degradation, it being, literally, disposable.  Poetry appeared in every worthwhile magazine and newspaper.  Did pulp and glossies save verse?  Not for long.  It disappeared from the media in the 1950s.

     As cost-free radio and television continue to occupy our air waves and sound space, we have the Internet putting humankind's collective intelligence at our fingertips for free (since we needed to connect anyway in order to get our daily fix of cute kittens and puppies).  Judging from webzine hit counts sophisticated enough to exclude non-human visitors (e.g. bots, spiders, crawlers, etc.), the rate of online readership is only slightly higher than print outlets.  At least the price is right!

     Thus, over a span almost as long as language itself, poetry has gone from something more valued than gold to something we cannot even give away.

    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 follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How good a poet are you? - Measuring

     What measuring stick can we use to determine how good we are when Nobody Reads Poetry?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #158
     My self-serving answer would be "Ask a geek!" but, frankly, there aren't enough of us to matter.  Posting your drafts to Eratosphere, Gazebo or Poetry Free-For-All works only for onliners with rhinoceros skins--again, not a significant demographic.  We could broaden the search to include everyone who teaches poetry, regardless of whether they care about the elements of the craft or not.  However, that will, at best, measure our appeal as "poets' poets" and will not be free of personal and professional concerns.  Ideally, we would have a sizeable objective consumer audience, as all successful endeavors do.  For example, those interested only in literary merit could use bookseller databases to select for sophisticated readers based on whatever else they purchased.  The problem with this is that, aside from the fact that Nobody Reads Poetry, the Tsundoku Law indicates that the number of contemporary poetry volumes read by more than one person is much smaller than the number ignored by the purchaser.

     In the absence of technicians, critics and the public, we are left with close associates and students examining our published work to see what is being accepted.  The latter are not helpful because they aren't reading for quality or pleasure.  To wit, they might be asking themselves:  "How badly do I have to write to be published here?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #115
     The population and its ability to access information has mushroomed since poetry died more than half a century ago.  Were it alive today, we would be asking questions such as these:
  • To the nearest thousand, how many times was one of your poems quoted today?  (GIYF.)

  • To the nearest hundred, how many times was one of your poems plagiarised in toto today?  (GIYF.)

  • To the nearest hundred, how many times today did someone ask you for permission to use one of your poems? (GIYF.)

  • To the nearest multiple of ten, what percentage of the population can recite your most famous poem, as they can thousands of popular songs?

  • When was the last time anyone offered you a 6-digit or larger sum for the rights to one of your poems?

  • When was the last time you stumbled upon someone performing your work?

  • To the nearest multiple of ten, what percentage of the population can recite your most famous poem, as they can thousands of popular songs?

     With only our circle of friends and family to guide us, how can we tell whether we are the next Maz, grossly underestimating our talent, or are suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect and need to repeat Scavella's Maxim non-stop for the rest of our lives?  Given the bias our loved ones will share, the results won't be particularly reliable, but here are some helpful signs:

1.  Your followers enjoying some, not all, of your pieces suggests that their focus is on their love of the writing, not just the writer.

2.  Enthusiastic involvement in your promotional efforts, whether you appreciate this "help" or not.

3.  An interest in the art form they would not exhibit otherwise.

     More discouraging signs would include:

1.  Failure to respond to new work that you've sent them.

2.  Failure to ask about new work.

3.  Failure to post or share your poems on Facebook.

4.  Failure to attend your readings/performances.

5.  Failure to mention poetry, especially when the two of you are in public.

     Yet another of the uncountable reasons to perform your work live is that you can see and hear the reaction, if any.  Audiences slumping and looking away during your three minutes of fame and polite applause after it are disappointing.  Listeners sitting bolt upright and returning your gaze are encouraging responses.  Of course, this has drawbacks:  you're still dealing almost exclusively with other poets and it might not be apparent whether it is your words or your delivery that garners praise.


  1. How good a poet are you?

  2. How good a poet are you? - Measuring

    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 follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Monday, February 23, 2015

How good a poet are you?

"Technique is the test of sincerity."

    - Ezra Pound

     Imagine you are hiring a poet (why?) and can ask each of the many applicants three "deal-breaker" questions before assessing their po[e]tential.  What queries would you pose?

     I'll go first.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #73
1.  "Who are your favorite modern poets?"

     A respondent who cites no metrical or no non-metrical poets will likely harbor other limitations in scope.  The same is true of candidates who mention fewer than four poets, especially if these are household names.  For such people, the most honest response would be "Why, my favorite poet is me, of course!"  Similarly, providing too many names can be a problem if all of them share the same style or genre;  the person may be more interested in confirmation than art.

     There isn't room for a fourth question, one geared toward discovering their attitude toward serious objective critique.  However, if none of the poets on their list are onliners it's fairly safe to conclude that criticism would not be welcomed.  This would be more or less confirmed by a positive response to both of the subsequent questions. Needless to say, the ability to demonstrate critical thought will be essential.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #148
2.  "Do you follow discussions of technique?"

     I don't expect full geekhood but utter disinterest in the elements of the craft bespeaks a laziness and naivete that would render an aspirant useless.  At the very least, we need someone who can satisfy the second half of a poem's "good story well told" requirement.

     We would like to avoid the stereotypical "street poet" or MFA grad.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #155
3.  "Do you believe poetry is, essentially, profound writing?"

      I see no hope for anyone who answers in the affirmative here.  Of what use is someone who understands neither prose nor poetry, beginning with the fact that both can be equally profound (or funny, or romantic, or dramatic, or tragic, or whatever)?  Do we really need to start our training with something as basic as a definition of poetry?  How much Convenient Poetics crap will the person have to unlearn?

      So...which three questions would you ask?  And why?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Democracy: Good for Poetry?

We live in a country of cowards and corpses,
both roll down the river en route to the ocean.

   - "Leaving Santiago", DPK

"Without the refuge memory offers, words disperse as wind."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #70

     Currently, poetry is not democratic because it is missing a key component:  voters.  Nobody Reads Poetry.  We here at Commercial Poetry would love to see the art form reincarnated by a healthy electorate but, unfortunately, ours is a tiny voice.  With only poets present, and fewer than 1% of them participating on any single project (e.g. by buying, reading, hearing, performing or critiquing any given poem or collection), we have primaries in a tripartite (i.e. pixel, page and stage) system but no general election.  Ours could be described as an apathetic oligarchy.

     Parenthetically, what is the difference between readers-centric and writers-centric poetry when all your readers (tanr) are writers?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #58
Qui Bono?

     What percentage of golfers are as good as Tiger Woods?  How many pickup basketball players make the NBA?  One in a ten thousand?  One in a million?  This rarity is true in any pursuit, including poetry.  Comparing Pop Warner football game ticket sales and prices to the NFL's makes the point that, notwithstanding reality cable television, paying customers want the best.

     Imagine you are Editor-in-Chief of a poetry magazine charged with sustaining, if not increasing, circulation.  Knowing that almost all of your subscribers are poets hoping to be published by you, do you cater to the A.E. Stallings of this world or the run-of-the-mill 99.999%?  Do you publish only the one poem per year that might survive into posterity or do you lower your standards to a more practical level?

     Common sense dictates that numbers will prevail.  The world is built for the average and, with market¹ no longer an issue, poetry can be created by the average.  No one understands this better than the great poets themselves, which may explain why, like William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson before them, today's two top versers rarely, if ever, submitted work for print publication. 

     It follows that only those policies that favor the mediocre majority² will be instituted.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #157
     For example, Poetry Out Loud is a wonderful initiative, developing performance skills in youth.  Why not sponsor similar contests for adults? 

     Because that might create an audience for poetry.

     Why don't publishers keep up with the world in mastering multimedia? 

     Because that might create an audience for poetry.

     Why do magazines not publish technical articles explaining crowd-pleasing tricks?  Why are these not taught in school? 

     Because that might create an audience for poetry.

     Why do stage and, especially, page poets eschew the critique that would help them improve? 

     Because that might create an audience for poetry.

     And what's so bad about creating an audience for poetry?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #19
      For one, shortsighted magazine editors are concerned with promoting readership, not audience.  Also, unlike blurbers and sycophants, audiences tend to be honest.  That can't be tolerated.  Having gotten rid of them, poetry has become the dreaded "democracy of survivors".  Readers (tanr) are culled to suit available writing rather than the other way around.

     Of course, one could say this is a practical adaptation to the fact that Nobody Reads Poetry.  Why learn about "crowd-pleasing" when there are no crowds?

     Performing?  Multimedia?  For whom?

     Critique?  Without a market, what difference does quality make?  Suggesting improvement will be viewed not just as impolite but gratuitously so.  Even earnest praise can be resented for daring to suggest that not all poets/poems are created equal.

     "How dare you suggest there are better poets than me my favorites?"

     In short, democracy might be, at once, the best thing that could happen and the worst thing that has happened to poetry.


¹ - Pseudo-sophisticates worry that writing for the public will lower standards so they write for no one, eliminating standards entirely.  LOL!

² - When underappreciated³, solipsistic³ poets speak of democracy they mean "Publish me!" adding new voices to generate publication credits diversity.  This is shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.  From the editors' point of view, it involves replacing existing subscribers (who will drop out as they lose access) with potential ones.  Poetry publishers may lack the shrewdness of Wall Street traders but even they understand that this would be bad business.

³ - Please forgive the redundant qualifiers.

    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 follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Thursday, February 19, 2015

10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The Geeks

      We'd like to thank those who responded to our previous post, "10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The List".  As our regular readers know, it was a break from our tradition of talking about poetry and poems rather than poets but, as one commenter with a brilliant sense of irony said, it worked as "clickbait".  (We have never opted for advertisements here and won't guess what people must think of other publications, most of which concentrate exclusively on poets and author-centric writing.)

      If you want to make a point about people treating poetry as a professional or social enterprise rather than as a craft, though, check out this spike in our readership when we discussed poets instead: 

      Reaction was largely positive, with strangers thanking us for presenting an objective view of the great poets of the century.  Most understood, at least instinctively, the authority's role in bird-dogging¹ great contemporary verse.  There were a few who, not comprehending anything about geekdom, confused it with its antipodal opposite, the PoBiz, in suggesting that friendship played a role in the decisions.  (Seriously?  Geeks?  Having friends?)  

      To accommodate those who showed such interest in the judges, we thought we would take a moment to define those who participate here regularly or as "Gray for a Day" or judges.  With a hat tip to Jeff Foxworthy...

     ...let us examine the unbearable lightness of being a geek.

1.  If your friends and relatives know that only you will give them an informed and honest evaluation of their writing, you may be a geek.  Or obsessive.  Or both.

2.  If you think "PoBiz" is slang for [enabling] "the Dunning-Kruger² effect" you may be a geek.

3.  If you know whether "Prufrock" and "The Red Wheelbarrow" are free verse or metrical you may be a geek.

4.  Hell, if you care whether "Prufrock" and "The Red Wheelbarrow" are free verse or metrical you may be a geek.

Paul Stevens "discovered" both top poets.
5.  If you can evaluate work without giving a shart about the author's age, size, shape, nationality, bank account, history, sex, politics or religion you may be a geek.

6.  If you view Earl's Laws of Poetry as a Ferenghi regards the Rules of Acquisition you may be a geek.

7.  If you know that the difference between free verse and prose poetry has nothing to do with linebreaks you may be a geek.

8.  If you have referred anyone to rulez 4 aspiring ~poets~ or turned from a pouting workshopper, saying "Dennis, the rules, please", you may be a geek.

9.  If you have ever quoted Debi Zathan's famous anti-whinger rant in whole or in part you may be a geek.

   "But what really pisses me off when you get right down to it, is the unmitigated gall of so many who post here...who have the patronizing, self-absorbed opinion that the person who critiques their poetry has not a clue, has never loved, has never grieved, has never existed in all of the frames they write so badly about. THAT (at the moment) is what really pisses me off."

10.  If you have ever quoted Gustave Flaubert's famous anti-corazoner rant in whole or in part you may be a geek.

    "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."

11.  If you have had to restrain yourself, lest you quote Rob Evans in whole or in part,  you may be a geek.

    "Of all the branches of the arts, poetry continues to be treated with the most indifference by the general public.  Why?  Because practitioners like you continue to demand so little of yourself and others."

Usenetter Aidan Tynan
12.  If you have had to restrain yourself, lest you quote Aidan Tynan in whole or in part, you may be a geek.

    "Please give me one reason why the aforesaid could be classified as anything other than badly written, unimaginative and cliché-festooned. This poem, for lack of a more appropriate term, seems to represent, to me, everything poetry is not about, that is: vague references to vaguely traumatic personal events renumerated listlessly as a piece of abstract journalistic schlock (with random line breaks to disguise it as poetry) superimposed on a bland moral-aesthetic grid. Superficial in every way, and lacking any sort [of] effect."

    "Sadly, bad poems are not invisible."

    "Yes, how selfish of someone to spend time giving an informed critique of another's work."

13.  If you understand the difference between annotation and criticism you may be a geek.

Peter John Ross, father of modern critique.
14. If you can say crap like "Poetry is lateral thinking stacked sonically" without people knowing that you're joking you may be a geek.

15. If that line from "There are Sunflowers in Italy" stopped you in your tracks you may be a geek.

16. If you know or care who wrote "...the waiting moment, buckling into circumstance..." you may be a geek.

17. If you cannot read Ferlinghetti without quoting Manny Delsanto (i.e. "Please tell me there were no dice involved in choosing your words") you may be a geek.

18. If you cannot read Billy Collins without quoting Gerard Ian Lewis (i.e. "You use words like a magpie uses wedding rings") you may be a geek.

19. If you cannot read "The Paris Review" without thinking of Richard Epstein (i.e. "Many poems would benefit by having no text") you may be a geek.

20.  If you cannot read Rumi without muttering "Shouldn't platitudes this trite rhyme or something?" you may be a geek.

21. If you know that Spondee Denial, Content Regency, and Convenient Poetics are bullshit you may be a geek.

San Francisco 49er coach Bill Walsh (1931-2007)
22. If you accept that the final word on individuality and creativity came from a football coach you may be a geek.

23. If you understand that those telling you poetry is alive are trying to sell you something (i.e. bad poetry) you may be a geek.

24. If George Bernard Shaw wrote your life motto, "The power of accurate observation is often called cynicism by those who don't have it", you may be a geek.

25. If you can keep your head when all about you are quoting Timothy Steele you may be a geek.


¹ - A typical scenario is a depressed editor needing a jewel to caketop an otherwise mediocre publication.  The conversation goes:

Editor:  "Say, I'm in a bind.  Do you have anything for me?"

Geek:  "Utter contempt?"

Editor:  "Very funny.  Seriously, though, can you help me out?"

Geek pulls a frayed piece of paper from his or her back pocket (hence the expression "pulling [stuff] out of my ass"), shows it to the editor and another brilliant edition goes to print.

² - Indeed, antipathy toward the list and its progenitors rose and fell in lockstep with the level of the respondent's overconfidence.  Who could have predicted that?


1. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Preamble

2. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Versers

3. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The List

4. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The Geeks

    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 follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The List

10.  Jennifer Reeser     Eratosphere

     As a bayou metrist with a special interest in Russian literature, Jennifer is often compared with Georgian poet A.E. Stallings.  This is like Derek Edwards being the second most famous person from Timmins.  Without question, Ms. Reeser is the more accessible.

     Her lesser works may suffer from clanging rhymes and incongruous voices but pieces like "Compass Rose" transcend what most are able to do in verse.

     She has a bright future in front of her.

9. Marc Kelly Smith      Slam

     While "lightning stitching the sky" is remarkable, the text of Marc's poems will not win him any awards.  Nevertheless, M.K. Smith (1949-Present) invented the slam and remains one of its best least awful performers.  As such, one could argue that, so far, at least, he has had a far more visible impact on the world than all living print and pixel poets combined.  True, given the choice between monotonous readings and 3-minute scream fests the public will still go with TV sitcoms, but at least Marc has given us that second option.

     This recital with hand gestures and without eye contact may be about as close to narrative or lyric poetry performance as we've seen lately:

8. Catherine Ann Rogers   Poets.org

    Geeks aren't swayed much by awards, but do give credence to contests, especially if they are judged blindly by authorities.  An English professor at Savannah State University, Catherine Rogers wrote the Interboard Poetry Community's "Poem of the Year" twice, in  2006, judged by Mark Doty, and 2005, from Judy Kronenfeld.

     In "Refusals" we see three things demonstrated:
  1. why Ms. Rogers is on this list (and why many fine non-versers aren't); and,

  2. why "Autumn Sky Poetry" is considered one of the two most astounding sources of poetry on earth; and,

  3. the difference between free verse and non-rhythmic writing.  After a mixture of iambic and anapestic strings we see the first section end with these anapests:

    Each night | I unrav|el your choice.
    Each morn|ing I wake | to your death.

7. Julie Carter           Usenet

      "Sure [Fred Astaire] was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards...and in high heels!" -- Bob Thaves (1982)

      Without question, Julie Carter is one of the best sonneteers to never win (or be entered to win?) a Nemerov.  As you can see from the .pdf version of "pseudophakia" (2006), Julie's command of phrasing and imagery matches that of anyone short of Karen Solie and Dorianne Laux in the Print World...and Julie does it in verse.  Her down-to-earth style stresses rhythm over sound.

      Our spies tell us Ms. Carter is preparing another collection.  If past experience is any guide, it rates to be the most tragically overlooked book of 2015.  You read it here first!

6. Rose Kelleher          Eratosphere

     The fact that Rose Kelleher is a programmer and technical writer may have helped her cause among our resident geeks.  The mix of humor and elegance in her work reminded many of the poet who tops this list--as does the pacing in "Neanderthal Bone Flute".

     Seventh was the lowest vote that Ms. Kelleher received in the initial voting.  Over time, though, a strange prejudice against consistency seeped in.  Rose's ability to do everything well, and do it in almost every piece, made her a Ted Williams among those wanting a Babe Ruth.  I suppose that home runs give judges something to cite, even if it means burying the fact that Ruth led the league in strikeouts, too.

5. Rhina Polonia Espaillat Eratosphere

    Born in the Dominican Republic in 1932, Rhina Espaillat is often mentioned as one of the top Spanish-language poets of our time.  This raises an interesting question:  "Is being, say, 15th in a culture where poetry is very much alive more impressive than being 5th where poetry is dead?"

    As the finale in "Changleling" demonstates, Rhina's mastery of sound is exceeded by only one other living poet.

This stranger
is you, is all the you there is, my mother,
whose gentler face is gone beyond recall,
and I must love you so, or not at all.

     It isn't hard to see how she won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award twice.  It's equally difficult to find fault with the author of these lines from "Find Work":

she spoke so little it was hard to bear
so much composure, such a truce with time

4. Derek Walcott                                    Print

     That Derek may be the most decorated poet on the planet meant nothing to the geeks.  His medium made things difficult;  some of this books were out of print, making them hard to find in stores or libraries.  Once sufficient copies were located, Walcott's magnus opus, "Omerus", impressed everyone but that was 1990.  "The Prodigal" (2004) and "White Egrets" (2010) drew considerable praise but what convinced skeptics was a technical article from a now-defunct online forum that someone had saved on their hard drive.

     George Elliott Clarke didn't quite make the list.  No other page poet came close.

3. Alicia Elsbeth Stallings  Eratosphere

    While she lacks the common touch we see in the top two, Alicia remains the class of the crossovers.  "Antiblurb" is a masterpiece but what is more stunning is that it is representive of her work is a whole.  If you want to make the argument that knowledge of fundamentals adds charm and consistency to an artist's work Ms. Stallings is your model.

    At the beginning of her career Alicia had to use initials to resubmit poems that were rejected by editors who knew from her first name that she was female.  As you can see, the online community in general and geeks in particular have no time for such discrimination.

2. D.P. Kristalo          Poets.org, Gazebo

    The fact that DPK wrote the most remarkable metrical poem of the last half century wasn't enough.  Granted, the contention that "Joie de Mourir" was in the same class met with guffaws.  (N.B.:  Our voters are not drug tested.)  Nevertheless, her elegy for Maz ended any discussion of her as a fluke.

    When one's worst poem begins with "Let us speak of rumors first;  the pallid truth can wait till later" and ends with "...it will rain champagne before I tell you that I loved her" the judges' job becomes a nobrainer.  One of the best reasons for studying the elements of the craft is to appreciate everything DPK has been able to do with them.

1. Margaret Ann Griffiths Gazebo, Eratosphere, PFFA

    Imagine if the most knowledgeable critics on earth voted T.S. Eliot the poet they'd most want to see in an anthology five months before he wrote his signature poem.  Now suppose "Prufrock" was not a collaboration with the finest prosodist of the era but a solo, unedited first draft.  Would anyone argue about who was the finest poet of the 20th century?

    The moment Margaret (aka "Maz" or "Grasshopper") entered a contest--slogan, jingle or poetry--the fight for second place began.  If you ask poetry fans who the greatest poet of all time is you will get a variety of answers until someone mentions Shakespeare, whereupon everyone squawks "We assume you meant other than him!"  When you ask who the best poet of the 21st century is you must explicitly add "...including Maz."     

     Needless to say, the vote for Grasshopper as this century's #1 poet was quick and unanimous.


1. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Preamble

2. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Versers

3. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The List

4. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The Geeks

    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 follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Friday, February 13, 2015

10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Versers

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #11
     The issue is one of qualities, not quality.  As shorthand, we tend to use the most inclusive connotation, one which spans from metrists and free versers to prose poets and p[r]osers.  The range is limitless, from William Shakespeare to William McGonigall¹, from Robert Frost to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.   

     The vast majority of "poetry" being printed today is prose, with or without linebreaks.  Prose qua poetry rules the land of Content Regency.  The lineation, affected language and delivery may fool the gullible and, like all prose and meme, can still be excellent, fascinating and profound writing.  However, of poetry's essentials, it lacks all three:  memorable text, performance and audience.  This is not an aesthetic opinion;  it is observable, quantifiable² fact.

     Being a hybrid, "prose poetry" would also be considered separately, as vodka and screwdrivers are.  Because it doesn't rely on rhythm [strings], prose poetry is identified by strong repetitions in sound, including assonance, alliteration, consonance, anaphora, repetend and parallelism but not, as a rule, rhyme.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #37
     By contrast, meter and free verse are cadenced, these being counted in measures (accentual-syllabic verse) or not (free verse).  Barring a few individual poems (e.g. "flukes" such as "How Aimee Remembers Jaguar" by Eric Hopson and "There are Sunflowers in Italy" by Didi Menendez), we know that free verse cannot be written [consistently, at least] by anyone who cannot write competently in meter.  A person who cannot sustain one ball in the air can hardly juggle five (i.e. iambic, trochaic, anapestic, dactylic, and amphibrachic).  This explains why free verse, like prose poetry, is extremely rare, constituting less than 1% of the "poetry" published today.  (Don't hold your breath waiting for a list the Top 10 Free Versers or Prose Poets.  Given the tiny sample size, it would be hard to come up with 4, let alone 10.)

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #157
     In this sense, then, "poets" means "versers", free or metrical.     In this sense, then, "poets" means "versers", free or metrical.  To put in perspective, here is how metrical poems are written:
  1. Ideas are collected.

  2. Ideas are organized into a prose outline.

  3. Words are arranged to form a rhythm.

  4. Rhythms or stresses are quantified into meter.

  5. Words are revised so they don't sound like a cat giving birth in a washing machine.

  6. Publication.
     Free versers skip Step #4.

     Prose Poets skip Steps #3 and #4.

     Prosers skip Steps #3, #4, and #5.


¹ - The Wikipedia entry for William McGonagall is a hoot, including this snippet:

     "Before he showed an interest in poetry, he displayed a keenness for acting, though Mr Giles' Theatre, where he performed, let him play the title role in Macbeth only if he paid for the privilege. The theatre was filled with his friends and fellow workers, anxious to see what they expected to be an amusing disaster. The play should have ended with Macbeth's death, but McGonagall believed the actor playing Macduff was trying to upstage him, and refused to die."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #78
² - One could, I suppose, create a formula that measures technique, performance and audience.  It would ignore content, of course, since that never distinguishes one mode (poetry) from the other (prose).  It could count the repetitions of phonemes, syllables, words and patterns.  It could measure speech patterns against norms.  It could count audiences and their responses.  The number of mentions, quotes, performances (minus readings, since those are votes against something being poetry), reprints and criticisms could be recorded by web crawlers.  This wouldn't tell us anything we don't already know, though.  Our lack of interest in memorizing or performing any of today's poetry is all that matters.


1. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Preamble

2. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Versers

3. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The List

4. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The Geeks

    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 follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Thursday, February 12, 2015

10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Preamble

    Recently, a Print World editor and friend (who should have known better) made a stunning confession:  despite working with denizens of both, he still didn't understand the difference between the page and pixel poetry worlds.  This distinction is essential if we are going to appreciate why one community has such a near stranglehold on aesthetic success.  Let us begin, then, with an overview of the three groups and of those making the selections.


           Subcategories:  Open mic, slam and performance.
                  Medium:  Live or Video
   Principle Demographic:  Youth
      Main Raison d'être:  Self-expression
              Aesthetics:  N/A   
              Philosophy:  Convenient Poetics
                Critique:  N/A
Awareness of Pixel World:  Nil
 Awareness of Page World:  Negligible
       Performance Value:  Significant
              Gender Mix:  Predominantly male
                   Geeks:  None


           Subcategories:  Institutional, Private and Indie
                  Medium:  Print
   Principle Demographic:  Academia
      Main Raison d'être:  Employment
              Aesthetics:  N/A
              Philosophy:  Content Regency
                Critique:  N/A (except in class)
Awareness of Pixel World:  Nil
Awareness of Stage World:  Negligible
       Performance Value:  Nil
              Gender Mix:  Predominantly male
                   Geeks:  Few.


                  Medium:  Internet
           Subcategories:  Usenet and World Wide Web.
   Principle Demographic:  Amateurs¹
      Main Raison d'être:  Improvement 
              Aesthetics:  Fancentric
              Philosophy:  Prosody
                Critique:  Integral
Awareness of Pixel World:  Growing
 Awareness of Page World:  Significant
       Performance Value:  Occasional
              Gender Mix:  Predominantly female
                   Geeks:  Some

     Thus, aside from some overlap with crossovers such as A.E. Stallings, the only thing that page and pixel poets have in common is the fact that they have nothing in common with each other. Of the many differences, the most salient is the fact that onliners are defined by critique², a practice considered downright antisocial elsewhere.  As for output, anyone who has studied the elements of the craft can spot the work of an cyberpoet instantly, if only because of the greater number of those techniques present.


     A "geek" or prosodist is someone who studies the crowd-pleasing tricks that poets used when they had audiences.  Standards being what they are today, those who know whether "Prufrock" and "The Red Wheelbarrow" are free verse or metrical can consider themselves geeks.  These are a dying breed.  We estimate there are fewer than 200 worldwide, 90+% of whom are onliners, constituting about 1% of that core population.  Prominent ones include Usernetter Peter John Ross³ and PFFAers Rachel Lindley and Harold Miller.

     Here is another touchstone:  Ask a slammer or academic who the greatest living poets are and you'll get diverse, diplomatic answers including uncountable names of regional prose poets, none of whose work the respondent can quote at length.  Ask a geek the same question and you'll get three or four names--usually the same three or four names--of versers from all over the world.  As the Egoless experiment demonstrated, the more people know about any subject--prosody in this case--the more consensus we find in their choices.

     Print World theorists are so few that they usually work in isolation, often harboring ideas that would be easily dispelled in a group of authorities.  About five years ago a high profile academic was corrected by a few geeks in a well known conversation forum.  After some clarification, the author accepted the input, recalled an expensive textbook, and made the appropriate revisions.  (Unfortunately, doing the ethical thing may have had disastrous professional consequences for the instructor.)  Another author read a discussion between geeks centered on errors in her manual.  These mistakes were deleted from subsequent editions without the corrections inserted in their place.  On the Internet, one simply thanks the source, makes the necessary changes onsite, and moves on. 

     One caution:  Never ask a geek why so-and-so is on the list of great versers unless you have a few hours to spend quadrupling your understanding of the art form.  For your convenience, we will contain ourselves to a few supporting points and references, allowing their work to speak for itself.


¹ - "Amateurs" in the best and most literal sense of the word, as in "those who love".  Thus, a happy few are both "amateurs" and professionals (i.e. academics).

Peter John Ross
² - Bearing in mind that we are talking about aesthetics, what matters is whether or not a person's outlook is shaped by objective, expert critique, the only source of which will be online venues such as Eratosphere, Gazebo and Poetry Free-For-All.  A person can write a hundred poetry blogs, publish in a thousand e-zines and edit five webzines on the side without being considered an "online" poet.  Indeed, the editor of the most successful online outlet--by far the best source of contemporary poetry in the English-speaking world--is not an onliner...and emphatically not a geek!

³ - Forget "six degrees of separation".  The source of influence for every competent cyberpoet can be traced back to Peter John Ross with fewer than three intermediaries, starting with the typical workshop's guidelines.


1. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Preamble

2. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Versers

3. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The List

4. 10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The Geeks

Monday, February 9, 2015

Eight Poets to Ignore Part III: "Prompting"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #154
     How can we avoid being one of the eight or, more accurately, 800,000 poets being ignored?  What can we learn from their mistakes?

     First and foremost, appreciate the importance of performance.  This begins with writing that has presentation value.  You don't need to have created¹ it yourself;  you just need an eye and ear for it.  Among contemporary pieces the best example might be Maz's "Studying Savonarola".

     Next, you will need motivation.  Consider this:  If, as a poetry performer, you have 1/10th the ability of an average community theater actor your phone will be ringing off the hook for the rest of your life.  Every poet and publisher on the planet will be begging you to record sound and video for them.  Lest you think this hyperbole, this is the closest thing you have to "competition".  Surely you can do better than that!

     Thirdly, you must practice.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #152
     If you ask poets what teleprompters are for most will answer "...to help speakers remember the words."

     No.  That is why writing was invented.  Teleprompters allow the speaker to look directly at the camera or audience, giving the illusion that they are talking rather than reading to people.  Clearly, the former is preferable to the latter.  In a live forum this allows speakers to gauge the audience's mood and reaction, perhaps with a view to adjusting their material.  For example, if one poem is not being well received a poet might decide not to recite a similar one later.

     For economic reasons, poets will look for less expensive options to a single-use teleprompter.  There are free emulation apps like "Pro Lite" for your IPad and others for your Android, as well as programs or sites for your Windows and/or Mac computer.  With one of these onscreen, load the text, choose a scrolling speed, and start working on your presentation.  There are two typical setups:

1.  Position your portable (e.g. laptop or tablet) on a lectern/table just below your line of sight to the audience or camera; or,

2.  use a projector² to send the text on a screen behind and above the audience or camera.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #106
     Ideally, then, you will want the text to appear either just under the listeners' faces or just over their shoulders³ or heads.  Either way, you will need to work on your peripheral vision so as to avoid losing eye contact with the audience (real or imagined), even for a second.

     Videotape your sessions.  Show your best efforts to friends.  If they can guess from your movement or voice that you are reading from a script keep practicing.  By the time you get it right you'll probably have learned the words, obviating the need for the teleprompter, but it will have served as an excellent training tool nonetheless.

     Even if your only interest is in video (e.g. YouTube), I'd urge you to try presenting the poem in front of a live group--most likely an open mic.  There is no substitute for real-time, face-to-face feedback.

     Great contemporary poetry is as rare as lottery wins.  Brilliant performance of modern verse may be even less common today.  Finding both together (which is what we need) is like hitting the jackpot twice.  Simultaneously.


¹ - If poetry is to be resurrected we must move away from the assumption that the poet and performer are one and the same.  What would the film industry be like if only scriptwriters watched and appeared in movies?

² - I'm told that in early rehearsals, instead of handheld scripts, some theater groups are projecting text onto stageside screens.  Apparently, it speeds up the assimilation of lines.

³ - While campaigning in 1968 Bobby Kennedy was struck by the flatness of the prairies.  At night, he could see stars so low in the sky that they seemed to be perched on people's shoulders.

Bobby (1925-1968)

    with los angeles lurking
    your rail car runs
    out of wisconsin
    to plateaus west

    as prairie skies wait

    you wonder what
    an "epaulet horizon" is
    until you can see the stars
    without looking up


    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" below.  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  If you've included us on your blogroll let us know so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend and message us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Eight Poets to Ignore Part II: "Poet Voice"

Matt Petronzio
     In our original article, "Eight Poets to Ignore", we saw the various ways that poetry readers, reciters and performers fail.  This is important because, with no idea how it can be presented successfully, today's poetry aspirants will have no idea how it should be written.  When the verse being published has no sonic or performance value--and most doesn't--we have a vicious circle.  Nothing to show and no one to show it.  In the second installment in this series we focus on the plight facing those from the print world.

     In "Why are poets' voices so insufferably annoying?" we receive some advice from Matt Petronzio's grad school thesis adviser, "Catherine":  'Don't read it like it's a poem,' she said. 'Read it like you're talking to me.' In other words, read like a human."

     That's a solid tip but, better yet, don't read it at all.  Don't recite it either.  Perform it. 

Deborah Tannen
     Mr. Petronzio quotes Deborah Tannen, Linguistics professor at Georgetown University:  "You want to sound like your peer group, and you want to sound like a person you identify with should sound."

     You want to do nothing of the sort.

     Granted, mindless conformists¹ will follow along, but only after ignoring every scintilla of evidence and reason.  These lemmings would have to remain oblivious to the copious articles, including this series, ridiculing "Poet Voice", the track record of the readers (i.e. zero successes in more than half a century) and the out-of-the-mouth-of-babes observers asking "Why is that person talking funny?"

Lisa Marie Basile
    We encounter confirming counsel, this time from
Lisa Marie Basile:  "'Poet Voice', if nothing else, is simply a regurgitation of someone else's massive failings."  She goes on to compare "Poet Voice" with what I'll call "Reader Voice".  The former is simply the most risible form of the latter.  Is this really our goal, to be less laughable?  Indeed, Ms. Basile succeeds in avoiding "Poet Voice" in her own work while exemplifying "Reader Voice".  

     Here is a simple test:  have friends close their eyes while you read to them.  If they can guess it is a prepared text you were guilty of "Reader Voice" and will need to continue working on your delivery.     

Rich Smith

     While his writing won't win him any Pulitzers, Rich Smith's Stop Using 'Poet Voice' may be the definitive word on the subject, but in trying to name convincing performers he demonstrates only the difficulty of that task.  Instead, we see a range from "Poet Voicers" to "Reader Voicers" and "Reciters".  I can sympathize with his failure.  I've seen one competent performer and one great one in my time but, like Yeti sightings, I have no video to prove my claims.³  The best I can do for now is refer you to some of the entries in the "Poetry Out Loud" project.  Such is the state of the art.

     Look at some of the readings listed below² and you will see the elements of "Poet Voice" on display:

1.  Random pauses.

2.  Random head movements.

3.  Random inflections, tending to rise as phrases and sentences end.

4.  Otherwise, a monotone.

5.  Over-enunciation.

6.  Over-stressing syllables.

7.  Complete lack of facial expression.

8.  Lack of gesture.

9.  Utter failure to engage the audience (i.e. nose buried in text).

10. Shortened or "breathless" phrasing.

11. Tedious, whiny self-absorption;  too much of today's "poems" seem like email from rehab.

12. Lack of prosodic technique, verging on complete.

13. Long explanatory preramble [sic], underscoring the unnatural speaking to come.

14. Rushing.

15. Forgetting that humans are conditioned since childhood to fall asleep when you read to them.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #138
      So, what are audiences looking for?

      It's only a guess, since such audiences don't exist, but I will say it is a person who respects the words enough to learn and practice them.  It's someone who speaks to us in a natural voice, as a skilled actor or actress would.  It should seem as if the talker is winging it, pausing not for breath but for thought.  It should sound like a buddy in a bar.  It would be indistinguishable from the preamble except that, ideally, there should be no preamble.  It should be worth hearing.  Always start with that.

     If you can point to such a performance of contemporary poetry please let us know the URL.  So far, we're stumped.


¹ - Lisa Marie Basile laments this lack of circumspection in "Poet Voice and Flock Mentality:  Why Poets Need to Think for Themselves".

² - Here are eight presentations not worth emulating:

1. Gregory Orr reading "Gathering the Bones".

2. Louis Glück reading "Crossroads" from "A Village Voice".

3. Natasha Trethewey reading "Lunch Poems".

4. Timothy Donnelly hammering accented syllables.

5. Adam Fitzgerald's odd rising inflections.

6. Dorothea Lasky's breathless nasal monotone.

7. Lynn Melnick's flat reading, as if she'd never seen the text before.

8. Lisa Ciccarello, pausing randomly as if to remind us that this is "poetry".

     We might like some of these poems for aspects of their content (e.g. images, metaphors, contrasts, insights, etc.) but those are characteristics shared with fine prose.  The need to read old works from a page doesn't argue for it as poetry.

³ - In my defense, video cameras and cell phones weren't invented yet.