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

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Eight Poets To Ignore Part I: "All Types"

     In preliterate societies "poet" referred to a person who preserved the oral tradition by memorizing verse and teaching it to the next generation.  The expression "professional poet" is a punch line today but when the art form was alive pros were commonplace, entertaining crowds with verse from various sources.  Only after the demise of the pursuit did "poet" refer exclusively to someone¹ who writes poetry.  Imagine if "musician" referred only to composers.  Who would play the instruments?  Michael Oldfield?

     Being the audiovisual medium that it is, poetry involves a trio of essentials:  words, presenters and audiences.  Like food, water, and air, all three aspects are equally important but it is in presentation where "the rubber meets the road."  Contrary to what some instructors will tell you, audiences need no education beyond being told to show up, shut up, and listen up.  Also contrary to popular misconception, wretched verse can be rescued by brilliant display, the most visible example being the addition of music to insipid lyrics.  (Who doesn't have guilty pleasures among popular songs?)  Conversely, great writing can fall victim to poor production.  Anyone who has seen a high school production of Shakespeare knows what happens to the right words in the wrong hands.

     Like solvent or marijuana users, attendees at readings, open mics and slams lose vision, staring blankly as they lapse into a special trance.  This state of semi-consciousness is measured on the Glue Coma Scale ("GCS") between 0 and 10, where 0 is a meth high while 10 can involve an actual loss of pulse.  Indeed, any event that may attract a preponderance of 10s should be monitored by a deaf nurse with a crash cart.

     For your convenience, here is a taxonomy of the extant species of poetry presenters, albeit with considerable crossbreeding/overlap:

Monodroners (aka "Readers";  roughly:  "Academics")

     The dreaded poetry reading comes in a language of its own, complete with random pauses, odd over-enunciations and inflections designed to reduce audiences [to slumber].  Only by making the reading this robotic and dull can literary types make books seem engaging by comparison.

     Readings are to poetry what karaoke is to opera.

     GCS:  10 out of 10
     Mix:  100% at Poetry readers, 5% elsewhere

    'Droners are, by far, the least interesting voices in poetry...or any other endeavor.  Their only competition came from filibustering politicians, puppeteers and cricketers.


     Slammers use a similar monotone but in fast forward speed and at many times the volume.  Subject matter is limited to the latest outrage.  Eyes rarely focus but will often roll up and to the right² as they try to remember the next part of their screed.

     GCS:  7 out of 10
     Mix:  80% at slams, 15% at open mics, 0% at readings.

     If you plan to be this tedious at least have youth as an excuse.


     These "Voices of God" come in two extremes.  Dashboard Messiahs rain down fire and brimstone, apparently hoping to be the millionth prophet to bring you The Good "News".  More common are the Obscurant Pseudointellectuals who have confused their confusion with something interesting and want to rescue you from a life of clarity blissful ignorance.  In either case, the experience can never be delivered artistically, lest The Truth become a painted courtesan.  For what it's worth, the philosopher wannabes adhere more strictly to their anti-aesthetic.  Mistaking their offerings for poetry is more than a stretch;  it is an act of will. Ersatz prophets will occasionally let loose strings of passable rhetoric, if not poetry.

     GCS:  6 for preachers, 9 for reachers
     Mix:  90% for readings, 60% for slams, 20% at open mics.


     Before some slams a non-participating "sacrificial poet" will "set the pace" with a sample poem.  Open mikes often include a clumsy, throw-away effort by the organizer, the purpose of which is to increase participation by lowering expectations and anxieties.  "Hell, even I can do better than that!

     GCS:  4
     Mix:  2% at open mics and readings, 4% at slams.

     As with any stunt, one has to be good to seem this bad.

     From all appearances, 99% of poetry published today is sacrificial.


     If you have ever listened to an overgrown teenager whine and wail about losing a fictitious "bestie" or lover you understand why these events have a strict time limit.  Unfortunately, corazoners have the power to warp time, turning three minutes into three decades.  Worse yet, listening to this can lower your metabolism.

     GCS:  7
     Mix:  35% slams and open mics, 2% at readings.

     Why come to an open mic when you can stay home and watch soap operas instead?


     "Solipsism is only one insignificant individual away from nihilism."

      We understand why these people write this stuff.  Why do they feel so compelled to show it, though?

     GCS:  8
     Mix:  70% at readings, 60% at slams, 25% at open mics.

      At least corazoners have been in love with someone other than themselves.


      You'll often see reciters play whack-a-mole with stressed and recurring sounds.  In the past, this was limited to metrists who didn't know better than to beat out the rhythms and rhymes like an acid-flashing drummer.  More disturbing is to witness performers do the same thing with free verse. 

     GCS:  4
     Mix:  55% among formalists, 6% at open mics, 4% elswhere.

      Scientists have yet to determine the cause of this bizarre behavior.  If nothing else, theorizing can be good mental exercise, making this more interesting than almost anything else you're likely to find at such events.


     Unlike Slammers, capital "P" Performance poets are free to distract audiences from their inadequacies with props, costumes, sound effects (including music), and even nudity.  Barring copyright considerations, they are also permitted to use someone else's writing but, of course, none do.  Most events become a Bazaar of the Bizarre, with participants competing to see who can alienate the audience most.  Fun times.  For about five minutes.

     GCS:  3
     Mix:  Never at readings, 1% elsewhere.

     While their heyday has passed, the good news is that Performance types remain the most skilled presenters listed thus far.  That is also the bad news.

     A century ago these same audiences were attending Freak Shows.

     Where have all the storytellers gone?  We have no shortage of people re-enacting stories, from Shakespearean actors to feature and documentary film makers.  We have story writers (e.g. Ray Bradbury, Carole Shields) and story singers (e.g. Harry Chapin, Gordon Lightfoot) by the thousands.  We have no shortage of comedians telling jokes or reporters giving us the news.  Guest speakers are hired for their political or educational value.  Ours is the first culture to lack popular raconteurs who climb onstage or step in front of cameras, look everyone in the eye and entertain (and, perhaps, edify?) them with spoken narratives.  If the public isn't entertained by prose speakers what hope is there for poetry ones?

     Put simply, we have lost the ability to write verse like this, perform it like this
(or this or dozens of other examples) and produce it like this.  Not surprising, we lack audiences, let alone those who will demand this level of quality.

     GCS:  0
     Mix:  0%

     This package of writers, performers and fans that we call "poetry" was once as common as passenger pigeons.  As with so many extinctions, the disappearance of verse³ from our culture resulted from a loss of habitat.  An ecosystem is gone.

     Emotive?  Dramatic?  Comedic?  Elegiac?  It doesn't matter what mood or genre you need.  We don't have the narrator.


¹ poet - noun

1. a person who composes poetry.

2. a person who has the gift of poetic thought, imagination, and creation, together with eloquence of expression.

² - ...as opposed to when we look up and to the left during calculation.

³ - Except for lyrics, a form of verse which is flourishing as never before.


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