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.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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