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

Saturday, March 14, 2015


    If there were no fans or players, such that the scorekeepers and coaches had to take the field, would you call that endeavor thriving, like film or football, or dead, like tiddly-winks and Ollamaliztli?

From "Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins¹

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope  
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose  
to find out what it really means.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #164
    Obviously, whatever we teachers, critics, geeks, editors, performers, and poets are doing has not been working for more than two generations.  Let's start with our educational system.  Its mandate was to preserve and support the great poetry of the past, present and future.  Our English departments have abdicated the latter two responsibilities.  Prosody, which is the measurement we employ to judge technical merit, is no longer taught as a matter of course.  Worse yet, we have abandoned the search for readers (tanr) to such an extent that only writers are hired to teach poetry.

     With the benefit of hindsight we know that no generation has produced more than a handful of authors whose work deserves study.  With so many positions and so few such worthy candidates, we have chosen as mentors mediocre poets instead of expert readers, critics, prosodists and analysts.

     Despite being found almost nowhere else, cryptocrap is currently among the two dominant genres in academia² for a pair of reasons:  it's crypto and it's crap.


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #2
    Imagine giving a college class on, say, "Do not go gentle into that good night".  For context, you might begin with a short bio of the author, Dylan Thomas, and some background about the terms (e.g. "gay", meaning "happy" will draw giggles) and times (1951).  You recite the poem.  Does the class have any questions?  No.  Perhaps you use the poem to describe its form, the villanelle.  Questions?  Still none.  If you've done your homework and researched some of the available analysis you can talk about that.  When you're done, you check the clock your watch your laptop and discover, to your horror, that only 25 minutes have transpired!  What will you do for the remainder of your 1-hour class?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #92
     If you had chosen a postmodern poem you and your students could waste days, even weeks, guessing at the meaning of the poem--not its motif, technique, ramifications, significance or nuances, mind you, but it's actual surface meaning (if any).  Selecting a great poem like "Do not go gentle into that good night" was a mistake you won't repeat.  In the future you will ignore accessible poets such as Frost, Byron and the Brownings in favor of classical ones that let you kill time translating Elizabethan³ or earlier language into today's English...or go with contemporary cryptocrap.

     In essence, the "poem" becomes a Rorschach test and the class becomes a group therapy session.  Other than validating Law #92 and wiling away class time, what does this accomplish and what does it have to do with poetry?  No one knows.


     While their meaning mustn't be accessible, the poems themselves must be readily available and in endless quantity, such that if you need a poem about a 19th Century Outer Mongolian hemp farmer you can easily find or generate one.  The recipe is easy to follow.  The whole idea of crap is to lower the bar until enough college students say "Hell, even I can do better than that!" and register for class.  Keeping up this vanity trap works perfectly as long as Nobody Reads Poetry.  Once people are exposed to better contemporary poets and verse, such that they can pass simple tests like this one, the jig is up.

     Suppose every poem published and taught today were as good as this one.  Why, you'd never stop singing "What a Wonderful World", right?

     Hardly.  Verse is already dead on the demand side;   this could kill it on the production side as well.  We would have The Watermelon Problem on a pandemic scale.  Publications would close down because their product couldn't compete.  Whole faculties would disappear from universities because students would be discouraged and might wonder what could be learned from anyone who fails to distinguish this dreck from, of all things, poetry.  In a worst case scenario [sophisticated elements of] the public could take an interest in poetry.  That is the very thing cryptocrap seeks to avoid.

A Challenge

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
     The best way to uncover an addiction is to quit--even temporarily.  A few DT shakes should be enough to convince us that we really are alcoholics.  Thus, I encourage every institutional publication to reserve one edition for non-academics.  This exercise will raise awareness of the 98+% of poets from outside the Ivory Towers.  If nothing else, this will serve as a foil for what is normally published.  At the very least, it should generate controversy.

     Meanwhile, I challenge independent venues to put out a "Best of..." list of poems online, similar to this one.  By "Best of..." I don't mean "My favorite..." or "Our Best...". I mean poems that discerning readers (tanr) might enjoy based largely on objective technical merit, regardless of source [as via a URL].  It would be fascinating to compare these lists to what academic periodicals produce.


¹ - Yes, we're quoting Billy Collins, including the completely redundant finale where, ironically, he beats us over the head with the moral--you know, in case we missed it being spelled out in the preceding strophe paragraph.

² - After confessional (aka "email from rehab"), of course.

³ - Shakespeare's plays may seem difficult to us in this century but his livelihood depended on illiterates in the pits understanding what was said.  It was the farthest thing from cryptology.  It observed Law #12 as distinguished from Law #2, which forms the credo of most academic writing.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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