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

Monday, April 27, 2015


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #64
     If poetry came back to life today it would find itself declared "missing and presumed dead" in 1973, its spouse long remarried, its possessions gone, its photo gathering dust in the attic, and its children contemplating retirement.

     Christopher Ingraham's "Poetry is going extinct, government data show" cites the latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) in detailing poetry readership's decline.

     Before we get to that, though, we need to do a little housecleaning.  Poetry being alive or dead is determined by the demand (tind) for unaccompanied contemporary¹ English language poetry.  We are acutely aware of its gross oversupply and verse's success in other cultures and media (i.e. song lyrics).  If we cannot cite a single iconic poem written in the last half century the matter is settled.

     The first chart shows a steady decline from 17% to 6.7% over the last twenty years.  The problem is that the survey asks about poetry, not just contemporary poetry.  Most, if not all, of the decline is in classical works (if only because interest in contemporary poetry couldn't get much lower).  My guess is that the verse of William Shakespeare, the Brownings, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Frost will always outsell the texts of Charles Bukowski, Maya Angelou, Carol Ann Duffy, and Billy Collins by a factor of sixty to one but let's go with a ridiculously conservative estimate.  Let's say it's only six to one.  That means that less than 1% of the population reads contemporary poetry, a figure about equal to the number of those producing it.

     Funny, that.

     Stranger still, the number of contemporary readers could, for all we know, have bottomed out with the advent of the world wide web in the early 1990s.  Since then, readership might have risen from one insignificant fraction of 1% to a higher insignificant fraction of 1%.  If so, that's progress!

     The problem with this second chart is that categories are being compared to subcategories.  For example, why are jazz and classical concerts separate categories?  Leaving aside the fact that we're switching eras, cultures and languages, comparing a superset like poetry to a subset of sung storylines like opera is as ridiculous as comparing movies or novels to glosas.  Even if we only include rock operas (e.g. "Tommy", "The Wall"), forgetting musicals (why?), opera is viewed by many times more anglophones than poetry.

     As the article says, the "decline in poetry readership is unique among the arts."

     I would have said "unique in human history" but "among the arts" will do.

     Fluctuations in the third chart "follow the contours of the academic year", which "suggests that much of the online interest in poetry is driven by students looking for help with their coursework, rather than adults reading it for pleasure."

     This is crucial because students are, essentially, a captive audience.  To argue that poetry is alive (or that a volume of it is well received) because 10,000 students are obliged to purchase the same textbook is ludicrous.  By this "reasoning" the world's most popular pastime would be paying taxes.

     When applied to poetry, such web searches will become less relevant.  Those few who read poetry are unlikely to Google it;  they will click on links in social media, emails, referrals or bookmarks.

     These charts tell us that today's poetry is dead and earlier verse is fading at an astonishing rate.  Of course, some will ignore what has been proven and blithely continue pumping artless dreck into the void, causing us to find some relief in the fact that Nobody Reads Poetry.  Deniers will go on writing and publishing disingenuous nonsense like Robert Peake's "US Poetry Readership in Tens of Millions?²".

     As for the rest of us, rather than show contempt for contemporary poetry by stonewalling its demise, we will work to reincarnate it.  Otherwise, we might well see all English language poetry go the way of whist³.


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #115
¹ - We are interested in earlier poetry as an extension of our primary concern.  One particularly silly blogger (who cut off comments for lack of supporting argument) actually wrote:  "if you have to keep declaring, over and over, that poetry is dead, it can’t actually be dead."  Substitute the name "Elvis" for "poetry" there.  As long as there are climate deniers there will be scientists, armed with indisputable evidence, here to tell us the truth.

     Speaking of veracity, when confronted with the demonstrable and obvious why do so many otherwise intelligent poets react like Fox News truthers? 

² - Where to start?

  1. Poetry's decline is hardly slow.  What charts was Peake reading?

  2. Yes, there were only 26.7 million Americans in 1855 but, even in raw numbers, there were still more poetry readers than today, including many more then-contemporary poetry fans.

  3. The 20% of Americans in 1855 who were illiterate didn't read poetry (duh!) but they heard and could recite more of it than the average MFA graduate today.

  4. Did going from per capita percentages to raw numbers fool anyone?

  5. Plummeting from 17% down to 6.7% in 20 short years is described as "may not be keeping pace"?  Really?  And might the bubonic plague have been "stalled population growth"?

  6. Do those millions of poetry readers memorize, quote or recite any of this verse, as we see in all other cultures and periods?

  7. Is there any practical chance of two of those millions meeting as strangers and being able to discuss a contemporary poem they both recognize?  As they might a movie, book, television show, or sports event?

  8. As for post-apocalyptic scenarios, not one of the characters in "Mad Max" was shown reading poetry.  Perhaps the latest installment in that series, "Fury Road", due out this month, will feature verse.  I'm not betting on it, though.

  9. What does being "able to be deeply moved, provoked, and excited by words alone" have to do with poetry as opposed to rhetoric or prose?  Exactly how bad are the speakers and novelists on Peake's planet?

³ - A pastime replaced by contract bridge at the same time music on the radio replaced poetry.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #24

    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below.  Failing that, please 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

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Has Social Media Been Good For Poetry?

"...most 'poets' are stupid and lazy. Not only do they take shortcuts, but they get lost doing it."

- Zachariah Wells on the Vox Populism blog, 2009-12-7

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #7
Blogger Carmine Starnino¹ asks "Has Social Media Been Good For Poetry?" and David McGimpsey answers:

"My anecdotal psychological insight into this is that Facebook and social media has made younger people generally better poets than they used to be, and the reason why is that now it becomes a thing that people just know how to do² without being told how to do it: How to materialize the self."

Respondent B. Glen Rotchin challenges such narcissism effectively with this riposte: "Poetry is the materialization of the self? A projection of a better you? So a poem is just another kind of Selfie?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #169
 Unfortunately, Mr. Rotchin commits a similar synecdochical fallacy in continuing: "Silly me, I always thought it had more to do with truth-telling."

In fact, most poetry is fictional[ized]. Altogether now:

"Poetry is a mode of speech."

Having dispensed with the Content Regents, the larger question remains:

Has Social Media Been Good For Poetry?

The simple answer is "Not yet, obviously."  Social media "promotes" everything--everything from poetry to needlepoint to zamba, each at the expense of everything else, resulting in little or no significant, long term engagement in any particular activity other than social media itself.

The question becomes:

Will Social Media Be Good For Poetry?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #69
We are talking about an opportunity unseen since the primordial campfire: appeal to the entire tribe. Via the Internet, the performance or text can reach every anglophone on the planet. In recent centuries publishers have filtered access, ideally based on quality but all too often affected by pre-existing influence. Today, more than ever, people are left to make their own decisions. What few reviews there are might be ignored as blurbs.

"But there are no filters," some might argue, "to strain out the diarists (like David McGimpsey), 'truth-tellers' (like Mr. Rotchen) and others with no concept of technique or audience.  Social media usually includes no publishers, no editors, no reviewers, no critics."

"No filters?"  If anything, there may be too many filters. The only way that a piece is going to "go viral" and reach a significant portion of the public is if strangers--each of them a filter--Share or Retweet it. Think about your own experience:  How often do non-poets pass on contemporary verses? Memes? Sure. Kittens and puppies?  Hell, yes. But poems?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #93
With good reason, pundits, along with this squirrel, bemoan the proliferation of mindless distractions (e.g. reality television, pseudo-celebrity gossip, video games, Taylor Swift), the catastrophic drop in standards and education, all leading to the inevitable result: Nobody Reads Poetry. Zero successes in 50+ years is an abysmal record, unprecedented in human history. Parenthetically, paradoxically and, above all, perversely, inattention may actually help poetry's cause now.  Think in terms of the Slingshot Effect.

To wit, this isn't like a poetry 'zine pumping out their top submissions or a contest with a guaranteed winner; the best of a bad lot will not suffice. Only an entertaining³ YouTube video--no, text will not do the job--of a brilliantly written and performed poem will be passed along by enough Facebookers or Retweeters. In theory, at least, the fact that the public has rarely seen the competent, let alone the good, means that the uniquely great could stand out and excite them enough to show their friends.

The chain reaction begins.


¹ - If this name seems familiar, Carmine Starnino was the one who lost the "Poetry Cage Match" to Christian Bök so badly that web sites have politely removed the video.

I found it interesting that, by Zachariah Wells' count, six metrical pieces--none of them causing a ripple--in four entire volumes is enough to qualify someone not only as a "formalist" but as a champion of that aesthetic.  Mr. Starnino is a fine teacher and a thought-provoking blogger but I don't see him claiming to be a technician or a debater.

² - This is the dumbest statement ever made.

³ - If it helps, think of "entertaining" in the broadest possible sense.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Whoda thunk?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #64
     Nanette Asimov, niece of Isaac, reports of "Shakespeare getting little love from American colleges."  Apparently, only 4 of 52 major U.S. universities require even one course on the Bard for its English majors. 

     It's almost like there is a prejudice against things we don't use or don't think we use anymore.  Why, next we'll hear that our children are not learning Latin and handwriting!
     Gee, who could have predicted that contemporary poetry being dead for more than half a century would begin to adversely affect interest in the classics?

    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, April 21, 2015


postmodernism - noun (originated 1970-1975)

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #168
1.  any of a number of trends or movements in the arts and literature developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma, principles, or practices of established modernism, especially a movement in architecture and the decorative arts running counter to the practice and influence of the International Style and encouraging the use of elements from historical vernacular styles and often playful illusion, decoration, and complexity.

    This dictionary definition of postmodernism, if applied to poetry, is closer to that of hypermodernism.  Postmodernism is hardly historical;  given the lack of prosody, we might argue that it is prehistorical.  It is far from playful or decorative.  As for complexity, it may be difficult to interpret but writing it is child's play.  In fact, "postmodern poetry" is an oxymoron.  While prose is poetry's direct opposite--both being forms of communication--postmodernism's inaccessibility makes it the antipodal inverse of verse.  Even when coherent, it usually fails not only as poetry but as prose, too.  For example, consider this text:

Nostalgia is a prettier season.  Leaves
fall on the river and a few are the color of wine.

    Any competent author or poet would drop the clumsy conjunction, breaking the last sentence into two punchy ones:

Leaves fall on | the river.  | A few are | the color | of wine.

    ...if only to sustain the amphibrachs until the catalectic ending.

    For the most part, "postmodern" is a euphemism for "cryptocrap".  It is written by people who don't seem to comprehend that, while readers might return to a piece to develop a second understanding, they won't do so for a first understanding.   

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #163

    Is there such a thing as good cryptocrap?  Paradoxically, yes, there is.  Anything indeciperable and devoid of technique meets the minimum qualifications.  To test it, employ a modified version of Poetry Ripcord:  Read a postmodern volume for as long as you can, then mark the poem and floor where you throw the book down, shouting "Can you imagine not knowing the difference between that and poetry?"  The longer the read and shorter the toss, the better the work. 

    For a less cynical, more sympathetic view of postmodern writing we must begin with its purpose.  Obviously, such stuff is not designed for a reader (tinr), let alone a listener (tinl).  Nor is it designed to be memorable, as actual poetry is.  (Seriously, if you wrote such amphigouri would you want people to remember it?) 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
    One of many reasons why postmodern pieces are never memorized, aside from the fact that they are so forgettable, is that they have Negative (as in less than zero) Performance Value.  Do not take my word for this.  You need to stand in front of people and look them in the eye while you recite this nonsense.  The awkwardness and embarrassment, extending to author, performer and
audience, has to be experienced first hand.  This may be the most important lesson an aspiring verser learns.

    N.B.:  We're talking about an [anti-]aesthetic created more than a generation after poetry died.  While the rest of us poets are, essentially, trying to breed dodo birds--something that did exist at one time--postmodernists add a level of absurdism, attempting to produce dodos by mating  pteradactyls with dragons.

    "Why," you might ask, "would anyone want to write something that doesn't have a market and never did?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #73
    The answer is an astonishingly elegant solution to an impossible problem:  these academics are hoping to find employment as teachers--as scorekeepers--without interfering with contemporary poets fighting to create an audience as players.  Among other things, this explains why postmodernistic lineations are distributed almost exclusively by institutional publications.

    How does a prospective employer judge a postmodernist's body of work?  This, too, is disarmingly simple but brilliant.  A postmodern piece reads like a "killer and filler" poem minus all of the prosodic elements and coherence that distinguishes "filler" verses from psychotic prattle.  The idea is to startle students (only such a captive audience will expose themselves to this flotsam) with phrases that cause them to stop and say:  "Hey, that might be interesting if it made sense!"  Thus, while metrists may count tempi, alliterations, syllables, beats or feet, the unit of measurement for postmodernists is the "WTF?"  Dividing these by the total number of words gives us the WTF Density--as objective and useful a yardstick as we'll find in art.  Indeed, using that indicator we can determine who, among the living postmodernists, is #1.

Karen Solie
    The one writer who best combines the cryptic (i.e. a high WTF Density) with the crappy (i.e. no rhythms, no proximate or patterned repetitions, no prosody) is not Geoffrey Hill or Jorie Graham but Karen Solie.  Take that poem we excerpted earlier:

Cross a friend's threshold and aging passes
like an unkind word between you.
Nostalgia is a prettier season.  Leaves
fall on the river and a few are the color of wine.

   - Karen Solie (Short Haul Engine p22)

    Three startles.  31 words.  That is an impressive .097 WTF Density rating (aka "Startle Index").  It would be higher still if she weren't so wordy but concision, being a legitimate aspect of actual poetry, would be cheating.  For example, this whole mess:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #2
When you substitute his name
for love it is to hold him
in your mouth awhile
dissolving like a pill.

   - Karen Solie (Short Haul Engine p27)

    ...could be more succinctly expressed--in common meter, no less--by dropping that substitute-name-love soap opera, leaving the more powerful:

Hold his name inside your mouth,
dissolving like a pill.

     Ms. Solie has mastered the basic tools of postmodernism:  bizarre similes, confusing metaphors, Rule #2, and copious "barnacling" (i.e. random word choices that could be replaced by some version of the word "barnacle" without losing sense):

A sideboard proclaiming itself free at the curbside is a Trojan horse.

A barnacle proclaiming itself free at the curbside is a Trojan horse.
A sideboard barnacling itself free at the curbside is a Trojan horse.
A sideboard proclaiming itself free at the curbside is a barnacle.

    As it happens, Karen Solie is featured in this month's edition of Poetry magazine.  Another coincidence is that the best living verser and best postmodernist are both women originally from some desolate dustbin called "Saskatchewan". 

    We here at Commercial Poetry don't generally recommend volumes other than Maz's "Grasshopper".  Beginning with her first book, "Short Haul Engine", Karen Solie's collections are invaluable as inspirational workbooks.  One can open them to any page, read a few paragraphs and wonder "How might a poet have written this?"  Perhaps this is how it should be marketed.  (A similar resource is Walter Bargen's "Remedies for Vertigo", which serves as an encyclopedia of interesting lines.)

    Karen Solie might never turn her hand to actual poems--you know, those things we absorb through the osmosis of mnemonics and performance--but if you're jonesing for some inexplicable prose with equally inexplicable linebreaks, she's your source.

    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, April 20, 2015

Gracias a la VIDA

    I don't mean to be politic or impolitic but there's something I need to get off my chest.

[Earl climbs onto soapbox]

    The notion that art (or anything else) should be judged based on the genitalia of its creator is too bizarre for words.  Espousing such ideas is prima facie evidence of brain damage.  Humans will never be taken seriously as a species--let alone as an intelligent one--until this idiocy (among others) is finally and forever shitcanned.

[Earl descends from soapbox]

The John Barr Rule:  "When you add funding into the mix, as we see in institutional poetry circles, two things happen:  conservatives take over and males dominate the conversation, lecterns, organizations, publications and awards ceremonies."

     - From "Poets?  Conservative?"

    "We were not surprised to find that men dominate the pages of venues that are known to further one's career."

     - From "About the VIDA Count"


Rattle Editor Timothy Green
    The 2014 VIDA Count reveals, yet again, a disparity between institutional and independent publishers.  As Rattle Editor Timothy Green wrote in the "La VIDA Loca" blog, the problem is particularly acute among editors who proactively solicit writing from more established authors.  This, coupled with the infamous "New Yorker poem", casts a pall on approaching writers--something that Mr. Green, Don Share of Poetry Magazine, and other editors don't do as a matter of policy.  In my view, this is a common logical mistep:  using misuse to argue against use.  By this "reasoning", one underaged voter becomes a case against democracy.

    What is egregious is not soliticiting per se but doing so in order to exacerbate [rather than alleviate?] the gender imbalance.  If an editor has selected more male slush pilers than female ones, why not seek out a few great women to restore parity?  Or vice versa, as necessary?  Thus, even the riposte that some editors don't need to seek submissions--they get "more than they need" as it is--misses the point.  At best, it is an opportunity ignored, an underemployed tool.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52

    Here is a radical, naive and impractical solution:  "Why not publish the best submissions you receive?" 

    When knowledgeable sources are consulted women's writing fares very well.  Our own expert consensus placed eight women (i.e. Margaret Ann Griffiths, D.P. Kristalo, A.E. Stallings, Derek Walcott, Rhina Polonia Espaillat, Rose Kelleher, Julie Carter, Catherine Rogers, Marc Smith, Jennifer Reeser) among the top ten, including a hat trick among the top three.  A broader expert poll split the top 10 down the center but, again, women claimed the win, place and show spots.  Authorship of the five best poems of our time was a clean sweep.  Eleven of twenty Nemerov winners since 1994 have been female.  Oh, and lest anyone wonder:  in none of these did women cast the majority of votes.

     Among the many reasons why merit cannot help here is that it would require institutional editors to take an interest in technical and critical matters.  In fact, many are openly hostile to informed critique and non-interpretative analysis.


     Outside of geekdom, the degree to which women will be overlooked is influenced by the gender profile:  the more obvious the gender, the greater the disparity.  For example, Alicia Elsbeth Stallings had much less difficulty getting her work published when she resubmitted it under her initials, A.E. Stallings.  No doubt, some of her publishers were surprised to learn of her sex.  Similarly, women do much better in blindly judged contests¹ than elsewhere. 

     If you find VIDA numbers alarming or dismiss the inequality as symptomatic of a bunch of old conservative coots, consider the slam world, where one's gender will be most apparent.  There, female participation languishes around 33% of the field with appearances in the Winners' Circle rarer still. Thus, gender--once known--trumps age, politics and aesthetics.

Chicken And Egg:

     Parity is not at 50%.  It is at the percentage of population.  Broadly, this is around 52% female.  Within the targeted demographic, women buy more books and subscriptions than men.  Women receive the majority of MFAs.  Thus, the percentage of this specific population might be more than 52%.  Defenders of the status quo point to the ratio of submissions, though.  If, say, 37% of the slush pile is always from females it stands to reason that, on average, 37% of the acceptances will be from women.  Right?

     No.  Granted, this sounds logical but a moment's thought reveals the flaws:

1.  The process isn't random.

     At least, we hope it isn't.  We like to think editors are reading and judging the work rather than merely picking pieces willy-nilly off the pile and publishing them.  (For what it's worth, I do have my doubts about an outlet or two.)

      As an example, editors are more inclined to accept works from familiar sources, even to the point of soliciting them (as mentioned earlier).  If 37% of the authors an editor knows are female that ratio of acceptances is likely to continue, yes, but not because of chance.  Cynics will call this "cronyism" but, for better or worse, it will affect the final publication's VIDA count more than sheer participation ratios will.  Similarly...

2.  Self-fulfilling prophecy.

     Women could easily become discouraged by gross under-representation. Thus, the more talented female writers and readers may abandon publications with absurdly disappointing VIDA numbers, soon relegating them to male-only bull sessions with dwindling resources.  The opposite may be true for the less egregious offenders, where...

3.  Some things are more equal than others.

     No one is going to imply--in public at least--that men are better writers.  Some foolish souls might infer it, though, based on the imbalances that VIDA exposes.  Paradoxically, the overall numbers may, if anything, suggest the opposite.  Sort of.

     It isn't a stretch to say that submitting one's work to a publisher or contest reflects not just the hope but the belief that it might be better than everyone else's.  If men and women are equally proficient, taking entries from the top 63% of males versus the top 37% of females creates dilution of the former.  Thus, the average woman's contribution is better than those of women who don't enter and those of men who do.  Put another way, male and female authors are equal overall but women are better where it counts:  atop the pile of submissions.  Thus, barring an imminent mass exodus described in #2 (above), women should always outperform their participation level.  It's what Bill Clinton called "a-rith-met-ic".

4.  Objectivity.

     By definition, nerds well versed in the elements and construction of verse can judge writing without regard to extraneous factors, including gender.  Because the major institutional editors are all² Content Regents, work will be assessed based at least partly on plot and perspective.  Conceivably, male editors could be dismissive of contributions from women due to theme³ or style.  If and where this is the case parity will be unlikely until 52% of editors and judges are women or 100% are geeks...and rest assured that the latter will not happen in your lifetime.

Margaret Ann Griffiths

¹ - Even if we remove Maz's phenomenal results from the equation, in the events we've tracked female contestants not only exceeded their participation levels (42% of entrants in our sampling, by our estimate) but often their population level (52%) as well.

     What gives?  Why is it that the more that judges know about the poet--starting with their gender--and the less they know about poetry the wider the gender gap grows?

² - All the ones I've known, at least--and by their own admission.

³ - Something no geek or squirrel can comprehend, let alone accept.

    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

Saturday, April 18, 2015

State of the Union - 2015

     As you know, there are three essentials in poetry:


     We are witnessing the sad demise of the last generation to be alive while poetry was.  It is grim accounting but we could, I suppose, take some tiny, cold comfort in knowing that the decline in poetry's audience is bottoming out.  Is there reason to hope it might begin to rise soon?

Margaret Ann Griffiths

     The caliber of composition has obviously declined, slowly but steadily, since "Prufrock".  Poetry fundamentals disappearing from our education system in the middle of the 20th century accelerated this process.  Nevertheless, thanks in large part to the Internet, it can be argued that poetry struck its nadir in the 1980s and is beginning to turn around.  Yes, I might be guilty of some generational narcissism but I'd have no reservations about pitting today's best versers¹ against anyone after Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) and Robert Frost (1874-1963).    


     No matter how we feel about the quality of text and the quantity of listeners (tanl), we can only be optimistic about the platforms for poetry:  stage, video, multimedia, e-book, et cetera.  In terms of performance, I believe that we are seeing less "Poet Voice" in readings.  It seems academics are being shamed into learning the rudiments of delivery.  [Shrug]

     You know that parable about the frog on the hotplate that keeps adjusting to the rising temperature until it boils to death?  You know how you're unaware that your house smells until you return from vacation?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #10
     Recently, I took an eighteen month hiatus from live poetry.  When I returned to slam I assumed, based on how little had changed in the previous two decades, that I would be subjected to the usual diary entries and diatribes delivered with an auctioneer's pace and jet engine's volume.  The focus was still bellybuttons and politics but the tone had morphed from strident to coaxing. 

     This was too good to be true so I discounted it as an aberration.  Days later, though, I attended a youth slam where, much to my surprise, I encountered the same sea change² in approach.  Slammers were talking like intimates, not whingers or demagogues, to audience members, not at them.

     I reported this to some of my online buddies and was convinced that this phenomenon may not be as localized as I thought.  Have you experienced a similar shift from screaming to speaking or are your open mics and slams the same as always?

     Is emo dead?


¹ - ...including that rarest of animals, the actual free verser.  I'm not so sanguine about our current crop of prose poets, though.

² - I also noticed a profound demographic switch that we'll discuss in my next post.  Stay tuned!

    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, April 17, 2015

Synecdochical Fallacy

Gustave Flaubert
     "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."

- Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

     "News flash: poets don't have deeper or finer feelings than anyone else, they don't have more insight into personal relationships, they don't understand the cosmos better than ordinary people; they're not philosophers.  They just have a gift for writing."

 - Diana Manister, "The Critical Poet", 2008-06-29

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #151

     Poetry is a mode of speech.

     Sadly, there is a tendency among many to act like those six blind men trying to conceptualize an elephant based on the part they are examining.  Such tunnel vision causes the classic synecdochical fallacy, confusing the subset (i.e. genre) with the whole (i.e. poetry).

     That poetry is a mode of speech is not an opinion, a belief, a guess or an aesthetic statement.  It is an incontrovertible fact.  It is the most basic truth about verse--even more fundamental than its definition as verbatim speech.  Failure to understand this leads inevitably to polemics, provincialism, pseudo-intellectualism and Content Regency.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52
     As a mode of speech, verse can be used to express any topic, genre or viewpoint.  It follows that poetry is not¹ "the scum of the heart."  Not all [great] poems are gushers like "Sonnets from the Portuguese 43" or "Do not go gentle into that good night". 

     Contrary to Lewis Turco's peculiar ideolect, poetry is not a genre simply because it has no single "form, content, technique, or the like."  Poems can be fictional, non-fictional, romantic, tragic, comedic, dramatic, or any other topical category.  They may have form or not.  Ditto meter, which we can surmise is a fairly recent addition by asking ourselves how primitive societies could quantify or measure something² until after it existed.

     Poetry is not¹ cryptic (no definitive meaning), vacuous (no significant meaning), obvious (one inescapable meaning) or ambiguous (two or more clear meanings).  Not all [great] poems are multifaceted gems like "The Red Wheelbarrow", amphigouri like "Jabberwocky", dualities such as "Beans" or unidimensional perspectives like "Dulce et Decorum Est".

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
     Poetry is not¹ profound writing.  Those who swallowed this myth need to read better prose.  Let me suggest they start with novelists Carol Shields and Timothy Findley before moving on to various philosophers. 

     Poetry is neither¹ humorous nor humorless.  Paradoxically, in the case of the "Tay Bridge Disaster", it can be both at the same time.

     Poetry is not¹ art.  It can be and sometimes is but, as a mode of speech, it can be put to any purpose, from selling toothpaste to relaying the WORD OF GOD in holy verses.  If you forget this you may end up having to argue that "Thirty days hath September, April, June and November" is prose rather than poetry--those being the only two options.

     Poetry can be any damned thing it wants to be.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #62
     Avoid embarrassment.  Repeat "Poetry is a mode of speech" like the truism that it is.  Repeat it like a mantra, a catchphrase or a spell to ward off the most ghastly of aesthetic afflictions, Convenient Poetics.

    "Poetry is a mode of speech.

    "Poetry is a mode of speech.

    "Poetry is a mode of speech."

    "Poetry is a mode of speech."

    "Poetry is a mode of speech."


¹ - Not exclusively, at least.  It's like saying "Humans eat gummy bears."  Some do, but until all of us do the assertion, if intended as definitional, is an overstatement and therefore incorrect.

² - e.g. tempi, alliterations, assonances and--much later and only in accented languages--stresses.  All [metrical] verse is poetry but not all poetry is metered;  thus, everyone other than Mr. Turco understands which is the superset and which is the subset.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

If Poetry Were Alive

From Nobody Reads PoetryNo one, least of all death deniers defending the status quo, is more optimistic about poetry's reincarnation than we.  We also understand that it isn't something an editor will concede.  Some prefer the idealistic euphemism "Poetry needs fans", perhaps adding "because it's so hot!"  Close enough.

"One reader is a miracle; two, a mass movement." – Walter Lowenfels

     Everyone knows that poetry is dead, as evidenced by the difficulty in imagining it alive.  Disingenuous or diplomatic deniers can be forgiven.  After all, how does it help a poet, critic or editor to admit that Nobody Reads Poetry

     More to the point, how can we judge something as dead if we've never seen it alive? 

     To put this in perspective, these are some things that have happened in our culture (in blue) or are happening in other cultures (in purple). Imagine:

  • making $129,781,016.55¹ for one poem (as Robert Service did);

  • turning down (before ultimately accepting) an offer of $109,000¹ for the rights to two poems (as Lord Byron did);

  • topping the book sales charts for the 20th century (as Robert Service and "Dr. Seuss" did, along with Agatha Christie);
  • routinely filling Carnegie Hall;

  • appearing in syndicated poetry columns in every significant newspaper and magazine (ending with Edgar Guest, 1881-1959);
  • people knowing and quoting living poets;

  • people being able to recite poems written during their lifetime;

  • bards traveling from town to town like rock bands;

  • poets as sex symbols;

  • a soldier writing the best known poem of that century in a letter home;

  • poets inspiring scientific discovery;

  • poets performing at ceremonies, including presidential inaugurations, without embarrassing themselves and the art form;

  • trivia questions expecting you to finish lines of contemporary verse;

  • impromptu recitation contests at your local pub.
     These are some signs that poetry is alive within a culture.  What, then, is the state of an art that we can scarcely imagine with a following?  Put another way, imagine if this were what being alive entailed.  Would we have bothered collecting and preserving the classics?  Why?  For whom?  Thus, even if one contradicts all of the facts above, as some ConPoets do, there remains the inescapable inference that contemporary verse has been, in other times and places, infinitely more visible than it is now.

     If poetry were alive one of the next five strangers you meet would be able to recite a recently written poem along with you.

     Spoiler alert:  You will win a lottery before that happens.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #50

Why Does It Matter?

     A friend who should have known better asked me:  "Why does it matter that contemporary poetry's audience has disappeared?"

     Sputter.  Gack!  Jesus.

     Ahem.  This is a cruel question to ask someone trying to reduce their use of hyperbole.

     We are talking about one of the most overlooked extinctions in human history.  The French dropped a verb tense, the past perfect, from their spoken language, relegating it to the mists of anachronism.  Not to be outdone, we English managed to misplace an entire mode of speech!  Of which we have only two.  What is more, we accomplished this feat in less than a century and without anyone noticing!  In 1920 Grade 6 graduates knew more about poetry than most PhD students² today.  We've gone from average people reciting verse at length to a time when few can cough up a single line of poetry written in their lifetime.

Gordon Ramsay
     It may be impossible to understand poetry's condition if we have never watched an episode of "Restaurant Impossible" with Robert Irvine or "Kitchen Nightmares" with Gordon Ramsay.  Here's the plot:  people "diagonally parked in a parallel universe" who have no knowledge of or interest in the restaurant business buy an eatery, often as a retirement strategy.  No, really.  These clowns spend no time considering decor, recipes, successful outlets or the business practicalities--not even after things go downhill.  Hey, what do atmosphere, cuisine, competition or marketing have to do with the hospitality industry, right?

     These triflers run their establishment into the ground until their houses are remortgaged, their life savings are gone, and the premises are overrun with grease, dirt and vermin.  Enter The Hero, whose first task is to convince the owners that the tasteless frozen cow pies they're slopping onto dishes just might be the reason why two hundred Saturday night diners have dwindled to four.  The Hero teaches the owners and staff how to cook, clean and present themselves and their food for the customers.  Meanwhile, an interior decorator makes the place look less like a dungeon.  Hatred of The Hero turns to love, the enterprise survives and everyone lives happily ever after.

     That's what has to happen to poetry. 

     The good news is that it only has to happen once.  Until then, for all we know, there may be a Homer, a Shakespeare or a Maz being ignored, as all contemporary poets are.


¹ - All figures converted to 2014 currency for convenience.

² - "The anti-Shakespeare crew tends to have a dollop
of class snobbery, and doesn't understand that a graduate
of a quality 'grammar school' in the late 16th century
had a far more thorough schooling in the classics than
today's undergraduate classics major."

  - Michael Juster ("Who Wrote Shakespeare?", Eratosphere, 2014-05-03)


1. "Poets?  Conservative?"

2. "Poets?  Liberal?"

3. If Poetry Were Alive

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Poets? Liberal?

From "Poets?  Conservative?":

     The notion of allowing poems to speak for themselves, trusting the audience's judgement, is a distinctly progressive¹ principle.

     Again, most poets are politically liberal but aesthetically conservative, postmodern rather than hypermodern.

Q What, then, constitutes a liberal aesthetic?

A.  Respect for an audience.

    Generally, conservatives concern themselves with groups/institutions:  country, company, army, universities, religion, producers, and status, beginning with the status quo.  Liberals worry about individuals/people:  equality, rights, victims, students, faith, consumers, and improvement, beginning now.  In poetry, conservatives support existing avenues while liberals dream of nonexistent audiences.

    Whether confessional or cryptocrap, the vast majority of poetry published today disregards or disdains audiences.  And readers (tanr).    This and something else will distinguish conservatives² from liberals²:


     Other than Poetry Out Loud, a joint venture of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, not one cent of government or endowment money goes toward expanding poetry's audience.  Rather, it is used to publish and promote poets/poems few care to read and to teach a new generation how to write more of same.  It is as if there is a formal compromise between political conservatives who don't want to give money to a bunch of "hippy weirdos" and aesthetic conservatives assuring them that no funds will go to expanding that art's appeal.  Thus, Norman Rockwell gives way to micturition (e.g. Marcel Duchamp and Andres Serrano), Robert Frost to bafflegab.


     What would the poetry world be like if Lefties enjoyed similar support?

     Personally, I would advocate a chronological approach. 

1.  Pragmatic.

    Poetry being a primarily audiovisual art form, I'd begin with expanding the only successful project we've seen in the last half century, the aforementioned Poetry Out Loud, to an international World Cup style competition.  It would include children and adults rather than just teens. 

2.  Multimedia.

    I'd like to see contests for the best poetry videos on YouTube.  Like the performance events, these would be judged by people who understand the expression "performance value" and the difference between iambs and trochees.  (You might think this isn't setting the bar very high but, trust me, this is radical stuff.)  Sites would be established to network poets, videographers, editors and performers.  Nic Sebastian would be cloned and given carte blanche.

3.   Poetry is international. 

    Pointedly ignoring the greatest poet of our time because she was British remains a stain on the institutional community.  (Should we be happy they recognize Shakespeare?)  The world has been miniaturized by the Internet.  We have no time for nationalistic nonsense.

4.  Comedy fests. 

    Aesthetic liberals--including some, like Dennis Hammes and Peter John Ross, who are politically conservative--have a monopoly on humor.  The other 99% of poets can manage droll puns, literary references and dessicated wit but getting people to laugh is well above their pay grade.  This isn't generalization or stereotyping.  It is tautology.  Entertainers entertain.

5.  Critical fora are, well, critical.

     Eratosphere, Gazebo or Poetry Free-For-All, the resurrected Poets.org and others would benefit from free web space and software as well as small honoraria for their administrators, staff, and most helpful critics.

6.  Poems, not poets.

    This is a fundamental aspect of the meritocratic approach, in stark contrast to The New Yorker poem at the core of the PoBiz philosophy.  It seems only liberal editors can publish poems without including the author's complete and unabridged life story. 

    Conservative writing concerns only the poet and, perhaps, his or her psychoanalyst.  Liberals concentrate on topics and styles that might interest and inform and/or [gasp!] entertain listeners.  Therapy versus communication.  Poet rather than poem.                     

7.  Learning.

    The case has to be made to academia that the repopularization of verse is in their best interests.  One might think this an easy task, given that poetry's rebirth would create an explosion in demand for instructors.  In truth, the transition from teaching the interpretation of poetry to its elements will spark resistance, as will attempts to educate the educators.

8.  Surveys.

From Newsweek's "Poetry Readership at 16-Year Low; Is Verse Dying?":  "Yet according to the NEA report, in 2008, just 8.3 percent of adults had read any poetry in the preceding 12 months. That figure was 12.1 percent in 2002, and in 1992, it was 17.1 percent, meaning the number of people reading poetry has decreased by approximately half over the past 16 years."

     Unfortunately, these surveys don't specify contemporary poetry, don't account for overreporting (i.e. as long as poetry retains some cachet respondents will claim to be readers), and set the bar ridiculously low (i.e. people who have had a poem thrust in their faces during the last year are hardly "readers").  If we make reasonable adjustments or, better yet, conduct more pertinent surveys, we'll find the number of readers to be a fraction of 1%, consistent with the number of producers.  In other words, Nobody Reads Poetry.

     Conservatives have an ostrich attitude toward the death of poetry--when they're not denying it outright.  As such, they won't be part of its resurrection.

9. Copyright.

     Plagiarism  was defined in 1615-1625, long before it was codified by the Berne Convention in 1886.  We know that copyright law played a significant role in strangling poetry after WWI.  Before, people would take and perform it at will.  Individuals would stop short of claiming to have written it but few publishers would hesitate to anthologize it. 

     Today, ignoring copyright protection is rampant online (see plagiarist.com) but, in the eyes of many, outright theft--putting one's name on another person's work--remains indefensible.  (Personally, I consider it the only sin worse than blurbing.)  YouTube is filled with music "fanvids" and "covers", few of which have the original artist's authorization.  Five years ago these were routinely removed at the copyright holder's request.  Today, more and more musicians understand the positive result these have on sales in general, theirs in particular.  Expect this evolution to continue until it is considered antisocial and stupid to take down such homages.  This relaxation of attitudes³ will play a key part in resuscitating poetry.  Verse is less likely to be internalized (i.e. memorized) and performed (or quoted at length) if their efforts might be greeted by a Cease and Desist order.  In the meantime, the use of Creative Commons licensing should be encouraged, especially among our better poets.

10. Prosody.

     Prosody was the study of fan reactions.  No audience?  No prosody.  This dilemma serves those producing work that has never appealed to people, doesn't now, and never will.  The rest of us are left to assess quality based on either what people used to like when poetry was alive (such that, paradoxically, traditionalism is a liberal aesthetic) or what other performed text they like (e.g. theater, film, radio, television and, ultimately, the Internet).  


¹ - There is duplication here as some academics are liberal.

² - Unless stated otherwise, we are talking about one's place on the aesthetic, not the political, spectrum.

³ - The Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act of 1998 was a tiny step in the right direction, protecting online hosts from undue legal action. 

     One interesting resolution is "reverse licensing" (aka "What's mine is mine"):  if you write a poem and John Doe releases a non-commercial performance of it you have carte blanche to use his video for your own commercial benefit, with or without John's consent or recompense.


1. "Poets?  Conservative?"

2. "Poets?  Liberal?"

3. If Poetry Were Alive