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

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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