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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Rhythms of Speech

     Some poets focus on scansion to the exclusion of rhythm elsewhere.  Let's switch horses for a moment and consider the regularities of common speech.  Humor me.  I promise I'll come to a point eventually.

     The main difference between listening to verse and prose is that meter involves processing stichs of fixed length.  We soon learn how and when the line is going to end.  Thus, we scan verse backwards.  To wit, amid many similar lines we can discern that Leonard Cohen is not finished here:

I am the one who loves changing from nothing...

      Thus, we wait for the finale: 

...to one.

      If surrounded by the rest of the lyric we hear the meter as [acephalous] anapestic (de-de-DUM) pentameter:

I | am the one | who loves chang|ing from noth|ing to one.

      We don't have this luxury in prose.  Instead, we must assimilate the rhythms as they occur, hearing them as a string of dactyls, the last one incomplete.

I am the | one who loves | changing from | nothing to | one...et cetera.

     Rising rhythms (i.e. iambs, anapests, bacchics) begin with unaccented syllables and end with stressed ones.  Falling ones (i.e. trochees, dactyls, antibacchics) are the opposite.  Roughly, the risers are used to express information and independence;  the fallers, emotionalism and authority.    

     Because Anglo-Saxons used so many articles and monosyllabic words, starting with the verb "to be" in all its forms, English is unquestionably an iambic (de-DUM, "rely") language.

The cat is here.

     Iambs, then, are our default pattern, evident in must reportage.  They produce a business-as-usual march of time.  We may wonder:  "What are the effects of the other cadences?"

     Trochee (DUM-de, "counter") suggests the imperative (i.e. commands and urgency), sometimes creating eeriness or suspense in the process.

Go to hell you jackass!

Help them!

     It follows that if we use trochees (DUM-de, "eager") for less forceful speech we risk losing modulation, like a slam poet screaming into the microphone for three minutes straight.  As they say, "too much emphasis is no emphasis at all."

     The spondee (DUM-DUM, "foxhound") and molossus (e.g. DUM-DUM-DUM, "wine dark sea") are just trochees on steroids but will tend to be more passionate than urgent, more contentious than authoritative.

Screw you!

No, I won't!

...and in the off chance that pigs fly...

     Strong, sympathetic leader characters will issue orders using trochees, not spondees.  The opposite is true of weaker tyrants.

     As the term "unstressed" suggests, pyhrrics (de-de, "as a") and tribachs (de-de-de, "and on the") are soothing, transitional sections.  As the excitement builds towards a climax these give way to  accented syllables.  In terms of tempo, stressed syllables are slower than unaccented ones.  To illustrate these points, compare this filler:

I am on the couch.

     ...to the conclusion drawn in this key sentence:

I think, therefore I am.

     Trinaries that include a stressed and two unstressed syllables tend to suggest movement, which might be literal (e.g. action), strategic (i.e. rising to or falling from a climactic point) or evolutionary (e.g. growth, entropy, metamorphosis).  This general trend is far more evident than the differences between trinaries, especially if we don't know when they began.

     The "waltzing" dactyl (DUM-de-de, "constitute") suggests the structure of a ball room or the fatalism of a Greek play.  Among the binaries, it is most closely associated with the trochee.  Conversely, the "driving" anapest (de-de-DUM, "a la carte") mirrors the iamb and often conveys lighter motifs.  If detectable, the "hopping" amphibrach (de-DUM-de, "repentant") suggests [mis]adventure.

     Trinaries with two accented syllables tend to be more distinct.  The "rocking" cretic (DUM-de-DUM, "Lancelot") hints at frustrating zero sum endeavors:


Back and forth, | up and down

     As Clint Eastwood so aptly demonstrated, this futility can lead to resignation, enervation or callous indifference:

Hey, a man's | gotta do | what a man's | gotta do.

Do you feel | lucky, punk?

Go ahead.  | Make my day.

     The "badgering" bacchius (de-DUM-DUM, "We real cool") connotes insistence.  At the far extreme is the "detailing" antibacchius (DUM-DUM-de, "storm windows"), often explaining things in a stentorious MODIFIER-NOUN-verb format:

Black death was...etc.

     Even more than other falling rhythms (e.g. trochee and dactyl), antibacchic patterns can sound heavy handed. 

Hip bone con|nect'd to the | thigh bone.  The | thigh bone con|nect'd to the | knee bone.  The...etc.

     ...which could also be scanned as bacchics:

The hip bone | connect'd to | the thigh bone. | The thigh bone | connect'd to | the knee bone.  

     As we would see if the above were to occur in a conversation or speech, it is often difficult for our ear to detect in real time where and when the rhythm string began.  My advice is not to worry about this;  in well-composed efforts this will be either apparent or inconsequential.

     Speechwriters understand intuitively, if not consciously, when to employ which cadence.  This skill is glaringly evident in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the rhetoric feats of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and others.  Poets?  For metrists, it is a simple matter to choose the one cadence that captures the stanza's mood.  Almost by definition, today's text-based prose poets couldn't be bothered learning about rhythms--if only because they don't anticipate anyone reciting their work aloud.  That leaves the 2% of poets capable of writing actual free verse.  For them, this can be one of the most fascinating, vital and beneficial aspects of prosody.

Margaret Ann Griffths

     As you could tell if you were to hear someone perform "Studying Savonarola", Margaret A. Griffiths (1947-2009) was the undisputed authority on twinning cadence with pace, mood and theme.  Did you know that for years Maz earned half of her income by winning poetry contests?  If the judges were conscientious enough to read the entries aloud the event became a struggle for second place. 

     Not that you should need it, but this is yet more independent, double-blind proof that the woman many knew as "Grasshopper" was, far and away, the greatest poet of our time.

    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.

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    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Tuesday, May 12, 2015



1.  an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work as one's own, as by not crediting the original author:

"It is said that he plagiarized Thoreau's plagiarism of a line written by Montaigne."

Synonyms: appropriation, infringement, piracy, counterfeiting; theft, borrowing, cribbing, passing off.

2.  a piece of writing or other work reflecting such unauthorized use or imitation:

"These two manuscripts are clearly plagiarisms," the editor said, tossing them angrily on the floor.

     "To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research." - Author unknown.

Newcastle poet Sheree Mack
     Using copyrighted text without permission is infringement.  This becomes plagiarism only when the procurer claims it as his or her own creation.  Tangentially, this distinction is far more significant in cyberspace and among artists than in the legal community.

     In a "Write Out Loud's" article, "Poet apologises for 'appropriations' as poems are withdrawn from collection", we see a charge of of plagiarism leveled against Newcastle poet Sheree Mack.  In her poetry collection, Laventille, Ms. Mack has included a number of "writing exercises":  rewordings of published verse. 

     To illustrate, here is "Before Dawn on Lady Young Road", ostensibly by Sheree Mack:

And the breeze bears along as well,
from down by the port,
when the tide’s just so,
when the sewerage is just so.

     And here is "Before Dawn on Bluff Road", which August Kleinzahler has confessed to writing:

And the wind carries along as well,
from down by the river,
when the tide’s just so,
the drainage just so,

     In a workshop, we'd call these "[complete] rewrites"...but they'd be done solely for the author's benefit;  no critiquers would dream of publishing them as their own work.

     The first thing that strikes me is her choice of victims.  If you're going to steal, why not swipe the best?  My fingers refused to sully my fancy new keyboard typing out this unspeakable, cloying shite ("Riddle" by Vicki Feaver) so I had to cut and paste it:

Without you, I prefer the nights;
the darkness inside me

like the darkness around. All day
I am alone with my emptiness:

Ira Lightman  Photo by
Greg Freeman / Write Out Loud
     Which thought is more frightening?  That someone would steal this or that someone would publish it in the first place?  In Lenny Bruce terms, plagiarizing such dreck is like kidnapping junkies.  It makes no sense!  However, after some thought a method to the madness emerges:  she needs source material that even she can improve.  To be fair, she has succeeded for the most part (which is saying precious little).

     Ms. Mack's "apology" is the flimsiest excuse I've seen in a while:  "What I have been guilty of is a slackness and carelessness in separating out writing exercises...from my readings".  Ahem.  Come Christmas, Santa Claus may be bringing coal to Newcastle.

Smokestack editor Andy Croft
          Even more astounding are remarks by her publisher, whose immediate reaction was to label Ira Lightman a "wretched creature" for bringing the truth out and to despair that Sheree Mack is not making any money from her "appropriations".  Then we read this change of direction:

     Smokestack publisher Andy Croft told Write Out Loud: "I have now pulped all extant copies of Laventille, and I am preparing to print a new edition without ‘The Den’, ‘Mayleen’, ‘Mother to Mother’ and ‘A Different Shade of Red’ (which Ellen Phethean, Joan Johnston and Judy Jordan believe follow poems of their own too closely). The new edition will also include the following acknowledgements: ‘Men of Success Village’ after Douglas Dunn; ‘Before Dawn on Lady Young Road’ after August Kleinzahler; ‘Elise’ after Vicki Feaver; ‘Static Rain in Maraval’ after Jim Harrison; ‘The Last Lap’ after Louise Glück."

     Say, what?!?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #157
     You are going to [re]publish the work of a known plagiarist?  One who has already undermined all credibility--yours and hers--with insufficient candor?  Are you daft?  Why trust that any of her work¹ is original?  Don't you realize that plagiarism is the second most serious charge² one can level against an author?

     At the end of this tale there are some interesting twists concerning the intent to publish these rewrites with attribution (e.g. "'Elise' after Vicki Feaver").  If these are not sufficiently distinguished from the original, does Mr. Croft understand that he'll need the permission of the copyright holder?  And that this permission will not be easy to obtain?

     What is more, had Ms. Mack presented these as rewrites, along with the intact originals, she could have claimed fair use, it being a critical and educational exercise.  If a place exists, this is where such derivatives would belong.

     Context is everything.


¹ - And, sure enough, other discoveries/accusations are pouring in.

² - Next to having ghost-written "50 Shades of Grey", of course.

    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

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Keyboards. Yes, keyboards.

Poseidon Tt eSPORTS backlit blue switch mechanical
     We're all about the tools of craft here.  It's time to discuss keyboards.  If you don't type more than 50 words per minute and always stare at the screen while doing so any board will suffice.  However, if you are a professional and, especially, if you do transcriptions from print sources, you should consider the benefit of knowing when you've hit a key.  This used to be called "tactile response", a feature of "click" (versus the standard "chiclet") style keyboards.  Today they are called "mechanicals" and are available in three switch types:  blue, brown and black.  Blue switch means it has the sound and feel--resistance then falling--of clicking.  The brown switch is quieter.  Black has neither clicking feature but helps users avoid repeated characters by distinguishing the strokes.

     If using a Mac, consider the Das Keyboard Model S Professional (list price $133).  If a Windows user, consider the Poseidon Tt eSPORTS blue switch ($99);  it is backlit for those who type in the dark or who share their computer with a hunt-and-puncher.

     These are rare, making them the perfect gift for yourself or the writer "who has everything".  I have to warn you, though, that mechanicals will spoil you, and in very short order.  If forced to use someone else's machine you'll have to consciously avoid looking at them snobbishly and asking:

    "Chiclet style?  Dude.  Really."

Friday, May 8, 2015

Shakespeare's Law

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #106
     Should you learn only one thing here let it be Shakespeare's Law:  "If you don't know how poetry is performed you don't know how it is written."  Those who deal exclusively with poetry in print are missing entire dimensions of the art form:  intonation, tone, pace, etc.

     Suppose you want to improve dramatically as a poet, scholar, critic or editor.  The easiest way to do so is to do the opposite of what you're doing now--if only for a different, wider perspective.  The reasons for performing poetry are as numerous and vital as those for reading poetry.  Next to "Shakespeare's Law", the most important lesson is that friends, relatives, sycophants and, yes, applauding audiences lie to spare our feelings.  The only way to know if we are being ignored or enjoyed is to look the bastards in the eye while performing. 

     Seek out a diverse group.  We learn from the good and bad what works and what doesn't.  This isn't a classroom.  We likely won't have a mentor, per se.  What conclusions we gather come from the expressions and body language of our audience members.  If and when we do capture their rapt attention it's a rush, like multiple orgasms on Ecstasy after winning the lottery.  It's like the Nexus on Star Trek.  Describing it as "addicting" is like calling WWII "a disturbance".

     Newcomers to poetry performance ask the same three questions.  In fact, wondering about these is what delineates serious prospects from The Unteachables².

1.  How long will it take me to become a comfortable, competent presenter without formal training?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #66
    By "comfortable" we mean able to perform in front of strangers.  It's easy to say "Don't be shy!" but the fact is that many will find this intimidating.  Just bear in mind that, while onstage, you're a persona, not a person, and that many fine actors and actresses are extremely shy in real life.  Indeed, your shyness may work in your favor if it brings the ability to read reactions better than extroverts who come right out and ask for people's opinions.

     Don't worry about making a fool of yourself.  That is inevitable.  A rite of passage.  Every veteran can tell you horror stories³ of their own experiences.  You ask each of them why they continued and you get the same response:  "I don't know, but I'm glad I did."

    By "competent" we mean using the natural speech of a character who is, apparently, making it up on the fly, as opposed to reading, reciting or--heaven forfend!--"poet speaking" prepared text.  Needless to say, performance involves memorizing your work.  As for printed copies, you might keep one in your pocket or, better yet, in the hands of an offstage prompting aide.

    Those who learn to speak normally into a microphone usually do so within a year.  No more unmodulated droning or screaming!

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #93
2.  How long before audiences find my material interesting?

    Many new authors have one good story in them--the one that inspired them to become writers, perhaps--but soon fail to produce compelling follow-up material.  When do new poets learn that journal entries and lectures lose audiences?  When do they rise above the first person singular?  When do they discover humor, tragedy, drama and subtlety?

    For many poets, the answer is "never".  Those who do outgrow rants and navel-gazing tend to do so in their third year of performing.  IMHO, this lesson alone is worth the effort.

3.  How long before my work is considered poetry?


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #120
    While the success rate of Print Worlders isn't significantly better, none of the verse I've seen onstage warrants scrutiny on the page.  Indeed, the ultimate compliment a listener can pay is to request the text of a poem you just performed.  This I have encountered only once (yet more proof that Nobody Reads Poetry).  That was for a copy of "Studying Savonarola".  Speaking of which, here we have a case of a question precluding answers.  For example, someone asking "Who is the greatest Wide Receiver in NFL history?" isn't posing a query;  they are merely stating a complete lack of interest in football.  There would be no point in trying to explain Jerry Rice to them.  Similarly, critics who complain about the slow, unimaginative beginning to Maz's signature masterpiece are just admitting that they've never been onstage without a script;  the concept of performance value would be as foreign to them as Romulan grammar.  This gap in knowledge and perception is enough to explain anyone's failure as a poet.

    Disregard for the elements of the craft is difficult enough to understand in academia.  Maybe they don't want to raise the bar higher than they can jump.  What is even more astounding is that slammers fly across the country to lose in the National Finals because they couldn't be bothered to read a few articles on technique--something they could do on the plane--that would tilt the balance in their favor.

    Are we so lazy, anti-science and anti-intellectual that we think educating ourselves is an unfair advantage?


Gustave Flaubert
¹ - "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)

² - Are You Teachable?

     Barring diminished faculties, there are two types who cannot be taught, largely because they are oblivious to physical clues that they are boring us:


     Activists with less commitment to art than to changing the world with their next sermon to the choir won't be interested in learning.  Or leaving.


     Narcissists wedded to the notion that all of their random neuron sparks hold cosmic significance will have little interest in filtering them with intelligibility, let alone sense.

     In addition, there are two types who will not be taught:


     Those who regard poetry as catharsis¹ will flounce out of a slam, muttering something along the lines of:

    "How dare you judge my feelings?!" 

     Few will return until and unless their view matures.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #175

     Recently, on a high profile blog, a well-known university professor learned some key aspects of prosody that changed her perspective forever.  Unfortunately, it also changed her employment status, along with the venue's approach to open commentary.  The lesson could not be more clear:  educators educating themselves in public does not enhance their academic portfolios.  Not surprisingly, academia's view of slam and open mic events is jaundiced.  The deleterious effect of this prejudice is evident in every line of poetry presented by institutional publications.

     I realize this advice will find little fertile ground but if you have any interest in poetry grab a disguise, think up a clever pseudonym, and get your ass down to the nearest slam post-haste.  Trust me.

³ - Before heading out to my first open mic my mentor reminded me to breathe.  I thought it was odd advice--I have an autonomic nervous system for that, you know--until, you guessed it, I ended up pulling a Clinton, failing to inhale.  Think of a boated trout here.

     Things were worse on my third outing.  I blanked.  After the most awkward 15 seconds of my life I cheated, reaching into my back pocket to retrieve a hard copy.  I read the next section, shook my head and said:  "I can't believe I wrote such crap.  No wonder I forgot it."  The crowd laughed, I skipped that section and lived to chuckle about it later.

    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

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

VidSlams and VidMics

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #113
     “A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”

                                      – Orson Welles

     Let's face it.  Previous joint ventures involving verses and video have been almost exclusively disastrous.  With few exceptions, the dreaded music video, TV show (e.g. Monkees, Partridge Family, Banana Splits) or [Beatles] feature film has been an embarrassing display of clowns flailing and failing to be funny for the duration of a pop song.  Not only did the graphics not add to experience, they actually took something (i.e. sense, dignity) away from it.

    Curiosity got the better of me and I attended the premier of what is intended as an annual event:  a video slam (not to be confused with a slam video that one might see on YouTube).  These involve a collaboration between film makers/students and performing poets.  You, the poet, present your verse onstage while a supporting video plays on a huge screen behind you.  It is like that Molson's "I Am Canadian"" beer ad. 

     Literally, commercial poetry.  Or Spoken Word¹, at least. 

     Organizers insist that this New York creation is "sweeping the nation" and, for once, there might be something to the hype.  At our local version, attendance was much larger than most such inaugural initiatives--few of which metamorphosize into regular events as planned.  This was a slam but, due to the collaboration, employed none of the usual slam rules:  5 judges, no props, nudity², music or costumes.  Other than the usual 3-minute time limit, which was applied to both performances and supporting videos, it was an "anything goes" environment.  Many videos had instrumentals or sound efforts (heartbeats seemed to be a favorite).  Everyone present got to vote for their favorites.  The winner got a cash prize:  10% of the $10 entry fees collected.  (Were it not a competition we'd call it a "Video Open Mic" or "VidMic", rhyming with "Skid Bike".)

     The performers were videotaped so their recitation could be combined with the existing video into a final Internet-ready product as an insert, as a foreground or as a voiceover.

     Obviously, none of the efforts approached the brilliance of Pere Molina/Andy Garcia's rendition.  Most were misfires, poet and videographer presenting conflicting images.  No matter.  As an emerging operating environment, this combination of art forms will take a while to find its "killer app".  Look for it in a run down theater near you!


¹ - Notice how cautious Spoken Word and many slam organizers are to avoid the term "poetry".  Ever wonder why?

² - Indeed, one of the videos did incorporate some [albeit brief and tasteful] nudity.

    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