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

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


I heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter

   - from "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" by Bob Dylan performed by Jason Mraz

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #15

     In "Does poetry still matter?" by Brandon Griggs we read: 

     Polito, the Poetry Foundation president, argues that poetry's reach shouldn't be measured merely by sales of books or literary journals. As it has with everything else, the Internet has democratized poetry by making it free and instantly accessible to everyone, he said.

     "There's clearly a paradigm shift going on," he said. "A lot of people experience poetry¹ not through printed books ... but online and through social media."

     In our first post on the topic of social media we showed how this is done, combining text, graphics, video and/or sound.  Before we return to that, let's look at the Who-What-Where-When-Why aspects of recreating--in both senses of the word--an audience for verse.

     "Poetry," said poet and associate professor Kyle Dargan of American University in Washington, is "not the kind of thing people are going to run into on their own. It's not 'Jurassic World'."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #158
     Actually, poetry's condition is very much like "Jurassic World".  Think of who is presenting verse¹ on social media:  the authors, their friends and, occasionally, their editors.  It is never an arms-length member of the 99% who aren't involved with the production of poetry.  That is because nobody reads poetry.  Yes, 7% of the population has read poetry in the last year but what percentage of that is contemporary?  Given the choice between one of today's versifiers and "Homer, Rumi, Dante, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets²," what choice do you think the vast majority of those readers are making?  Is it possible that fewer people are reading poetry³ than writing it?  It seems so.  In any event, we have "ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'."

     We cannot breed dinosaurs because we don't have any stock.  Similarly, there isn't a significant population online who were alive when poetry was.  It's not a matter of poetry being dead;  the problem is that we can barely imagine it being alive.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #171
     As in "Jurassic Park", we need to use preserved material to reanimate something which once reigned supreme. Then, like "Jurassic World", we need to use technology to process and present it.

     We start with the DNA and the amber in which it is caught.  These are genetically coded predispositions encased in the resin that binds all of us together.  Throughout history, the two most significant of these have been Humor and Love.  This isn't confined to bawdy limericks about a man from Nantucket or protestations like "Sonnet 43".  If you've been online for more than 5 minutes you know that the sole purpose of all human technology endeavor is the appreciation of adorable puppies and kittens.  The reason is as subtle as a double-barrel shotgun:  using cuteness and cuddliness, these critters appeal to both of our main interests.  (Of course, to paraphrase "Kemla's Farewell", romance in the past perfect tense is sadness.  #elegy #RainbowBridge)

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #72
     Now that we know what people will click on, we need to put it in a palatable format.  If people were interested in using their own imaginations they'd be writing poetry, not reading it, so "palatable" means "video", with or without text.  If you have Windows 7 or higher you have or can download Movie Maker, watch a short tutorial, and be ready to go.  For Mac users a similar program is available or you can use IMovie.

     Upload your final product to a site like YouTube or Vimeo and then post links to it on Facebook or Twitter.  We assume you know better than to mention the word "poetry" in this process. 

     Let us know how it goes!

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1


¹ - Unless stated otherwise, "poetry" or "verse" will refer to contemporary poetry other than religious (e.g. Quranic, Biblical, etc.) verse or song lyrics.

² - i.e. the examples the article uses.

³ - i.e. other than the quid pro quo skimming of poems in the venue to which they contribute.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Critique - Twins and Triplets

Amber Rambharose
     Tim Green of Rattle magazine critiques submissions from his subscribers as part of a popular feature.  This is helpful to potential contributors since it shows precisely defines the editor's aesthetics and prosodic interest (if any).  This, the first in a series, examines "Portrait of the Second Wife as Understudy" from Rattle #47, Spring 2015, written by Amber Rambharose.  Please take a moment to read it now.

      What we have here is an excellent story with a fine, crisp ending. 

      Is it a poem, though?

      You tell me.  As you read it can you imagine yourself "owning" it?  Memorizing, performing or quoting it, as you might "High Flight" or a passage from "Hamlet"?  Can you imagine anyone else wanting to?  More to the point, is it written in a manner that would facilitate this?  How does it compare to others of its ilk?  As an attempt at a climactic poem, it aims to start slowly and gain in momentum, pace, intensity, sound and rhythm as it goes along.  How does it compare to the modern archetype, "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths?  What is missing?  What could be trimmed?      


     Every poet we know keeps a notebook or file containing random thoughts gathered over the course of time.  For "avante garde" types the next step is to assign a meaningless fake generic (e.g. "conceptualization", "ideational", etc.) name to the inchoate scratches and find someone naive enough to publish them.  (The latter task is alarmingly easy these days.)  By contrast, an experienced poet will often record these musings in rhythmic strings.  This is a function of habit, permeating everything the educated verser writes.  We'd wager that there are fewer rhythms and sound repetitions in most "poems" today than in Derek Walcott's shopping lists.  Or this blog, for that matter.  Such raw material is often overwrought, as these throwaway lines attest:

...retrace the echo of your fingers.  Let us be
a bright mandala in the waves.

...as hunger is the opposite of death.    

...as if you print your words on apple blossoms.

     The second stage is to cull many of these lines thematically into one piece, and then into individual paragraphs or strophes to form an outline.  Then the work of adding the actual poetry begins, culminating in a first draft.  After considerable fine tuning we have something worth showing an editor.

     Notes -> Outline -> Draft -> Revisions => Submission + Audience = Poem

     "Portrait of the Second Wife as Understudy" is a draft, one that exhibits two serious problems and two blinding flashes of genius.



    "If even, I'm leavin'"


     "Veni.  Vidi.  Vici." ("I came. I saw. I conquered.")

     The first is a boast by NFL Wide Receivers to CornerBacks trying to cover them.  It means that, while the CB thinks he has the WR in check, the fact is that the latter is about to use his superior speed to get clear and catch a pass.  It is a contrast between belief and reality.

     The Latin phrase, on the other hand, is a process:  three things Julius Caesar did in the order that he did them.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #173
     When repetitions are not for dramatic effect, as in "Oh, please. Please," they follow this same Rule of 2 and 3.  If the same word recurs in pairs, like "I sighed my sigh" and "believes what it wants to believe", the mind expects a comparison, especially given that poetry is an acerbic form and "I sighed" or "believes what it wants to" (especially after "believable" much earlier) would have sufficed.

     This applies to repetitions of phonemes, too.  Throughout the poem Ms. Rambharose uses proximate, conspicuous assonance and alliteration isolated in pairs far more often then in triplets (e.g. "for months, fine-tuning the flutter") or multitudes¹.
the way the script dictated. I threw my pupils
up as wide as windows. The orchestra swelled

     The long "u" sounds in "threw" and "pupils" stand out as the only occurences in the strophe.  By contrast, the "w" from "wide as windows" is nicely presaged in "way" and later confirmed in "swell".  The rest of the poem exhibits far more pop-up pairs ("tell by scent", "sock slide down around", "her heart") than integrated iterations.  All of this said, it is far more encouraging to see slightly off-kilter sonics than the typical prose with linebreaks. 


     When poems have two major deficiencies the first is usually sonics and the second is rhythms.  Not so here.  This piece has long strings of binaries, starting with the iambic first sentence and ending (with little tweaking) at the appropriately imperative trochaic coda:

Tell the stage director to place a pair
of Prada espadrilles [beside] the front door.
Size eight. Dark blue. Exactly²
where she left them.

  The trinaries need considerable work, as do the transitions, but these touches of mastery can wait.  For now, the piece's obesity requires attention.  It's more than removing the rhythm-killing pronoun, "my", in line 2.  Redundancies range from (S3-L4) "brought to me" to (S2-L4) "at precisely the right moment" (do orchestras normally swell at the wrong moment?).  There is a flabbiness in the manipulative first and third entreaties here:

Tell me I am better
than she was. Tell me my breasts are higher.
Tell me I am everything
you ever wanted.

     These would benefit from being more concrete and, perhaps, sensual.  Think Michael Ondaatje's "Cinnamon Peeler" here. 

     Strategic decisions need to be made in order to pare this down to size.  As it is, I'm guessing that many who started this offering didn't read the whole thing.  (Did you?)

     Amber Rambharose is something rare among poets, young or old:  she gives a damn about her audience, not just her readers.  She studies the craft and will be worth watching sooner rather than later.

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1


¹ - e.g. the scintillating "n", "d" and "a" sounds of:

     "into the dance she had abandoned. If I...",

     ...culminating in all three together for the third time in this single phrase:


     This comes right after the word "changed", no less!

² - Ignore the faintly enunciated "E" in "Exactly".  Treat it as anacrusis.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #181
     What is the difference between "pandering to" and "pleasing" an audience?

     Many are dismissive of popular writers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Charles Bukowski because they catered to young, disaffected politicos [many of whom have since grown into old, disaffected politicos].  Their writing has no appeal to other demographics or constituencies.  It excited the base and bored everyone else.  That said, to criticize poets because they serve their audience is nothing more than criticizing the audience itself.  Of course Ferlinghtetti's writing was jejune;  look at who he was writing for!  Of course Bukowski wrote long-winded misogynistic prose;  look at who he was writing for!

     The fact that a jumper can clear a one-foot hurdle doesn't prove they can't overcome a six-foot bar.  It is ridiculous to insult these authors because they succeeded exclusively with audiences who had little or no experience with verse.  Hey, wouldn't it be ironic if the critique were coming from the very authorities who failed to educate that demographic in the first place?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #5
     Edgar Guest and these carnival barker wannabes weren't awful authors because of who liked or disliked their output.

     They were bad writers because they wrote badly.  Pure and simple.

     They were bad as poets because their fans don't care to memorize, quote or perform what they wrote.  They were bad because their fans could see the same thing at nightly open mics, then and now.  They were bad because their fans subsequently encountered the same things being said much more eloquently and succinctly by others.  They were bad because, in an hour or less, anyone could be taught to do better...if only their products were given similar exposure.  This, incidentally, is why we don't have such iconic messes in the Internet Age.  If someone were to show us such a hack today sixty seconds of web searching would allow us to counter with a dozen examples who are better aren't quite as terrible.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #85
     On another front, an academic poet was recently lambasted on Facebook because her verse was "very precisely calibrated for her intended market."


     When did poetry pleasing its market--in this case a sophisticated one--become a bad thing? 

     I'll bet it happened at about the same time poetry lost its market. 

     The difference between "pandering to" and "pleasing" is jealousy.  In my experience, only failed poets use the previous expression.  If we had to point to one reason why poetry is dead this contempt for audiences would be it.

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1

    Your feedback is appreciated!

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #27
    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

Submission Fees

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #69
     "Submission fees are just one discriminating editor removed from the Poetry.com scam."

     That was our reaction when reading fees first appeared.

      For those unfamiliar with the practice, submission (aka "reading") fees are monies paid by contributors for publication consideration.  They differ from contest entrance fees in that publication, not prizes, are the central purpose.  Indeed, folding in a subscription with an entry fee is a laudable way to increase circulation.  As for submission fees, if nothing else, they prove that Nobody Reads Poetry [without being paid to do so].  Would anything be sillier than a glossy like "Readers Digest" or "Golf World" charging its writers instead of paying them?  Actually, yes, there would be:  comparing thriving genres like fiction, general nonfiction or sports reporting to poetry.

Tim Green
      One of the most insightful discussions on this topic was Rattle Editor Timothy Green's¹ "Clowns Against Submission Fees" thread.  He and his supporters make a number of excellent, familiar arguments against reading fees, minus the consideration that it undermines the editors' incentive to seek subscribers.  In the margins, though, the conversation also aired a few thoughts in favor of the policy:

1.  For the individual contributor the cost is inconsequential.  Thanks to the Internet, "a $3 reading fee is less [or little more] than it would cost" for stationery and postage.  Does this token payment not serve the practical purpose of limiting the number of frivolous submissions?

2.  Printing and mailing is costly, requiring that such venues be "externally funded".  If their subscribers are writers rather than strictly readers (tanr), isn't it less like a commercial endeavor and more like a pot luck gathering or friendly poker game where everyone is asked to ante up?  A backer is putting up more than 50% of the total cost, the Greens are doing all of the "grunt work", and these "contributors" balk at ponying up a measly $3?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #45
3.  Indeed, given that "the average circulation of a print journal is 500 copies, that the average Alexa ranking of an online journal is about 5 million", why not join the 21st century and put out a full-fledged e-zine instead?  Devote the majority of external funds to the staff and writers.  Sell the print versions as subscriptions to Old Schoolers, as collector's items, on Amazon as souvenirs or as performance contest marketing prompts², but concentrate on where the future lies.  Dominate the field.  After all, how many webzines have any significant funding whatsoever?  Yeah, that would be "about none".

4.  No one objects to entry fees, but the only significant difference between a contest and a magazine is that a contest must declare a winner (even if it's the best of a bad lot) whereas, in theory, if a magazine doesn't get enough quality submissions it doesn't have to publish anything.  In light of what is being put out today, though, this is a distinction without a difference.

5.  One final thought:  We are talking about chopping down forests in order to print magazines for a population dominated by tree-huggers (not all of whom are squirrels).  Think about that for a moment.

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1


¹ - As you may know, we here at "Commercial Poetry" have a different mandate, medium and approach to aesthetics and education but when it comes to promotion there is no one we admire more than the Greens, Tim and Meghan. 

² - For example, have a cash prize for whoever makes the best video using a poem in, say, the Summer 2016 edition.  "No purchase necessary!"

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #174
     In past centuries wealth dominated the literary landscape.  In human terms this translated to "white male", a lack of racial and gender diversity which continues in the print and performance worlds today.

     By contrast, we geeks tend to be purists.  To allow anything other than quality to interfere with aesthetic decisions is heresy laced with condescension, cowardice and craven self-interest.  The reason we have moved so quickly to the online world is simple:  the thought that brilliance is being overlooked because of a lack of access is unbearable.  Ask yourself this:  "How many of the great poets or finest poems of the 21st Century would we know without the Internet?"

     We squirrels find that, with "authorities" judging work based on content, a preference is shown for writers with similar life experiences--usually those of the same locale and subspecies.  Rural chipmunks like the bucolic focus and energy of other country chipmunks.  Urban tree squirrels prefer the arboreal but cosmopolitan view of other red city squirrels.  We small town ground squirrels lean toward the down-to-earth stories and philosophies of others with neutral fur tones and box office addresses.  This is natural and, probably, inevitable.

     At first blush, this is easily solved through specialization.  One 'zine might serve the male moles of Montana while another entertains the gay groundhogs of Galway.  WTP? 

     For starters, this fragmentation of an already tiny market ensures that none of these outlets will be financial viable.  Worse yet, because of the inconvenience and expense of so many sources, many of us would not have been exposed to such modern classics as "The Life and Times of Prairie Larry" by Gordie the Gopher or "Edges and Ledges" by the Lemming sisters.  The fear is that, in centralizing the process to reach a broader audience, voices might be lost.

     The solution, it seems, would be for editors to observe formal or informal quotas to reflect the population at large.  Whether or not this involves DNA and hormone testing would, I assume, be left to the discretion of the individual rodent publishers.
     Is there another, less arbitrary and convoluted approach?  

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #155
     What happens when critics and editors make informed assessments based not on Content Regency and politics but on intrinsic technical and artistic merit? 

     Everything changes.

     When we make double blind/objective evaluations, as we find in contests and would hope to see in editors, egalitarianism and diversity appear as if by magic.  In the long run it is as reliable as arithmetic.

     For example, take a look at the geeks' choices of the top ten poets of this century:  Margaret Ann Griffiths, D.P. Kristalo, A.E. Stallings, Derek Walcott, Rhina Polonia Espaillat, Rose Kelleher, Julie Carter, Catherine Rogers, Marc Smith, and Jennifer Reeser.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #170
     Needless to say, biographical data played no role in the experts' discussion or decision.

     So, how did they fare demographically?  The list includes someone of African descent, at least one person of Hispanic heritage and one who is part native American.  Given the small sample size, that is remarkably close to the composition of the English speaking world.  This result required nothing more than equal access along with knowledgeable judges and editors.¹

     Who could have guessed that the antidote to centuries of discrimination and neglect would be something as simple² as education?

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1


¹ - Lest it be lost, note the distinction between "knowledgeable judges and editors" making "informed assessments based...on intrinsic technical and artistic merit" versus so-called "'authorities' judging work based on content."

     Care to divine what percentage of poetry editors know even the rudiments of verse?

     Hint:  Divide your first guess by ten.

² - The only questions that remain are:

a) Why are 80% of the best 10 poets female?  Wouldn't we expect 5-to-5?

     Well, sample size is a problem.  As it happens, all of the next five poets are male:  Andrew Kei Miller, George Elliott Clarke, Jee Leong Koh, Michael "Juster" James Astrue, and Dennis Hammes  (1945-04-08 - 2008-12-23).  No surprises there.

b) Why is there such a gender imbalance in the stage world (e.g. slams, open mikes, etc.)?

      This question deserves its own post.  Stay tuned.

    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

Monday, July 20, 2015

Writing The Great Modern Novel?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #43
     Remember when unknown writers sent their work "over the transom" to editors who read them with an eye toward publication?  No?  That is because, if those days ever existed, they were more than half a century ago.  Today, the watch phrase is "No one publishes strangers."  Best way to introduce yourself to an editor?  Have a following that constitutes a market.  Enter the Publication Paradox:  you can't get a readership without publication and you can't get published without a readership.

     Let's say you want to bring The Great Modern Novel into this world but you have four interrelated and insurmountable obstacles:  you are too lazy--you prefer the expression "motivationally challenged"--to finish writing it, especially in light of the fact that you are too obscure to have a publisher or a readership that might attract one.  Also, you're too modest and shy to promote your work or yourself, before or after publication.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #81
     The situation looks bleak, and isn't helped by knowing that this is the norm, not the exception.  Nevertheless, we may have the solution to all four hurdles you face [if your writing makes the grade].

     Write three chapters of your book:  the first one, the last one, and the one that best advances the main plot.  Post them on a free blog like this, one at a time over a few days or weeks.  Post social media links to it with a nifty title and catch phrase.  In theory, at least, your friends and relatives will read it and post complimentary reviews and a desire to see the completed work.  Their acquaintances might do the same.  Soon, strangers will be commenting.  Once you have generated enough positive feedback an editor is likely to notice [with or without your assistance].  What outlet wouldn't want to produce work that already has a built-in market?¹  (See "#slam dunk" and "#fish in a barrel.")

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #90
     This is an example of wholesale script-teasing.  It differs from "pitching" in that it involves the public [essentially, as a ramp or lever toward publication] and uses cogent excerpts rather than synopses.  It differs from retail script-teasing in that, originally at least, it doesn't involve a final product.  By not withholding anything yet it tends to create less ill-will than sample chapters followed by a purchase option.  It's more like crowd-sourcing than, say, shareware, movie trailers or free cheese samples at the supermarket.  Best of all, it saves labor, printing and distribution costs;  if the work cannot generate enthusiasm from family, friends and strangers (in that order) we needn't bother an editor with it.  The Internet has served as a screener.

     In the near future we will release an experimental wholesale script-tease novel entitled "Love is a Weakness", a tale about a girl who changed the world.²  Watch for it here!


¹ - Other than Poetry magazine, of course.

² - Note the provocative title and description.  The poetry connection will be abundantly evident when you read it.

Sunday, July 19, 2015



1.  an obsolete word for useful

     To logicians, the word "utile" is hardly obsolete.  Nor is that a comprehensive definition.  It means, literally, "full of use(s)", as in "frequently employed for a variety of purposes." 

     To wit, if your home were about to go up in flames a fire extinguisher would certainly be useful.  Handy.  If that is its only purpose, though, it isn't considered "utile", even if you battle conflagrations with it every day.

     A Swiss Army knife has a number of various applications.  If it languishes in our drawer all of our lives, though, it isn't considered "utile".  Yes, it is useful, but only in theory.

     Let me cite an albeit crude example.  Suppose you decide to take salads to work for your lunch.  For a dollar or two you buy bowls like the one pictured here.  You mix in your dressing before going to work but the texture is unsatisfactory.  Plan B:  dressing on the side.  This works for a few days but carrying a separate container is inconvenient. 

     Buying salads at a restaurant or cafeteria is expensive and, perhaps, unpalatable.  While walking past a kiosk you spot the apparent solution to your problem:

     Brilliant!  A bowl with an insert at the top for a dressing canister!  All self-contained!  Just to be safe, you buy a few extras.  Toss a plastic fork into your lunch box and you're good to go!

     The satisfaction lasts a week or so.  Perhaps without a concrete, apparent reason, you lose enthusiasm and give up on your veggie lunches.

     What happened?

     Chances are good the hassle of remembering disposable utensils contributed to the loss of enthusiasm.  Maybe one broke, leaving you high and dry.

     As the picture to the right illustrates, something was missing from your kit:  a durable knife and fork that attaches to the box itself (along with a dressing vial).  In short, the two bowls above were insufficiently utile.  Lacking utility.  Inutile.

     If poetry's only purpose were to bore people with attempts to show how clever or profound we are it would be inutile.  Nobody would read it.

     Oh, wait...

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ta Da!

From "Horizontal Language":

     Japanese separates vowels, employing hiatus where we might use  diphthong or composites.  For example, where we hear one syllable with one vowel sound in "bike" the Japanese will hear three abbreviated sounds:

"Bu-" as in "but" + "eek" as in "...a mouse!" + exhalation, like a schwa

      In Japanese prosody a mora is an "on":  a vowel sound with or without a consonant--but no more than one consonant--sound.  The style of haiku with 5-7-5 "syllables" actually has 5-7-5 "sounds" (or tempi, moras or "on").

     In the first stanza of "Beans" we learned one way to lend a sense of finality to our endings: 

September came like winter's
ailing child but
left us
viewing Valparaiso's pride. Your face was
always saddest when you smiled. You smiled as every
doctored moment lied. You lie with
orphans' parents, long

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #13
     See how, of the many two-syllable words, only the last one fits the base [in this case, iambic, de-DUM] rhythm?  This is called [classical] diaeresis.  Today we're going to look at a way of adding finality or its opposite, suspense, to the ends of our thoughts, phrases, sentences, stanzas, poems, paragraphs, jokes, stories, reports or pieces.  World class comedians and Japanese prosodists understand this technique but it is largely unknown or overlooked elsewhere.

     Japanese is a language made up of vowels broken by single consonantal sounds.  A word like "sandman" wouldn't exist in such environs.  Too many consonantal sounds mashed together with no intervening vowel.  Thus, "syllables" in Japanese, when they have a consonant at all, are either vowel-consonant or consonant-vowel, like "ape" versus "pay" in English.  Over the centuries, prosodists have discovered that this order leaves an effect on the listener that spans language and culture.

     Consider these two old punch lines:

1. Diplomacy:

     The ability to tell a person to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.

2. How do you get Arts graduates off your porch?

     Pay them for the pizza.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #138
     Audiences will understand and laugh at the first joke immediately.  It comes with an air of arrival, decisiveness, completion.  The impact of the second joke won't be as instantaneous.  It requires a little processing, lending an iota of doubt to the proceedings.  Will your friends get it?  [Yes, but give them a moment.]

     Note that the last word of the first joke is "trip", ending in a close-lipped hard consonant, "p".  The second culminates in "pizza", with an open-mouth vowel sound.  Sudden, brief consonant sounds (e.g. b, d, g in "get", k/q, p, t) are decisive, conclusive, terminal.  This we call "cardus" (adjective:  "cardic").  It is along the lines of adding an exclamation mark.

     Longer vowel sounds (e.g. a, e, i, o, u, y, and consonants producing vowel sounds:  h, w and r) lend a more nuanced sense of uncertainty, implication or progression.  This we call "pembrus" (adjective:  "pembric").  It is similar to using ellipses, minus the melodrama. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #178
     Between these two extremes are endings with longer consonantal sounds such as f, j or g as in "judge", m, n, s, v, x, z and the "zh" sound in "pleasure".  These don't produce either effect.

     Because they involve vowel sounds, all pembric endings are open (i.e. produced without closures in the throat or mouth).  Other terminations can be open, involving an exhalation like the "e"/schwa ending "Porsche".  To illustrate, the Japanese word "on" is pronounced like "I own this" as opposed to saying "the letter 'n'", where many speakers will aspirate a short, almost indetectable "uh" after the "n".  In the preambulatory quote from "Horizontal Language" [above] we saw "bike" as an open cardus.  This blunts the cardic effect, as combining consonantal sounds does.  For example, the author of "Beans" used "reviled" to ameliorate the hard stanza break.  Had it ended the poem she might have used another term (e.g. "abhorred", but fitting the rhyme scheme).

     Speaking of DPK, "Heartbreaker" (generally regarded as her worst poem) illustrates pembrus:

Let us speak of rumors first. The pallid truth can wait till later.
Did she kneel before a rosary of priests behind the chapel?
Lenny says she loved a man too many. Freddy White went further,

saying she would writhe to any occasion; she would consummate her
nightly nuptials, leaving each new orchard after biting every apple.
It will rain champagne before I tell you that I loved her.

     The pronoun "her" is made up entirely of vowel sounds:  h, schwa, r.  Despite the warning in the first sentence, the truth comes as a surprise after all of this salacious gossip.  It doesn't end the reading of the story;  it commences the rereading.

     Take a new look at some of your favorite poems and speeches.  See how often and how deftly great poets and orators use pembrus and cardus.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


From the Urban Dictionary: 

     Substition = "The opposite of a superstition, a substition is the belief in something that is utterly true."

     - Coined by Terry Pratchett in 'Making Money'.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #180
     Progress occurs less often by proving theories correct than by proving them wrong. 

     Every creative person I know has been accused of abandoning projects.  The rest of the world regards them as quitters.  Is this anecdotal?  Stereotypical?  Prejudicial?


     It is inevitable. 

     Inventors and writers give up on ideas simply because they have so many of them.  People who accomplish every goal likely don't conceive many.  It's not just that they don't set many;  the ones they do concentrate on and bring to fruition were either someone else's idea or among few inspirations they've had.  They can be like a sterile couple bragging that they've never put a baby up for adoption.

     Some might marvel at a planet that has the precise circumstances we need for survival:  oxygen (including water), air pressure, ray filtering, temperature, gravity, meteor protection, etc.  We might ascribe our existence to coincidence or any number of superstitious causes.  The simple fact is that without these cosmic conditions in place we'd never be here to observe them.  Each of these, and every other known variation of them, is a conditio sine qua non.  Once all of them are in place, creation is inevitable.  Once all of these ducks are in a row the presence of life isn't a miracle;  the conspicuous absence of it could be, though.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #50
     Superstition involves forsaking the search long before its destination.  People speak of "the god of the gaps", where any unexplainable noumena or phenomena becomes a theological question.  With time, this abdication of reason occurs earlier and earlier in the process.   Societies end up spending more time rationalizing the explication than looking at the problem.  St. Augustine's comment "I no longer dream of the stars" may have set human science back fifteen centuries.  Similar Luddism struck other burgeoning civilizations.  People prefer immediate answers to verifiable ones.

     Substition is the opposite.  It is not necessarily a commitment to the scientific method;  it may simply be I'm-from-Missouri pragmatism and a practical, empirical insistence on pursuing what works.  It is the disappearing ability to watch 50 years of abject failure and infer that maybe--just maybe--we ain't doin' this right.  Substition is the realization that, like everything else, poetry is a knowledge that requires learning and a skill that requires practice.  As blindingly obvious as this sounds, it directly contradicts the prevailing "wisdom" and is an excellent way to lose friends within the "poetry community" itself.

     Currently, almost all of our resources are tied up in creating more writers in the superstitious belief that art is a miracle produced randomly by ten million primates over 100 years.  Lazy pseudo-intellectuals and teen angsters of all ages, each suffering from delusions of interest, dominate the stages and pages.  Not least among the drawbacks to his approach is the fact that we were hoping for a poem or two in our lifetimes.  Flukes do happen but, even at poetry's height, they don't stand the test of time.  Also, by completely ignoring the audience (tina) such that nobody reads poetry, there won't be anyone to recognize any masterpiece if and when it emerges.   

     It seems we're confused the unavoidability of failure with the inevitability of success.

      It's like the parable of the seeds on rocky soil.  After a while, we aren't really planting crops;  we're feeding birds.  It's not like we prepared the ground.  It's not like we taught our children the definition of poetry, the difference between iambs and trochees, the rudiments of performing or even the fact that its all about audiences, not writers or readers.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Friday, July 10, 2015


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #162
     Because nobody reads poetry it has been forced to rely on private and public funding.  The vast majority of this is concentrated in the hands of The Poetry Foundation, thanks to the Ruth Lilly bequest.  Recently, this largesse has culminated in the publication of this noteworthy effort by Naomi Morris.

     Early returns suggest that we don't have a new Dorothy Parker in our midst.

     A few questions, if I may:

1.  Is this a prudent use of the art form's scant resources?  In what way does this help P/p-oetry?

2.  Is this anyone's best guess as to what Ruth Lilly would have had in mind?

3.  Is this consistent with the original mandate of Poetry Magazine?  Is it "the best English verse which is being written today" and "the highest, most complete expression of truth and beauty"?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #171
4.  Does this show respect for subscribers?

5.  Does this show respect for contributors, including those bumped to make space for it?

6.  Does this show respect for educators endeavoring to teach much better scansion and technique than Ms. Morris exhibits?

7.  If this is an attempt at humor or shock value, does it show respect for those like Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce who faced prosecution to ensure that subsequent generations, including Ms. Morris, wouldn't?  And who did so without compromising humor or art, as Ms. Morris has?

8.  Is this intended to advance the career of its author?  Are today's academic institutions eager to hire instructors who can't even produce passable doggerel?  Is it or is it not a responsibility of editors to prevent young writers from committing professional suicide?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #135
9.  Given the paucity of prepubescent subscribers, what was the targeted demographic?  Are there really people who don't understand the difference between this and poetry?

10. Is there a danger of appearing like creepy, cringeworthy crones trying to appear hip?

11. Do people not understand that the lack of an aesthetic is, itself, an aesthetic?

12. Is it time to consider a change in direction?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Out of sight, out of mind

      Does anything strike you as odd about the picture above?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #13
      As long as we believe poetry is primarily text, attention to sounds and rhythms will continue to decline, taking interest in verse down with it.  This is neither theory nor prognostication.  It is a tautology;  what we ignore will be ignored.

      As long as we believe poetry is an oral tradition we will overlook its dramatic presence.  Ironically, if poetry did involve disembodied voices it might have thrived with the advent of radio, as music did.  

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #2
     Were Shakespeare able to teach us anything today it would be that poetry is meant to be heard and seen.  Decades ago we saw the demise of text (i.e. Edgar Guest's column) and the disappearance of oral poetry from commercial media, concurrent with the rise of audiovisual verse (e.g. open mic, slam, YouTube).

     The modern trend toward incoherence is yet another reflection of the flight from sight and sound.  Who wants to seem or see a fool reciting nonsense?  In writing for an audience it is not enough to make sense;  we must do so in real time.  Otherwise, listeners can be thrown by one obscure expression, blurring the rest of the poem.  Visuals can facilitate instant recognition.  To wit, imagine reading or hearing this sentence: 

We live in china patterns, whispering words, like glyphs of straw, so strange to loveless minds.

     If we get past how two might "live in china patterns", "words...like glyphs of straw" may seem too "poetic" for many.  However, if we combine it with the photo at the top we create an "Aha!" moment instead:

     Poetry's future is its past.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Thoughtless Experiment

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #106
     In "A Thought Experiment" we established how and why poetry outsold prose until the late 19th century.  The trick was for poetry to be rare, other diversions rarer still.  It had to be "the only game in town."  Unless we're going to confine most of our literate population without library or Internet access this strategy won't work.  And, lo and behold, it hasn't.

     When we experience more than half a century of unbroken, abject failure shouldn't we try to do the exact opposite, if only out of curiosity?  I know this sounds like a radical approach but:

1.  Instead of warning people you're about to commit poetry, why not just step up and say what you need to say?

2.  Instead of giving us your complete biography, why not just say what you need to say?

3.  Instead of prefacing a 2-minute poem with an hour-long explanation of the universe, why not just say what you need to say?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #71
4.  Instead of prepending whole chapters of "The Book of Forms" to describe the brilliance of your composition why not just say what you need to say?

5.  Instead of screaming, stuttering or droning for three solid minutes, why not just say what you need to say?

6.  Instead of wasting time and space on random ruminations, why not just say what you need to say?

7.  Rather than write what you need to write, why not say what you need to say?