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, September 28, 2015


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #182
     In a CBC Radio parody, the fuddy-duddy Duddley Do-Right has tracked his quarry, Pierre La Puck, to an orgy.  As the two men confront each other the francophone fugitive expresses his surprise:

Pierre La Puck:  "Hey, English, what are you doing here?"

Dudley Do-Right:  "Nothing."

Pierre La Puck:  "That figures."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #73
     In "A Brief History of Time Online" we got a peek at the evolution of critical forums online.  In the beginning there was the unmoderated Usenet rec.arts.poems newsgroup, the first worldwide gathering of poets, critics, and innumerable TORLLS (sic, i.e. illiterate trolls).  When the web developed in the 1990s a few experts, including master trollfighter Gary Gamble, formed Poetry Free-For-All.  To this day the differences between PFFA and Eratosphere (or Gazebo) reflect the Usenet experience.  To wit, Eratospherean staff will show more patience with grousers within critical threads while PFFA closes fewer general conversation threads.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #80
     Compared to Face To Face ones, online workshops have a lot of conveniences and, yes, a few problems.  As an example of the latter, bad software virtually destroyed Gazebo and the Poets.org critical forums.  Regional and national disparities can crop up.  In any event, the commitment to honesty and improvement is what distinguishes this tiny community from the blurbosphere that constitutes the rest of the poetry world.  When their staff members tell us "PFFA isn't for everyone" they are well aware of the comic understatement.  In fact, very few are interested in learning how they can refine their poems, fewer still in helping them do so--especially if their "reward" is to be pointedly ignored or countered with defensive arguments.  Also, given what is being published, why bother?

     In a recent topic on Eratosphere, "State of the Sphere", members discussed the decline in traffic on that workshop.  In truth, "fewer dynamic discussions, less engagement, less energy, less creativity" has been the trend across all of the boards for more than a decade, resulting in these sites falling off Alexa.com's radar.  Why the drop?  Various causes are suggested:

1.  the rise in social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) offering a "better" showcase;  members who "only wrote for [their own] pleasure" or are "marched off this workshop" [by the unvarnished truth];

2.  fewer "posts about poetry than about people’s self-promoting interests";

3.  "a number of journals of not accepting any poems that have appeared anywhere online, if they can be found by searching";

4.  "occasional blowups of accusations and insults on the boards";

5.  "mediocrity";

6.  Gresham's Law;

7.  "shy folk";

8.  "the workshop as a showcase";

9.  a "convoluted double-somersault-with-a-reverse-twist approach to making a simple point."

     Here is our response in a nutshell:  People leave workshops for the same reason they come.

1.  Those who write for their [Facebook] friends and family don't want, need or appreciate critique.

2.  The 99+% who wish to discuss poets, not poems, will be better served elsewhere.

3.  Journals that exclude serious critique exclude serious poetry.  Ignore them.

4.  As we observed earlier, in conversational subforums various sites will treat disputes differently.  The most common administrative error happens after these exchanges occur in a critical thread.  Moderators who say "Settle down, you two!" should reconsider the disparate value of poets and critics in a critical environment.  Whiners are a dime a dozen, critiquers willing to contribute their time and expertise are gold.  If you think the poet-critique dynamic is a chicken-and-egg scenario involving equally valuable contributors explain why such forums have to place maximums on poems and minimums on critiques.

5.  Given that the idea is to improve the poems, mediocre would seem an appropriate, if not downright fortunate and propitious, place to start. 

6.  Ideally, a workshop is about driving out the bad, not the good.  Those who think "the bad" or "the good" refers to poets, not verses, are misguided, if not misplaced.

7.  Some gravitate to online workshops seeking anonymity, only to discover that having one's work examined by strangers in public is not a dream shared by many introverts.

8.  Workshops are not vanity sites.  They are not 'zines for finished products.  The critiquer's concern is the verse that emerges, not that which arrives or remains.

9.  Pedantry in technicians can be annoying.  Pedantry in ConPoets and Content Regents is unbearable.

      Why is this decline worrying?  Eratosphere is one of only two thriving sites where poets can come to get an expert opinion of their work.  These may be the only two gatherings in existence where the average denizen knows whether "Prufrock" and "The Red Wheel Barrow" are metrical or free verse.  As for past glories, we'll close by paraphrasing a poem that appeared originally on a less fortuitous venue: 

      This was the only place where verses could whisper their true names.


  1. I joined Eratosphere over 6 months ago, however, continue to do much reading without comment. I am learning by reading the criticisms of very fine poetry. It is a relief to me to find a site that is unbending in its quest towards extremely high quality material. When I am ready I will comment ,as required, and then allow Eratosphere to comment on my material

  2. The place has deservedly become as quiet as a graveyard.

    1. We all endure the same dearth of intelligent commentary.

  3. Hi
    Being a member of both the sphere and pffa for a month now, I've noticed a slight difference between them which I wondered if you guys had experienced. For me Eratosphere is definitely the more formally orientated sight, but I feel that in the sphere there is more short comments like "This is really good, I loved these lines", while on PFFA almost every poem receives in depth critiques and suggestions for improvement. I'm not saying that Eratosphere is at all bad, on the contrary it is great, and I'm happy I found it. But PFFA seems like it's just a little bit more critical. Or maybe just cruel. :)

  4. This is my impression, too, and there is a reason for it: PFFA came out of the wild and woolly newsgroup environment, predating the world wide web, while Eratosphere did not.

    Operating somewhat like bulletin boards, rec.arts.poems and, later, alt.arts.poetry.comments, were "the only game in town" before the 1990s. Literally every online poet on the planet went there. Unfortunately, these unmoderated groups attracted a particularly odious brand of trolls. The signal-to-noise percentage was in single digits. Despite this, Peter John Ross emerged as the world's leading authority on poetry theory and technique. For example, if you became familiar with scansion after 1970 (when schools stopped teaching it) the odds are good that you learned it directly or indirectly from PJR. Unfortunately, when the web came into being he never climbed aboard.

    Meanwhile, the chief troll fighter, one Gary Gamble, embraced the new environment and became a prominent moderator on PFFA. To be clear: PJR had far less patience with trolls in general, "TORLLS!!!" [sic] (i.e. illiterate trolls) in particular, than GG. GG's focus was broader, including not only prose poetry but performance as well. In any event, GG's presence and PJR's absence goes a long way toward explaining the difference in approaches between PFFA and Eratosphere.

    If you'd like, you can read more on this in "A Brief History of Time Online" here:



Your comments and questions are welcome.