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, May 26, 2020

Great Audiences

     "To have great poets, there must be great audiences."
      Walt Whitman said a mouthful here.  This has been true for as long as humankind has had language, 100,000 years by conservative estimates.  In preliterate societies audiences defined poetry itself as being whatever was preserved verbatim;  that which was left behind was prose.

      Because of this, audiences developed mnemonics to help the tribe preserve its culture in poetry.  Indeed, prosody might be humanity's first science.

      Skipping forward to today, a novice on a showcase site wondered if it were possible for an unschooled individual to create a noteworthy poem.  This is a variation on the venerated question:

      "Can 100 monkeys on 100 typewriters for 100 years produce Shakespeare?"

      The answer is "Yes" but, by my calculation, someone who doesn't know an anapest from Budapest or diaeresis from diarrhea will win two lotteries before producing a remarkable poem.  Even if they could, another classic cliché raises its head:

      "If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?"

       Without one of those great audience members Whitman spoke about, the answer will be "No".  Without these "bird dogs", the few efforts worth preserving may be overlooked.  For example, two of the great poems of this century were created by newcomers.  When "How Aimée remembers Jaguar" was posted to a critical forum one critic said:  "Change nothing."  Years later, when an editor asked if that critic could help him out of a dry spell the latter pulled a well worn hardcopy of that poem out of his back pocket.

      As fortuitous as that was, "There are Sunflowers in Italy" only drew attention after it was translated into English.  Without that, we might never have seen one of the century's great sentences (describing the poetry mentor languishing in prison before, it seems, his execution):

You wrote your verses
with your veins,
cold against the wall.

     Something to remember the next time we're tempted to complain about critics!

     We end on a stark note:  There can be no "great audiences" in print, or in a population that doesn't learn the rudiments of poetry.


  1. Very interesting. Do not give up though, Blake and Dickinson were unrecognized in their own time. However, without Dickinson and Whitman nineteenth century American verse looks pretty barren.
    I think you would agree with the advice Geoffrey Hill gave to contemporary young twenty-first century poets: "Make a technical black swan."
    (I am the same commenter as on your previous post)

  2. This is one of my favorite Howard Miller quotes:

    Want to make popularity based on sales as the criterion of poetic worth? Think about the following:

    Bestselling poet in England between 1560 and 1640 (the era of Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, and the early Milton, to name just a few) -- Thomas Tusser (he outsold most of those poets even when you take all their works sold during that period combined).

    Bestselling English poet between 1890 and 1914 (era of Housman, late Tennyson and Browning, Hardy, and numerous others of note) -- Norman Rowland Gale.

    - Howard Miller (Gazebo, 2007-03-19)

    Popularity was a tenuous enough measure when poetry was alive; it makes zero sense to worry about it now that poetry is dead. Our effort has to be to try to revive poetry and that can't happen when our educational system will not and can not teach its fundamentals.

    If I understand the black swan quote it is epitomizing the cryptocrappers' fetish with originality and disdain for meaning. This is original:

    phcf nyy-checbfr sybhe
    grnfcbba onxvat fbqn
    grnfcbba fnyg
    phc ohggre
    phc oebja fhtne
    rttf, orngra
    phcf znfurq bireevcr onananf

    ...but has no accessible meaning. Even if sleuths happen to have a rot-13 decoder (https://rot13.com/) handy they might discover it is nothing more than the ingredients for banana bread. Then, no doubt, the decrypter will wonder about the cosmic significance of banana bread. All of this "intellectual" activity comes from people too lazy to learn whether "The Red Wheel Barrow" is metrical or free verse.

    Modes of communication are for...well...communication. Ambiguity--more than one meaning--is fine (though hardly a requisite). The absence of any meaning? Boring. Hence, our 12th Law: Try to be understood too quickly.

    A friend of ours reported on joining an international group of poets. He noted that the non-anglophone poets couldn't imagine a culture where poetry (other than song lyrics) was dead while the anglophones couldn't imagine a world where poetry was alive.

    Good hearing from you again!

    1. Hi,
      interesting answer to my comment. I agree with hill (and I guess I don't agree with you there) that accessibility is unnecessary when it comes to poetry. For instance, the Wasteland is not completely understandable unless one understands several languages and a vast deal of poetry. However it has tremendous performance value. Blake's later prophetic books are based on a made-up mythology but they are incredibly beautiful and powerful to be read out. Try to be understood too quickly is a good law, but may well lead to over explanation. Let's take Maz. Studying Savonarola would not be a great work if she spent using the first two lines to explain Savonarola: who he was, when he was.
      I also think you misinterpreted the black swan thing, Hill wants new poets to write something technically original, not subject-wise. To that end I think Kristalo's Beans fulfils all this.
      Good to talk to you

  3. If works similar to the Waste Land were posted somewhere anonymously--as thousands are every day--I doubt you or I would give them a second thought. It's not so much inaccessible as chaotic. I doubt many would care to memorize and perform it. Indeed, I'm willing to bet that almost all the recordings of it are readings. It is often mentioned in interpretive analyses, never in technical articles. It is not the revolutionary masterpiece that "Prufrock" was. Or "The Hollow Men", which does have considerable performance value, if only because it ends before audiences tire of the chaos (a term related to crypocrap but not interchangeable with it).

    I agree with your take on Blake and share your concern with overexplanation. Maz provided no footnoting to "Studying Savonarola", but her audience knew the subject, and the text is self-explanatory (i.e. someone is burning up). As the analysis of it shows, everything (e.g. tightness of rhythm, abundance of sonic repetitions, pace, etc.) builds from the flat, prosey start to the climax and release of that final word, "unconsumed".

    For all the obvious reasons, "Beans" is too unique to worry about, if only because it is said to have been written for a memorial to Pablo Neruda but, as the acrostic makes clear, was really about his boss, Salvador Allende. (This may also explain why it is in English.)

    If, by "technically original", we mean "literally original", I concur, but Hill doesn't strike me as a technician.

    Good hearing from you again.

  4. Hi me again.
    Hill does not strike me as a technician: ah, I disagree. Have you watched his oxford lectures: they are free online and I think you really should because in them he analyses many poems by focusing on their metre. Also although his later poems are free verse, he is a great technician. "Against the burley air I strode/Crying the miracles of God" (that is technical and I would memorise it) you should check out his sonnet sequence: An Apology for the Rivival of Christian Archetecture, which is in imabic pentameter, rhyming, and tackles several atrocities of the British empire.

  5. I will check out Hill's Oxford lectures. Just to be clear: writing or lecturing about scansion doesn't make one a technician. We saw what happened to Edgar Allan Poe's reputation after he tried to forescan "Bride of Abydos" in "The Rationale of Verse". Of the poem used to illustrate meter to novices he wrote "it refuses to be scanned." LOL!

    I've read Hill's sonnets. Archaic language, overmodification, barnacling (i.e. random descriptors), meandering. Each reads like a parody of an anachronism. The reason neither he nor anyone else ever performed these is because one wouldn't be able to look the audience in the eye while doing so. The sonics seem like a typing exercise ("The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog."), exhausting all 44 English phonemes before repeating any. He may be a technician by some people's definition but, for what it's worth, he certainly doesn't write like one. I'm sorry to be so negative but in a tiered critical forum this work would get an anonymous author sent down to the minors.

    As you mentioned, Hill's sonnets do have some nice lines. To underscore its lack of audience appeal, though, compare it to Archie Fisher's "Witch of the Westmoreland", as performed by Stan Rogers. If nothing else, it will illustrate why poetry was so completely subsumed by song lyrics during the 20th century.


    Thanks again for responding!

  6. Hi, me again,
    I do enjoy debating with you, and this website is thought provoking. Barnacling is a real and dangerous thing, but I wonder about it sometimes. The bows glided down, and the coast
    Blackened with birds took a last look
    At his thrashing hair and whale-blue eye;
    The trodden town rang its cobbles for luck." says Dylan Thomas in a beautiful reading. Would you not call that barnacling, and if not then I am sure I can show you a hundred more examples which he performs eloquently. Again I find myself disagreeing with you about Hill. I am not that even of a big Hill fan, I like his poetry but there are other poets like William Blake and Dickinson and Eliot and Donne who I prefer. Hill is archaic yes, but then so are the song lyrics you provided. And also, if I had to bet which of them, a complex sonnet by Hill or the song lyrics would be removed from poetry-free-for-all's high critique section let's say, then I would go with the song lyrics. I would also say that Hill is a great performer of his art, he has a very deep voice and when he reads out his poems (which he does, youtube has at least one reading up) then I enjoy it spectacularly. There is a difference between using some archaicisms with a knowing and intelligent application to the present and past, and writing some slapdash rubbish full of thees and thous. To your quick lazy dog argument I would answer again that Dylan Thomas does this all the time and he is a spectacular reader of his poems. I would argue that though a poem should be a very aural pleasure (that is why one-word poems aren't poems at all, there just art by people who can't draw) the meaning of a poem is interesting. The greatest poems are the ones which are great performance pieces but also have brilliant words and language and meaning to them. Barnacling, after all, can be very pleasing on the ear. Take songs, the song-industry knows that they can make a hit through catchy brain destroying tunes and lyrics with no interesting meaning. Therefore if we downgrade poetry to only a performance value, I am warey of something like this taking place.
    Hope this is interesting.

  7. "In poetry, superfluous words are a crime. Superfluous modifiers are a felony." - EG's 110th law

    The quoted Dylan Thomas descriptors are pulling their weight and more. As such, they are the antipodal opposites of barnacling, which involves not just lazy adjectives (e.g. "dark night") and adverbs ("run fast") but vacuous and interchangeable ones. Removing them actually adds clarity, along with concision.

    I'm not sure Archie Fisher's lyrics (posted anonymously, remember) would be pulled from PFFA. They are lean and exhibit far better technique than Hill's. More to the point, if you, I, and 98 other people were in an audience 99 of us would prefer the performance of "Witch of the Westmoreland"--just the lyrics--than anything I've seen from Hill. (We bear in mind that Archie's words are meant to be performed.)

    It is important to establish that, despite the support, goodwill, patronage, and exposure afforded by academia, its poets have added a grand total of zero expressions, insights, or constructs to our idiom over the last half century. Arguing that Geoffrey Hill might be the best of a bad lot might distract us from the central question: Why has he and every other academic failed so completely? What anti-aesthetic is in play here?

    We also need to bear in mind that "poetry reading" is an oxymoron. Being a "spectacular reader" makes one...what? 30% as good as a great performer? 40%?

    As for downgrading poetry to its performance value, that isn't possible with academic poetry since, almost by definition, it has no performance value. Surely poets from Shakespeare to Kipling have demonstrated that both are essential. Why should today's audience (if it existed) have to choose between literary and theatrical value? Between desiccated poetry readings and overwrought slammers? What part of "hard pass" do we not understand?

    Incidentally, our latest project is to find actors/actresses who can perform exemplary contemporary poetry as well as they perform prose [plays, movies, television drama, etc.]. Stay tuned!

  8. Me again,
    This may be stupid advise but I would look at audible, listening to books of poetry read by narrators. I fell in love with Milton's Paradise Lost when I heard the audiobook read by Simon Vance.

  9. I couldn't agree more that poetry needs to be performed. I'd quibble that it could be more targeted--poems rather than books of poems--and that I'd prefer actors to narrators, but those are details. Thanks!


Your comments and questions are welcome.