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

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Boring and the Death

      Traditionally, one way to mock a poem was to read it (often in what we now call "poet voice") aloud.  This was a way of saying that the words were neither memorizable nor worthy of memorization--in short, that they didn't constitute poetry by any useful definition.  Today, parody has met practice as poets are caught on camera, in public, reading their own work.  To be clear, these are not works in process.  These weren't handed to the poet minutes before going onstage.  And the poets didn't all suffer some catastrophic illness or accident that deprived them of short term memory.  We're talking laziness and lack of craft.  This being poetry's "norm" is proof of morbidity.  Audiences don't object because there are no audiences.

      Naturally, poetry editors, publishers and promoters can't accept this truth, even to the point of denying it.  After all, it undermines everything they're trying to do.  However, we can hardly cooperate in reanimating something without acknowledging that it is, in fact, dead.  (We'll discuss how page poets and outlets will benefit from stage poets in future posts.)

Consider this albeit perverse view

     You don't need to be a gardener to know that annuals die each winter.  Perhaps this was an Ice Age for poetry.  Can this be spring?  For an individual, this could be a "glass half full" opportunity.  The few great poets are retired and/or unknown to the public, the few that are recognized aren't poets, and virtually no one, least of all the authors themselves, can perform the stuff.  The path is wide open for anyone who knows the craft and can do or network with those who can do  the three P's:  Performance, Presentation (e.g. videos), and Promotion.  Note that, with the Internet in general, YouTube in particular, we have a facility humankind has never had:  the ease of individuals to find a global reception not just for text and still pictures (e.g. photos, paintings, graphics) but for video as well.  We can talk  to the world!

      It being a mode of speech, poetry needs to be performed.  Not read.  Would you watch a movie where the characters read from scripts?  Or woodenly from prompters?  And, no, we're not talking about equally unmodulated slammers screaming and gesticulating wildly for three solid minutes.  We're talking performance, something so rare that we have to re-use the same examples over and over again.

      To illustrate, compare Andy Garcia's performance of "The Goring and the Death" from Federico Garcia Lorca's "Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías" to the dreaded "poet voice" we know all to well:

      Brace yourself for Gregory Orr reading "Gathering the Bones":

William Ernest Henley's "Invictus", written in 1875, published in "Book of Verses" under "Life and Death (Echoes)", 1888:

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
       I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

      Consider this appearance by Morgan Freeman on the Charlie Rose show when they discuss Nelson Mandala.

     Rewind a few hundred times over the moment at the :38 second mark where Morgan laughs and gives a doleful look at Charlie Rose's offer of the poem's text.  Note how incredulous the host is that a person--an award winning professional actor, no less--can actually [gasp!] recite a classic 16 line poem from memory.

     Charlie shows us how dead English poetry is.

     Morgan shows us how it can be reincarnated.


  1. Me again, from now on I'm going to call myself W T Clark, so I don't have to keep saying "Me again".
    This reminds me of when the Manchester Arena bombing took place, and we watched a slam poet recite his lines to crowds on TV. I was in two minds, obviously the attitude he was encouraging, and the pride he was showing in Manchester after the terrible attack were really commendable, and also it gave me an idea what poetry might be like when its more popular, or when it was in the past, such as in Ancient Greece; but let us face it, the poem was really prose that rhymed — at one point I think commuters with computers was rhymed — and I'm pretty sure there was no attempt to use metre. Now, imagine if an actually talented poet - performed their poem to a crowd like that!

    1. Agreed. 100%.

      However, there will always be a place for rhetoric, which uses some of the same devices as poetry, but more for dramatic than mnemonic effect. Rhetoric can be quicker since it doesn't require as much memorization; one does not generally "wing" poetry. Verse can be too slow to fit 24-hour news cycles. "Beans" might be the ultimate contemporary political poem but it appeared, by my calculation, almost 33 years after the event it describes.

      As we say: "Prose is timely. Poetry is timeless."

      Without question, though, there is room for an iconic poetry performer [who may or may not be the author]. That is where the bottleneck is but, without doubt, there is a dearth of technically sound young poets.

      Incidentally, if you put "W T Clark" in the "Reply as" slot all of your subsequent posts will conveniently be identified as such.

  2. As we say: "Prose is timely. Poetry is timeless"? No, we don't. Great prose and great poetry are BOTH timeless.

    1. Not in preliterate societies, certainly.

      Not in today's environment, either. Every day another classic novel is removed from a curriculum because its setting offends modern sensitivities. Similar objections to classical verse (e.g. Shakespeare) don't always have the same effect.

      And certainly not in our language, which preserves copious expression from verse verbatim, comparatively few from prose.

      Great hearing from you, Jefferson Carter. Don't be a stranger!


Your comments and questions are welcome.