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

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Poetry's Three Eras

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #42
The Preliterate Era

     Poetry began with stories around a campfire, a few of which were deemed worthy of preservation.  Without writing, this involved memorization which, in turn, led to the establishment of humanity's first science, prosody.  Poetry shaped the tribe's culture, history, law, religion and language, especially in matters where the exact wording was critical.  The legacy of this era is that poetry is a verbatim, audience-oriented audiovisual presentation.

     We tell stories.  We recite poems.

The Textual Era

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #63
     The advent of the written word relieved us of the fear of losing our heritage.  Nevertheless, it came at a price that became evident only over the centuries.  At a glacial pace, the written word--and our growing reliance on it--removed poetry from the audience physically (e.g. page versus stage), pychologically (e.g. the isolation of poet from audience resulting eventually in the rise of confessionalism/solipsism), conceptually (e.g. the rise of cryptocrap) and geographically (e.g. causing disaffected audiences to walk away from poetry).  This process accelerated whenever publication efficiency improved, from mimeographs to photocopiers to desktop publishing and, ultimately the Internet (e.g. Usenet and, later, the World Wide Web).   Coincidentally, as poetry became more accessible literally it was becoming less accessible figuratively.  In the meantime, poetry was replaced by another verse-based performance:  songs on the radio.  To some, the belief that reading poetry aloud to an audience was acceptable seemed to obsolete prosody's mnemonic basis.  Not so.  Rather, it gave rise to forgettable poetry and, sure enough, the public forgot about poetry.

The Internet Era

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
     Once established, the cyber community began returning the aesthetic focus to readers rather than writers.  A central meme in the original online poetry forum, rec.arts.poems, was "Try to have your writing make sense."  Once the web arrived, this sentiment was echoed by Margaret Ann Griffiths ("...you've neglected the basic need of making sense").  The greeting that incoherent verse received from onliners amounted to:  "If this can only be understood by you and your fellow Tamarians why show it to us mere humans?"  Today, philosophy lessons with linebreaks are curiosities found almost exclusively on old-fashioned print outlets.

     In many ways, the Internet has brought us back to the primordial campfire.

1.  Connectivity

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #16
       Generally speaking, by posting our work online we make our words available to the entire tribe at no cost.  What is more, annotation can be handled with hypertext links, as we see with the prototypical cliché collage poem, "Elegy to Eva".  This expectation was the final nail in cryptocrap's coffin.

       Soon we will be able to access every significant poem ever written.  Unlike books, which tend to group poems by their authors, we can sample one poet after another's oeuvres, as prehistoric humans would have.  As we do at open mics.  Indeed, a growing number of these will be video presentations:

2.  Multimedia

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #13
       The rise of Vimeo, YouTube and other venues returns us to poetry's audiovisual roots.  The tribe can, in many cases, see the author perform the poem at, say, a slam, open microphone or a reading.  This has an immediate and obvious aesthetic effect:  a return to the oral hijinks that we call "craft" or "prosody", long considered obsolete by, from all appearances, textual editors, critics, teachers and poets.  Interest in scansion is trending upwards.  The re-emergence of meter is one reflection of the growing ambition of poets to serve the new influx of potential readers--the public.  With multimedia, the entire population, not just the ~50% who read, can become poetry fans.  Do we forget poetry's first and most successful era, when virtually everyone was a fan and none of those fans were literate?

3.  Databases

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #19
    As important as multimedia and hypertext has been to contemporary poetry's web presence, they pale in significance to the impact databases will have on poetry's prospects.  This goes far beyond the fact, previously mentioned, that virtually all poetry will appear online sooner rather than later.  What is happening is that writing is being evaluated either automatically (think of Gender Genie or, for poetry, our very own "Prosody Evaluation And Report Logger") or by consensus (think of Facebook's thumps up).  Hit counters are becoming more sophisticated, filtering out web crawlers, bots and spiders and will soon begin evaluating the quality of the visits.  That is, do users stay long enough to read the entire page or do they peek and run?  In this way, audience members can see the reactions of all other viewers, as they could in days of yore.

    What is the effect of this increased awareness?  As Chris Richardson said:  "It's the American Ido effect:  Being bad includes not knowing you're bad."

    In judo we don't have to guess whether or not we have succeeded.  The fact that we're on our ass is proof enough that we haven't.  Without an audience, there is no similar way to show that we've failed at poetry.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #18
    In the very near future everything we post online will be rated by various criteria and, as is already the case, will be listed on search engines according to such an evaluation.  Soon, when you Google "pomegranate verse" you will see how your ode to the pomegranate is faring against other poems on that subject.  Assuming it doesn't top the list, you might wonder:  "Why not?"  Everything that can be quantified will be.  How many social media links has that page generated?  How many YouTube videos are associated with it?  These objective responses perform the same function for poets that landing on their butts did for the budding judokas:  it makes it clear how far they have to go.  Inevitably, students will demand informed critique and to learn technique--two things largely absent from classrooms for decades.  If so, our current focus on quantity could, in theory at least, translate to quality.

    If you want 100 "chimpanzees" to produce Shakespeare in less than 100 years try training them.



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