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[Back to Essays]

On Placebos and Poetry

Not to put down any specific poet, but it seems to me that when one sits through readings of fairly well-written poems (or reads them in a book) and feels increasingly dull and sleepy and bored, there are only a few explanations:

One is that one has gone past words one doesn't fully understand -- or the words don't make sense, so that they CAN'T be understood, because their use in the poem doesn't fit the definitions you (and the dictionary) know. In reading, one has a better chance to look back and clear up the connections that don't connect, look up words, etc. But even there, many poems disperse attention, and large sections of them slip past most readers.

The second explanation is that we've been taking placebos. Why else would we listen and think, yes, good poetry, even though we feel bored and sleepy, not enthusiastic, inspired, amused, instructed?

The thing is, if, on a program of poetry, no one really gets in communication with the audience and says things TO that audience that are really interesting to that audience, that (in very old-fashioned terms) amuse and instruct, or (in my own sense of how poetry works) evoke both surprise and recognition -- in the absence of any of it really reaching us or being anywhere near as interesting as the average TV sitcom, then what can it mean when we say afterwards that some of it was very good or very well written?

I've seen people in poetry groups with bored faces say to another poet who's just read a poem, "That was very good" and "That was great." It's obvious that the person saying this has not been changed in any way by the poem. No one in the room is moved by it, not one emotion in the room has been stirred, no one has a new idea of anything in his/her life, and yet people chime in about how good or even how great the poem is. What "That's an excellent poem" means in such cases is, "That's the sort of poem that a prestigious magazine accepts" or "That's what a poem is supposed to be."

If, in such a group or at such a reading, someone reads or performs a LIVE poem, the difference is immediately obvious. The poem won't necessarily be LIKED as much as some of the dead poems, but you can SEE the effects it creates. (I've seen very live poems -- mine and others -- lose at slams to poems that caused FAR less effect on the audience, but agreed more with what the audience and/or judge thought a winning slam poem was supposed to be.)

One of the tricks in testing is to use a placebo that causes some obvious effect, so that the people being tested won't know it's a placebo. Recent research showed that when sugar pills were used as placebos, many people KNEW they were getting placebos, because there were no obvious side effects.

[The full significance of this research has not yet been digested by science or made public: Most of the drugs now on the market were tested years ago using sugar-pill placebos. Many of the "miracle" drugs scored only slightly above the placebos, and sometimes that took some statistical tampering: For example, the drug companies or the FDA found excuses not to include studies where the placebos scored BETTER than the drug being tested, and this gave the drug a statistical edge. This applies to some VERY popular medications (e.g., Prozac). (No one even kept the test data on Ritalin, so there's no existing evidence that it's effective, and the FDA hasn't required new versions of it to be fully tested against placebos, only against the original Ritalin. In other words, if it works as well as a drug whose effectiveness is without evidence, it is ruled effective.)

The statistical distortion caused by some of the users KNOWING they're getting a placebo is more than enough to invalidate the effectiveness of many drugs now on the market. (Of course, there are other reasons to doubt their effectiveness: The tests are done by labs paid by the drug manufacturer; excuses are found to deem bad side-effects "not proven to have been caused by the drug" or to ignore them altogether, the drugs are tested for a few weeks, then prescribed for long-term use, etc.)]

Anyway, to get back to poetry, one way to make it harder to spot a placebo is to include ingredients that create obvious side effects (effects that have nothing to do with the purpose of the drug). People expect side effects from a "real" medication. So if the pill makes the mouth dry or creates a tingling or something, the person being tested is less likely to think it's a placebo.

Similarly, we expect poetry to create effects, so people are less likely to think something's a placebo if it creates a big effect, for example, shock. If a poet yells "Fuck!" at an audience loudly enough, many are fooled. And there are lots of other tricks. The idea is to create a SIDE effect and let US, the audience, contribute the poetry. Really, that's all a cliché is: something associated with poetry or that sounds like poetry because it's often used in poetry, in hopes that we'll provide the poetry or, really, the poetic-ness -- much as a dog salivates when hearing Pavlov's bell, even though he's not being fed -- whereas real poetry nourishes. It gets us to contribute to it, but we contribute, not the poetry, but our own real worlds, emotions, hopes, etc. We take the poetry, and use it to illuminate our own lives.

We can go on salivating for years at bell sounds and not realizing we are starving. Then someone actually feeds us and we remember what all that salivation was about, and that could be our salvation.

Copyright c. 2006 by Dean Blehert. All Rights Reserved.

Last updated: December 17, 2006