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,
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
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.