Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Twilight of the Comments Streams

The poetry blogosphere has been wearing a black armband lately, as it mourns the demise of the comments stream at Ron Silliman's blog, and remembers the recent loss of another comments stream, over at the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog. Much buzz has been generated about the whys and whences of it all. I have no deep insight to offer, but I do think that a recent post at the Pathologos blog offers a clue as to what's afoot.

In the middle of the post, the blogger offers a little confession about his own contribution to what many see as the hostile culture of poetry snarkiness:

i'm embarrassed to admit that on at least 2 occasions i inserted insults into blog posts that i wouldn't have otherwise included because i knew that, as a completely unknown commentator, i'm more likely to be taken seriously (or at least engaged with) the more insulting i am.

This is interesting, in that it indicates where we might lay the blame for the current state of affairs. No, not on the now-reformed blogger at Pathologos, nor even on his eschewal of capital letters — but on the attention-economy of poetry, in which people want to be noticed any way they can.

I think this attention-seeking condition is endemic to the whole American poetry culture now, and at root the issue is the surplus of supply (of poems, of opinions) compared to the demand. It is with poets as it is with aspiring Hollywood starlets: there are a multitude of them on the scene, hoping to be noticed, and few stunts are too low for someone to stoop down to them. I haven't seen any poets doing the "exposing underwear while getting out of a limo" trick, but I'm sure it can't be too far off — I just pray it isn't Silliman who goes there.

It's not that I want to impose a moratorium on poetry, or on the discourse about poetry — far from it. I just wish people didn't yearn, so much, for the few rays of limelight that do penetrate the fog.

I suppose, in the end, what we have is a failure to adjust our expectations to the new conditions under which we write poetry, and write about poetry. When the dissemination of poems and commentary was limited by the technology of print, relatively few people were able to disseminate their work, and they could imagine that the audience for what they had to say was larger than the number of other publishing writers. Now everyone with a laptop can get their work out there, but getting it noticed amid the crowd is an issue.

Everyone is famous, now, to fifteen people. We can get upset about this and hurl insults in an attempt to get noticed. Or we can roll with it. Accepting it may not be easy for the ego that yearns for recognition, but there really is no going back. And, I might add, we'd be foolish to want to go back. I am (I hate to say it) old enough to remember the curious silence that surrounded most poetry in America before the internet took off. What we have now is better in just about every way, if only we'd let go of the fantasy of recognition.


UPDATE: Bobby Baird has some good things to say on this topic.


  1. "I haven't seen any poets doing the "exposing underwear while getting out of a limo" trick, but I'm sure it can't be too far off — I just pray it isn't Silliman who goes there."

    Priceless. Good post, good points. Thanks.

  2. 'What we have now is better in just about every way, if only we'd let go of the fantasy of recognition.'

    Having three collections published in 'hard' copy is a pretty good way of having your fingers prised off that fantasy, one by one.

  3. "I think this attention-seeking condition is endemic to the whole American poetry culture now, and at root the issue is the surplus of supply (of poems, of opinions) compared to the demand."

    That's it exactly. Although I would use the stronger term "narcissism."

    It's an aspect, perhaps aggravated by the instant-gratification aspect of online culture, of the generally narcissistic and insecure (post-Warhol 15 minutes of fame) culture. I've often thought that the reason poets fight so hard about things is because there's nothing real at stake. For that matter, the ease with which one can write a mediocre poem, publish it on one's own blog, and declare oneself A Poet, only makes things worse, in terms of oversupply against underdemand.

    I am certainly guilty of this, so I do not judge others for doing it, too. Although I no longer call myself a Poet, or even a poet, or even a writer; and I'm happy to report that hardly anyone seems to care either way. LOL Quietly laboring in obscurity has its own rewards.

    The good news is that time will help us sort out the wheat from the chaff, as it were.

  4. I'm pretty sure quiet obscurity is the answer to most of our woes (see, if you can stand a long ramble, my earlier post on "My Laureates," where I talk about how Samuel Johnson made the point, and saved my soul).

    I think the idea that the internet has been an intensifier of the situation, not a cause, is just right. Bobby Baird's piece (linked to above) set me straight on that.



  5. To quote Art Durkee who quoted Mr. Archambeau:

    "'I think this attention-seeking condition is endemic to the whole American poetry culture now, and at root the issue is the surplus of supply (of poems, of opinions) compared to the demand.
    'That's it exactly. Although I would use the stronger term 'narcissism.' "

    There is, however, just the slightest possibility that some of these unacknowledged contemporary poets may actually have something of importance to say or of value to share.

    I posted this on Joan Houlihan's blog in December of '09:

    "Gary B. Fitzgerald said:

    Joan Houlihan said:

    'Maybe the explosion in numbers of those who call themselves poets and the resulting plurality of poetries in the last 10 or so years, while great for those who would be poets, has not been so great for those who would be readers.'

    Not great for poets, either, I'd say. It's difficult to be heard over the roar of a crowd."


  6. jamie mckendrick9:03 AM

    Excellent prior post about the Silliman blog, its strengths and weaknesses. I love the mild suggestion that few poets would buy into the School of Quietitude: which I take to be a schoolyard taunt to suggest poets with different tendencies from Silliman lie prone before or at least collude with the structures of power. It's a measure of the banality of much internet discussion that it's gained any currency at all. It would seem intended as a provocation (it's no use as a description), and in that sense it worked. So why not keep on with it? There'll always be a few sheepish figures happy to take a repeated slogan as a truth.
    I'm not so convinced, though, by your suggestion that bullying or brutal remarks on these literary blogs are mainly a strategy to be noticed - they are by no means confined to the anonymous or those who've been starved of attention. Often enough the animus focuses on figures (or even poetry presses) who have been noticed too much, at least in the poster's view - from a young poet being reviewed by Silliman to a Nobel prize-winner. (The former especially shows what a petty and tetchy tribe we can be.)
    Resentment is fairly pervasive among poetry blog comments. It's a natural emotion common to most of us, but a comment stream offers the chance of an unimpeded and unconsidered release. And if someone disagrees, well then they also deserve to be pelted and insulted.
    Of course this doesn't describe the range of comments on Silliman's or any other literary blog, but - I'm sure someone else has suggested this - it's likely that the more adversarial and opiniated blogs act as a magnet for the more aggressive. Yours, for example, seems commendably free of it, while being able to host fairly radical disagreements.

  7. A lot of true & sane points. But we lose something of the essence of poetry if we over-valorize the quiet cloister & the modest detachment & the backyard garden. Poetry has a public dimension, & great poetry has always found itself at the crossroads & in the crosshairs of the Now. Poetry is public & the poet is a "public figure" - not just for the sake of pleasing the narcissistic self, but for the sake of the poetry. If this includes a certain amount of scars, wounds, pratfalls, smudge & general baloney.... well, that's how it is. Part of the intensity of "online discourse" involves the perception that this IS a contemporary avenue to public awareness. Is that a delusive perception, or does it contain a grain of truth?

  8. Anything of value I have to say about the public position of poetry, the desire for recognition, and the real or imagined needs of the reading public — anything, that is, that rises above opinion and is backed with some research — is in an essay called "The Discursive Situation of Poetry." It'll come out early next year in the first volume of a new series of books on poetics from the University of Akron Press.

    I wasn't too happy with what I found out while doing the research, which actually gives me some confidence that it has a large measure of truth to it.


  9. jamie mckendrick1:15 PM

    I see the argument, Henry.
    First, though, I'd best say I'm not advocating any cloistered "atmosphere of sweetness and light". Printed reviews of poetry would give ample evidence of vitriol, as well as of subtler kinds of malice. And no-one should expect to escape completely unscathed. I guess you have to live with it. And anyway, as I think you're rightly implying, polemical pieces can be entertaining, well-aimed and persuasive. You could even argue that much of the stuff on the internet is quite mild by the standards of The Dunciad.

    It's just that the internet allows for so much more instant and noisy opinion, so much speedier and more general dissemination, that it can easily drown out attempts to think more carefully (and I don't mean just more positively)about the value of a poet or poem.
    The last few years, since I first started reading stuff on the screen, I've felt more keenly dispirited than ever before about the world of reception for poetry.
    If this is what poets are saying then who the hell is left that cares. Even if I often am, I don't think one should be too thinskinned about criticism of one's own work. It's not on the personal level then, but on a more general perception of an accumulating, ever-denser cloud of (not quite, not yet, Universal) Darkness that I begin to understand Jessica Smith's original complaint.
    Still, after all this, I don't think I've answered your question. I blame that on the medium.

  10. "There is, however, just the slightest possibility that some of these unacknowledged contemporary poets may actually have something of importance to say or of value to share."

    Certainly. That's always the possibility. That's always BEEN the possibility. That's nothing new. That's why we all keep reading and looking for that one new great poet that turns us on. I just found one of those a few weeks ago, and posted about it on my blog a few days ago.

    However, the sheer numbers of poets these days, visible or invisible, make the sort ever more difficult.

    The issue is not whether the poets have anything to say, in their poems, but whether or not anything of use was said on Silliman's comments streams. Those are not the same things at all. Narcissism is endemic to criticism at least as much as it is in some kinds of poetry.

  11. I agree with you, Jamie. I also feel there is something inimical to poetry in the very medium of glib online chit-chat - a milieu in which I have been a longtime & over-eager participant myself. Our whole world seems set against intellectual quietude today....

    But I think my argument was mainly with Bob, & with his closing remark : "I am (I hate to say it) old enough to remember the curious silence that surrounded most poetry in America before the internet took off. What we have now is better in just about every way, if only we'd let go of the fantasy of recognition."

    And the point I was trying to make is that, ultimately, poets cannot surrender the drive for fame & recognition. Not because they are egotistical monsters (though most of us are), but because they are driven toward the "center" of civilization and culture by the (somewhat poisonous) gift of poetry itself.

  12. Henry,

    Happy to be disagreed with. I'll even disagree with you further, thus spreading the joy.

    1. I don't think there's much validity to general statements about what all poets everywhere always must or must not do, especially when it comes to questions of how they relate to a culture. Everything is contextual, including the relationship of poetry to the culture at large (which is itslef of course, always changing). If I didn't believe this, I wouldn't have spent the last three years beginning a book on some of the permutations of that relationship.

    2. I'd also say the evidence is against you, or at least against your claims of the inevitability of the drive for recognition. Think of Emily Dickinson: you'd have to undergo some serious mental gymnastics to argue that she was a seeker after recognition.


  13. Bob, re: your 1st point: I can see how my phrasing ("ultimately, poets cannot surrender...") could be misleading. I'm not trying to be prescriptive or to describe what holds for EVERY poet. A lot rides on that word "ultimately". The axiom or assumption which grounds my argument is that it is possible, "ultimately," to speak about poetry as a unitary phenomenon. One can counter this with a relativist position, as you seem to be doing. & we could argue that for centuries. Briefly, my position is : IF poetry is a unitary phenomenon, then certain dimensions of poetry are salient or substantial or definitive : & these elements come to the fore in great & lasting poetry. & I would hold that great & lasting poetry is driven itself by an inherent passion or vocation to GET INTO A DIALOGUE with the culture (or the world) at large : to challenge its assumptions : to oppose its un-reflective traditions : to debate its moral standing. This is seen perhaps most clearly in the wrangle of the Hebrew prophets with their tribe : it's also to be witnessed in the victimization of poets & poetry by repressive governments (viz. 20th-cent. history : see Milosz, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Lorca, &, &...)

    On your 2nd point : yes indeed I believe that Emily Dickinson was certainly NOT indulging in a private hobby. She may have given up on IMMEDIATE recognition, but I think she had an awareness of the inherent literary quality of what she had produced, and had a premonition that it would reach the audience it deserved.

  14. To expand on Bob's last point:

    2.a. There is an important distinction between personal ambition and ambition for one's art. And the drive for recognition of one's art is not at all the same thing as a narcissistic thirst for celebrity. Nor are those inevitably linked. Dickinson is a good counter-example, I agree. I'm sure there are others.


    Certainly we might generally want our art to become known, in order to participate culturally, or we might have ambition for our artistic products to somehow become part of our income stream. Without getting sidetracked into the monetization of art, or the professionalization of poetry teaching, or the contemporary economic/consumerist attitudes towards the artistic product, I just want to point out that some of us would like to make our living from our creativity, and see nothing inherently wrong with that. (My creativity is my greatest asset, and I DO make part of my living from it, albeit from music and photography, not from poetry or teaching creative writing.)

    But even though I have the ambition to make my living from my creativity, I don't really have any ambition to become famous in my own person. For many people, I grant you, those are tangled up together. For myself, I am well aware that I require solitude and silence to make my art (poem, music, visual), and that celebrity can detrimentally interfere with one's ability to continue to be creative.

  15. Then we are talking about different things, Henry.

  16. Care to elaborate, Bob? For my obtuseness? I understand what you're saying about the ego-driven thirst for personal recognition, authorization, respect, etc.etc. Understand that only too well. But perhaps the moral & psychological dilemma for poets resides just there : because poetry itself - the calling, the motive, the inspiration, the obsession, the the.... - poetry itself manifests an internal drive-to-be-heard. The dilemma is trying to distinguish between ego-trip & inspiration. & I don't think the solution lies in denying that inherent drive, that telos, within poetry itself........ "fame is the spur", wrotes Milty...

  17. There's a follow-up to that bit from Milton's "Lycidas," of course. Here's the whole couplet:

    Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
    (That last infirmity of Noble mind)

    Just sayin'


  18. .

    "Chameleons feed on light and air:

    Poets' food is love and fame."

    - Percy Bysshe Shelley


  19. A morning-after thought:

    Why is it that the same curmudgeonly voices who used to dominate the comments at Harriet want to have the last word here, as well as on those other blogs where this is all being discussed? Needing to have the last word can be seen as a form of insecure self-display that feeds that need to be noticed any which way one can be noticed.

    You see this all the time. Actions speak louder than words.

    It just proves that you're right about all this, Bob. LOL Thanks for the insights.

  20. Why is it that someone would put down another person's sincere and inoffensive comment as "curmudgeonly" and "insecure".

    I guess Terreson may have been right about you. You seem to be a pretty mean person.

    But thanks for the insights.

  21. There have been some very heated moments, especially on the posts about Cambridge poetry, in the Samizdat comments stream, but they've always been matters of disagreement about substance. This is the first time I've ever seen the comments stream here turn into anything like name-calling.

    I don't know, and am not really interested in knowing, where any blame may lie for how this discussion took an ugly turn. In fact, starting a discussion about that sort of thing would only make matters worse.

    To my knowledge, I've never rejected any comments that weren't commercial or obviously computer-generated, and I'm hoping not to have to start today. But please, people, let's not turn this quiet little backwater of the internet into the kind of tank full of barracudas that we had on Harriet and on Silliman's blog.

    I mean, we're adults here, and we care about some of the same things. Let's just remember that, be generous, and keep our cool.


  22. I have the following guest post at John Latta's blog, posted a few days ago.


    John Gallaher has this post today:


    Also, Ron Silliman wrote me today to say, in part, that "I may put up the old comments for a week -- Snark Week, so to speak -- to let people download whatever they want to."

    What does he mean by this, one wonders? That there will be a week's window before he deletes all the material? That he has no intent of saving it in a space more secure than time-limited Google Cache? One hopes not. But the remark, hardly surprising by now, I suppose, echoes his earlier flippancy and arrogance on the issue. A flippancy and arrogance that is an insult to the most basic principles and ethics of a writing community.

    He still hasn't answered the relevant questions (again, that he's chosen to stop comments from the Joe Massey post on is not that big a deal). The issue he's apparently unable to address is why he suggested, and publicly, that he had *no choice*, from a technical point of view ("It's Blogger's default setting" he's disingenuously claimed), to disappear all past comments of his eight year archive. It's perfectly evident this is not necessary, even if he wishes to set his blog to block any further comments from coming in. To be clear: He could set the archive of his past comments to public view at any time.

    So Silliman's provided no good reason why he's showing such disrespect to the thousands of people who have contributed to his blog over the past years, or to the many potential readers who may wish to peruse that archive in the future (including those who may wish to take a look at some rather withering critiques of his often ham-fisted and now largely discredited Manichean poetic cosmology). Truly, one wonders, in absence of any credible explanation (a small number of sexist, racist, or ad hominem-slinging folks he could have easily blocked all along are clearly not it), what the motivations really are for hiding the record and of taking no responsibility for preserving it, as part of the very life history of what he's termed "post-avant" poetics.

    I suppose future observers will have to speculate. Though even without the archives of his comments, I doubt they'll have too much trouble figuring out the deeper reasons.

  23. The fantasy of recognition. But the dream of having readers.