Modernist poets had typewriters and smoke-filled coffee shops. Their observations, however quotidian, sparkled on the page. Their schools and movements existed in relative secrecy. Myths surrounded them.
Nowadays, coffee shops are smoke-free, and there are no secrets. Every whisper of a literary movement has its own Wikipedia page. Before a book is written, parts of it are posted online. Before it’s published, it’s promoted on social media. And, after it’s published, every review, every mincing spit in its direction, is shared globally. Pricewaterhouse Coopers has projected electronic book sales will overtake physical book sales by 2017.
Yet we continue to print warehouses full of new books. This could be due to the “power of a bookbook” as the viral Ikea video explains it. Could be digital natives’ apparent preference for print. Or it could be the result of nostalgia, that particularly nauseating, impossible nostalgia felt only by people who have access to everything. Maybe the more we leave the library and bookstore, the more keenly we feel the absence of those archaic delivery mechanisms. Libraries smell like reading.
In April, publisher and bookaholic Hugh McGuire published an essay that begins, “Last year, I read four books.” He goes on to confess that, upon opening a book, he discovers he needs “just a little something else. Something to tide me over. Something to scratch that little itch at the back of my mind— just a quick look at email on my iPhone; to write, and erase, a response to a funny Tweet from William Gibson.”
Poets of the new millennium face a compound dilemma. Not only are we distracted as readers, we’re flighty and prone to overshare as writers. Where once was a stable narrative center of desk, writing instrument, and ream of bond now proliferate laptop, tablet, smartphone, and flat panel display. Even cable and satellite programming are being supplanted by devices like Roku and Apple TV that offer streaming media subscriptions.
This isn’t a new world of too much going on; it’s a world of too much information and control. Too few accidents.
This used to be a world of a couple of strange coincidences a month. Sometimes a wild juxtaposition. One noticed them as one walked the neighborhood or sat in a public place. Now there are endless weird connections (wait, three people named Richard Clark have birthdays today?), countless micro-coincidences, and there’s nothing much to say about them but to turn them off. Close the browser window. Put the phone back in the pocket.
The same, shall we say, user experience affects poets—possibly even more acutely. It once was our job to weave symbolism into our texts. We were asked to make connections between fragile, temporary human life and transcendent realities. We were to discuss love—neither too enthusiastically nor too wearily, but in a way that summoned hope. We were advised not to turn sentimental or flowery. We were charged with being inventive and real. I’m recalling actual advice from Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, and other midcentury writers.
Now all of that seems as superfluous as a top hat and silk cravat, and not in a quaint way. Because where there is a proliferation of options, and options about options, there’s an absence of authentic experience. Where everything’s available, nothing’s necessary. Where there’s an overabundance of information, none of it is relevant, and nationally recognized poets teach courses titled “Wasting Time on the Internet.”
Imagine how valuable poetry would be if it were necessary, if its existence were tethered to purpose. If you were trapped in a burning building, and a book of poems explained how to escape, you’d read it. If you were serving a prison sentence, and poetry kept your soul alive, you’d read poetry. We also write from necessity. However surreal or froufrou poems might seem, if they’re rereadable, they were born of necessity. Part of their value is that they exist for a reason.
Maria Popova in her speech at last year’s Future of Storytelling conference argues that, in the new millennium, we have come to rely on “fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding. ‘Knowledge,’ Emerson wrote, ‘is the knowing that we can not know.’” Popova sees the role of storyteller (or as Plato and I would say, poet) as expanding, not diminishing, since people need guides to “information worth remembering and knowledge that matters—to understanding not only how the world works, but how it should work. And that requires a moral framework.”
I agree with Popova, but I think the role she’s identifying would require a kind of patience and discernment I once had but have lost due to immersion in interactive media. My first effort to regain it has included deleting Tumblr and Facebook, taking a step back from Twitter. These outlets, to me, feel like wraiths that suck out my secrets, my lies, my wit, and with all that my sense of what ought to be. Without those things, I can’t hope to produce authentic poems.
Maybe none of this is a big a deal. Honestly, I estimate only 3-5% of my poems to be “authentic”; and I don’t want to go back to libraries and bookmobiles. I do, however, want to be less sad about the way hyperconnectedness and ubiquitext have flattened form and all but deleted poetry—or at least poetry’s social value, since “poetry,” its advocates keep saying, has never been more abundant. My question for myself is, what practical steps can I take to be less sad?
I’ve discovered I can’t turn off the internet. Don’t even want to: Hyperconnectedness has an upside for writers, allowing book promotion, tour arrangement, and fundraising for various projects. But I can keep it in check, at least in terms of how I, personally, use it. Now, more than ever, I have to get hold of that old-fashioned Thoreauvian deliberateness. I need to mark out the hours of my day to reduce information-creep when information isn’t helpful. There should be space for lying on my back and looking at the ceiling, walking my dog, blowing the steam from a cup of coffee before taking a sip.
Speaking of Thoreau, I guess he felt a similar social and economic busyness, because he ended up at Walden Pond. So maybe none of this is even new. As humans we’re perennially challenged to live within limit, maintain moderate intake and modest output. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.”
A therapist in L.A. once said to me, “Aaron, you don’t have a psychological problem. You have a moral problem. Try reading Kierkegaard.” Those words were an epiphany, suggesting I take ownership of my life rather than moving from diagnosis to diagnosis. They apply here just as well. Maybe it is my—or shall I say, our—failure to establish limits that is to blame for info-creep and flattened Netflix days. A power outage is always nice, but, speaking for myself, I won’t leave this to an act of God. And I won’t be threatened by the fact that “put down your phone” has become an annoying cliché.
I’ll put down my entire connection and resurface from time to time.
Photo Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões