A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Once again, a poet has emailed me, peeved that a poem of hers that appeared in Vox Populi is not anything like the version she sent me. The line-endings and stanza-breaks are scrambled. Her careful crafting of white-space has disappeared. Her neologisms have been auto-corrected to gibberish. The indentations are… Well, I’m embarrassed. She’s embarrassed. Readers are shunning the page.
For the umpteenth time, I manually correct the html of a poem and remind the poet that a website is not like a typewriter where you can control exactly the way things appear. A website often sees non-standard formatting as errors to be fixed. And even if the formatting holds on the website, each server and social network may make arbitrary changes. Poems transmitted by email are often a mess. And even if these systems don’t screw up the poem, individual laptops, desktops, and handheld devices make adjustments to layout based on screen size and shape, as well as font preferences of the user.
I say to the poet (and all poets): “I’ve done the best I can. Now pray to the Gods of the Internet that they look favorably upon your poem.”
Since the internet has become the dominant medium for poetry (Vox Populi gets as many as 170,000 hits a day), many poets are evolving a style which is internet-friendly. I tell the poet that she might take a look at the layout of Jose Padua’s poems on Vox Populi. The poems are flush-left with short lines and no stanza breaks — perfect for website publication. Here’s one of my favorites:
Of all the sadness in the world
there is nothing that can compare
with American sadness. When
America is sad the whole world
weeps. Whenever one American
is sad, at least two non-Americans
somewhere else in the world consider
the possibility of ending it all. When
a hundred Americans are sad, wars
are fought in faraway lands for
the great purpose of making these
hundred Americans happy again.
When a million Americans are sad,
every flag in America droops, then
slides an inch and then another inch
down the flag pole and nothing can
stop this descent until bold, confident
smiles return to these Americans’ faces.
American sadness, let’s make it clear,
is exceptional. Unlike what you may
have heard, it doesn’t always talk
softly, but it always carries a big stick
because no one is sad the way an
American is sad. No one drags his feet
through the dullness of a day, or
walks with her eyes looking downward
quite as sadly as an American who
feels sad because America is losing
a battle, coming in second, or washing
ashore with empty pockets and bad breath.
American sadness, of course, is the greatest
sadness in the world—do not look it
in the eye unless your intention is
to make amends. Do not settle for a
knowing grin, or a sliding into place
of the proper order of thought or things.
Work hard, do your best, and fight
whenever a fist is called for, or a bomb
needs to be dropped upon a civilian population
whose greatest misfortune is not being American.
But above all, keep American sadness at bay
like a ship that wrecks off shore through
instability or from fault of navigation.
Let’s remember to keep America happy.
Let’s keep America entertained.
Another option for poets in the Age of Information is to forgo the whole apparatus of line-breaks, stanza divides, white space… and instead adopt the appearance of prose, albeit a compact lyrical prose that uses sentence rhythms, quirky attitudes, and quick turns of thought to create poetry. Here, for example, is the opening to a wonderful Vox Populi essay by the poet Adrian Blevins called “An Ode to the Erection.”
I sing, for my daughter, of shanks and shafts and the endearing contrast between the mind’s affairs and the body’s undiscriminating inclinations.
This is a midget and perhaps very foolish ode, I kid you not, to the erection. I’m writing it for my baby girl, who’s just now taking an afternoon nap inside her exemplary body on the big bed she was born in. I take on the expedition, too, for her friend Charlotte, who just turned 2 in April, and for the companions the both of them will have in the years to come.
I was myself a doe in the headlights when it came to sex. I was a grasshopper on the windshield of a Dodge Durango. I was a wee strawberry below the steel-toed boots of some mean-assed fisherman. My parents did sit me down for “the talk” when I was about 11, and my father, a painter, even got out his paper and his pencils. But what my parents covered that afternoon was menstruation and ovulation. And while there is nothing wrong with menstruation and ovulation, it was erections that dumbfounded me, erections that were the trump cards in the deck.
Thus I take them out here and lay them — ace of spades, of hearts, of clubs and of diamonds — on the table….
For many years, I ran Autumn House Press, a boutique poetry publisher of beautiful books and chapbooks for discerning readers who love the look and feel, and yes, the smell of books. I’m still passionate about the printed page and will never stop reading books, but I’m also a realist who’s aware of the enormous changes brought about by technology. Just as ancient poets had to deal with the evolution from oral to written language (boy, that must have pissed off a lot of old poets who’d spent their lives perfecting their memories!), and late twentieth century poets had to adjust to changes in the technology of printing and the rise of mega-publishers and big-box bookstores, so the current generation has to learn to use the internet. Everything changes, folks, get used to it.
The internet offers a cheap and efficient way for poets to reach millions of readers and listeners. So far there are no censors and very few laws stopping us. Seventy years ago, we (that is, poets) snubbed our collective noses at the opportunity to bring poetry to the people through television. Let’s don’t blow it this time. As the business consultants say, “There are no problems, only opportunities.”
Of course, some poets are more than a little exasperated when I say that they might consider changing their style to be more internet-friendly. After all, the ancient craft of poetry takes years of practice to learn. Turn, counter-turn, leap, and pause are intrinsic to a poem’s aesthetic experience. But, hey, the internet doesn’t care. The Muses are alive and well, but Apollo with his lyre doesn’t rule here. Nor gray-haired bright-eyed Athena with her wise counsel. Rather Hermes, God of Messengers, Travelers, and Thieves, interested only in getting the message delivered quickly, dominates the Age of Information. Let’s make sure the message includes poetry.
Copyright 2016 Michael Simms
Hermes, God of Messengers, Travelers, and Thieves (image from Wikia)