“His letters are not simply a wonderful adjunct to his poems, but a vital and valuable part of them: they often serve as testing grounds for his theories and ideas, and always blend spontaneity and calculation in a way which allows us to see him in the round.”
There are many reasons why poets take up other forms of writing. Not the least is a practical aspect. John Ashbery once pointed out that he, like most poets, can only write poetry for an hour or so per day — and so what to do with the rest of the hours in a day? Poets often write prose simply for the love of writing.
Baudelaire instructs us to “Always be a poet, even in prose.” Writing prose can be for some poets what it is for a specialized athlete to visit the gym — a way to stay limber and fit. But there are other, deeper needs fulfilled by supplementing poetry with prose. Keats’s letter writing is analogous to the modern phenomenon of poet-bloggers. And clearly, there are some timeless impulses held in common between the two.
One is the need for directness. Andrew Motion points out that “in his poems Keats cultivates a language which is carefully distanced from normal discourse. In his letters he writes with brilliant directness.” The gap has closed in most modern poetry between the diction of poetry and the diction of direct address (and now some poets even experiment with Tweets or, like Paul Muldoon, craft poems in the form of text messages). Yet despite the plainspoken nature of contemporary poetry, the art of poem craft differs considerably from impromptu direct address. Poetry is inherently self-conscious in that it is word-conscious and form-conscious — even in free verse.
I have been questioning my preference for reading poetry on paper versus digital text for some time now, wondering what might underpin these instincts. It recently occurred to me that the difference in mental state I experience when reading a book versus surfing the web may actually have a basis in science. The advent of digital text has made a staggering amount of information available to us, and thereby altered forever how we learn. The further proliferation of digital text through the internet, and especially now with blogging and social networking, has made our ability to filter through words a survival skill. We must read faster than ever in the information age, skimming for nuggets of meaning or amusement.
Just how have we learned to read faster in the information age? Short of a research grant, an EEG machine, and plenty of literate volunteers, I have only a sample size of one, and my subjective methods of self-observation to guide me. But my theory is that we bias the visual processing centers of our brain, instead of the auditory centers, when surfing the web. This theory is supported by speed-reading courses that attempt to eliminate sub-vocalization and auditory processing to teach people to read faster. And yet, poetry has been an aural medium for centuries.
What are the implications for our poetics when readers stop listening to poetry in their head? Continue reading…
Since Thanksgiving, traffic to this website dropped by half, and has stayed there over the past few weeks. And yet I find myself, swept up in this season of gratitude and giving, truly thankful for the ways in which this medium has allowed me to connect with other artists and thinkers. Just the other day, I received a comment by a professor in Illinois on a post I wrote nearly a year and a half ago. My post sparked off his thinking about negative capability, and his comments likewise set my mind off like a string of firecrackers. Surely, without this website, we would not have ever had such an exchange.
And then just tonight, over spiced cider, someone revealed to me they had spent hours on this site, reading past entries. It opened up a whole new dimension to our conversation, and in fact may have even made such a conversation possible — since I can naturally be quite taciturn in real life. And so, despite the waning glamour of blogging in general, and a dip in traffic on this site specifically, I find myself thankful for the incredible access to interesting people, and ensuing sense of community, that this little website has given me.
And thank you, dear reader, for being a part of that.
“I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”
Wired Magazine‘s Paul Boutin recently declared personal blogging dead. Soon after, The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan extolled the endurance of blogging’s “human brand” in a postmodern world of words. Me? I just keep writing. But why?
In “Personal Helicon” Seamus Heaney rhapsodizes on his boyhood love of wells, then concludes that writing poetry has become a sublimation of this love of the messy, muddy darkness no longer accepted in adulthood. I, too, write — both poems and blog posts — to create reflection in the dark, and to delight in the mess.
I did not start as a poetry blogger, but rather converted my existing site from a static collection of all-about-me pages into the chronological format of a blog. I did so around the time I became a freelance technology writer and consultant. It became a great outlet for me to float my nascent technical ideas before a global audience, and I soon found my blog posts widely re-syndicated.
This was during the heyday of personal blogging. Boutin now sees this golden age as having been pulled apart by two forces: the major news sources catching on, and dominating the market, and social networking sites like Facebook providing an alternative outlet for those seeking self-expression and a social community of peers online.
But my blog isn’t about monetizing my writing. Otherwise, I would still be mostly writing about technology. And, although I joined Facebook some time ago, social networking messages and status updates have by no means supplanted my writing here.
I never set out to write about poetry, or about grief for that matter. But by following the thread of my thoughts through the thread of my life, I seem to have touched upon a wide range of subjects, and to have built new thoughts upon past ruminations. In doing so, I feel I have also actually begun to build up a greater understanding of my self, and of how best to share that self with others. Far beyond “self-expression,” blogging for me represents a means to see myself in Heaney’s well, to gaze down through layers of history, into the dark.
For those who are afraid of the dark, perhaps it is true that many of the rewards of blogging’s prime have withered, and with it a certain breed of personal blogging has died. For the rest of us, I say: personal blogging is dead; long live personal blogging!
I was saddened to read that technology journalist Marc Orchant passed away this afternoon, having been unconscious for several days following a major heart attack. I only met Marc once in person, but he struck me as vibrant, fit, and extremely likable. He is survived by his wife and two children. If you feel moved to help support them through what must be an incredibly challenging holiday time, details on making a donation are available here.
Marc’s was a lightning-quick creative intelligence and, coupled with his love of technology, made for stimulating conversation and insightful reading on ZDNet and, later, blognation. The blogosphere is abuzz with tributes to his memory. For my part, I would like to extend my heartfelt condolences to his family, and hope that they are buoyed up by the support of friends and family during this time.
My friend and colleague Kelly Forrister (née O’Brien) stopped by this evening to hand me an autographed copy of Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems: 1966-1987. She studied with him and several others on a summer course at Trinity College, Dublin, and had pints with him after class. This was just after his appointment at Oxford, and before his Nobel Prize. I am touched that she would give me something so personally meaningful.
Funnily enough, although we only live a few pretty blocks apart in the sleepy idyll that is Ojai, she found out about my rekindled interest in Heaney from this website. Who says blogging doesn’t have its rewards? In the end I have only to say: thank you, Kelly. I will use it well.