Friday, April 28, 2006

Progress report on online poetry ...

I promised this yesterday, but got too involved reading stuff and thought it best to let some of it settle in before mouthing off.
These are strictly preliminary observations and, as I’ve tried to make clear, I’m open to comments, criticism, whatever.
So here goes:
1) I think everybody agrees that there has been an explosion of poetry on the Internet.
2) Most seem to think that among the major factors are the sense of community, the interactivity, the critical feedback. Those who have participated in online poetry workshops seem to have benefited from them.
3) Everybody also seems to agree that a lot of the poetry to be found online is not very good and that one of the problems is separating the gold from the dross. (Regarding this, I have a further observation: This is hardly unique to the Internet. As someone who has hundreds of books delivered to his office every week, I can assure you that such is the world of publishing, whatever the medium. Commercial publishers don’t come near to batting 1.000 when it comes to quality.)
4) Some think that there are more poets than readers of poetry — though obviously the writers of online poetry must also be readers of it.

I have a few other things I could note, but I want to think about them some more and continue reading. I do want to make one point, though, about the good/bad business. There was a reference to Hallmark in one of the comments, and I know what point was being made. But let me say this: If you had the job of writing for Hallmark, you might not be so dismissive. I have actually had to write a couple of poems on deadline. T’ain’t  funny, McGee. And what do I care if that’s the sort of “poetry” someone likes? I take a very latitudinarian view of poetry — and literature. Poetry is what poets do and there are a lot of different poets doing a lot of different things. Poetry’s house has many mansions. The mere fact that someone would take the trouble to memorialize a moment or an experience in even clumsy rhyme and meter deserves respect, not condescension or ridicule.


  1. Hi Nnorom,
    Please do call back. I look forward to learning what you can tell me.

  2. Hi Frank,

    In the threads I had started a week ago at the poetry forums, on your internet poetry project, I just made an update with all the links I could find here on your blog. For example, at:

    Desert Moon Review.

    For me, most internet poetry happens at the workshop, where the conversation threads go. I just found out where one of the finest and greatest contributors to internet poetry is currently posting. Her latest poem is at Eratosphere here:

    Janet Kenny's "Party".

    Notice that we just don't read the poem, but the conversation afterward. After a days worth of communication, Janet, who now lives in Queensland in Australia, say this about her use of "Bach" in the poem:

    You are probably more likely than most to spot the final rhyme disparity. In London I would have been ashamed to say “Bach” without the gutteral.

    So the poem is fine in itself, and the workshoppers or "critters" there at Eratosphere, are trying to help Janet see the mustard stains on the tie of her poem, as she prepares it for possible submission somewhere. But, most on line poets read the poetry off the workshopping forums. And then poke in at the online reviews when the publication takes place. Then return to the forums to congratulate the poet. The workshops, though, are where the poems live and grow.

    On the Hallmark issue, your comment reminds me of a thread on my new companion blog to Poetry & Poets in Rags, where Carl Bryant, engaged me in wonderful conversation about the recent study from The Poetry Foundation. I think there is an undercurrent coming out of the accessibilty movement, spearheaded now through Ted Kooser, that puts down less accessible poetry. I'm all for just about every poetry movement that's been around or coming around, as long as the movement does not attempt to squelch other poetic movements.

    It is up to the poet only, at the time of the musing, inspiration, or writing session, to determine what will come of the creative instinct. Otherwise, why not sympathize with Chinese authorities arresting poets and training them in right thinking? Or other movements where poets have been shot, or recently imprisoned such as in Cuba, for being a threat to someone else's ideology?


  3. Anonymous12:38 PM

    I agree with Rus on the accessability issue in poetry. i also think that in some ways it is merely the latest face of the long history of anti-intellectualism in the US. (Read historian Richard Hofstadter's work on this topic; he traces it in detail, with evidence.) Most discussions of the topic, in my experience, and I've written about this a lot myself, seem to fall into the hermeticism vs. "dumbing down" camps. I am in favor of neither. I wrote a long essay once saying that obscurity for the sake of being obscure, which is something I think a lot of contemporary poets do, is a negative; but I personally think that Ted Kooser's approach is just as negative. Personally, I think Kooser and his ilk cross the line by being dismissive and derogatory of other movements. On the one hand, it's nice to see some real honest opinionating going on, since most poetry criticism these days, in academia at least, is very milquetoast, since actually stating a real opinion might, horrors, offend someone! But I tend to agree more with Rus' comment that all -isms and movements in poetry are equally valid, and all are laudable until that moment when they try to squelch people who have contrary opinions.

    As someone who has indeed made mocking remarks about Hallmark-level poetry, all I can say is, anyone who takes my mocking remarks seriously really needs to develop a sense of humour.

    My sense of the Hallmark-poetry issue (and yes, I've been a commercial copywriter, so I'm not spouting an opinion out of ignorance) is that it is at root about the quality of the output, not the sentimentality level of its context. It really is far easier to write bad poetry than good, and it really is easier to sell lowest-common-denominator writing in any genre than it is to sell excellence; I stand by that opinion, because it's based on my experience. I applied to Hallmark, too, three times over the years, but they never hired me. I'm sure it's a very exciting, challenging place to work. But then, I guess I'll never know. As for writing on deadline, I've done that, too, lots of years as a music journalist, and columnist, and so forth; writing a poem on deadline isn't much harder than writing an essay on deadline, in my experience.

    But I'm sorry, if we can't have an opinion about good vs. bad poetry, then we might as well fold up this entire critical enterprise, online OR off, and just go home.

  4. Tastes vary with sophistication. Like Rus, I'm all for variety and accessibility. If we're to build an audience among the uninitiated, doing so with down-to-earth poems about everyday life is definitely the way to do it.

    I think of it as a pyramid... Kooser's American Life series is building the base. The market can narrow then as it will, up to a relatively tiny readership at the vertex. The only way to increase the size of the top section is to widen the base.

  5. Of course we can have opinions about good vs. bad poetry, Art - or good vs. bad anything for that matter. I was probably writing too hastily - as I often do - but what I was thinking of was the person who is moved by a Hallmark poem that more experienced readers would immediately recognize as cloying and cliched ought not to be harshly disabused. What the Hallmark poem has tapped into is something good. Like you, I don't like either obscure or dumbing down. I like finding the language and the form that together fit the experience. I also think that trying to make a poem out of an experience is worthwhile in and of itself irrespective of whether the poem that results is world-class. I do think that some of the internecine quarrels I have encountered among different "schools" of poetry is a terrific waste of energy. In short, I don't think we differ all that much. (Though deadline calls - and I'm writing too hastily.)

  6. Anonymous8:28 PM

    Thanks for the clarifications, Frank. I think we probably do agree on most of this. I especially agree that making a poem out of an experience is an inherently positive enterprise, regardless of the quality of the final result.

    Perhaps one ought to pick on "greeting card poetry" rather than Hallmark per se, as Hallmark has published some pretty good stuff, too, especially in the design and illustration areas. Graphic design geek that I am, I notice these things.

    In the scenario of one of the poetically-uninitiated being deeply moved by a greeting card poem that might lead a more exerienced poet to wince, I applaud the deep feeling and genuine experience of the moment. I cannot however applaud the lowest-common-denominator urge that resists the possibility that that same person COULD have had an equally moving moment from an even-slightly-better-written poem. I just don't think that even the greeting card industry should be excused from improving the quality of their poetic product; jsut because it's a throwaway bit of fluff doesn't mean they should be excused for not writing to a higher standard. That opinion is shared by none other than Stan Freberg, who made quite a mark on advertising in his day, and who still has opinions about quality.

    Then again, the annals of the history of poetry are filled with lots mediocre writing about cheap sentimentality, so I do agree that picking on greeting cards per se may not be fair, when there are so many equivalent examples published both online and in otherwise-reputable print journals. Nor did the desktop publishing revolution lead to a vast amount of great literature being suddenly available; rather, the full impact of Sturgeon's Law became obvious to even the uninitiated.

    I guess my bottom line on it is, write to the highest level possible, and even when picking out a greeting card to give to someone (or in these days of DTP, when you make one yourself), don't settle for third-rate.

    I like you way you described the other issue as "internecine quarrels" between various "schools" of poetry. That's a really good way to put it. I completely agree that such warfare is a waste of energy. The best way to avoid it, in my opinion, is to not engage in it, even just ignore it.