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Journal, Day Three

By Terrance Hayes

What does the Internet and its boundless resources mean to the poet compelled to turn information into imagery and ideas? Maybe this could describe all poets. Surely someone somewhere has discussed this question once or twice. Last fall when my poet-wife entered a Library Science masters program (in part to get away from the goo attached to living as a poet and teacher of poetry), one of our first discussions/debates concerned what the Internet meant for the library. I argued that the library was on its way to becoming a kind of museum; that its role as a locus for information was being replaced by the Internet. She disagreed, not only because of the class presumptions I was making (not everyone can afford computers and Internet), but because I had no idea what was going on in today’s libraries. I was/am mostly at the keyboard. True, true, but I’m on a tangent here. (Plus I lost the debate.)

I find the kinds of information online both overwhelming and endlessly interesting. Today when a student read a poem framed by a fairly obscure religious reference, another student admitted to using Wikipedia to learn about it. I and half the class chimed “Ahh, Wikipedia,” while the other half stared blankly.

[Commercial break: Students invariably ask how important it is to know all of a poem’s references and allusions. My response: one can admire/appreciate a portrait (for its brushstroke, composition, color, etc) without knowing who the subject of the painting is. If the painting is no good, knowing who the subject is doesn’t make it better; if it is good, knowing the subject enriches the experience.]

Maybe the ease of research in the age of Google means everyone should be informed. Everyone should know everything. This reminds me of Ralph Ellison’s 1978 essay: “The Little Man in Chehaw Station: The American Artist and His Audience,” which says the nature of America is such that there will always be someone in the room who knows more about your subject than you. Remember the bar scene in Good Will Hunting, where Matt Damon’s character (janitor, genius incognito) corrects and thoroughly embarrasses some smug Harvard PhD student about an obscure theory of economics? Well, all through that movie, Damon is playing the little man (albeit a romanticized version of the little man, because I can’t believe a “genius” who looked like Matt Damon would ever be a janitor). Knowing Mr. Joel Dias-Porter (aka DJ Renegade) I have no trouble believing the idea of the little man. Ellison says the little man is an inescapable figure because he (or she) is a product of “America’s social mobility, its universal education, and its relative freedom of cultural information.” Though I can’t get with the holey optimism of “social mobility” and “universal education” (Ellison must have had his eyes closed when he said it), it’s not hard to believe “cultural information” is freer than ever. (I can hear my wife saying my eyes are closed too.) Will the Internet proliferate little men and women, America becoming one big Chehaw Station? I hope so.

A student trying to get on my good side today suggested I was some sort of intellectual. I’m no intellectual. Just a nosey bean with a mild obsessive-compulsive disorder and access to the Internet. How to be as smart if not smarter than Terrance in eight easy steps*:

1. Wikipedia: a cooperative free-content encyclopedia at http://www.wikipedia.org/. 1,176,523 articles and counting.

2. Science and the City (http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcasts.asp.), where you’ll find podcasts featuring interviews, conversations, and lectures by noted scientists and authors.

3. David Byrne (http://journal.davidbyrne.com/). Visiting this site will also make you as smart or smarter than David Byrne.

4. http://phrontistery.info/index.html. From the site: “If you’re looking for an online dictionary, a word list on a given topic, or the definitions to rare and unusual words, the Phrontistery is for you.” There is a 15,500-word dictionary of obscure and rare words.

5. Ron Silliman’s blog at http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/ It exceeded 750,000 visitors this week and is as compelling for Silliman’s ideas as it is for the poets, wannabe poets, sycophants, and weirdoes who respond to his posts. Plus you will be a hit at the next Language Poets Party or Charles Olson Fan club meeting.

6. http://www.slate.com/: today’s papers: A daily summary of what’s in major US newspapers. The contrasts in headlines covering the same information is often unsettling. Example: the New York Times says: “BUSH TAKES STEPS TO EASE INCREASE IN ENERGY PRICES” where the USA Today says: “EFFECT OF GAS PLAN MAY BE LIMITED” and the LA Times says: “BUSH’S PROPOSALS VIEWED AS DROP IN THE OIL BUCKET.”

7. Boing Boing (http://boingboing.net/). Simply described as “a directory of wonderful things.” From today’s page: “How to turn a $60 Linksys router into a $600 super-router”; a video of a shredding machine violently “deconstructing” a BMW; a World Cup played by ants; everything you ever wanted to know about Victorian London.

8. Step 8 will remain undisclosed, Sucka.

* Results may vary.

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, June 7th, 2006 by Terrance Hayes.