What will come after the blog? Where do bloggers go from here? Has the form, as is typical of new media, aged precociously? Are the big print media outlets, with their combination of traditional and new media formats (paper, a website which reproduces more or less a virtual duplication of the hard form, embedded bloggers, video, slideshows, podcasts, etc.) going to overwhelm the individual blogger? Do bloggers, who have not been trained as journalists stand out? How does a dynamically flourishing blog culture avoid redundancy, glut, glibness and overkill?
One response has been to try to give the blogosphere an air of professionalism. Increasingly the weblog, once and independent and renegade format, has become a vetted affair, packaged and marshaled into line, certified by sponsors and, as a result of becoming beholden, sanitized. It no longer threatens anything. (One wonders if it ever did.) Traditional media has domesticated it by absorbing it.
For professional journalists these days, if you are not blogging, you are behind the curve. For independent bloggers, if you have not somehow become a professional journalist, you are facing irrelevance, simply because no single reader can cope with your (as a class) copiousness.
Let’s narrow the field; let’s talk about poetry bloggers.
Here too, a certain futility lurks in the margins. So many poets, untrained at literary journalism, called up like reservists, and sent greenly into battle. Most of them have never learned that prose is not poetry. They seem to think that as poets they are somehow released from having to grapple with the arduous task of writing pleasing sentences. Anything can happen within a line of poetry, but the sentence is a rule-bound construction. You have to be good at mathematics to write good sentences. Ideally you should have studied Latin and a modern inflected language, German or Finnish, for example. You would do well to have an astrolabe placed to the left of your laptop.
The more I pursue the poetry blogosphere the more it appers to be a replication of the poetry scene at large. That is, instead of creating a real alternative to officialdom, it is, perforce, sustaining the institutionally created of cliques of contemporary poetry, of which there seem to be hundreds, some associated with specific MFA programs, some not. Poets’ positions in this setting - or at least their ancillary positions - as self-invented critics, have their own hierarchy. There are the official bloggers and there are the court minions, from the jesters to the ladies-in-waiting, from the grooms of the stool to the reeves. These latter ones comprise the broader class of commentators. Their job is to extend the bloggers discussion by proxy, until the blogger brings the butt end of his scepter down on the blog-floor with a crash, which is a signal for everyone to shut up, thus clearing the space for a new blog, which will set the whole process in motion once again.
Survival in the blogosphere (i.e., relevance) depends on escaping the intangible burden of ephemerality that weighs so lightly on just about anything anyone writing a blog says, or, given the nature of the format, could possibly say. The only escape is via the imprimatur of an organization, like the one I am presently writing for.
One might say, kindly, that the poetry blog and the hundreds of poetry webzines on line are reproducing in updated form those decades (from the last century) of “little mag” culture and the kinds of contexts in which it flourished. And yet, released from the onus of printing and distribution, what results is sheer proliferation, a consequence, perhaps, of not only how publishing is now possible for anyone with a computer and a modem, but also of how many certified poets there are out there, and of their inability (or, by now, reluctance) to create a physical, as opposed to a virtual, community.
Obviously a vast range of issues has arisen out of that transition, which began in the last decade of the 20th century, from the analogical to the digital world. If globalization was the catch phrase for this dizzying informational evolution (which was mirrored by the conglomeration of profit), its most prized technology was the Internet, the impact of which has still not been properly digested. It would be no stretch of the imagination to say that it has been at least as transformative for us as the Roman highway system was for the late classical world. One wonders whether it was the technology itself that signaled the cultural shift, or rather a kind of grinding of tectonic societal plates, a collective fin de siècle push into the new century, that drove the new technology. Chief among all those issues, which accrue to paradigm shifts at a global level, for poets especially, is the imposition of “real time” on an activity that is supposed to take time. This, and the final stages of the professionalization of poetry have changed the way poets live and work, even as the world they live in accelerates beyond their calling, reducing it to a system of traces, an echopraxia of our forebears, a dumb colloquy with the dead.
In his recent New York Times review of the newly collected correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Words in Air, William Logan talks about the process of writing these letters. “Bishop might elaborate hers over weeks, at times swearing she had written Lowell in her imagination."
When I read that I took pause. I began to wonder what precisely is the relationship between the imagination and time. Gone, it seems, is the sense of duration. Gone the art of waiting, of creativity as deferral and revision. Gone is the patience of poetry. Poets will never again write as Delmore Schwartz did in “Calmly We Walk Through This April Day”, which closes with these four lines: "May memory restore again and again / The smallest color of the smallest day: / Time is the school in which we learn, / Time is the fire in which we burn." Not only is there, today, a collective aversion to such lyricism, but the meditation on time and aging, solitude and martyrdom, seems, to us, somehow quaint. Schwarzt’s notion that “The past is inevitable” no longer seems true. The continuum has been compromised by the new. We’re too “hopped up”, as they used to say, to even (in the current idiom) “go there.”
Gone too is the model of slow maturation of talent (itself a suspect word nowadays that hardly accords with the industrial scale production of poets.), The notion of going away to write, to be alone, to challenge oneself through a process of étrangement has lost the look of necessity. Poets like Stein, Bishop, Ashbery, or Harry Mathews, all of whom spent good parts of their lives abroad, away from the frenetic urban centers and university campuses of America, away from other poets, all came into their own, on their own, in foreign settings. None of them had even a whiff of fame or a broad readership until they were well into their forties. Harry Mathews himself, not only an important member of the Oulipo group (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), which included authors such a Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau) but one of America’s most important novelists, experimental or otherwise, hardly registers on the American radar. Many of them, whatever country it was that they managed live in (I say “managed” because it involved “cracking the system”, that is solving the impossible riddle of “papers”, extended visas, etc.)... Many of them went so far as to immerse themselves in a foreign language, which, for a poet, is a kind of double exile. Speaking one language and writing in another forces one to work at an even further remove from predictable patterns and settings. The depth and consolidation of one’s mother tongue (or poetic tongue) is always antagonized by the imposition of an alternative tongue. The poet is estranged not only culturally (or rather materially) but linguistically as well. One is forever importing thought, which is thought in one language, and trying to cast it in the syntax of the underlying language. This translation occurs automatically and constantly – an ongoing process of defamiliarization and coping which hardens the lyric poet against his or her easiest predilections. The extreme cases of this process are of course known to all, Conrad, Beckett and Nabokov, all of whom engaged in the long and grueling task of completely altering their linguistic chemistry and reinventing their host-language in previously unfathomable ways. Again time, isolation, the hardship of exile, were all at play. What happens in these settings is either no longer available to younger poets, or younger poets seem disinclined to take up the challenge of going it alone.
One wonders if blogging, the internet, virtual communities, the press to make a career for oneself as a poet-professor have now completely replaced the older way of doing things.
Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...