How many passwords does Sharon Olds have? How many passwords does Seamus Heaney have? Does anyone other than them know what they are?

The TIME Magazine in the dentist's office is wondering what happens to your cloud-borne data when you're dead. A relevant question for all of us who a) compute and b) are mortal. (Indeed, it recently occurred to me that I might oughta swap passwords with my dad, just in case one of us unexpectedly needs to execute the other's "estate," such as they are. (We're Dutch; we enjoy planning.)) But it seems like this must be a particularly vexing issue for readers and scholars of literature, since, for better or worse, people are going to want to write dissertations about Olds and Heaney (and Gary Snyder and C. D. Wright and Lyn Hejinian and Robert Pinsky and Charles Bernstein and Adrienne Rich etc.), and some of these folks, and certainly many more of the generations which follow them, must be conducting their correspondence increasingly online, and that information lies behind a login screen.

Maybe who cares, since maybe the whole matter of one writer being So Important that her/his correspondence is deemed worthy of interest obtains less and less as the notion of Individual Genius continues to ebb away?

Maybe who cares, since maybe writers rarely these days write substantive private correspondence, since they tend instead to simply publish their best thoughts on the open internet via blogs or web sites, or in print?

But maybe someone does care? I don't know! Just curious. Any future PhD candidates out there hoping to dissertate on the Dickmans and fretting about how you'll get access to their Facebooks?

If nothing else, let's please do have a contest guessing what Olds' and Heaney's email passwords might be.

Originally Published: August 18th, 2009

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, poet Joel Brouwer is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Syracuse University. Brouwer is the author of several collections of poetry, including And So (2009); Centuries (2003), a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book; and Exactly What Happened (1999), winner of the Larry Levis...

  1. August 18, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Oops. Nasty grammatical there. Just an observation. Drunk, now...going to sleep.

  2. August 19, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Dammit. Sorry. Does anyone other than they know what them are.

  3. August 19, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Let me expand the subject here a little bit. I just got in the mail a review copy of a reissue of "The Delicacy and Strength of Lace," correspondence between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright from 1978-1980. (You can read an excerpt here: http://www.graywolfpress.org/Related_Content/Book_Excerpts/Excerpt_from_The_Delicacy_and_Strength_of_Lace/)\r

    Now these letters ain't Chekhov/Gorky or even Bishop/Lowell, but they're lovely, substantive, and -- this is particularly striking to me -- primarily concerned with writing per se. Silko and Wright weren't friends in correspondence who both happened to be writers; they were writers in correspondence who gradually became friends.\r

    Does this still happen? Via US Post, email, or whatever?\r

    And then, if it does, I go back to the anxiety of the archivist: Will such stuff be accessible to us in the future?\r

    Not sure if I'm onto something momentous or negligible here, but I'm sure someone will let me know.

  4. August 19, 2009
     Don Share

    Here are some poets that I'm almost certain don't use e-mail for po-biz purposes:\r

    Seamus Heaney\r
    Les Murray\r
    Albert Goldbarth\r
    Jay Wright\r

    & I think-\r
    W.S. Merwin \r
    Richard Wilbur \r

    Corrections and additions welcome.

  5. August 19, 2009
     Matthew Thorburn

    Call this old-fashioned, but I tend to print out the emails I receive that seem worth saving. Who knows when a Hotmail account may be hacked or just disappear? Here's hoping recipients of emails from Seamus Heaney (a group that doesn't include me, alas) do the same.

  6. August 19, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    I'm sure you're right, Don. But what about the poet who's 25 today who will be Heaney-level significant in 50 years? She's doing email, I guarantee you. \r

    Of course it's also possible that in 50 years we won't have the kinds of hierarchies we do now.\r

    If we even have them now.

  7. August 19, 2009
     Don Share

    Well, I think Matthew's on to something: I bet more people than are willing to admit it print out or otherwise archive e-mail. And as a matter of records management, many places like Poetry magazine print out & file correspondence as a matter of routine, thus ensuring future volumes of Dear Editor, at least to some extent. But you're probably right about the loss. Yet maybe this is a bit like mourning the loss of the library at Alexandria. \r

    Anyway, do people still keep diaries & journals by hand? Seems like they probably do...

  8. August 19, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    All e-mail correspondence, out and in, should be saved on Zip-drive discs (it's possible that's an outmoded format, though).\r

    Here's a question regarding that: Does anyone know what the relative value of email correspondence more or less is compared to typewritten or handwritten letters? I mean their value to libraries, what they pay for the correspondence? I realize it will depend what library and what author one is talking about. But if one has fifteen handwritten letters and cards from Gary Snyder, say, and then fifteen e-mails from the same, how much more, roughly, would the holograph variety be worth to a library? \r


  9. August 19, 2009
     Don Share

    Zip drives: forget it, they aren't gonna last. Nothing with movable parts will. I spent almost a decade in the poetry archive at Harvard & have to tell you that we had things like floppy discs and other extinct media that were worthless either becuase they had failed mechanically or because it was not possible to extract usable information from them using software that was available. Paper, on the other hand, lasts and lasts if you treat it kindly.\r

    Typescript and handwritten letters are both valuable. It's the context and provenance that are judged in terms of worth to the archive. On eBay or among collectors, though, something in the writer's own hand can fetch more $$. The market and archival value of e-mail is undetermined, and probably negligible.

  10. August 19, 2009
     Don Share

    This just in:\r


  11. August 19, 2009
     Desmond Swords

    Some of the most interesting back and forths via an electronic mail system i have read, are the very early days of 1994 and 5 at Buffalo Poetics list.\r

    Everything is new and it is a small knit clique, and i remember when i first stumbled across this list a couple of years ago and spending an afternoon eves-dropping on Bernstein, Creely, Howe, Joris, Notley, Perloff, Silliman, Tuma and the rest of the pioneers. I say eves-dropping because it was very much a top-secret space for adepts only, like a hidden room where - for the first time - cyber chat happened between poets. This accounts for the faintly conspiritorial background hum to it, with Bernstein coming across as the intellectual lynchpin levering the project into what it currently is.\r

    It was through this I first stumbled across I Don't Take Voice Mail; presented at a symposium, sponsored by the Parsons School of Design, at the New School in New York, on April 16, 1994 - where Bernstein lays out his vision of how this then, very new communication technology, will pan out - with his poetical prophecy, accurate in many respects:\r

    "The most radical characteristic of the internet as a medium is its interconnectivity. At every point receivers are also transmitters. It is a medium defined by exchange rather than delivery; the medium is interactive and dialogic rather than unidirectional or monologic.....The potential for discussion and collaboration is appealing–the format mixes some of the features of correspondence with a discussion group, conference call, and a panel symposium such as this one (with the crucial difference that the distinction between audience and panel is eroded)."\r

    Exactly what happened is what he prophecied, and it is a fascinating documented history, because a year or two or three (i can't recall where in the narrative now) as the list expands, the first major disruptive influence appears lashing out wildly and after this the main heads all dissappear, their trailblazing done, and they retreat into the sidelines, knowing it was they (Bernstein) who'll be the one remembered and talked about as the major force of that 1990's era.\r

    The intimate cosy fireside atmosphere had well gone as the lost grew, and it is only now as i write, two tabs right where the poetics list is, reading a post by one poet to another, that it occurs to me, just how much the net has shaped most of the peopel in the full of their muturity here now. The big hitters who i need not mention. Ten and more years ago, the heads occupying the stage centre now, where still making their bones - online.\r

    If any university publisher wishes to archive my own voluminous correspondence, please feel free to make me an offer. I have reams of 'em.\r

    During the early days, i would write to well knowns, thinking perhaps they could show me the meaning of life, and it was only recently, after the first eight years of following the bardic course, finding Amergin's touchstone text and meeting all the greats in the flesh, that the realization we are all essentially the same human beings - one has run out of prophets to sit at the feet of.\r

    Apart from Silliman of course, who is my God.

  12. August 19, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    >The market and archival value of e-mail is undetermined, and probably negligible.\r

    Don, do you mean that a file of dozens of private emails from (pick your Famous Poet) would not be of archival interest to a library-- particularly one with holdings of that poet's work?\r


  13. August 19, 2009
     Don Share

    I was refering to what would be paid for it, which would be negligible in my opinion. The content itself might be priceless, precious, or dross... or some combination thereof. As a curator, I wouldn't pay much for printed out e-mails, no. But I'd accept them & file them in acid-free files and boxes!

  14. August 19, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Hm! That's interesting to me! Printing out emails, as opposed to just backing them up? It's never occurred to me. The digital archive is so much more easily searched, and takes up no space.

  15. August 19, 2009
     Don Share

    Look at it this way: we have paper stuff that's as old as.... paper itself. But where will the "digital archive" be, literally & figuratively, in 10 years? 50?? 150??? Is anybody archiving the digital archive in such a way as to guarantee that it will be accessible centuries from now? Our technology isn't designed to facilitate this... yet.

  16. August 19, 2009
     Henry Gould

    "I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

  17. August 19, 2009
     Miriam Levine

    Never mind swapping passwords with your dad: better to swap lists--with numbers-- of all your bank accounts, funds, etc. As for passwords for Sharon Olds and Seamus Heaney: I'm not the least bit interested. And as for this ephemera without body, let it all just drift and dissolve.

  18. August 19, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Since my original comment on this thread (obviously meant in jest) has been 'collapsed', this means all replies to said comment will also be rendered invisible, so, I'll take advantage of this to offer you a personal note, Joel.\r

    I have greatly enjoyed your posts and have had a lot of fun replying to them over the months. I regret that Harriet has become so hurtful (at least for me). One almost has to be a masochist to want to write anything publicly here anymore.\r

    I have noticed that many people are getting 'Dislike' votes, almost like a game. What is actually said doesn't seem to matter. I just wanted to go on record (front channel) as saying that I think this voting thing is terribly wrongheaded and has negatively impacted the discourse at Harriet. I find it becoming an increasingly hostile environment. This is, after all, a poetry blog, a bastion, one would think, of free speech. I believe people are taking advantage of this feature to release their inner troll.\r

    At any rate, I wanted to thank you and let you know that I truly regret losing what was probably my favorite experience after writing and reading...interacting with my fellow poets at Harriet.

  19. August 19, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Exegi Monumentum\r

    I have erected a monument to myself\r
    Not built by hands; the track of it, though trodden\r
    By the people, shall not become overgrown,\r
    And it stands higher than Alexander's column.\r

    I shall not wholly die. In my sacred lyre\r
    My soul shall outlive my dust and escape corruption--\r
    And I shall be famed so long as underneath\r
    The moon a single poet remains alive.\r

    I shall be noised abroad through all great Russia,\r
    Her innumerable tongues shall speak my name:\r
    The tongue of the Slavs' proud grandson, the Finn, and now\r
    The wild Tungus and Kalmyk, the steppes' friend.\r

    In centuries to come I shall be loved by the people \r
    For having awakened noble thoughts with my lyre,\r
    For having glorified freedom in my harsh age\r
    And called for mercy towards the fallen.\r

    Be attentive, Muse, to the commandments of God;\r
    Fearing no insult, asking for no crown,\r
    Receive with indifference both flattery and slander,\r
    And do not argue with a fool.\r

    - A. Pushkin, 1836

  20. August 19, 2009
     Don Share

    I'm saying they wouldn't pay you much money for them. They'd possibly accept them as gifts to file them away, sure. Or perhaps buy them if associated with other materials, e.g., photos, handwritten or TS mss., signed books, etc. - maybe.

  21. August 19, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Interesting, Don. Seriously, in regards to what sounds like a near- absolute privileging by institutions of the "presence" of the typewritten vis a vis the corruptions of the e-mailed:\r

    I wonder if that old war horse Speech and Phenomena could be dusted off and creatively applied to "logocentric" biases guiding the Archive?\r


  22. August 19, 2009
     Don Share

    Probably has more to do with, as I've said, contextualizing of actual artifacts within larger caches of material... and also the fact that typed or handwritten letters are singular objects as distinguished from printed-out e-mails, which are endlessly reproducible. Don't take my word for it, though; why not see what luck you have yourself with various special collections?

  23. August 19, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Right, that's what I was referring to, the aura of the "singular object" (whose form is also endlessly reproducible), its value a function of symbolic exchange (some might say fetishism) rather than use.\r

    But that's certainly not saying anything new. And don't get me wrong-- I love original letters as much as the next person!\r


  24. August 19, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    At least I'm in good company. I see Eileen Myles got 'collapsed' in her own post. :-)

  25. August 19, 2009
     Kelly Cherry

    Thanks for raising this question, Joel. I think we're going to suffer a great loss in collections of literary letters because email is different from the printed word not merely in form but also in character. Even without abbreviations and even with emoticons, email is truncated. I remember the long letters I exchanged with writers when I was young: they expressed and elaborated upon ideas, feelings, opinions, and our struggles and triumphs with our work. Not to mention daily doings. I kept many of those letters and thank myself for doing so. I don't mind email; it's handy and quick and saves time, but it's not the same thing.\r

    Or, who knows, maybe the loss is not so much of serious and full communication as it is of youth. Besides, we have so many people we're writing to these days; where is the time to engage wholly with a special handful?\r


  26. August 19, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Also, my (humorous) comment about Eileen being 'collapsed' on her own post has now disappeared. That truly is censorship and that is despicable. I guess this is what it feels like to be 'voted off the island'.\r
    No, actually...more like a funeral: sadness and loss.

  27. August 19, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Hi Joel, Thanks for this post. I have this great collection of letters between Dali and Lorca, which I look at every once in a while, and it makes me nostalgic. \r

    I love the letter, or at least the idea of the letter, especially since unlike the blog comment stream, email, or listserv (do people still use the listserv?) letter writers don't have an exact record of the entire communication. This must mean something in terms of the directions letter correspondence takes? \r

    I'm wondering if we made a conscious decision now to start writing letters to other writers, would we be so self-conscious of their future possible publication value?

  28. August 20, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    It does sometimes happen that only half a correspondence remains extant, for obvious reasons, but I think a lot of people, in the pre-digital age, made copies of letters they wrote before they sent them, so as to ensure they'd have both halves.\r

    Kent, channeling Benjamin, mentions the "aura" of the original object. For Kelly, the sent letter conjures a kind of nostalgia. And now you mention the "self-consciousness" that writing a letter and sending it through the post might engender. Given all these pressures, I wonder along with you, Barbara Jane, whether it would even be possible to simply sit down and write a letter about poetry to a fellow poet today. I think I'd be way too hung up on the fact of how I was communicating, at the expense of the communication itself.