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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Contributor Spotlight - Darren Morris

The Taint of Celebrity: Thoughts on Poets who Blog

I went out for a steak dinner the other night. The waiter brought the slab just as I ordered it, and as he watched me prepare to take my first bite, he slid across the table a picture of the cow from which the steak had come, under which were printed all the fascinating details of the heifer’s last week on earth. How might it have affected my enjoyment of the meal, a thing no longer my own, to feel now that it was given unto me, even sacrificially, by another mammal with a name and a full personality? Did the beast’s last vacation to a Wyoming spa, its anger at and subsequent inclusion of personal threats by wolves, or its issues regarding the misnamed “pigskin” production industry psychologically influence my perception of its flavor? Perhaps. But to what degree?—I remain uncertain.

And what is the author’s autobiographical affect on today’s poetry readers? Isn’t it essential that the reader comes to the page without the metacontext of the poet’s life, so that the poem or sequence of poems can become a purely personal experience for the reader? When does “too much information” cloud our ability to feel a poem deeply at a personal level?

Enter the poet-blogger. Without making any judgment here about intentions and motivations, I wonder how these super hip, insecure, admittedly fallible, often brilliant, and sometimes humble archangels of all things poetry can do what they do. Like it or not, the poet-blogging phenomenon is here to stay. But doesn’t it represent a bit of a shift, major or minor, of the poet’s personality infecting the way we ultimately read their poems? I suppose this is similar to the Warhol effect and the emergence and subject of celebrity and celebrity itself in works of modern art. But I wouldn’t cringe at a blog by Warhol, because he wasn’t writing poetry and simultaneously writing about poetry.

Blogs are different than biography or critical essays that would require proper review and validation by a third-party editorial board. No matter how interesting some information is, it must be understood that entries occur haphazardly on blogs. The random thoughts within the great dome of the conscious identity manifest and are decreed throughout their kingdoms, posthaste.

While most bloggers would want us to erect a partition between their blogs and their poems, the fact is that new readers often are brought to their poems through reading their blogs. And here’s a guess: If they didn’t attract new readers this way, there would be no poet-bloggers, or at least they would prohibit poetry as the central subject of their blogs. I’m not saying that enlarging their poetry readership is the top priority for these bloggers, but I would say it is an essential element of every poetry blog I’ve read.

Poetry blogs are filled with pedagogical, political, and “spiritual,” viewpoints mixed with the regular old parade of daily events, such as how a finger was smashed under the nail that was to hang their latest poetry prize, or getting the hiccups while on the phone with a very important editor who could change a life forever.

If the meditative experience of reading poetry opens for us the doorway to a house of language where we can make ourselves at home (because, after all, it is the reader’s home), blogs provide us a catalog of a single life begging us to agree. In a way, the blog would prevent the poem from ever being fully owned by the reader. I think the magic in a poem happens when it’s not even whispered in our ears, but when we feel it deep inside our hearing (apologies to Rilke). In this way, we can never read a poem twice, and the experience of coming to it fresh depends on its being unfettered.

The poet-blogger participates, whether he/she wants to or not, in a form of viral marketing, and creates for him/herself a homogenous audience that is more attracted to the personality than the work: Side with the personality and you may enjoy the poems. Like this product and you may like this other one. Publishers know this and ask authors to blog, but dreaded is the day they ever expect poets to Twitter. Perhaps that day is upon us already. And what about the repellant personality, the one we hate, such as my own? Wouldn’t we be shooting our poetry dead by writing a blog about our own detestable opinions about contemporary culture? Is it possible to be a horrible person and still write good poems, even if the poems present our only redemptive quality? If your answer to this is no—then I’ve prepared for you a “fuck you” sandwich. (This is just an example of someone with a difficult affect. No one can make a sandwich out of “fuck you” alone. It requires bread and mayo.)

The sympathy quotient has an inverse effect on the empathy quotient. Funny how that happens. While I might be able to see the blogger more clearly by all of his/her personal factoids and predicaments, foibles and passions, when I get to the poetry, can it escape each little detail that bothers me about that personality? So too, blogs are tethered to the author in a way that poems are not, or should not be. My potential agreement or disagreement with the blogger’s position, style, and rhetoric might not only color my interpretation of the postings, but unduly influence my interpretation of their more sacred text. The answer, of course, is to stop reading their blogs. But the question remains—what is the effect of this phenomenon on contemporary poetry? I don’t question the value of blogs or of poetry independently. But I become uncomfortable when the two start to get it on right in front of everybody.

Do we finally need to agree with or at least forgive the blogger to be open to their poetry? Does advertising actually work? And even if we see no sin in their blogs, shouldn’t we just read every poem independent of its creator, so that the poem can work its magic and be a thing finally not from the poet, but consumed, internalized, and enjoyed as our own, a piece of truth that can reveal parts of our secret and yet extremely nuanced lives? Can we have it both ways? Can we draw people to us only to tell them to forget us so that they can feel the poems for what they are?

These are considerations for any poet thinking about starting a blog that discusses poetry as a central focus. I firmly believe that poems gain power when their creators remove their fingerprints from them. Even the poems of Robert Lowell, the great confessionalist (a term he always detested), were not about him as much as they were finally about the circumstance of his readers and the larger condition. If the celebrated personality behind the poems can disappear, poems will have a better chance of surviving in our minds. The media has certainly changed the message, Mr. McLuhan. But just as the lights installed at Wrigley Field threaten to erase the next generation of Cubbie baseball fans, the poet-blogger might be harming the next generation of readers. More of us might be reading the poems, but less of us might be getting the magic. Poetry dissemination is going gangbusters, and yet it comes to us laced with saltpeter.

Who knows, perhaps Robert Frost himself would have his own poetry blog if he were around today swimming in the swirling currents of new media. But I’m uncertain how I’d feel about "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" if I’d also just read his midsummer blog entry, complaining of the Vermont heat, and describing how he keeps cool by sitting atop a pickle barrel eating a cherry red popsicle in his underwear—no matter how appealing that might be.

Darren Morris is originally from Missouri, where he worked on a commercial landscaping crew, tended bar at a pool hall, and painted murals for money.He’s placed poems recently at The National Poetry Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Blackbird. He has an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and currently work as an instructional designer in Richmond, Virginia. His poem, "Cigarettes : A Bluebird : A Strawberry Filled Donut :" is forthcoming in HFR issue #45 [to preorder, send an email to!].

1 comment:

T.R. Hummer said...

Interesting blog entry, Darren; thanks for your thoughtful, intelligent argument. I would only add that there are blogs and blogs, and not all of them catalog the minutiae, or even form a macropedia, of the poet's life. One might blog about poetry rather than about oneself, say, in which case we are perhaps talking about something different. Does Whitman's prose detract from his poetry? Do Robert Pinsky's or Adrienne Rich's essays distract us from the main attraction? There is even the possibility that the online forum might become part of a writer's process, and thus be indispensable to some work which otherwise might not come to light. Calling into question excess focus on the personalities of artists is definitely worthwhile, but I question the connection between that problem and the medium of the blog per se.

Thanks again for raising the issue and encouraging us all to think about it.