On the topic of things I’ve been quietly considering, I want to talk a bit about blogging. I understand that this is lame and destined to a certain self-servitude (this is a blog, after all), but I feel compelled to do it anyway. There’s been a handful of conversations (on other blogs, no less) about the sustainability of blogging, about its apparent slump out of the ecosystem of literary rhetoric. I’m not sure if this is true. Yes, Harriet has gone from some sort of anything-goes orgy of whininess to a curt diagram of poetry links. However, in the months since this happened I’m sure untold dozens of poetry blogs have sprung up, unbacked by a major institution as they may be, to fill its place. It’s hard to tell if said slumping can be measured, if it it’s just the gut hunch of the masses. Not that being the gut hunch of the masses renders it untrue, per se. I’m unsure.
One of the better and more variegated discussions about this fear recently happened over at Lemon Hound. I didn’t chime in because I wasn’t quite certain what I wanted to say. There appears to be a lot of people concerned that something in the mechanics of blogs (specifically, the comment streams) preclude them from hosting legitimate rhetoric. There seems to be another group of people who see this as self-obvious, but don’t really care anyway (what these people were doing reading a poetry blog I’m not quite sure).
Recently, two major intra-literati squabbles took place predominantly online, and the blame for some of the pricklier elements of said squabbles was laid at the feet of the medium. Near the end of the CNQ response to the Andre Alexis thing in the Walrus, a poster by the name of Gradey23 said the following, much to the agreement of a handful of co-commenters, and at least two of my own dinner companions over these past couple weeks.
You know what’s a bummer? If this debate (this specific debate, I mean) was raging, say, twenty years ago, it would all be taking place on the printed page, giving our eager participants the necessary time to craft more thoughtful, tempered, incisive responses. Instead we’re getting (what clearly appears to be) a bunch of reckless, middle-of-the-night (possibly drunken) publish-button punching.
I mean, you gotta believe that Double-A must now be regretting his bullied-kid’s backtalk (desperate name-calling as he’s being pushed into a locker by the otherwise passive nerds who, en masse, have discovered their confidence), and A-Good is a better writer than to wield as a weapon my grandmother’s lame sarcasm (“Oh my!” *hooks finger in collar Paul Lynde-style*).
How great — how much more relevant — would this little feud be if Z had an editor to pare down his bloated, back-patting counterattack, or if someone close to Double-A had leaned over his shoulder while he was madly typing and wiping away the tears and said to him, dude, come on, you’re better than this…
This is a common argument. I’ve seen versions of it deep into various heated debates on my own blog, and it appears to bat a regular 47th or so in the line-up of the standard internet argument. Like anything so consistently argued, it likely has a lot of truth to it. I take issue with a few things (well, more than a few things, this is a Defense of Blogging, after all). First off, if the poster thinks that never in the history of print journalism has a cultured man of letters got liquored up on booze (or mere anger) and crafted a hastily conceived response to a literary article, much to the delight of some editor in need of a few good grenades to help headline the op-ed section, he’s quite mistaken. The thing blogs and quarterlies have in common is that both are run by people, and both powered by their readership. Their rules are more similar than you think.
Secondly, there’s a smarmy self-regard attached to the idea that if people just took more time between replies, the quality of the argument would increase. This is the application of high school essay-writing logic to what is most appropriately defined as an argument between knowledgeable adults. Take your time to say it right is admittedly a rule of thumb that serves most markets and arguments. I’ll say this, though: We run the risk of sacrificing, with our studious reproach of the immediate, the loss of argument in the service of rhetoric. Rhetoric and argument are cousins, surely, but they’re not the same thing, and while this is something of a simplification, for the purpose of this post I’d like us to consider argument as an ingredient of good rhetoric. There is a certain inescapable facade-factor to the apparent conversation being had at any given time by the country’s three or four consistently relevant houses of printed poetry criticism (off the top of my head, and not wanting to offend anybody, yet: CNQ, Open Letter, Arc, and maybe the less industry-driven third of Q&Q. West Coast Line is in there somewhere too, I know, but I haven’t read enough of it to comment). Viewed historically, the output of issues from these magazines feels sometimes like a box of old photographs, the catching and codifying of a set group of thinkers’ collection of opinions over the course of a given month. Calling this interplay a conversation seems notably generous. For one, I’m not sure how big the club of my fellow “regular CNQ AND Open Letter readers” is, but I’m guessing it’s less than 12. Secondly, because of the time-lapse between issues, and the time requirements for preparing each issue, there arrives a naturally occurring stiltedness to whatever dialogue one would want to narrate.
I’m reminded of the recorded conversations between world leaders during the infamous G-20 summit earlier this summer. These conversations were the product of editorship stretching back for months, scripted by representatives from a combined 100+ foreign governmental departments, and arranged into a series of interacting monologues like a Socratic dialogue in eleven languages. Surely all the things we can say in support of CNQ and Open Letter (and Gradey23’s paradisiacal pre-digital salon) we can also say about the showhorse rhetoric of the G-20. And all three even come with their own portable barricades of concrete, chain-link, aesthetic confederacy, access to independent bookstores, etc….
Of course, what makes the G-20 (arguably) valid is the same thing that makes these quarterlies valid. They are the product of actual dialogue, whether between reviewer and text (an idealized relationship, I know) or between editors, or between the very confederates who also serve a barricading function. While an issue of Arc (the review section, specifically) is a rhetorical product, it occasionally presents as one produced by a recognizable argumentative procedure. I’m talking of the real, elevated-but-not-enshrined prose of an Anita Lahey or an early Carmine Starnino (a name I know will end a lot of people’s reading of this post. If so, sorry. I mean it, though, and if you go you’ll miss out on some decent jokes). If criticism comes across as too polished and manicured, it’s usually the result of unargumentative rhetoric, which can be caused by either a sense that all of your readers already agree with you (a problem for at least two of the four mentioned magazines), or that you haven’t spent enough time in the unwashed sandbox of pre-rhetoric, bumping shoulders with curmudgeonly neighbours, tuning your worldview to the often-callous realities of their reactions. This, of course, is where blogs come in. Blogs are to poetry criticism as the frantic back-and-forth of staffers is to political speeches. Both are the necessary ugly.
For literature,there have been lots of other necessary uglies over the centuries, many of which still exist today. My favorite among these is bars, but pretty much any public place will do. The editors of our major review journals seems to get this. Zach Wells, who has various roles to play at Arc, CNQ, and Quill, is also the proprietor of one of the country’s best-read poetry blogs. Likewise, Jonathon Ball, who guest edited the awesome Open Letter issue dedicated to Play, is one of the most entertaining bloggers in the country. Most people who like steak also like hamburger. There’s something about the blog, perhaps its sketchy semi-permanency, that lends itself to print reviewers, as an alternative venue.
If the post-eruditeness of nostalgia is attacking the new-money world of poetry blogging from the top, then there’s an equal threat looming in the commoner realms below. The media is found of saying that blogs are in the process of being replaced by the quicker alternatives of social networking and microblogs. While I’m not sure if there are numbers to support this, I’m willing to believe them. Harriet has basically done this, thrown in the towel on depth in exchange for breadth and breathlessness. Most former bloggers are now active on Twitter.
I’ve been trying Twitter out lately, if only to give me another thing to do on my at-work microbreaks, after I check my email and my Facebook. I’m not going to give up on it just yet (I’ll likely tweet this post), but I have to register my unenthusiasm. I first liked the idea of the 140-character limit, before realizing that there were people out there who were actually trying to use this super-Oulipean freakshow to say things of argumentative merit. Having a disagreement with someone over Twitter is akin to trying to shout instructions to someone stranded in the middle of a freeway between the deafening incursions of passing 18-wheelers. This was most evident to me during the Twitter fall-out over Steven Beattie and Alex Good’s 10 Most Over/Underrated story in the National Post. I posted the following tweet on the subject: “Im enjoying the Over/Under game, from a certain distance. Tho, with today’s state of readership, are there really any “overrated” writers?”. I was met on the battlefield of argument by something called NarwhalMagazine, which, in the strenuously abbreviated world of Twitter, I’ll assume is the account of The National Right Whale Association Magazine. Here’s something of a transcript:
@VoxPopulist: I disagree. poor readership and the celebrity of some of these writers enjoy only reinforces their ‘overratedness’
@NarwhalMagazine: What celebrity? Would anyone know who even Ondaatje was if there was no English Patient movie? Moure’s sold maybe 50k copies
@VoxPopulist: Martel immediately comes to mind. Also, @DouglasCoupland is a household name who is definitely overrated in my opinion
@NarwhalMagazine: Coupland had cultural commodity fame, but I remember his publisher being ecstatic that Rigby moved 30k. Canlit fame < fame
Now, you can choose to take my side, The Association’s side, or neither (looking it over, I think I’m with Narwhal), but that’s not the point. The point is that this not a discussion, an argument, or an example of rhetoric. It sounds like two media-educated book people forced to communicate via 1920’s telegrams written in the text message jargon of a contemporary 14-year-old. This is why you see so many flame-outs; Twitter literally forces you to be curt, to be dismissive, and to fail to simultaneously hold multiple opinions (expressing even one requires the dexterity of Harry Houdini). And don’t give me the whole “It’s like a formal poem because it makes you work with constraints” speech. I’m not talking about writing poetry, I’m talking about writing ABOUT poetry. There, we need all the characters we can get.
If it sounds like I’m headed to some sort of happy medium argument in defense of blogging, wedged between unpleasant opposites, I’m not. As much as the quarterlies and the twitter are opposites of rhetorical posture, they share the same role for their benefactors and adherents. Call them this: Barricades for legitimizing a fear of conflict. Conflict is the root of this whole conversation, I think, and fear of it is understandable. In such a small community (I know, I don’t like the word “community” either, but let it stand in there for a bit) we fear anything that might lessen already-limited power. Chances are, the poet you bring yourself into conflict with will someday be in a position to take power from you, whether through a jury, a review, or just the casual floating of negative opinions. And there are other reasons to hate conflict too. We’re sensitive people, mostly, we don’t like to be angry. But understand that when I say conflict, I don’t mean the coarse, physical conflict of playgrounds and locker rooms, but rather the conflict that comes up between sensitive, considered, people who are able to review an attack from an intellectual angle while simultaneously suffering its nettles. If there’s a take-away, Twitterable, aphorism inside this great big post, let it be this: Conflict is good. It’s a product of taking other people seriously. And conflict’s natural home in the current state of Planet Poetry is online, on the internet, with all its open plains of untamed verbiage and its false sense of anonymity.
In contrast, both the review journals and Twitter support the suppression of conflict. The journals do it by holding it back, pacing it, giving long stretches of time for it to simmer away into the void of “other concerns”, in the name of academic distance. The journals, and I say this as a loyal reader, are bloodless. And like politicians who prefer the safe distance of warfare by economic sanctions, they are commendably bloodless, graciously bloodless, but they allow for fools (looking at you, Gradey) who believe in the bloodlessness unquestionably. The danger is in letting the set-piece conflicts and crises of an Open Letter stand in for the tactile reality of the ideas being sorted through, considered, reconsidered, and abandoned underneath.
Twitter, on the other hand, suppresses conflict by making it impossible. Now, when I say conflict, remember that I mean conflict as a product of taking other people seriously. I know there’s lots of “drama” on Twitter, but there’s rarely any conflict. By reducing ourselves to headlines bearing our name we remove the pluralist heart that would allow other people to take us seriously. The argumentative pieces you need to enter into conflict, while supporting said argument well enough to be taken seriously, don’t really fit into 140 characters, unless bolstered by the blunt instrument of cliche. In the end, both a quarterly journal and a laser-fast social networking site share the same role: They are devices for the quarantining, and eventual suppression, of conflict. I’m suspicious of them both, but moreover, I’m suspicious of you people who call back to the considered rhetoric of print with one side of your mouth, and yap the baby-babble of the Twitterverse on the other. It’s not that I think you’re stupid. Rather, I’m concerned you might be geniuses. I find myself questioning your motives.
I say all this with plenty of sympathy for the very real problems of blog-based argument. I say it as someone who has twice had to remove comments from this blog that contained threats directed at another commenter. And I say it as the guy who likely made several dozen typos and spelling mistakes in the above paragraphs, because he’s too finicky to proofread and likes his blog to filled with the kind of sentences that can only come from a single 45-minute sprint of typing. I like how sore my fingers are. I know this house isn’t perfect. But it’s home, and I know the neighbors well enough to know my grass is still the greenest. It feels so real, under my feet.