Paper or Plastic

by Norm Ball


From time to time on one Internet poetry board or another, a swirl of commiserative ill-will erupts among slighted 'Internet poets'. Invariably, a print journal has been more dismissive of an esteemed colleague than his hypertext reputation should allow. Clearly, his considerable talent is being martyred, and for what? For the crime of manning the Internet vanguard? He is a visionary beset by dinosaurs, or is it paper tigers? When will Poetry get a clue?

Some of you may be asking, ‘what exactly is an ‘Internet poet?’ That is an excellent question. The designation seems largely self-assigned. Here’s a working definition: Internet poets are those whose works-in-progress are routinely pilloried or lionized on Internet workshops and/or whose work, in its final iteration, appears primarily in on-line zines.

To those with no dog in this hunt, it may seem we have just laid out the patently obvious, that is, ‘those who write poetry in Boise are Idaho poets.’ You are forgiven then if two questions immediately spring to mind: 1) Who cares, unless of course Idaho poets are disproportionately good and 2) If Idaho poets are disproportionately good, shouldn’t the rest of us be adding more potatoes to our diets?

I say, let the ear be the judge of the man. If someone were to read aloud two poems and have the listener select the better one, the environ in which the poem was birthed --or first appeared-- should not clang about between the lines like a telltale cowbell. If it does, then environ has clearly obtruded upon art. Medium should not mar product. Poetry is universal. It belongs to nowhere in particular.

Granted, there are confirmed Luddites --or are they unregenerable primates?-- who enjoy nothing better than the tactile feel of paper between their opposable thumbs and forefingers. Still others insist that tomorrow’s gifted poets will conduct their entire poetic existences on-line with nary a paper cut from perfect-bound cardstock. Indeed we may be one generation away from The Paris Review bemoaning the dearth of snail-mail poets. Think of all the SASE's that will be saved! In the end, these media tantrums exploit artificial divides. Art meant to endure, does --through a succession of stone tablets.

Another debate currently raging among those with too much time on their hands is whether Theodore Roethke, dead before the advent of the Internet and thus no big fan, composed his poems on yellow legal pads or spiral-bound notebooks. Actually I just manufactured this controversy for the purpose of antagonizing the Roethke estate needlessly. But as some Internet poets might have us believe, the question is a crucial one.

A far more plausible explanation for all the hurt feelings is that the Internet provides such unfettered access to poetry, many erstwhile poets are unleashed on the world long before their craft has a chance of wrestling naked ambition to at least a draw. Some poetic licenses need to be revoked or at least suspended until the learner-poet has a chance to feel his oats a bit, preferably out of public view. I mean, can’t they get a private room with their muse somewhere? As it is, many a troubadour waxes eloquent with the on-line equivalent of his zipper down. Would that these poets-on-the-fly could take pause –as opposed to simply bristling with offense-- at the occasional terse rejection note.

Thus, what some take to be slights from the more 'venerable' print journals are exactly that --slights. But justifiable slights; that is, not because 'Internet poets' (I'm still not sure there is such a thing so I’m denoting it with disdainful quotes) are sui generis inferior. But because the poet, while perhaps a regular at Molly’s Poetry Treehouse (sorry Molly if there is such a board) has bared his soul just a wee bit early. Already I hear the electrons bristling: "Let's have more of that persecuted cyberspace genius stuff! This unvarnished truth is killing us!"

Anyway, that's my thought on a published poem’s medium-of-repose. However I want to draw a distinction between the finished product and those poems birthed in that hyper-collaborative cauldron known as the Internet poetry workshop; for this is a trickier beast by far.

At least, I've seen distinctive poetic voices get bullied into bland conformance on more than one occasion. People are impressionable whether the public square has protruding wires or not. Here, we are circling the very notion of authorship and artistic integrity: who's poem is it anyway?

Intrusion is a matter of degree. We do inhabit a tradition after all. So I'm not recommending a wholesale retreat from the world. What I am suggesting is that poetry boards can and do subvert a poet's voice. Or, to the extent a poet's ‘authentic’ voice is inimitable, poetry boards can delay a poet's natural convergence upon that voice.

But what is a mentor and what is a screw-up artist? For example, how would the ‘unadulterated’ voices of Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell or Ted Hughes have read without the gigantic meddlesome influence of T.S. Eliot? Fortunately Eliot’s mischief was constrained by abysmal broadband penetration in early-post-modern England.

Maybe it’s time to beat a hasty retreat back to that small matter of degrees. Poetry boards, any collaborative process, can be counter-productive. Alas, poets die too. Anthologized immortality notwithstanding, death and spotty talent have proven a lethal cocktail for many a poetic voice. Roads are ambivalently serpentine little beasties: They can transport people on journeys of a lifetime or they can mark an abrupt, untimely end for wayward pedestrians.

A final refuge for scoundrels and ambivalent essayists alike is Aristotle who noted famously, character is plot. Those who know themselves best will not be coaxed from their intended paths. Or at least, they will possess the good sense to be coaxed only by those deemed worthy of the coaxing. Trust your ear. Chance are, the guy called devilmaster_99 who insists on savaging your stuff is not Wallace Steven’s rightful heir. As for you bona fide persecuted geniuses out there, please have patience. The rest of us will find you soon enough.