Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Blogger's Code?

Jonathan describes his "blogger's code," which "says not to criticize the poetry of another blogger who is known to me primarily, or principally, as a blogger, and is not a quote unquote famous poet."

I think I probably feel that way as well, although I've never really articulated it to myself that way. But what I've really been thinking is that Jonathan's tenets only make sense given the peculiar traits of the poetry/blog community we're a part of (although the boundaries of that community have gotten a lot blurrier to me of late). Among them:

1. No one in this community, with the possible exception of Ron Silliman, is a "famous poet": i.e. I wouldn't know them through a significant body of published and widely read work before encountering them in blogland. Those who have published books have usually published one book and/or maybe a few chapbooks. (This is getting more complicated as more established poets start to write blogs; but I'm guessing that Jonathan would not view such poets as immune to critique.)

2. The primary purpose of blogs in this community is not the publication, exchange, and critique of our own poems. Many of us never post our own poems on our blogs at all, while others keep separate poetry blogs. When I have posted a poem on my blog, I don't think I've ever received a direct comment on it. That's in sharp contrast to the way poetry circulates in other online venues (e.g. discussion groups, message boards, or even other kinds of blogs), which function as something like virtual workshops or poetry-swaps.

I don't object to this element of poetry blogging; in fact, I rather like that the poetry/poetics blogs I read are something onto themselves and not merely channels for the propagation of "real work." But I wonder why this is the case.

3. The relationship between this group of bloggers is communal rather than competitive. As Nick and others have pointed out in Jonathan's comment box, that's rather surprising: in most other spheres it's natural to view other poets as "the competition." But it seems as if most of us, in blogging, are wearing our reader/responder hats (appreciation, analysis, critique) rather than our poet hats (awe, envy, resentment, theft).

For some, this communal sense is actually a weakeness of blogging: we're all buddies who would never say a bad word about each other. The Chicago Reader (irritatingly little of which is available online) ran a story in last week's books issue on book review blogs, noting that print reviewers tended to view bloggers (among whom the author counted herself) as "one big, giddy circle jerk." I'm thinking also of a recent blog entry by Patrick Rosal on the productive value of competition, of "trying to write a better poem than someone else" (while remembering "we all got to eat at the same table").

Personally, I prize that sense of community; but perhaps that's because I'm uncomfortable with the kind of naked striving (after publication, awards, publicity) that seems to characterize the lives of many professional poets (and others, honestly; it's why I decided in college I could never be a journalist). In the one place I've seen a real, thriving poetry community--the Bay Area--it always seemed to me that a community produced work as effectively as did a bunch of individuals competing: people doing good stuff encouraged you to do good stuff too, but not necessarily to beat them.


shanna said...

i'm seconding all of that. because i can, because you have comments. one of my favorite blogging features.

Nick Piombino said...

Competition is inevitable, but the artists I am most interested in strive to transform this energy into something more valuable and productive. Jonathan- and many other artists and poets- seem interested in submitting to the competitive economy in traditional ways. The blogging community is the closest thing to a true artistic movement that has emerged in literary life for a long time- this is why reviewers and others have to find sexist and other ways to insult these efforts. Only when writers begin with acceptance and awareness that fierce competition guides 90 percent of what writers say about other writers and how they behave concerning other writers will they recognize the potential power in working together.

Jonathan said...

I myself would like to do that--transform this energy "into something more valuable and productive," rather than "submitting to the competitive economy in traditional ways." I'd hope Nick would give me some credit in this direction. Maybe not. I have a long way to go, I admit. Nick's phrase about me doesn't exactly make me proud of myself. It's kind of a zinger.

Does envy and competition fuel praise as much as it does dispraise? After all, I can praise insincerely in order to bolster my own position, while purposely avoid talking about others who would be more serious rivals.

Nick Piombino said...

Jonathan is right. I think he deserves an apology from me! After all, I am contradicting myself in being so critical of Jonathan for boasting about going easy on what he probably considers the bad poetry of some bloggers. Well, obviously we are becoming friends if we can talk to each other like this in public! And Jonathan is quite right to hint around that I could easily be confronted with a tendency to sometimes overpraise, fully realizing, of course, that I might be fishing around for reciprocity! But I don't think praise encourages the aggressive aspect of competitiveness, or derives from it; on the contrary, it can lessen a poet's anxious overconcern with others' opinions and boost confidence. Life offers plenty of opportunities for any and each poet's bubble to be burst, no one has to stay up nights worrying about that! Perhaps I am overzealous in jumping on poets about being harsh about other people's poetry, but since I consider the spirit of poetry to concern itself mostly with the intensification of sensitiviity, responsiveness, connectedness, I don't much see the point in poets being harsh with each other over some abstract concern about standards. Over time, most poets will find out if there is any interest in their work, in attempting to get published. Just because someone's work is not another poet's cup of tea, should not give them license to dismiss it publicly, it seems to me. One can always send a personal letter, if a poet has that much interest and concern about another poets work. What's the point in publicly embarassing a peer? Or implying that that might be good for them or the field as a whole? As for discussing issues and poetry with Jonathan, I've always found him to be very agreeably open to discussing anything about poetry- or anything else, for that matter, in a reasonable way so I am sorry if I have offended.

Brian Campbell said...

I've always found it peculiar that my own poetry blogs -- sites I've set up to exclusively feature some already published work -- rarely get visits, whereas my chew-the-fat literary blog has gotten thousands. Like, where's the curiocity among these poets? Most of us though are in a discursive news-reading mode when surfing this community -- I must confess that often my own eyes glaze over when confronted with an actual poem, so I'm not above criticism myself in this regard. Sometimes, though, I welcome reading a poem, and comment. One reason I like Simon De Deo's blog is that it reviews actual poems, which are the ultimate thing here, eh? A few rambling reflections before I hit the sack... I imagine they're coherent enough. Are they? Cheers!

David Koehn said...

Most interesting here is that blogs focusing on the exchange of ideas seem to be the most active while blogs of poems seem ignored.

I like this fact. I'm still not sure I understand why this is.

I will reiterate that I do not believe anyone should be immune to my critique if it interests me.

A sidebar: My father always told me that those closest to me would be the most critical of me. That the truth from those we trust is the most important of all commodities.

Enuf said...

Jonathan said...

These are issues I think about a lot, and Nick is one whose opinion about these very same issues I value enormously, because his position is a very thoughtful one. It makes a lot of sense, even though I still harbor the sense that negative criticism is somehow *necessary* in the greater scheme of things. I feel bad for coaxing an apology out of Nick so late at night! I'm sure the discussion will continue...

Laura Carter said...

On posting poems: I generally use the blog as a place to try out experiments that feel awkward & probably unworkable in a "publication" sense, but that might be really interesting to look at in terms of my blog, which is mostly about my process, about the thinking going on. One thing I enjoy quite a bit about this medium is that it becomes more and more difficult to divorce the work from the poet; I think posting segments of a process to which I am still extremely new helps me to become more comfortable with the idea of "putting work out there," regardless of response. Responses will come & go, as I think Nick mentioned earlier in JM's comment box.

Jesse said...

Jonathan Mayhew: "Does envy and competition fuel praise as much as it does dispraise?"

Yes is my response. I feel that envy and competition entirely fuel praise, however 'backchanneled' it becomes. Dispraise, well, let me think..... I think that many more factors contribute to a fair dispraisal, not the least professionalism (precedent) and that scornful but benign aspect of trying to separate a fisticuffs match, which is a strong 'cease' command.

Jonathan Mayhew: "After all, I can praise insincerely in order to bolster my own position, while purposely avoid talking about others who would be more serious rivals."

I feel that insincere praise is really bad, that we should bolster for ourselves more our strength and integrity than "position," as we are not particles. And avoiding serious rivals really marginalizes one from the creative process that is key to all of this.

Is blogging a creative process? I hear a lot about "my process" over "my work," but the discussion is too removed from the Creative Process and kept to mere social process, 'detail-oriented' for you office types.

ideaist.wordpress.com said...


Anne Boyer said...

Even in everyday social interactions, praise is often a tool for gaining status or exercising and reinforcing power. Think of the demeaning "good girl" offered to a child when she ties her shoes as she has for at least the past year -- or the boss who handles employees with tepid compliments. (and the employees who roll their eyes!) Praise is not a harmless activity -- in no way superior or more community building than careful, text-based criticism. A thoughtful, interpretive read (even without evaluation) is the best compliment and motivation -- better than any "right on!" So, uh, right on Simon!

I think praise -- particularly false praise -- specifically does encourage the fierce aggresiveness of competition: not just in art, but in sibling relationships, classrooms, and work places.

Silence, of course, is often a brilliant alternative to false praise or damaging criticism, but substantive description is almost always best. (and what we mothers learn to get good at -- "yes, I see the green sky and the eight legged zebra!")

In certain cases, tho, it is instructive to read a thoughtful account of "why X may not be working as art" or the cultural forces behind the rise of "x" (a rise which might seem baffling, given the work at hand). I agree this is better done with work (and writers) that have little to lose by its practice -- I would hate for it to take the poetry out of anyone -- but I feel Jonathan's point here, and sometimes long for meaty, honest analysis.

Anonymous said...

"words" qualifies me for you, for less

Nick Piombino said...

Hi Anne Boyer:

What age children are you talking about here?
What economic level are you talking about?
I worked in schools for 25 years. Every age group and economic group reveals great variation on this issue. Where economic pressure is extreme, anxiety often mounts in the family and conflict leads to incessant badgering and criticism. "False praise" is not helpful; but I noticed that most children thrive on having their actual strengths be identified and praised. All too many children- and adults- are so relentlessly criticized and so relentlessly criticize each other that they can come to believe they are thriving on it ; yet, as a result, feel unsure in themselves about what their actual strengths might be and what they might have of real value to offer others.

You bring to mind, for me, a crucial point about conformism and compliance. Praise can be a tool for encouraging compliance, and the eliciting of praise can likewise be a tool of indicating compliance with power figures. But my conviction is that the encouragement of basic respect and positive mutuality in a field like poetry- on the whole- creates a ground where so-called constructive criticism could come to be actually heard and be useful. I don't think mutual criticism and belittling create a base of security for poets to work within to discover where there might come to be agreement about which (contemporary) literary works might contain something of general value and which (contemporary) literary works evince the mediocrity Jonathan has expressed concern might receive false recognition. Long term, it seems, what has value, survives, while the mediocre works are largely abandoned.

Jonathan said...

I'm glad the issue has turned to child-rearing. Children begin to be suspicious of false praise early on, but do thrive when their real strengths are identified and praised, as Nick points out.

Same with undergraduate students. Perfunctory, tepid praise works well enough to keep things moving along, but students know the difference between a substantive comment and a mere place holder.

My daughter Juilia, when I told her last week that a certain blogger had said her sestina was "the best ever written."

"Yeah, right." [sarcastic, preteen intonation]

Even though I happen to agree with Kasey that this is one of the best sestinas I can imagine being written by anyone, I think her skeptical response is perfectly justified from her point of view. She doesn't view that as any more remarkable than scoring a goal in a soccer game or learning to play "Ode to Joy" on the trumpet.

I am glad to have sparked such a fruitful discussion with my "blogger's code," which at best is a stop-gap measure in the evolution of my own thinking on these problems.

Jesse said...

Hey, finally something that I too have done!---play Ode to Joy on a trumpet :)


From blogs, somewhere last year, I heard that Pound said it takes 20 years [before a true appraisal of a poetry can be undertaken or taken seriously.] As I commented on Jonathan's blog, half clowning, "all good poets are dead," let us keep in mind that our appraisals perhaps cannot be true for another twenty years. Food for thought.

ideaist.wordpress.com said...


Jesse said...

I'm here because my forceful tactics are proving successful. More and more people are reading my blog and saying nice things about it.

Jesse said...

Make them itch and scratch them.

Jesse said...

or something

Anne Boyer said...

Nick --

You are charmingly optmistic about both human nature and poetry. I, eeyore and half-calvinist, need more of that.

"What has value survives" -- I hope so. How we count on this.


Anonymous said...

Thanks,Tim,for this accumulation. I am relieved to have said nothing! Feeding a blog - at least my own - is like having a full grown boxer who insists on hi-grade horsemeat.
It's exhausting. Fortunately I have written long enough to be able to turn to inventory - perhaps in the manner of Nick P in his early manifestation would draw from journals, most often intriging quotes. I have been having fun tripping from journal projects (Crossing the Millenium), to works in progres (Sappho "translations", Walking Theory and then viseral catches on the contempoary moment (where I am usuall gratified by looking at Stephanie Young, Jean Vengua, Shanna Compton, Jim Berhle, David Larsen, Allen Bramhall, Jack Kimball among others - who write out of a daily sense of pulse - blogs that may be called "pulsars". (Of all the thinkers with Academic presence, apart from you, Tim, I love to read Kasey Mohamad, David Hess. I am glad Ron is about. I either like the day's vegetables or not. When Ron is genuine, he's great. His comment box I often find dreadful - why does he attract some of those folks??!!
Then I bounce variously off Buf Po List (most often knocking on the side of a corpse), the lovely diverse, international albeit most of us white on the Poetryetc list, the mainly dormant but well educated- way beyond me - Brits at UK. All and all blogging gives an amplitude to my life - a major exposure to others and an opportunity to put my own stuff into orbi. I have always been a professional publisher; this is publishing, but something else. Ideally, I suspect, a foundation builder for more formal publications - much as Stewart Brand once said about The Well - many now very good writers found their first footing there, online.

Be well,

Stephen Vincent
(Oh, yes, one and all, come visit, plough the archives - some of it I even continue to rediscover and find rich, that is, fun to reread).

Nick Piombino said...

Anne Boyer said...
Nick --
You are charmingly optmistic about both human nature and poetry. I, eeyore and half-calvinist, need more of that.
"What has value survives" -- I hope so. How we count on this.
6:39 AM

Thanks for this. It has been very difficult to regain a sense of hopefulness about the future of humankind since 9/11- I was working in a school that day on West 77 Street. My preoccupation and concern about the harmful side of competition has intensely increased since that day. I had promised myself to think and work harder on this issue. I feel very stimulated and encouraged by the discussion here, on Bemsha Swing and Poesy Galore to continue thinking and researching this issue. The typical capitalist's blithe trust in the benefits of competition continue to trouble and worry me.

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