Please note: I have revised this post to remove all personal references, and I have also deleted all comments associated with those references, so as to better focus on my actual topic, which is not any particular individual. (Let me emphasize that this removal implies nothing about the comments themselves.) I should have realized that such individual mentions would detour the conversation.
This may not be a novel observation, but during my relatively brief sojourn in the online poetry world, I have been surprised and often dismayed by the level and type of discourse found there. I don’t refer to the fact that most blogs consist of their authors' ramblings about every passing notion or personal event, no matter how banal or trivial. It’s to be taken for granted that, in print and online as well as in life, people talk much more frequently than they have anything to say.
I recently read a rather contentious article in the Los Angeles Times by critic Richard Schickel in which blogging was described as a form of speech rather than a form of writing. Though this was meant as a disparagement, many who engage in blogging seem to subscribe to the same viewpoint. Some bloggers believe that revision, even for the sake of correcting factual errors, violates the informal spirit of blogging.
Anyone who has read this blog knows that is very far from my approach. I carefully compose even my briefest posts, and I frequently revise them after posting, in response either to my own second thoughts or to reader comments (or just for the sake of stylistic polish). I was a well established writer for many years before starting a blog (indeed, I only started it by accident). I consider my blog to be another mode of publication, not different in kind from any other, though it has the advantage of receiving much more timely and frequent feedback and response. While I have no desire to read other people’s journals, online or otherwise, such exercises in personal display do the world no harm. Since they’re online, they’re not even killing trees.
I am referring more specifically to the level of vitriol, bile, and petty viciousness I find so often online, in which discussion is regularly reduced to ad hominem attacks, often among strangers. I have read people more or less threaten one another physical harm. I have read people attacking other people they knew nothing about as corrupt and dishonest merely because of the schools their targets attended. I read have individuals’ mental health questioned because they expressed a different viewpoint from that of the person attacking them. I have read individuals admit that they have taken pleasure in attacking others online. It surprises me that so many blog owners permit or even seem to encourage such online brawling, as if they were trying to draw a larger audience with the expectation of fistfights and car crashes.
I do not tolerate that kind of personal attack on my blog, nor do I devote the kind of space in any of my writings, online or in print, to attacking and/or dismissing other writers that some others do. Some people believe that such activities are a normal part of poetic ambition, that impugning and denigrating others is just a way to stake out one’s turf and make a name for oneself. They think that everyone engages in such activities as a matter of course. I don’t subscribe to such a cynical viewpoint.
The lack of reasoned and rational discourse and the prevalence of ad hominem attacks are not the only problems in the discourse of the online poetry world. There is also the problem of intellectual irresponsibility, even among the most prominent bloggers. For example, I have read bloggers critique works they clearly and sometimes admittedly have not actually read. Both problems seem to stem from a refusal to think through and be held to account for what one writes online.
This negligence about what one writes often extends even to a disregard for correct grammar or spelling. There is rarely much apparent awareness that one is contributing to a public forum. People often take blog comments in particular as the occasion to ramble on about their personal obsessions or just whatever happens to be on their minds at the moment, whatever its relevance to the topic at hand. I have read someone write that he feels no need to take responsibility for his comments, to think them through or consider them at all, because writing blog comments is just a form of “slurping and spilling” online.
Obviously, this phenomenon is at least partially elicited by the relative safety and anonymity of online communication. People feel free to say and do things they would never do in real life, where there are actual consequences to one’s actions. They see the online world as a place to vent. However, in my experience, this relative safety can also be the means to a greater degree of trust and communication than many people allow themselves in their daily lives. They feel more free to open up to one another, to let themselves be vulnerable in ways that would be too dangerous in real life. Too often, though, the freedom the online environment provides is only the freedom to bully without the possibility of effective retaliation. And many people put their names to their diatribes, attacks, and fulminations, seemingly unaware of or indifferent to the fact that the things they say may come back to haunt them in both predictable and unexpected ways.
I would like to make clear that I don’t think that everyone needs to agree with or approve of everyone else. I certainly don’t do so. But there is nothing wrong with civility, and everything right with it. The possibility of social life depends upon it, in fact. Civility does not exclude principled disagreement or even heated argument; indeed, civil society is premised on the possibility of such discussion and debate. But some people involved in the online poetry world believe that personal attack (usually on people they don’t know) is an effective or legitimate mode of argument. They seem incapable of holding a position without attacking the persons (as distinct from the ideas) of those with different positions. Conversely, some people (often the same people) take reasoned disagreement as a form of personal attack, and respond accordingly.
Ironically, in my experience of the online poetry world it is those who consider themselves to be avant-garde who are most likely to engage in this form of attack. For adherents of a standpoint that valorizes transgression, subversion, and opposition, many of those who call themselves avant-garde are remarkably intolerant of any dissent, disagreement, or simple non-conformity with their party line. The insistence on dismissing everyone not in the club with the pejorative epithet “School of Quietude” (a phrase I have never encountered in print) is the most egregious symptom of this.
The situation I discuss is but a minor and marginal example of the general degradation of discourse in contemporary American culture (what Al Gore calls the assault on reason), a process seemingly designed to disengage people from sociality. In this case, however, I would like to point out that the enemy, if an enemy is required (as it seems to be), is not other poets, however different their aesthetic dispositions, but a culture and an economy of scarcity—of money, of resources, of attention, of recognition professional and personal—that pits people in the society as a whole and in any given social subset against one another in a zero-sum competition for crumbs of a shrinking economic and social pie precisely in order to prevent them from cooperating in changing the reward/withhold/punish system some profit from, some rail against (some of these are actually suffering and some just don’t want to admit that they’re profiting too), and most are actively harmed by. Those engaged in the constant turf wars with which the online poetry world in particular is rife might do well to recognize that their mock battles in tempestuous teapots are the direct result, indeed can accurately be described as symptoms of, this economy of scarcity. The energy expended in these toy gladiator contests might be put to more productive uses.