Monday, September 2, 2013

The Rise of the Internet and the Fall of Intimacy

Robert Frost and Billy Collins share a poetic love of the ordinary.  Their poems spring not from lofty philosophy or a slavish dedication to literary form, but from an appreciation for the small, the quiet and the private. Consider these two examples.  First Collins:

Another Reason I Don't Keep a Gun in the House

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

And now Frost:

A Patch of Old Snow

There's a patch of old snow in a corner

That I should have guessed

Was a blow-away paper the rain

Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if

Small print overspread it,

The news of a day I've forgotten --

If I ever read it.

The small, the quiet and the private - the personal and the exquisite -  these are the opposite of the Internet.  That is not an evaluative assertion - it is not a question of "good" or "bad", it is rather an objective definition of the nature of the Internet as a communication medium. And the Internet is, in that regard, a medium of incredible scope. It has linked us together to a degree that was inconceivable a mere handful of years ago. Facebook claims a billion users. Wikipedia asserts that China may approach a similar number of domestic users by 2015.  The numbers become babble, like the kids in the TV commercial - "Infinity plus one!" "Infinity plus infinity!" 

But something is lost in this gluttonous surfeit of "connectedness" and that is the small, the quiet and the private.  Let us further consider poetry.  It is true, I did not need to go across town to the library to find the poems I wanted for this post. I didn't even need to cross the room to the bookshelf. Even opening a book was unnecessary.  All Google needs is a name and there it is - everything that Collins or Frost ever published. I need only point and click, and the poem unfolds on my screen.

Yet, somehow it seems a tawdry assignation. Teenagers necking in a public park. You see, for me poetry has always been the most personal of literary forms. It is a page - a page of real paper in a real book, or scratchings of my own - in a private patch of shade and sunlight, or floating beneath a muted lamp in a darkened room. It is intensely revealing and private.

That is not how I encountered these poems.  The webpage presenting the Collins piece was bracketed on the right hand side by this ad:

I'll admit to laughing out loud.  Yet, I doubt it was part of the dialogue with the reader that Collins had intended.  Frost's poem was accompanied for an ad for the "world's largest and most affordable online Christian university."  I'm not sure what the algorithm gnomes had in mind there. However both sites invited me to email the poem to a friend, or share it with a friend via Twitter, Google+ or Facebook. Furthermore, I was expected to "rate" the poem.  I instantly flashed back to Dead Poets Society.  You remember, very close to the beginning of the movie, when the teacher, John Keating, aka Robin Williams asks one of the students, Neil Perry, to read from their Introduction to Poetry text.  The script goes like this:


        Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans
        Pritchard, Ph.D. To fully understand
        poetry, we must first be fluent with
        its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech.
        Then ask two questions: One, how artfully
        has the objective of the poem been
        rendered, and two, how important is that
        objective. Question one rates the poem's
        perfection, question two rates its
        importance. And once these questions have
        been answered, determining a poem's
        greatest becomes a relatively simple

[Keating gets up from his desk and prepares to draw on the chalk board.]

        If the poem's score for perfection is
        plotted along the horizontal of a graph,
        and its importance is plotted on the
        vertical, then calculating the total
        area of the poem yields the measure of
        its greatness.

[Keating draws a corresponding graph on the board and the students
dutifully copy it down.]

        A sonnet by Byron may score high on the
        vertical, but only average on the
        horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on
        the other hand, would score high both
        horizontally and vertically, yielding a
        massive total area, thereby revealing the
        poem to be truly great. As you proceed
        through the poetry in this book, practice
        this rating method. As your ability to
        evaluate poems in this manner grows, so
        will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

Keating dubs the passage "excrement" and instructs the students to rip those pages out of their textbooks.

I feel much the same about being asked to share and rate my interaction with the online poems.  I suppose I should not be surprised. What we have here is an Internet version of the currently vogue "poetry slam," which Wikipedia defines as "a competition at which poets read or recite original work. These performances are then judged on a numeric scale by previously selected members of the audience." Competitive, public poetry.  Bullexcrement. My definition is more simplistic: a poetry slam is exactly what the name implies - a slam at poetry.  I mean, let's all break out the graph paper for crying out loud.

But poetry is not the only intimate form of communication endangered by the Internet.  Social media like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter have replaced the slightly less public medium of email.  In those social forums one simply broadcasts the text, images and video that constitutes the timeline of your life and expects those who care for you to "follow" your posts.  It is their job to sort the trivial from the exceptional, their job to nurture and sustain the relationship. Again, bullexcrement.

Email, the first "killer app" back in the misty dawn of the Internet, also finds itself in a public/private schizophrenic Neverland.  Take a look at your inbox - any of them. How many messages are from people that you know and about whom you care? How many are work related - "have to" as opposed to "want to" interactions? And how many are from perfect strangers trying to sell you something?  It is to laugh, or to cry; depending on the day and our mood.

Here is the important, fundamental question: If you want to craft a private, personal, intimate, message - a letter, a note, a poem, a picture or a song - to a particular person, and you want to be relatively confident that the message is "for their eyes only" - not for all your social media friends, not for Google or Acxiom, or Amazon, or the NSA, or the DEA, or your cellphone provider, or your Internet service provider, or The Guardian, or The New York Times - how do you do that?

Truthfully, I do not know. Yet, I have a fountain pen. Very old school, the kind you have to continually dip into an inkwell while writing. It inclines me to consider the Jane Austin Solution: long letters, written in longhand on heavy stationary, put into an envelope, perhaps even sealed with wax, placed in a physical mailbox, and sent off via plane or train or horseback or on foot; finally to arrive, unscanned, unscooped, and unseen until the intended recipient breaks the seal and peers inside.

This is usually when I realize that I have no record of my friends' - dear or otherwise - physical, snail mail addresses.  Haven't used them in years. Maybe if I Google them.  .  .  .


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