Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I wonder if the real innovative action in poetry today isn’t so much in form, but in format: the blog, the listserv, Goodreads, the Amazon review. The way poets relate to each other through these templates, and the new expectations of response they create—less delivered faster, criticism morphed into “content” or “feedback”—may be transforming the idea of the literary more powerfully than anything that’s actually said on them.

Which is one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of Kevin Killian’s Amazon reviews, which turn the possibilities of the format into a funhouse of multiple subjectivities. Each review promises access to a whole person that the template can’t possibly deliver; you get a glimpse of an “I” assembled by the products it describes, but who dreams of reading all 2,131 casually diverse reviews to put together the self behind them?

In Killian’s hands, the assumptions at the bottom of the Amazon template seem to mimic the assumptions of the financial system as a whole. The value of each review stems from the reader’s sense of a real “Kevin Killian” somewhere in back of them, but the template makes it almost impossible to assess the author who (under)writes them all. You can’t evaluate Amazon Reviewer #75 in the way you evaluate the author of a conventional novel or book of poems over the course of his or her career, though the writing in Kevin’s reviews is every bit as literary. The existence of the writing subject as a consistent bundle of interests and discriminations is kind of taken on faith, with stars, rankings, and “Helpful Votes” as its derivatives.

Recently, I’ve discovered a new dimension to the Amazon review: as a forum for global political sniping. American scholar Clinton B. Seely drew fire for his A Poet Apart: A Literary Biography of the Bengali Poet Jibanananda Das, 1899-1954, from “A Customer” who accused him of being “an Occidental explorer…taking Bengali to Bengal” and for writing about Das, “a Fundamentalist Bengali Hindu Cultural Nationalist with secular pretentions, as most of his fellow Bengal Hindus are.” “A Customer”[2] then replied “on behalf of decent Bengalis, East, West, North or South,” extending “our heartfelt thanks to Professor Seely for his interest, compassion and love for Bengal and Bengali culture, and the fine work he and other ‘Occidentals’ are doing to rediscover different exemplars of that culture through a variety of outlets.” “A Customer”[3] then riposted with a blast at “the illegitimate Anglo-American Hindu love affair whose illegitimate literary off-spring is the inquiry of an Occidental in the Bengali Hindu’s Kama Sutra,” backed up by A Customer”[4], who complains that “such Bengali-Hindu literary taste only reminds the people of Babington Macaulay’s Intellectual-Poison-Tree carried along by the Bengali Hindus all the way from Calcutta, India to Dallas, Texas.” Reviewer “R Endow” then takes things home with a swipe at Bengali-speaking Muslims: “You things are things of the past. Wake up and smell the reality.”

I’m less impressed with the exchange than with the occasion provided for it by Amazon’s craven marketing tool. The jostle of anonymous voices boxed within the format of a simple 5-star customer rating template is more instructive for me than a lot of what I read in contemporary U.S. poetry right now, with its focus on lineage, formal innovation, and guild consensus. I guess what I value in these reviews is increasingly what I look for in poetry: the feeling the machine is doing something it was never designed for, like one of those cartoon contraptions that threaten to blow because someone stuck a carrot in the nozzle where a widget should have been. I like innovative widgets, but I like the bulge in the pressurizer better. For better or (probably) worse, it looks to me more like the world outside our poetry.


konrad said...

When you used the word "format" i thought of presentation in the digital realm, rather than medium. That is to say, the "writing" is not just the language used, but the visuality of design and animation that goes into presenting the language, the ensemble of which forms the "text."

In the examples you give here, i think the presentation aspect of writing to consists in the framing -- you mention the template, feedback and dialogic modes. But expand the idea writing itself to include presentation and you get all the work at sites like the ELO

This idea came up for me in a conversation with a writer recently who said they thought that "digital poetry" writing was just bad. That blanket judgement made me realize that "writing" itself is a different thing here. If you abstract the words and phrases used in digital writing, and evaluate that outside the presentation context, of course it's going to look "bad." Imagine looking at Impressionist paintings with tinted sunglasses ... not so impressive any more!

konrad said...

oops, i meant to give this link in that comment

rodney k said...

Hi Konrad,

I wonder if E-Literature or digital poetry founders when it announces itself as "literature" or "poetry." At least, I find that field less exciting than those writings that don't purport to be literary at all, but manage to provide the things I go to literature for anyway.

But I'm with you that there's a need for a new critical language to account for the energies that electricity's brought to the word. And to the social relations expressed through words. Author as "presentation" interface? Does that connect at all with Nada's recent thoughts on "personality" in poetry?

konrad said...

Well, i think it is a case of the word "literature" having a lot of inertia that prevents it from adapting to changes in its meaning. If people use that term for nontraditional forms, something's got to give. And when critics (we're all critics) say, "that's not literature, that's a game" or something categorical like that, they're just opting out of, or contesting the change of the reference of the word, rather than making a critical (criteria based) aesthetic judgement.

No, i think Nada's musings on personality (it's pretty much summed up in the quote from Tzara on her blog) are totally different. I dare say (because she'll read it here) that sometimes personality is an engine for good work, and sometimes it's a diversion from bad work -- it has more to do with the performativity of literature than its texuality, which is what i'm talking about.

The idea i'm trying to shape is that writing itself is becoming (or has always been, think the Futurist, Constructivist and Dada's experiments with type) a different kind of thing than we are used to thinking it is. What was a niche genre, called "vispo," is asserting itself more all the time as a 'half seeing half reading half playing' kind of literature.

Ryan said...

I enjoy the idea of the non-poetic becoming or being read as poetry. E-writing, generally of course, is largely written by programmers and rarely by poets (Brian Kim Stefans might be the one exception to this that I can think of). While I don't think that only poets can or should write poetry, texts by programmers rely too much on the technique, and I took Rodney's comment about the work "announcing itself as poetry" as referring to this. The most exciting electronic writing uses contexts and tactics that are somewhat new and foreign to both programming and writing. The amazon review is interesting because interaction is a given, but understanding isn't necessarily. Such an odd place for art to occur, in seemingly "disposable" locations for writing: netflix blurbs, amazon reviews, spam email, credit card small print, etc, that I can't help but be more excited about these tactics as a way to subvert or at least de-essentialize information-bearing contexts than I am about (capital E)-writing.