The Poet Learns To Surf
In which Carl Wendt, poet, flaneur, and walking anachronism, dips his gnarled toes into the waters of the cyberverse to find it not as cold as he’d anticipated. Although still in the shallow end with his gaze directed toward the creative horizon of a setting sun, the prospect for poetry as he knows it does not look so good.
From Ode To Sunset,
A Year In The Life Of American Genius
A Fiction by Pat Nolan
He was introduced to computers rather late, getting rid of his old Royal, appropriately, at the turn of the century. First through the glacially slow desktop stations in the library, owning one then beyond his means, and subsequently picking up someone’s cast-off, after they’d purged the hard drive. “Knowing you, Wendt” was a common assumption, plagiarism allegations following him around like he’d stepped in dog shit. And he’d learned the hard way to make back-ups and hard copies, friends letting him have use of a printer or an office machine. The last one, an obsolete laptop Angie had let him have, was not Wi-Fi capable, though it had come with one of her old printers.
“I don’t know what to do with them, they just pile up like broken toasters,” she’d complained.
He couldn’t figure it, an earth conscious stalwart like Angie and she couldn’t make the jump to recycling them. He’d thought to get a cell phone and a tablet. Short of robbing a jewelry store and that wasn’t going to happen. Then he met Oren Rickles. Or was finally introduced to him, by Stoddard Leary, a slightly rotund man with a head of oily dark curls and beard, signature orange Converse. Friend of Kay Sayrah’s, and apparently IT consultant to the poets.
A sign read poetry is code over a workbench strewn with a rat’s nest of wires, stripped armatures, and solder studded green motherboards. Rickles had taken a look at his laptop when he’d asked if it was worth upgrading with a wireless connection. The tech looked at the top and the bottom without opening it and then had shrugged handing it back, saying “I dunno, paper weight, museum, boat anchor?”
It struck him then how dependent on his computing device he’d become. He didn’t think he wanted or could, even if he tried to, go back to not being able to record himself through the magic of electrons. It wasn’t exactly a deal with the devil, but he did upgrade to a used laptop with Wi-Fi, charger thrown in, word processor software, an updated version of the one he was already familiar with. Once he got the hang of the web browser, well, the world was at his fingertips like never before, every and any arcane fantasy could be called up at a key stroke, mouse click, dark, unknown corners brought to light in the course of a browse to spiral further down that autodidacts’ rabbit hole. It had taken about a week to scare up a down payment from various sources, the bulk of which came from Nora who reasoned that an improvement in his prospects was an improvement in her prospects of being repaid the money he owed her.
But he had to draw the line somewhere or redraw it, at least, and branding himself as had been suggested as a path to success, was it. He wasn’t interested in the shiny lamination of a presentable product, a definable entity encased in plastic like a fly in amber. It offered a dubious immortality and in a disposable culture the chances of being recycled were slim. Facebook, Twitter, he didn’t have time for their compelling hypnotic appeal. There had to be a demarcation, a perforation between the tectonic plate of one generation and the next. And where the plates shifted, that’s when the energy was generated, a friction felt along the fault line that filled the air with static electricity. There he drew the line.
Yet there was a treasure hoard of nostalgia, the open sesame to which was whatever one wanted it to be as long as it comprised eight characters and at a minimum upper and lower case characters and numerals. Arcane lore and magical science, showrooms of innovation and museums of ancestral excellence, documents and documentaries, the past represented in grainy photo and remnants of shadow on yellowing celluloid. To his everlasting delight he had found footage of the jazz giants in his pantheon of greats and lovingly indulged in every move, mannerism and expression of his heroes in the delineation of the music that resonated in the depth of his being. To their videos he gave himself unconditionally as if in a dream with a fixity that excluded all else.
And this was only one facet of the holographic cyberinth, there were so many corners to turn, so many surfaces to explore, so many directions to follow without a thought to ever finding the exit. And then there was porn, the brothel for the eyes, that alone providing enough proof for the primacy of the visual cortex in processing consciousness let alone on-demand woody. Never had the uses of anatomy been so graphic and sex so boring, after the first five minutes at least. Porn, he came to understand, was fascinating more on a metaphysical level than on a sexual one. It was an outsized athleticism, a fiction of equine proportions and juicy Junoesque dimensions consumed for its mockery of the absurdity of sex as a cruel collective spectacle. And it made men into voyeurs, a world of Chauncey Gardeners who liked to watch. Porn couldn’t capture two of the most essential aspects of sex, intimacy and scent. If there were any lessons to be learned, one was that all vaginas were not created equal, and that not all penises could tell the difference. Also the male was on automatic and soon ran out of gas. The female was on manual but once started wouldn’t stop. The only thing worse than porn’s hypnotic repetitious inanity were cat videos. Yet now anything of visual stimulation by the abundance of choices glossily presented was deigned porn for its salacious appeal which naturally enough encourage consumer orgies of which the economy so much depends upon.
Oren Rickles was an odd egg but fairly personable for someone with borderline autism. His workshop/squat took up the rear of an industrial building in the flats off of Third and one of the State streets. Apart from being a computer nerd, he fancied himself a poet and a literary theoretician, but because he was a tech no one would take him seriously when he spoke his ideas about poetry. It was, yeah, thanks for fixing my computer but I’m not interested in hearing what you have to say about literature. So typical of English majors. And because Rickles was letting him buy the reconditioned laptop on time, and that he needed to be talked through the open source operating system, its quirks and whistles, and the kind of product review that only a guy totally obsessed in discerning the x-y coordinates of every aspect of the technosphere could give, he had lent a superficially sympathetic ear.
What transpired during these tutorials along with helpful hints and various shortcuts was a recitation of Rickles’ opinions on the failings and future of poetry in the cyber age. Such as the internet had exposed a vast wasteland of writers of poetry whose only definition of the art came from the dictionary and children’s nursery rhymes, and that they far outnumbered the really intelligent working artists, threatening to redefine poetry by their sheer number and shameless ignorance, and comparing the situation to the cult movie Idiocracy. Also, that a tsunami of shit poetry would wipe out any accumulated innovation and reset the bar to ground zero. In his opinion, authentic poetry would rise from the obliterating sameness in an adjacent possible where it would flourish in ways unknowable as a creative adaptation to new technology. Language changes, he’d insisted, because new words are needed for new concepts which are then parsed as common denominators. And, in turn, that affects the direction of cultural drift. Rickles had a lot of other crazy ideas. He’d even quoted Italo Calvino to him. “The author, that spoiled child of ignorance and romantic myth, vanishes and gives way to a more thoughtful person, a person who knows the author is a machine and knows how the machine works.”
He’d come to similar conclusions. Now with his own personal access to the internet and the millions upon millions who wrote poetry, he understood that good or bad was no longer a valid standard, that whether a poem was good or bad really didn’t matter. Obeying the laws of entropy, poetry was becoming static, flat, dissipated, an infinity of poetry particles whose repulsive polarity, no longer negative or positive, was, as a consequence, losing its energy. It didn’t matter if he had written a good poem or a bad poem. What mattered was who his friends were, who he knew in advantageous positions, and who could exercise their power by awarding him boons or influence others to do so. Yet poet was such a solitary occupation. And success required social skills, the one seemingly a betrayal of the other. That left only the luck of the draw.
Though certainly less tactile than a cocktail party, there was a similarity to online interactions. Internet poetry groups were like children lost in a forest calling out their positions or locations to each other or merely, as birds in distant trees or thickets, defining the edges of their territory with song. They represented not so much an avant-garde poetry underground as they did isolated instances of undifferentiated ground litter. And as in the actual world, the cyber world of poets was its own kind of hell. Well-meaning intention could count on being easy prey for poetry trolls and grammar ogres eager to exploit potential for conflict.
The faith of these poets in their simpleminded intent reflected a particular innocence. Uninformed of the latest developments, their poetry was lacking in the most basic acquaintance with the breadth of literature and its significant history. These Volk or folk poets were often driven by self-righteousness and exhibitionism similar to those of itinerate preachers or evangelicals. In spirit, they believed in a true poetry, unhampered by the petty questions and quarrels that made up the dark matter of the literary universe. On the other hand, and not surprisingly, theirs was also a very conservative poetry, one not so much devoid of inspiration as perhaps of innovation and imagination. The styles adopted or imitated were modern only in the sense that they were developed in the Twentieth Century. In some ways, they could be considered zombie poets, living off the dead in a clueless regurgitation of great art.
And that went for those who recited free associated lists as a claim to a pedestrian edginess as well. Their poems championed a self-conscious abstraction. Abstraction, the deadliest of language mires, was the beacon of pretenders. Ironically, only parodies of abstractions were actually bearable and anywhere near being truly abstract. But presenting this metaphorical porridge as jambalaya was criminal not to mention nauseating.
Still others wrote the poetry of misguided journalists whose feeble ironies served only cliché while yet others aimed to be photographers, subjective in their Ansel Adams black and white objectivity. Poetry workshops and writing groups, to further the muddy the waters, fostered a self-esteem that verged on delusions of reference in which celebrity was the ultimate attainment. What all of them could not comprehend was that poetry was tautegorical, not intellectual. The poem did not represent the thing, it was the thing. Poetry belongs to the sphere of affectivity and will.
Poets surround themselves with words to assimilate the world of objects. The poetic mind never perceives passively, never contemplates things, and all its observations spring from some act of participation, some act of emotion and resolve. Even as the poetic imagination materializes in poems and presents the definitive outlines of an objective world, the significance becomes clear only if the dynamic sense of life from which it originally arose can be detected. Only when it expresses itself as love or hate, fear or hope, joy or sorrow is the poetic imagination roused to the pitch of excitement at which it begets a definite world of representation through the agency of the poem. And only when the entire self is surrendered, possessed by a singular impression, is there the utmost tension between subject and object, the outer and inner world. Then external reality is not merely viewed and contemplated but overwhelms with its sheer immediacy, with fear, hope, terror, or wish fulfillment. A spark jumps the synaptic gap and the tension finds release as subjective excitement becomes objectified and confronts the poet as a poem. The earliest products of poetic thinking neither are permanent, self-identical, or clearly distinguished as poems, nor are they immaterial inklings. They are like elements of a dream, objects endowed with poetic import, haunted places, accidental shapes in nature resembling something of portent, all manner of shape shifting fantastic images which speak of larger ineffable ideas of good and evil, life and death. Their common trait being that they evoke awe in the connectedness of all life. Poetry does not give rise to discursive understanding. Nor does it beget apperception by sorting out concepts and relating them to distinct patterns. A poem tends to bring together great complexities of related ideas in which all distinct features are merged and assimilated. He’d said as much to the two women who had come to interview him.
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels. His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. Nolan is also publisher of Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.
New To the Society’s Shelves
Lucille Friesen, Blue Bicycle, Ideal Café Editions, 2020
Robert Hébert, Coulisses, La Compagnie a Numero, 2020
Sandy Berrigan, Viajes, Private Edition, 2020
Elizabeth C. Herron, Insistent Grace, Fernwood Press, 2020
Bruce Holsapple, The Birth Of The Imagination, University of New Mexico, 2015
Matt Turner, Wave 9: Collages, Flying Island Books, 2021
Last Gasp Swoop (Fell Swoop #164), Joel Dailey, et al. 2020