I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best

On the 'post-internet' subject and new directions in contemporary poetry

I-love-roses-cover


The poet hugged me because I “got” it.

– from Marianne Morris, ‘BENEATH A PHRYGIAN SCALE’

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Although a significant proportion are British, the poets in I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best have little geographical commonality, and are unlikely to have come together before the internet; their home as poets is online. (Crispin Best’s biographical note tells us that he lives “at crispinbest.com” as well as in London.) Instead, theirs is a commonality of practice or sensibility; Test Centre describes its new anthology as a group of “16 young poets whose work has been influenced by the digital age”:

The poems reflect new and innovative methods of poetic composition, with authors working in conjunction with the impersonal operations of algorithms and databases. Each of the poets whose work appears in the anthology has his or her own methods of engaging and interacting with computer or web-based technologies. This ranges from poems consisting of sequences of online search results, to works which take as their starting point the materials of social media.

Collecting, amongst others, the work of two Faber poets, in Rachael Allen and Sam Riviere (with selections from the 4chan Poems and Kim Kardashian’s Marriage), it seems the ‘influence of the digital age’ that this stylish anthology claims to demonstrate is increasingly salient for the competing claims for innovation and relevancy amongst contemporary British poetry.

Harry Burke’s sophisticated Introduction is a little more circumspect than the blurb in naming any principle or motive behind his “subjective exercise in grouping certain poets.” Instead, it attempts to clear some critical space for the poems and their intentions, and, as such, is worth exploring in depth. It does so for the most part by contrasting the practice of the collected poets to one of the more prominent strands of poetics that claims to respond to the experience of the internet (and to be heir to the C20th avant garde): uncreative writing, as theorised by Kenneth Goldsmith in his 2011 book of the same name and elsewhere, and heralded by Marjorie Perloff.

Burke begins by comparing Sophie Collins’ unsettling cento ‘perfection’ to Goldsmith’s “dry and mechanical” conceptualist works (such as Traffic). His main gripe is with the way in which the uncreative writer would smoothly separate poet from poem by simply reproducing and repurposing language (such as traffic reports). This “position of relative security” distances subjectivity from “waste” language and its circulation through digital infrastructure, declaring “context is the new content” as it makes poetry from reframing (frequently digitised) text. In response to this, Burke, invoking Dan Hoy’s criticism of the credulous reflection of digital infrastructure by flarf poets, challenges the distinction that Goldsmith’s position makes between content and context by implicating one within the other. He argues that any supposed impersonal distance between poet and poem is a fiction, and points out the implicit politics of so easily devaluing the language within which subjects express and constitute themselves: “paradoxically, those who are most able to let go of their subject position are those whose subject position is not threatened in the first instance.” In an interview he quotes Collins making a similar point:

the implication of uncreative writing’ on ‘minority writers’ i.e. the notion of excess language as a kind of ~fascinating textual junkspace~, indeed, the notion of the existence of any ‘waste language’ at all only functions for those individuals occupying positions of relative privilege within a hegemonic discourse—those whose demographics have had the opportunity to publicly record their thoughts.

By this argument, as a poet has more control over the meaning of their stylistic or linguistic choices within the poem (i.e. the content) than in curatorial choices, which draw their meaning from outside (i.e. the context), to surrender that power, to know that existing culture will furnish the materials for expression, and that the audience will ‘get’ it, is an expression of privilege, a function of the historical dominance of the poet’s “demographic”. What’s more, it is difficult then for impersonality and ‘uncreativity’ to not reinforce pre-existing dominant ideology, as it frees readers from having to acknowledge any alternate lived experience, any new perspectives that they don’t already hold or that haven’t already been expressed.

The response to uncreative writing from Collins resembles the feminist and postcolonial counter to (frequently white male) postmodernism: that a rejection of ‘grand narratives’, of rational political progress, such as Lyotard’s, ignores and thus implicitly validates its own privilege, discrediting any ground for agency or change whilst establishing its own new, self-congratulatory grand narrative that it is unable to see beyond, or even see at all. As I’ve written elsewhere, this attitude in uncreative writing also reflects “the implicit political thesis of neoliberalism in the 21st century: that real progress is over, that systemic change is impossible, that history has ended.” Much of how C21st innovative poetry (such as, for instance, the ‘new sincerity’ of alt lit) defines itself against C20th postmodernism occupies the shadow of this dialogue, drawing from traditions of feminist poetics.

Goldsmith attempts to pre-empt these criticisms in the chapter ‘Towards a Poetics of Hyperrealism’ from Uncreative Writing. After mentioning the greater fluidity of performed identity on the internet, he gives his main defence of the politics of “reflecting rather than expressing”:

Sometimes, by the noninterventionist reproduction of texts, we can shed light on political issues in a more profound and illuminating way than we can by conventional critique.

When he develops this claim in reference to the work of Vanessa Place, its problems become clear (on which I shall shed light by noninterventionist reproduction):

In its self-reflexive use of appropriated language, uncreative writing embraces the inherent and inherited politics of the borrowed words: far be it for conceptual writers to dictate the moral or political meanings of words that aren’t theirs. However, the method or machine that makes the poems sets the political agenda in motion or brings issues of morality or politics into question.

This claim struggles with how uncreative writing, with its fascination with official information, is (as Linda Hutcheon writes of irony[i]) unable “to free itself from the discourse it contests”: on the one hand, uncreative writers not only refuse to “dictate,” but instead “embrace” the “moral or political meanings of words that aren’t theirs”; on the other, this is supposed to “bring issues of morality or politics into question.” The missing term here that resolves it is the reader, who is assumed to already hold the correct response, to interpret appropriately. This conceals a lot of assumptions, one being that it depends upon a precedent gap between the ‘good’ reader and the ‘bad’ politics being examined. It can only ever tell what is already known, and has no way to express alternatives. Even more disconcerting is the way in which this, as Goldsmith states, engenders apathy, as it provokes the same flatness that it reproduces: he describes listening to Place read Statement of Facts for “forty-five minutes,” as “the longer Place read for, the more immune [he] became to the horrors of what she was saying.” It grounds the thrill of the domination of official language on the surety of ‘getting’ the poem, of being ultimately unthreatened. And implicit here is the distance uncreative writing places between art and everyday life[ii], of its heavy dependence on the mechanisms of institutionalised Literature and its trained readers. (This last point seems problematic for claims uncreative writing’s proponents make on the avant garde.) In this account, uncreative writing is a politics of helplessness at best and complicity at worst.

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I have a lot of suits with pocket squares.
Shut up and leave me alone before the police make a fuss.

– from Carina Finn, ‘LETTER FROM THE MOON’

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The internet encourages eclecticism by the breadth of writing it makes available, taking poetry out of its tradition and theoretical/political context, expanding or breaking open coteries. Experimental and avant-garde poetics are especially susceptible to this tendency, to an accelerated neutralisation of their formal statements, which perhaps, then, is part of the reason for the supposed “more hospitable attitude[…]towards experiment” in contemporary British poetry. I Love Roses… collects poetry from multiple backgrounds and inheritances — in an interview, Burke says he “wanted to bring different voices and styles together to see how they challenged each other” — but the mixture rarely feels uncomfortable. The influences on display in I Love Roses… are, for the most part, drawn from experimental or language-based traditions. (Burke’s Introduction, and its emphasis on medium, would seem hostile to mimetic verse that values authenticity of voice or a transparency of language.) In Francesca Lisette and Timothy Thornton, who’ve both been published on Mountain Press, and in Marianne Morris, whose bad press has published Sophie Robinson, Emily Critchley and Amy De’ath, we have something like the fractured, difficult, often political, poetry associated with Cambridge and Brighton, as in Keston Sutherland, Sean Bonney or Jo Crot. Morris’ ‘PETIT CHANSON DU TRAVAIL’, for instance, begins:

Even if you’re wearing a shirt that says The Sex
Has Made Me Stupid or your pants or you
can still join the peoples’ rev. It is so urgent.
There’s no discrimination. Even if you
own a Range Rover there’s no
discrimination. WE NEED YOUR
Executive Vice President to write a
speech highlighting various injustices
and perform it at your client meeting.

He is at home when he’s
          not working,
he’s working when he’s
          not at home, his
working is forced, it is the
          loss of his self.
Hey ho, the wind and
          the rain.

Like most of the poems in the anthology, it has a playful and frantic restlessness. The voice is plain and plaintive but askew, as in the vagueness of “various injustices” or the sudden capitalisation of “WE NEED YOUR” or the collapsed syntax of “or your pants or you/can still join.” As the focus moves from the second to third person in the second stanza, the form changes as the syntax becomes more patterned, before turning back at the end to comment archly on its own sudden poeticness (and the bleakness of its content) with the mock-jaunty refrain from one of Feste’s songs. Its main feature is its involution, its hypersensitivity to the changes in its voice. It is also unafraid of politics, as in “You say/it best when you say democracy is protect-/ing the financial interests of the elite.” later in the quoted poem.

The extent to which the Cambridge strand in the anthology is directly related to the internet is unclear, as many of its techniques and stances predate the world wide web’s invention, reflecting influences going back to the British Poetry Revival. Thornton especially stands apart from the other poets here, following very much in the Cambridge tradition, with his hints and echoes of lyric fragments and overt political argument. However, perhaps we can say that, due to its new forms of interconnection and its distance from print economies, the internet has changed the relationship of experimental poetry to voice-based and established practice. The impact of the internet on Cambridge poetics may not be on the poetry itself, but on its dissemination and reception, on how contemporary poets approach and develop their influences.

Elsewhere, the most obvious influences are from across the Atlantic, most notably of the New York School, as in the strands of O’Hara and Ashbery in Sam Riviere’s poetry, for instance. (Much innovative contemporary British poetry is developing a transatlantic accent, which is not meant pejoratively; US poetry gives young British poets examples to break from some of the tradition of established UK verse.) More recently, we have the influence of US poetics that attempt to reinvigorate the lyric in the long shadow of language poetry, incorporating some of its features without necessarily adopting its poststructuralist (and political) motivation, a sophisticated, decentred suspicion of expression that is even so still bent towards attempts at (or postures of) confession, sincerity and wit. The boldest of the strands of post-language lyric (or the ‘post-avant’), as present in contemporary poetry, is in the influence of the (mostly US) writers associated with ‘alt lit’, like Tao Lin, Steve Roggenbuck and Megan Boyle, clear in Gabby Bess, Jayinee Basu and Crispin Best.

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These poets following alt lit are playful and colloquial, naïve and ironic and garish, reading as much like an IM conversation as a poem. Best’s witty, hyperactive ‘the illuminati jokebook’, for instance, begins:

where do babies comes from?
babies come from their dicks same as anyone
you big dummy

i want to get drunk and look at a candle with you tonight
snowboarding horses couldn’t stop me

i’m an optimist
that’s what i like about you

Another example would be Basu’s ‘Woman Kissing Baby’, which begins:

any emotion worth
having can be
felt by a dog

lol wat

Yet another would be Cassandra Gillig’s ‘THE ARTT’, starting:

JOHN GALVIN & i r rockstars tonight. im sad & hes just a little bit horny. some1
in the audience knows it & yells ‘how apropos.’ damn rite, fucker.[…]

Best’s poetry, for instance, is the most fragmented of all the poets collected, often reading as a series of tweets or as frames for them. Best mentions elsewhere that “Twitter is just my notebook.”The poems quoted above, often with the help of the distance provided by line breaks, look back at themselves, putting on different voices, wryly questioning their own statements and/or turning them into jokes (again, much like an IM conversation). They convey a sense of unstable, energetic present-ness that values vibrancy over consistent dramatic voice. Who, for instance, says “lol wat”? Who is “damn rite, fucker” directed at and where or when in the drama is it said? The poems are continually looking for opportunities to find spaces for more text inside or outside of their current frame, as in Bess’ speaker writing “GUN CONTROL/across my stomach/in black sharpie” (‘KERNING’). And crucially, these poems share the same involution with those of Lisette and Morris, as the voices are persistently self-conscious, resisting transparency for playfulness.

Combining some of the knowing outrageousness of flarf with the absurd, faux-naïve non sequiturs of weird twitter, this involuted, often hyperactive tendency can be partially attributed to the internet’s attention economy and to the instant, accumulative (often pseudo-anonymous) publishing on the internet and in social media, attuning us to reading statements or utterances as discrete parts in potentially ironic relation to each other. (The influence of the internet on poetry is mostly in the mode of reading it instructs us in.) More broadly, the flattening of distance between consumption and production, the immediacy of composition, brings a greater awareness of textuality and of the language deployed every day online. In an essay on poetry on the internet, Riviere argues that “historically, any significant shift in poetry has been a shift ‘down’ – to the demotic, the current vernacular as experienced by readers,” citing O’Hara and Keats. Many of the poems in I Love Roses… certainly replicate a “current vernacular”, but, unlike in the past, it is a textual vernacular more than a spoken one. As so much of our mundane communication through digital media is textual, poetry and life have, in that sense, been brought more closely together, captured in the same infrastructure. Indeed, the lowercase I, misspellings, abbreviations and ‘internet slang’ used by poets like Gillig, Basu or Rogers is orthographic affectation of this closeness. And it is through this closeness, this contact between poetry and its surrounding practices of everyday life, that the poetics described by Burke, its (potentially political) intersection of language within identity, becomes active. Because of the closeness of written text to everyday communication, of poem to the medium in which people express and constitute themselves, the poems don’t feel like dramatic representations of spoken voice, the lyric fiction of overheard speech as “emotion recollected in tranquillity”; rather than observing the smoothness of that distinction between content and medium within themselves, many of the poems in the anthology instead seem to display, and work within, a wholly textual surface, with a direct immanence of voice. Just as the internet is always unfinished, the poems are always in process, in a continuous, immediate present. And so we have in Best and Basu and Gillig, as in Morris and Lisette, a sort of self-enclosed, self-directed free indirect discourse, where the speaker anticipates, repeats and frames utterances within the poem, in a circulation of implicit and explicit (self-)quotation.

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zuckerberg

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Many of the new internet technologies of the past decade have been on the side of the user, such as in the development of client-side techniques like Ajax that enable almost-instantaneous interaction within a browser, or such as in the proliferation of smartphones and their social media apps. It is within this context that post-internet poetry would go farther than conceptualism and flarf, would invest itself more inextricably into and through the internet, as a reflection of how the internet has flattened itself into reality. Web 2.0 flattens the distance between consumption and production, but crucially makes reproduction and distribution in this closed loop part of the continual, serial process of identity, driven by the value of online self-expression for targeted marketing. The experience of the internet is no longer that of the infinite library, as our online lives are increasingly expressive rather than receptive; the internet is no longer a separate place to go for information but the medium in which we are ourselves.

Accordingly, Burke points out the “fluent use of social media” of the poets in the anthology, adding that this “functions in many cases as an extension of the traditional poetic practice.” Using the example of the poetry of Bunny Rogers, and how he claims her poems respond to and reject the “social media economies” through which they are shared, Burke adopts Rob Horning’s discussion of social media in relation to Foucault’s description of ‘parrhesia’ for his model of the political charge of the confessional element in post-internet poetry. In the piece, Horning argues that truth or authenticity, as part of the ongoing process of self-fashioning, is “not about expressing any kind of “objective” truth at all,” but rather that truth is indexed to the risks associated in stating it. In Horning’s depiction, social media creates the platform and audience for subjects to expose and even humiliate themselves to assert their authenticity, thereby implying and rejecting ‘false’ identities that smoothly adopt their place within dominant power structures. However, this authenticity, this whole process, is dependent on and even thereby validates the power it affects to resist, as social media allow for complex, highly creative, performative self-fashioning in “games of truth.”

Burke doesn’t quite develop Horning’s discussion in this direction, and his emphasis on a directly subversive element in Horning’s account of parrhesia misrepresents it a little. Instead, Burke uses it simply as a model for opposing the poetics of the anthology against uncreative writing, as it creates a space for contest, for the dramatic confrontation between the individual and society (or content and context) as found in statements like “Look im sick of u perverted men falling in love with me” (from Rogers’ ‘Princess Dirty Bun Emergency Bunvival guide’). Rather than the blank reflection/reproduction of official language, the irony that knows its reader will ‘get’ it, Burke’s interpretation of parrhesia is the dramatic confrontation with and even rejection of one’s audience.

Burke ends his discussion of Horning’s essay by stating that “it is social media networks which constitute the dominant power structures in our world in this moment.” He does so with the optimism that poetry – he gives the examples of Bunny Rogers’ work – can “generate […] the power, if not to escape, then to reject [social media economies].” Further, he extends this into the anthology’s main statement of intent:

This is a process that, I hope, is shared by all of the poetry collected in this anthology – the telling of truth to power (or whatever you call it) through appropriate of its own techniques of language, meaning and media.

Certainly, the possibilities of web 2.0 would seem to be the democratisation of publication, in the ability it gives for expression and communication, and therefore for rejection or subversion; this democratisation is potentially disruptive when looking at online publishing in opposition to print economies (as, for instance, Riviere does elsewhere). However, the trouble with an eschewal of uncreative writing’s move out from content to context is that it then also hampers itself from being able to examine online economies, and so their balances of power, with the same degree of distance.

The movement of much of the internet, and the situation reflected by uncreative writing[iii], is a step back to infrastructure. All expression in social media, even using them at all (through network effect), produces value for their owners. This is why so much of the internet is based on economies of free: digital corporations don’t need to own content because they own the infrastructure, whilst their users will happily produce the content which they give away to attract others. Considering this divestment from users and their content, it is unclear how any telling of truth to power, at least in this relationship, could take place. In ‘Requiem for the Media’, Jean Baudrillard’s response to claims for the emancipatory possibilities of democratised ownership of the means of transmission in media, Baudrillard argues that, regardless of the political possibilities of content, “media ideology functions at the level of form, at the level of the separation it establishes, which is a social division”:

The totality of the existing architecture of the media founds itself on this latter definition: they are what always prevents response, making all processes of exchange impossible[…] This is the real abstraction of the media. And the system of social control and power is rooted in it.

To understand the term response properly, we must take it in an emphatic sense, by referring to an equivalent in “primitive” societies: power belongs to the one who can give and cannot be repaid. To give, and to do it in such a way that one is unable to repay, is to disrupt the exchange to your profit and to institute a monopoly. […] The same goes for the media: they speak, or something is spoken there, but in such a way as to exclude any response anywhere.

In other words, we may be able to communicate between each other on the internet, but this is not free or potentially emancipatory, as we are unable to respond to the medium itself (in Baudrillard’s particular definition of ‘response’).

On the level of content, then, those “telling truth to power,” challenging it “through its own techniques of control and subjugation,” as Burke claims of the poets collected here, are unlikely to meet any resistance. If anything, the internet takes on an ‘affirmative character,’ as a safety valve, a neutralised, frictionless space.[iv] Although Baudrillard’s argument itself is altogether idiosyncratic, its main point is important: a medium can’t be rejected within its structures and its language, its games of truth, as media “are not co-efficients, but effectors of ideology”[sic]. As such, unqualified or uncritical claims for post-internet poetry’s rejection of or resistance to its online medium through its own terms, as Burke’s Introduction seems to approach, are often dubious. Poetry like Best’s, or even acts of explicit rejection like Rogers’, as good as they are, only validate online economies. Poetry’s rejection of its medium can only come from positing new forms of reading, from continually refusing to play along to the structures in which it finds itself. Where this poetry is active, then, is in the distance it holds from poetry in print economies, in the alternative it offers to established verse, in the new form of lyrical subjectivity it holds up against the voice-based tradition that, for the most part, has lost any awareness of its medium.

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Staring at a screen
is just about my favourite
thing in the world to do
I’m not picky
when it comes
to screens
I once stared
at a Japanese folding screen
for thirteen hours straight

– from Sophie Collins, ‘Cloth’

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As internet usage is now pervasive in everyday life, poetry finds itself at a point of interaction in a broader interplay between media: whilst the conventions and practices of poetry are still legacies of older media, post-internet poetry demonstrates the interposition of the internet between the writer/reader and the tradition or between the writer/reader and any other media. This can be seen in Collins’ centos, for which, Burke tells us in the Introduction, she typed “their title into the search bar of the Poetry Archive website, and then include[d] a line from every poem that appears in the results.” For instance, ‘panties’ runs:

maybe you need to write a poem about grace

remorseless and in poor humour

Like any cento, ‘panties’ encourages us to consider the ways in which writing is a form of reading, but also it reminds us of the technological mechanisms through which we read and write by circumscribing composition with the limits of the Poetry Archive website, the boundaries of its contents and its search function. The poem’s length becomes a statement about the Archive’s finitude and the prejudices of its inclusions, and the limits of print publishing beyond it. Further, the poem demonstrates how these technologies and their boundaries shape how we read, as we try to determine how the poem relates to its title, to second-guess how the search algorithm worked, how the poet, like a search algorithm, made her own selections, as the language itself, the strangeness of it, exceeds its concept. The cento incorporates the internet within its engagement with the tradition.

Despite what Test Centre’s blurb implies, the internet, and the compositional practices it enables, is not the focus of these poems. Instead, the poets within the anthology, when they do approach the internet, do so without any sense of excitement or novelty. Indeed, a sizeable proportion of the contributors, born after 1989, are too young to have known the world without it. With Collins’ centos, for instance, it’s significant that she does not include the lines showing the title word: rather than explicitly foregrounding the keyword and thus the mechanism of searching, ‘panties’ tries to move beyond it. It’s unlikely you’d suspect it of being like a Google poem without being told. The poetry collected in I Love Roses… has moved through the internet to attempt to talk about more important things, but recognises that it cannot do so and remain unchanged; the internet is an unavoidable background, a mostly banal part of the practice of reading and composition, just as it is a part of the practice of everyday life.

In this sense the poetics that Burke describes is making a broad claim on the contemporary tradition: the ‘influence of the digital age on poetry’ is no longer that of lyric poets beset by conceptualist provocateurs and flarf hooligans; rather, as the despecialisation of online publishing in web 2.0 has given new spaces for old intentions of subjectivity and expression, the impact of these new structures can’t be contained or compartmentalised into specialised categories such as conceptualism. Post-internet poetics, like the internet itself, attempts to abolish its own specialisation, and so ultimately its own usefulness as a discrete categorisation. In the end, Burke’s Introduction feels like it would rather not need to talk specifically about the internet at all, because when discussing the processes of language or tradition it is now, by necessity, always also talking about the internet. We are almost in a future where to talk about poetry “influenced by the digital age” is as redundant as talking about poetry ‘influenced by print.’

 


[i] See also ‘Blank Irony in 81 Austerities.’

[ii] Burke seems to make a similar criticism when he asks “why consider the poem to end on the page or within the confines of the screen on which it’s viewed?”

[iii] As in Christian Bok’s claim, lauded by Goldsmith, that “in the future poetry will be written by machines for machines.” Presumably the poets in this future will be the operators of the machines.

[iv] In the only interpretative mode of which Facebook is capable, any ‘Like’ of or post about, say, experimental poetry means only ‘I am someone who reads experimental poetry.’ This is how Facebook operates on the language of consumerism, and how it exploits the self-expression it encourages. In this mode, as Horning’s account of parrhesia explores, anything that affects to be directly confrontational (or political) loops back to function only as a neutralised elaboration of the speaker’s identity.

I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best, ed. Harry Burke, with poems by Sophie Collins, Guillermo Ruiz de Loizaga, Vicki Tingle, Timothy Thornton, Carina Finn, Crispin Best, Marianne Morris, Francesca Lisette, Harry Burke, Gabby Bess, Bunny Rogers, Cassandra Gillig, Rachael Allen, Luna Miguel (translated by Jacob Steinberg), Jayinee Basu, and Sam Riviere.

This essay first appeared on Charles Whalley’s website: postinternetpoetry.tumblr.com

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