Home > Blog > Blogging, Tweeting, Networking, and their Virtual Discontents
Published: Mon Nov 6 2017
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Blogging, Tweeting, Networking, and their Virtual Discontents

The Web is too much with us. Blogging and tweeting, Googling and Facebooking, we lay waste our powers—that’s why I’m writing this draft by hand in ink on paper, unplugged from any device but a roller gel pen whose brand I will not even name so as to remain unlinked from commercial clicks and animated ads and all the distractions of a pixilated screen.

The white paper with its faint gray lines is peaceful and passively inviting, not pulsating with the impatient rhythm of a black hole of self-expression demanding to be filled with endless blather. I don’t want to be part of the relentless assault on sensibility, the constant stream of so-called information and opinion and commentary and argument and images and likes and dislikes that constitute what passes for public discourse and community, a virtual conversation that might be better conducted in a café, between two people, face to actual face.

But look around most cafés and what you see are solitary people staring at their laptops or bent over their phones, essentially being elsewhere than where they are. With only a notebook as my portable device, I feel pleasantly unreachable, calm in the knowledge that I’m out of touch, free to reflect without distraction, or with the inspiring distraction of physical human behavior in a public place, overheard conversations or, outdoors, in a park or by the ocean, the immersive presence of natural phenomena that Wordsworth found restorative and grounding.

When he wrote, in the 1790s, that the world is too much with us, the Industrial Revolution was accelerating the pace of technological change in a way that gave him the jitters. He had to go walking in the Lake District to gather his sensitive wits in a setting that any British aristocrat could appreciate. Here in the States our natural landscapes are not so tame. In California, where I live, the four seasons are fire, flood, drought and earthquake. Silicon Valley’s virtual alternatives may comfort some, but could Wordsworth even have imagined the all-pervasive onslaught of the hyperconnected media storm constantly thrashing us with its agitated weather?

The option exists to take a break and look around at the world and listen to whatever ambient sounds that might suggest the rhythm of a song. Almost fifty years ago, when I studied poetry—reading it and thinking about it, not writing it in a workshop—with Robert Duncan at UC Santa Cruz, one of several profoundly simple things he said was that poets aren’t factories. The drive to publish, to advance one’s career, so central to the industrial culture of the MFA, for Duncan was nowhere near as fundamental as what he called, in his Statement on Poetics for Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960, “song and the reality of romance.”

That’s what I sense is missing from the swarming, teeming, blogging, networking, conference-attending, workshopping, tweeting, competing-for-so-little-that-it-seems-more-important-than-it-is social universe of senseless activity that is the naturally illusory atmosphere of the literary environment most contemporary American poets inhabit. They are driven not by myth or tradition or Beauty or spirit or imagination but by an irrational and probably counterproductive need for “followers” and “likes” and “viral” exposure and other forms of virtual and meaningless attention and approval and popularity, just as high-school students crave acceptance by way of mindless conformism.

This demand for attention, this compulsion to buzz in the virtual hive, this craving to be noticed strikes me as antithetical to imaginative integrity, to true creativity, to deep artistic gratification, which in my experience happens first of all between the writer and the blank page.

The tools we use are a matter of personal choice, and ambition varies from one writer to another, and our social instincts are highly individual, but before we automatically adopt prevailing trends in techno-connectedness, it is worth asking why and for whom we are writing, and whether our habits are enriching and enabling our highest practice, or burning us out with an overdose of artificial and irrelevant stimulation.

Log off and look around. The real, unmediated world is astonishing and, as Denise Levertov once noticed while riding the subway, not enough with us.

Stephen Kessler is a poet, prose writer, translator, and editor. His version of Luis Cernuda’s Desolation of the Chimera received the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets, and his translation of Cernuda’s collected prose poems, Written in Water, received a Lambda Literary Award. He is the editor and principal translator of The Sonnets by Jorge Luis Borges (Penguin). His most recent translation is Poems of Consummation by Vicente Aleixandre (Black Widow Press), and his latest book of original poems is Scratch Pegasus (Swan Scythe Press). He lives in Northern California, where he edits The Redwood Coast Review. (updated 4/2014)

Kessler’s translation of Luis Cernuda’s Forbidden Pleasures: New Selected Poems (Black Widow Press) won the 2016 PEN Center USA Translation Award. The collection includes “The Family,” first published in AGNI 79.

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