The Poet, Wired
I was taking out the trash the other day and found myself remembering Frederick Eckman’s poem “Love Lies A-Bleeding,” a poem about a marital quarrel occasioned by the husband’s failure to set out the garbage. I hadn’t read Eckman in years and decided to revisit his work.
Pulling Sandusky & Back, Eckman’s 1970 new and selected poems, off the shelf, I ended up reading the entire volume, which opens with a dedication to the poet’s son Thomas Frederick Eckman, 1947-1966. “That’s odd,” I thought, “Only 18. Wonder what got him – car wreck, cancer, Vietnam?” In a sonnet to his mother in heaven, Eckman wrote, “Your only grandson’s murdered,” so I learned that Thomas had met a violent end, although Vietnam was still a possibility, “murdered” being a term the contemporary parent of a dead soldier might use regarding Bush & Company.
Wondering if Eckman was still alive and if he had published any books since Sandusky & Back, I googled him and found that, no, he had died in 1996, and that, yes, there was a volume of selected writings, Over West, published in 1999. But then I found an entry that brought me up short, the first of many entries concerning Charles Stuart Whitman, “the University of Texas sniper,” who in 1966 barricaded himself in the campus bell tower and killed 16 unsuspecting people. Thomas Frederick Eckman was one of the victims.
There they are, in screen after screen of Google search results, a poet whose work I enjoy and the nutcase who took the life of the poet’s son. It felt almost obscene to see them thusly linked, as if the assassin had scrawled a bright red “Fuck You” across the title page of the poet’s collected works. Our society’s fascination with serial killers ensures that Whitman’s notoriety (Is there notoriety anymore? Or is there just fame?) will continue to miscegenate with whatever literary reputation Eckman’s poetry finally has.
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As it has with every other field, the Internet has changed the world of poetry. “The man who cannot imagine a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot,” said Andre Breton almost 80 years ago. What would Breton think today, when the computer-generated juxtaposition of disparate objects, whether by Google or simple Spellcheck, renders superfluous the old Surrealist modus operandi? All that information, available 24/7, undifferentiated, and coming at you chock-a-block -- for the first time in history, all human knowledge is theoretically available to the poet. “Poet, be like God,” Jack Spicer wrote in a typically megalomaniacal moment. But God seems able to handle omniscience better than we can.
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“The history of the Victorian Age will never be written. We know too much about it,” wrote Lytton Strachey in the introduction to Eminent Victorians. The small amount of surviving data about ancient times, compared to all that actually happened, allows the historian to shape a narrative; too much information, thought Strachey, and the historian is overwhelmed. Strachey went on to prescribe a strategy for the future historian that might be the working method of a poet today: “He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.”
But how do we know where to lower the bucket?
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Over 50 years ago W.H. Auden, prescient as always, recognized the danger to the poet of the modern glut of information. In his essay “The Poet and the City,” Auden spoke of the fact that, unlike poets of the past who had a local or national tradition which each poet could modify slightly to be original, the poet of today is expected to sift through works of every time and place to find his own authentic voice. “The burden of choice and selection is put squarely upon the shoulders of each individual poet,” wrote Auden, “and it is a heavy one.”
With the Internet, the burden can become truly crushing. Want to write a poem about faraway lands or historical figures? The data can be easily retrieved (assuming you can believe what you find – the quote by Breton given above is ascribed to Salvador Dali on several websites). Want to cobble together a pantoum that combines old English kenning and Sung Dynasty allusions? You can find all the data you want, and then some. How do you choose?
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Hermann Hesse envisaged a future where all art and knowledge was sampled and combined into notations that made up the Glass Bead Game. The games that were devised had a scholarly foundation yet were works of art. A successful game put together its allusions in a manner that showed the game to be the product of an individual sensibility that could only be termed poetic.
Today’s poet has the chance to borrow and adapt as never before. The act even has a new name: “sampling.” Such appropriation, however, will be without value unless the resulting poem gives the reader a real sense of what it is like to inhabit a particular skin. Anyone can appropriate, but mere sampling won’t help unless we feel that the compiler is not simply a magpie decorating his nest with shiny objects, but instead, that he has thought deeply about what he is borrowing and thus has a claim to it. Of course, then he is no longer a compiler; he’s an author.
In the end, we listen for a voice. The poem persuades us by what we perceive as the authenticity of its speaker. An image, a story, an emotion finds itself given shape in a rhythm as individual as the poet’s heartbeat. For all the multitude of personalities and voices online that clamor to be heard, a poem still comes down to this speaker, this voice. We must believe the poet is as Frederick Eckman describes himself in “To Sherwood Anderson in Heaven” – “a live man in the realest of all possible worlds."