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Marcus Goodyear

Writing Poems in Your Own Backyard

The Poetry of the News, the Net, and the Neighborhood

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People are not fragments. Google is not making us stupid. We surf the web, hopping from bit to bit, clip to clip, and the medium seems inherently shallow. But do we become shallow when we use it?

On bad days, I believe some of the despairing statements that people make about the direction of our culture. Last year, Jaron Lanier made a compelling argument about how technology can lead to a new kind of commodification. In his book You Are Not a Gadget, he writes, "people are encouraged by the economics of free content, crowd dynamics, and lord aggregators to serve up fragments instead of considered whole expressions or arguments."

How Much Can It Be Worth If It Is Free?

In particular, Lanier criticizes the philosophy of Creative Commons. If you've not heard of the practice, it is a license that many emerging artists are using to share their work freely with others. It encourages people to borrow from each other's work to create mashups and remixes. In fact, TheHighCalling.org, one of the sites I edit for the Foundations for Laity Renewal, publishes nearly 50 articles per month and offers all of them for republication through a Creative Commons license. Several newspapers have begun to use our material to round out their Religion Sections.

How can this be a bad practice? Lanier's primary critique of current social technology and Creative Commons is this: when we write for free or create for free or offer our work for free, we devalue our own work. We encourage others to be lazy, mashup artists at best or cheap consumers at worst. Fewer and fewer people create or purchase anything new, Lanier argues.

But we do not need to worry that people have fallen into a creative rut. It was never our role to create new worlds. Our role is stewardship. Our role is cultivation. That's what culture means. Before the fall, we were called to work the garden, to move the dirt around so it would be prettier and more productive. Creating mashups and remixes of what has come before us is still culture if we accept the original meaning of the word—to culture the land, to cultivate.

If we only cultivate our backyard garden, this doesn't make our work a mere fragment of culture. If we only cultivate 140 characters at a time, we are not fragments. Even if we are short bursts of communication, we do not need to worry. Lanier does worry: "As a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction." He seems to suggest that communicating in short bursts is itself dehumanizing.

But it isn't dehumanizing. It is poetry. In fact, communicating through brevity is exactly the form and purpose of poetry. Expressing the deepest possible ideas in the fewest possible words. If there was ever a time that needed poetry, it is our time of tweets and status updates and short form communication.

L. L. Barkat understood this recently when she helped her children (and the community at The High Calling) process tragedy through poetry. Rather than dwell on horrifying YouTube videos of the tsunami that struck Japan, she offered a fragment of emotion for her daughter in a short lyric poem about finding a button on the beach. In my favorite part of the poem, Barkat imagines the woman who lost the button:

I thought of thin white cotton,
a blouse to touch
and a line of empty buttonholes.

These excerpted lines are a fragment of emotion. They are a fragment of the news we all experienced during the week of the earthquake. Yet the image of an imagined blouse that must now contain empty buttonholes has specificity enough to communicate something of worth.

In the comment section of her poem, people offered their own fragments of poetry in response. Glynn Young, a Director of Public Affairs by day, added his thoughts and poetry to "Faith Fiction and Friends" early one morning. His words were another fragment of news, adapted from a story of a Japanese mother who lost her child in the tsunami:

we did not run but
made quick steps,
quick steps, laughing
like the teacher's song

Maureen Doallas wrote a literal poem out of news fragments at her site "Writing Without Paper," including this vivid image:

The air-filled down jacket
that saved Mrs. Sato's life
as she rode the wave, spending
her prayers between breaths, is news.

All across the web, people poured out poetry like prayers for the people of Japan. The open poetry group at One Shot Wednesday included a prayer from Rob Kistner that stayed with me as one of my favorites from that week:

as sea waters recede
tears of Nippon
freely flow
may the brave heart
of a rising sun
dry them both

I was also deeply touched by parts of Alegria Imperial's entry for One Shot Wednesday, "you and I in seven pieces," in which she wrote,

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