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Marcus Goodyear

Writing Poems in Your Own Backyard

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

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,

we grope for our eyes but find
our lips like embers
on a bed of pebbles

As far as I know, these people are not writing poetry as part of an MFA program somewhere. Few of them are scholars or professors in the traditional sense. Few of them have expectations for their poetry outside the communities in which they write. Their work exists in the commons, freely available to readers, freely delivered through email and RSS feeds, and often freely available for reprint under a Creative Commons license. (The others have graciously granted us permission to reprint their words here.) In our world of fragments and tweets and status updates, we need poetry more than ever.

This is not simply a call for the world to sit up and notice poets. The average person needs poetry because it is an important tool for communicating effectively in this new medium of the internet. Excellent poetry will continue to flow out of the universities and MFA programs, but we need to encourage and accept the poetry of the masses too—where friends write to friends, where bloggers encourage each other each week, slowly but surely moving beyond cliché, and where the online world treats communication as something more than the mere exchange of information.

A Challenge to Write Poetry with Books & Culture

This article could end now, waxing philosophic about how "ordinary" people are beginning to write poetry again, but we can do better than that. We can all be better stewards of the world God has given us and the words we use to describe this world.

So we have a writing prompt for you this month.

Write a poem about cultivation. When I talk about cultivation, I mean agriculture but also creativity and culture itself. I am talking about the little place in your world where you have been given a small plot to grow new things and add to the beauty of God's world. Your deadline is July 1.

Here's my attempt:

If Love Were Here
There would be a red book
in the red bag.
It is Neruda.
There would be a black bag
beside the red book.
Open the flap, take out
the camera. It smells
so good outside.
Take my picture.

After you write your poem, post it online, then leave us a link in the comments here so we can find your poem. Our comment system makes it difficult to post there with proper stanzas and line breaks, so please include a link to your poems. If you prefer the conversational atmosphere of Facebook, you can also post a link to your work on the Books & Culture Facebook wall. (And be sure to like us on Facebook!)

Remember the deadline, July 1. At that point, I will personally read every entry, leaving comments on as many as I can. John Wilson may show up on a few of your sites as well. Then he and I will choose some pieces to feature next month at Books & Culture.

Marcus Goodyear is senior editor for TheHighCalling.org. He is the author of a collection of poems, Barbies at Communion.

Related Links and Resources:

Books & Culture Facebook Page

To Japan, and Our Children, With Love by L. L. Barkat

Cherry Blossoms, by Glynn Young

The Roster, by Maureen Doallas

("Prayer"), a poem for One Shot Wednesday by Rob Kistner

You and I in Seven Pieces, a poem for One Shot Wednesday by Alegria Imperial

One Shot Wednesday, March 15, 2011

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

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