I once had a friend who never finished her doctoral dissertation. It wasn’t that she lacked scholarship or intelligence—on the contrary, she was a well-read and perceptive person who knew her field quite well. Her chosen dissertation subject wasn’t any more difficult than usual, nor did she have a recalcitrant advisor. All the signs pointed to my friend completing her doctoral work in due course, without any glitches. All except one, that is.
My friend had a pathological compulsion to talk about her work. She could not resist going on, in mind-numbing detail, about what she was planning to research and write. She always managed to find some new aspect or nuance or petty fact that she had to thrash out in endless discussion with her friends and colleagues. It was maddening to listen to her torture herself with doubt and hesitation and tentativity and the judicious balancing of every alternative. She would blather on forever, like one of those boring old New Yorker articles that never seemed to end.
When I tried to explain to her that she didn’t need to engage in all this palaver, she retorted that she was being conscientiously thorough, and that her work was too important to be handled in a less than absolutely meticulous manner. I said “Listen, honey—there are only two kinds of dissertations: those that are finished and those that aren’t. Screw the details. Get your ass in gear and write the damned thing.”
She never did. She was sucked into a morass of questions, doubts, tangents, and pointless talk. Hers is a common horror story in academia.
There’s something similar going on in the poetry world. We are afflicted with the Chattering Chatrooms. The internet hosts scores of websites, workshops, and discussion groups where aspiring poets gather to gab endlessly about anything and everything concerned with poetry. And in many cases, this directionless gabbing becomes and end in itself.
Some of the subjects that come up on these chatrooms are so banal and trivial that one begins to wonder if the whole thing isn’t being staged as an elaborate hoax: What’s the best time of day for you to write? Where do you get your ideas? Should you use past or present tense? How do you deal with writer’s block? And people will plug away at these inane questions for page after page, as if they were actually significant.
In addition, a great deal of what passes for literary discussion on these chatrooms is just mutual congratulation and posturing. Somebody proudly trumpets the fact that he has had a haiku accepted in Rat’s Ass Quarterly, and suddenly an avalanche of Congratulations! Kudos! Hooray! and Awesome! pile up like tuna in a kill-net. Others triumphantly announce how many of the chatroom’s members have appeared in a given publication, as if they were scorekeepers in a hockey game. The atmosphere is that of a kindergarten where stars are being handed out for the completion of little tasks. Can people really be that desperate for recognition and praise?
Some of my readers will immediately object that many chatrooms provide a venue for critique and commentary on posted poems, and thereby serve a useful advisory function and didactic purpose. This may be abstractly true, but in the real world it is a very hit-or-miss proposition. There are three main reasons for skepticism on this point.
First, much commentary on these chatrooms is designed primarily to build up credits, and not necessarily to help you. People make throwaway comments on your poem just so that they will be eligible to get comments on theirs. A lot of the remaining criticism is purely tendentious, serving merely as a vehicle for someone to grind an axe or spout from a soapbox. And a good percentage of it is covertly malicious, allowing some frustrated little nerd who works in a cubicle to vent his spleen on an anonymous person’s work. Do you really need such commentary?
Second, many chatrooms are just on-line versions of a high school cafeteria, where posturing and acting out and clique-building are the main activities. Drama queens strut, narcissists pose, and bullies terrorize. Rather than offer real critique, these chatrooms frequently degenerate into turf-war battlefields where in-groups maintain their hegemony as ruthlessly as drug-lords guard their sales territory. This in turn leads to all sorts of venomous bitching, catfighting, and hate-filled rivalries. What sane poet would choose to be a part of that hell?
Third, there is the inescapable consensus-mongering. I am reminded of the old joke about a camel: It’s a horse designed by a committee. Poems that come out of chatroom workshops have all the earmarks of compromise and split differences. Since you’re getting advice from dozens of people, your resulting poem (as like as not) will be pastiche of platitudes designed to offend no one. And it will be one hell of a worldwide audience to please! The cantankerous Joycean drunk in Eire, the aging hippie broad in Greenwich Village, the pompous academic twit in Ann Arbor, the vegan crank in Seattle—whoever has a computer and is signed up in the chatroom workshop will have something to say about your poem.
Yes, yes, I know… there may be a highly competent poet out there commenting on your first draft. But even this can be dicey. Is this highly competent poet your kind of poet? Does he share your aesthetic presuppositions? Is his style compatible with yours? Is he a person of good will who is favorably disposed to strangers? If none of these things is true, what possible value can his comments have for you? Wallace Stevens was a great poet, but his advice would be of no use to someone whose ideal versifier is John Donne.
The people who lust after the advice of famous writers are more interested in fame and celebrity than creative accomplishment. They superstitiously think that if they talk to a widely published poet, some of the magic charisma of that poet will rub off on their own work, and make it capable of similar fame. It never occurs to these shallow people that fame isn’t a commodity like canned soup. You can’t just go out and get it if you have the right roadmap to the grocery store. Every great poet’s accomplishment is idiosyncratic, and based on scores of unrepeatable life circumstances and historical details that no other person will ever experience again. So why would you expect this particular famous poet’s advice to be of any practical use to you in the writing of your poems?
Moreover, most of the persons registered in a chatroom will not be top-notch poets. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you have to keep in mind that someone criticizing your posted poem might be a buffoon, or a rank amateur, or just some teenage schmuck. Since the internet is profoundly democratic and mostly anonymous, you have no way of taking stock of the person who presumes to advise you.
What drives people to join these chatrooms, and waste hours of their day in fruitless gabbing? It’s the deeply sick need to cooperate and collaborate. Much American pseudo-education now pumps “collaborative learning” as a matter of course—students are expected to learn only via the mediation and input of their fellow students. Sitting in circles and chatting are now de rigueur in most American classrooms, while solitary study is considered antisocial and undemocratic. It’s an easy step from this absurdity to the opera bouffe of the Chattering Chatrooms. As one chatroom addict said to me, “How can I know my poem’s any good unless lots of other people talk to me about it?” I wanted to reply “If that’s how slavishly other-directed you are, you’ll probably never write any good poem.” But I didn’t say anything. Like the Greeks, I believe it’s best to leave people to their fate.
Whenever I raise these objections in discussion with some poets, I usually get a variant of the following reply: Yes, but I need the feedback. Such an answer is a dead giveaway as to the real reason why people frequent the Chattering Chatrooms. They are lonely, other-directed, and profoundly conscious of their inadequacy. They need the daily reinforcement of discussion and debate, no matter how pointless, to help them overcome their sense of failure and mediocrity. Just as that long list of congratulations is necessary to help them ratify their shaky self-esteem, so also are the endless threads of discussion, which allow them to pretend that they are denizens of the literary world.
But they’re wrong. All the Chattering Chatrooms do is distract you from the business of reading great poetry and then doing your best to emulate it. They swirl you into a Charybdis of debate and one-upsmanship and posturing and cliqueishness. They divert you from what you could be doing: your finest and most characteristic work.
At best, the Chattering Chatrooms help you to produce what might be called Ordinary Workshop Boilerplate—a kind of all-purpose poetic Play-Dough that is acceptable to almost everybody, and even to many magazines. If that’s what you want, fine. The Chattering Chatrooms will help you to become a McPoet. It’s better than nothing, I suppose.
But genuine poets who aspire to fulfill their actual, irreducibly individual potential will steer clear of these places. Like almost all modern contrivances, the primary purpose of the Chattering Chatrooms is to disconnect you from the real sources of who and what you are. You don’t need the distraction of constant chatter and manufactured consensus. You need to read and write.