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Thank You, Internet

Thank you so much, everyone out there on the CAMPUS! I’ve really enjoyed being the other half of your poet-in-residence. I was thrilled to be partnered with Kathryn, and I’ve heard rumors that you may hear a bit more from us in the new year, but this post officially marks my farewell.

It seems a little odd to have been “in residence,” when I am so clearly not in residence. As I type this, I’m looking out the window at my lovely little Brooklyn street. Shortly after we moved into this house, the City of New York planted a Scholar Tree (I kid you not) on the sidewalk, and its denuded branches are swaying happily as I type. I am also drinking coffee from my own coffee maker, while my husband recovers from sinus surgery in the next room, which is to say that I’m completely at home (a place I wish I kept a little neater), and my guess is that you, dear reader, are also at home. We’re both in our residences, not “in residence” at some other location, in an older meaning of the word. Our words find each other, but not in the same physical place.

The book, of course, has always had this quality of displacement. One must go to the theatre to see Shakespeare performed, but one can curl up at home with a copy of his plays. The upside is that you get to be comfy, you get to read at your own pace, and you get to be away from the mercy of the coughing, sniffling, candy-unwrapping crowd; the downside is that you are available to other sorts of distraction. A book rarely asks you to turn off your phone or unwrap your candies before opening, and most of us do answer the phone while reading, even in the middle of one of Hamlet’s most compelling soliloquies.

For a long time, I thought of the Internet as just another text delivery medium, no different from any other sort of reading, but now I think that the dynamism of the medium really is quite different. The theatre has long been a mass form of intimacy; the book a one-to-one intimacy between you and the author. The internet is a kind of many-to-one form of intimacy—almost like attending a carnival, where all the barkers want your attention. While typing this, I have been notified about e-mail, my twitter feed, and images that I might want to peruse of Kardashians (I hope that this will be an obscure reference to Britons). Henry James was quite interested in what happened to his writing when he began using a typewriter and an amanuensis. Now, we seem understandably concerned with happens to our reading when we do it on screens that are linked up to everybody else’s.

I’m finding myself increasingly protective of what is being lost in the internet age. I’m working on an essay called “DiscontenTED: the New Tech Barbarism” about how the ethos of “disruption” looks very much like a race to the bottom. I find that the TED Talks seem to be applying the oversimplifying ethos of tabloid journalism to an endless number of fields of study, while embracing the lone innovator as the champion of somehow saving the world. I start to sound like a very grumpy old man.

But then I have to remind myself that the Internet has also brought me to your desk.  The internet is shrinking distance in many of the same ways as the airplane, the car, and moveable type did. Whenever I complain about teaching online, I have to remember, an online poetry workshop also brought me a student whose work I cared so much about that I found her a publisher after she had died. These contacts are real, and intimate, and human, and they matter—even if we are still working out the difference in how they matter.

At any rate, I’ve been very glad to be at your desk, sharing thoughts about poetry. Thanks for having me, virtually or otherwise.


  • Sarah Leavesley/James

    Interesting post. I too have mixed views on the internet and a slight protectiveness of traditions/ ways of reading/writing methods that are disappearing. But it is great to be able to learn from a wider range of cultures and perspectives across the world. Thank you for blogging and all the best for whatever comes next.

  • Martin Pallot

    The Internet has the ability to make us all ‘something’ in residence for better or worse and the many-to-one intimacy can easily become one-to-many exposure we might rather not happen ….. for example, the Kardashians are not as obscure as I would like ’em to be, on this side of the pond ( oof … what a grumpy old man !! ) …but then, nothing’s perfect …even, dare I say, the works of Mr. S ……. !

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Image: Angela Bulloch