Shawn Lynn Walker

A Poet's Response to the World Wide Web

When human beings started to communicate, they had no words. They used their bodies, emphasized with meaningless grunts. Eventually, they wanted to communicate more precise information, and they created words to do it. But words have their shortcomings, one of them being that there are a limited number of them. In contrast to this, human experience is unlimited. Everyday, we have new, never before encountered experiences which spark something within us that makes us want to communicate them. However, the freshness and newness of our experiences, which seems so immediate to us, simply cannot be communicated to others using the same old over-used words in the same old way.

Poetry, along with other arts, strives to conquer this problem. In poetry, words are elevated, so that what is important, what constitutes the communicated experience, are no longer just the words themselves, but also the way they move. Poetry reveals the body language of letters.

When I first started to learn about the World Wide Web, the potentials overwhelmed me. My first thought was, "Wow! A poet's dream! Instantaneous, mass exposure!" My poems could be at the fingertips of people across the world. My ego was exploding as fast as the Web.

Then I thought about the artistic potential the Web presents. I envisioned poems with links, Jacob's Ladder-esque poems, poems whose words would appear on the screen at varied intervals which I controlled, poems which would un- fold right before my viewer's eyes.

But then I began to think about how computers make me feel. About how I always log on during the fifteen minutes I have before I meet a friend or attend a lecture or meeting, the fifteen minutes before I am truly ready to engage my mind. I thought about how my computer always looks the same, is always in the same place, shut off from the rest of the world (by tangible walls) at the same moment it proposes to connect me to it.

I originally envisioned how the two-dimensional page to which I presently confine myself was going to explode. But I needed to remind myself that when you take away one limit you always have another. No matter how much the screen changes, it is always limited by the terminal. In the end, a poem itself is fundamentally containable, unless it is connected to an uncontain- able human being, which is what makes it truly exciting. The Web further removes this human, fleshy connection from an audience.

I believe that if people no longer have to seek out or pay for poetry they will eventually stop valuing the experience it offers. If you take time out of your day to go hear a reading, you are going to listen. If you shell out ten to fifteen dollars for the thinnest book you own, you are going to devote a lot of time and energy to each page in that book. On the other hand, if you are just surfing the net as usual, you may make hasty judgments which defeat the purpose of art entirely. A tendency toward generalization is the natural pattern when you are dealing with anything which is free, easy and plentiful.

But most importantly, I see this issue as potentially defining a poet's role or lack thereof in our society. Though it seems that everyone is some sort of poet these days, the place for a person who defines her lifetime vocation as poetry in America is, I believe, shrinking. For example, if poets start putting their poems on the Web, and their audiences consistently go there to read them, they will stop making what meager living off of them that they now make, and their poetic pursuits will become completely marginalized and eventually only recreational. I am not doing this for the money (are you kidding?). But I do feel I have a right to make a living off of the work I do, and I am not going to give that right up very easily. I also believe that the devotion an occupation requires is necessary to maintain the integrity of the art, and I certainly will not give that up either.

These ideas expand into wider issues of the role of art in our lives and the way we experience it. I believe art is a celebration of humanness among humans. Instinctively, we want to experience it collectively or at least share it. I think any true appreciator of poetry would agree, it is immensely more satisfying to hear a poet read her poems, to see her take in air when she breathes between line breaks, to feel as if she is speaking directly to you, in recognition of your singular moment together, than to read her poem placed generically over the World Wide Web. Drawing on an example from another medium, I would say that this human connection is the reason we still go to movie theaters. We want to sit beside another person. Even if we go alone, we confirm our aloneness by partaking in a collective experience by ourselves.

It seems that, as the world's population is growing and individual space is shrinking, the closer we get to one another, the further we want to pretend we are. This is not a new idea, I know. But we need to reexamine it. We think, "Who cares what my singular neighbor has to say when I have the thousands of voices on the Web to speak to me, all in the privacy of my own home?" In art, privacy is not a bonus, it is the problem. Even a book allows a reader to be a recluse, but at least it provides something tangible, something that has been touched and held by other human beings. A computer can provide a human connection only if to be human is to be a mind without a body, which I do not believe.

I am not the type of person to let a piece of machinery eliminate the role in society which I would someday like to fill. But we poets will have to re- define our roles because of it. I see a need for people to reestablish the value of human connections. People need to accept the fact that their neighbor lives fifteen seconds away and not fifteen miles, and they need to be able to take pleasure in their proximity if they are going to enjoy their lives. I believe that by maintaining their humanness, by renewing the traditions of communal and oral poetic experience, thereby providing an antithesis to the co- modification of art which the Web produces, poets can renew the value of their art in our society.

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