Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Facebook, Poets and Writers

Facebook is fun. There’s no doubt about that and the number of users testifies to it. You’ll never get millions of people to sign up voluntarily for something that takes up time and bores the pants of everyone. For writers, it’s also an effective way of putting people in touch with one another, of making new links and cementing old ones, of keeping up with what’s going on in the literary world via a multitude of links, videos and status updates.

But there are problems. Serious problems. Everyone bangs on about privacy issues, sometimes with good reason and sometimes as knee-jerk reaction. The amount of time it can swallow is colossal, even if you think you’re on top of things; it’s hard to stay out of a debate you’ve contributed to for long, and good newspaper headlines make effective links you just can’t help clicking on. Some people talk about being addicted, but it’s often less of an addiction and more a feeling that you need to know what people are saying about what you’ve said, so that you can respond.

And so much of what’s on Facebook is interesting! Within fifteen minutes your head can be swimming with David Cameron’s latest idiotic soundbite, an atrocity in Uganda, a murder in Essex, the latest Guardian blog on why literary prizes mean everything/nothing, the discovery of ancient lakes on Mars, a new chocolate bar, glowing reviews of the latest Faber effort in all the broadsheets, an old Pavement video, an interesting fact about a little-known marsupial, A.N. Other’s latest poem about eating breakfast cereal while looking out a window at clouds...

And this is the real problem, I think. To write poetry requires focus, not a narrow focus, but focus that leaves space for the unexpected intruder. Intrusion has to come from a deeper place than fifteen minutes worth of noisy and tangled links, videos and discussions. A poem often begins to work when it is focused and then shoots off at a tangent, a tangent that somehow feels inevitable by the end of the poem. Social networking gets in the way both of the focus and of the welcome intruder. Instead there’s a crowd jostling at the walls of your brain for entry and, really, almost none of that stuff should have an invitation. The one intruder who matters usually gets lost in the baying crowd.

In the latest Magma, issue 51, Maitreyabandhu writes:

For a poem to communicate profound thought, the poet needs to think deeply; for a poem to express deep emotion, the poet needs to feel deeply; for a poem to be beautiful the poet needs to experience beauty.

Social networking can be detrimental to depth of thinking and I’m beginning to think that it can also act to limit our emotional depth too. I suppose it’s the same with any form of information overload: we may feel many things in quick succession about a huge variety of events and facts, but we’re denied the chance to go deeper into how we feel about anything. We might discuss things and learn things and discuss how we feel about things, but it’s all instant, buzzing communication, and usually has nothing to do with the specific piece of writing we’re trying to get done. Expressing how we feel in poetry without resorting to cliché, obscurity (always good for hiding the fact that we’re not saying anything! Although I am not suggesting that all obscurity implies this...) and overblown sentiment is one of the most difficult things to carry off in a poem, and social networks have made it that bit more difficult.

I’m not sure what the answer is. One solution is to abandon all social networks, and some writers I know have gone that way, but they do, I think, have value. Another solution is radically to limit time spent using them, but this is notoriously difficult to achieve and it only takes a few minutes for your head to be clogged with every subject under the sun. Emptying it of all that stuff can take hours. Maybe going for a run or taking up squash could help. Anyway, I’ll now post this article and, of course, link it to my Facebook wall...


Pearl said...

yes, I'm far more productive and healthier away from computers and FB. moderation and life balance seems to be the issue. it could as well be overindulgence in wikipedia or mall wandering for the same overstimulation and gawking and being recorded by security.

but came by to say, liked seeing your poem there in the current Magma. Just got my issue.

Pearl said...

and Maitreyabandhu's article was the best thing I've read in a good long while. I've been trying to examine my poetic practice but he points out rightly that's not the place to look. Poems derive from mental habits, life choices.

I'll be mulling over it in time to come.