Sunday, August 28, 2005

Blogs: the new epistolary art?

In an article in this week's New York Times Book Review, David Orr writes about how poets' letters are often extremely interesting, in part because "poets are haunted by the concept of speaker and audience the way novelists are haunted by the idea of time." He goes on to bemoan the apparent death (or death-throes) of the epistolary art, saying:
It's a pity, then, that brilliant letters are about as likely to be written by young poets today as odes to Psyche. This isn't the fault of the poets. The letter has always been an awkwardly balanced genre -- part practical necessity, part literary performance, part cowardly way to break up with your girlfriend -- and advances in technology have made the letter's modern incarnations smaller, faster, flatter and more ephemeral. These qualities enhance the functional side of letter writing at the expense of the casual, cloudlike accumulations of thought that often lead to the most incandescent poetic observations. And let's face it, the modern letter equivalent makes for a lousy read. Consider, for example, a text message version of Keats's famous explanation of ''negative capability'' (as originally set forth in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, it's a kind of artistic disinterest):

JKEATS1: Iz tryN 2 dev mor neg cap

G&TKEATS: watz dat?

JKEATS1: dats bn N uncertainties -- misteries -- doubts w/o NE irritable reachN aftr fact & reasN : -)

G&TKEATS: kewl

There's nothing wrong with text messages -- they're terrifically useful and often very funny -- but they 8nt Xactly gud 2 look @. Even e-mail messages, which bear some resemblance to letters, are probably too short (not to mention too easily disposable) to maintain the letter's literary position.

So we're likely down to our last few poet correspondents.
(Orr goes on to review the new Selected Letters of James Wright, which sounds like it's worth reading.)

Anyway, that got me started thinking ... I wonder if blogs are, to some extent, taking the place of letters? True, they aren't addressed to a singular "you" so they lack a certain level of intimacy. But they do often have the pecular mix of formality & informality one finds in letters, and to some extent they are often addressed primarily to a known group of readers, even though they're accessible to a much wider audience. Certainly I've read a goodly number of individual posts that were well-written and substantial enough to hold a reader's interest outside the ephemeral confines of the "blogosphere" -- and I can imagine, somewhere down the road, somebody publishing selections from same. At least I think I can imagine that -- though I'm not entirely sure I like the idea. I know that a lot (though not all) of my email correspondence is dashed off hastily and has the "flattened" quality Orr refers to, while blog posts tend to be more ruminative, more detailed, more composed of actual complete sentences.

It's probably too early to say, really; blogging is a relatively new art form (if I may be so bold as to elevate it to that level), and I don't think it's exactly going to replace the centuries-old art of letter writing just yet. But in terms of the literary function of poets' letters, something Orr discusses ("poets often have used letters to arrive at new ways of thinking about poems," he says), blogs just might be primed and ready to jump in.



LKD said...

Thanks for this post, Anne. I read that article yesterday and felt a pang because email is so so forgettable, so easily deletable. I don't engage in IMing because I find it such a waste of time. I never much enjoyed chatting on the phone, chatting being the operative word there--god, it makes my teeth grind just thinking about it--for the same reason. Never much been one for small talk, for blather, for talking about nothing. And my experiences with IMing have been of the talking about nothing variety. (incidentally, this is also one of the reason I quit smoking--I considered my smoke breaks to be these holy little bits of bliss, total removals from the space and stress of work but upon stepping outside and lighting up in the small area cordoned off for smokers, I was always trapped into these pockets of coworkers who'd stand their and complain about their jobs about their lives about their day when all I wanted to do was meditate my cigarette, stare silently at the sky and the passerbys, and watch the rain or snow fall or the sun shine) As a former letter writer who still misses that art, who still misses the excitement of receiving an envelope in the mail with a return address from a distant city and exotic stamp, scrawled with the familiar handwriting of a friend, I read that article with great interest and nostalgia and regret. I think that letter-writing is, like poetry or fiction or non-ficiton, its own kind of writing that demands care and attention and focus. I think a well-composed letter can be as beautiful, as artful, can feel like as much of a gift , as a carefully crafted poem. When I first got online back in '99, I was lucky enough to find a friend via one of the poetry boards who seemed to think that email should not limit one's sense of responsibility, artistry and expression when composing correspondence. His elaborate emails are communications that I cherish to this day, that I have saved. Even though the friendship faded, as alas, friendships so often do when formed via the internet, I still hold in my heart as one of the dearest friends I've ever had. I was lucky enough to get to know this man fully via our correspondence.

Oh, my, I'm rambling. (grin)

I think you raise an interesting question here, Anne, regarding blogs and how they might be related to correspondence in terms of a writer's legacy. I know that since I began blogging, I find myself actually trying to compose what I'm writing rather than merely writing down whatever the hell comes out. Even though it's only a blog entry, I do approach it with the same care and attention that I would a letter to a friend. So, yes, I think blogs, depending on how a writer uses this space, this form of expression, can add another level to the writer's writing and identity and place in the world.

Lorna Dee Cervantes said...

Oh, absolutely!

Laurel: I'm with you 100 percent on the ramble & brambles. I, too, hate to chit-chat, in so many ways. And am a "former letter writer" with one problem being that once i get started I don't stop,, and a letter from me would be at least 12 single-spaced pages of tight printing. I liked IMing, but huge waste of time & wierd time sincs, especially since I tend to be a fast 4-finger typist.

Odd intimacies, greater than the usual, through the page for a poet. I don't know, 'til now, if it's different for a poet. Intriguing idea about language and audience — maybe, speaker and listener. Maybe in a letter, you know the other person is "listening" as opposed to the IM where who *knows* what the other person is doing. lol Or email, where unless you're on the same system, you don't even know if the message has been received. Maybe same with a letter, but here we're talking letters to *friends,* including virtual ones. Better intimacy, less face & farce. But, like friends in flesh, virtual ones can also turn a fine friendship into farce.

The only way I can write my blog is by considering it as a long series of letters to the dead (and the Dead like plenty jokes!) That's why I can't see deleting posts. Ever. The dead, as death, make everything that happens permanent. I like that. Besides, the Dead already know, or don't care, so it compels me to tell the truth and not waste their time. And it's for them, preserving some shred of their lives. And mine.

By keeping it to the Dead I am constantly motivated by love. And, thus, writing. I wonder if that's what the difference is, for a po' blog, poets are motivated to write poetry out of love (I don't mean in the romantic sense or sappy love poems, but, yes, there is that — sigh), and perhaps divorce is the will-to-narrate. I know the only time I ever get the urge to fictate is when I'm divorcing someone. That quest for the Story, the Whole Story & Nothing but the Story. So help me, Muse.

Maybe more later. Good post, Anne.

Trista said...

I love the idea of blogs being letters to the dead. Certainly, I consider my blog posts to be a record -- something meant to be permanent -- of a conversation with myself. So, my posts are carefully thought out.

However, I do still write letters. Primarily to other poets. There's something so sensual to a letter that I just can't let go of. Perhaps the great age of letter writing is over, but what is left are the conissours (oh lord, I can't spell that word right now on no sleep) and isnt' it quality, rather than quantity that counts? Isn't that what the guy was complaining about with email and IM -- quantity over quality?

Pamela said...

I think also the rootlessness of email/IM is a factor in this dissatisfaction. Richard Hugo, James Wright, and so many others (Levine, O'Hara) wrote out of a landscape that grounded them at the same time it freed them. I've been thinking about The Triggering Town since I read this article and Hugo's poem-letters to other poets.

I agree that letter-writing is a sensuous experience--the pen, the paper, the hand moving across the page...

I really haven't thought of my own blog in terms of letters to the dead--more like what Emily Dickinson calls "my letter to the world." I'm going to re-read the above posts and the article very carefully and think more about artfulness/craft when I write blog entries.

Robert said...

I read that article too and had just the same thought—that blogs may fulfill a function similar to letters, particularly. as you say, with their combination of formality and informality. The best part by far of my experience in a low-residency MFA program was exchanging letters with my supervisors. I learned a whole lot more by “thinking out loud” in informal, personal letters than I ever did writing formal papers, and writing a blog feels similar. The main problem with blogs seems to be the tendency for them to become combative—everyone determined to win the argument. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s hard to “arrive at new ways of thinking about poems” when you’re hellbent on defending your old ways.

Emily Lloyd said...

Yes, good post--I do want to go read the article. And highly recommend Bishop's letters to anyone stopping by who hasn't read them (I actually like them much better than her poems, though they intimidated me every time I sat down to write a letter afterwards--knowing I'd fall so short of the mark).

Blogging as art form, as letters, as prose poem, even--so much depends upon the blogger. I am not, and never will be, a beautiful blogger. I guess my blog IS kind of a form of chatting--pointing stuff out to people that might be interested, in the same way I'd point out neat stuff to my coworkers if they were even remotely, or the way I used to to fellow students and teachers. It's like lunch talk in the cafeteria between classes.
Communicating, and community, are also important to me--I don't entirely understand the point of a blog that doesn't enable comments, even though there are many good ones that don't. I get frustrated when I can't respond to a post without sending an email, and when my response will then not become part of a conversation with many, but with only one.

There are blogs that are very clearly gorgeously crafted, every post could be published. Ex: Alison Stine's blog. I enjoy reading them but feel they resist conversation to some extent. Does that make sense? The primary urge is not to communicate, but to stun with beauty. Not to write anything that might disillusion the readers of one's be, basically, writing poems.

I like best those blogs that have a little of everything...some poem drafts, some images that invite conversation, some links, some beautifully-crafted prose pieces, some humor bits. The blog I most admire, for these & other qualities, is Rebecca Loudon's. Like her, I tend to delete my posts a lot. If I'm not communicating, somehow, I'm not entirely it's hard to let a post that never got any comments stay up. People have read it, but haven't engaged with it, and I'm only interested in my blog being a "record" of --in recording--conversations, not a record of my own thoughts...

Radish King said...


Pris said...

This is a great post. Sometimes when I work on my blog I wonder who on earth I'm talking to, yet I feel like I AM talking to someone. Sometimes someone answers in a comment, but the majority do not. I get over 1500 views of my blog each month now and so somebody's hearing me.

I, too, like a varied blog and that's how I do mine, from poems to links to a photo-doc to a note to something just plain strange.

Lyle Daggett said...

Yes, wonderful post. --

Writing letters has been essential to my growth and life as a poet over years. Over the years I've managed to persist with writing poems in large part because of a scattered and loosely constituted network of poet friends all over the United States (Kansas, Tulsa, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Mendocino, Seattle, Wisconsin, New York, etc.) and occasionally outside the U.S., and I've kept in contact with all of them by writing letters, on paper. And, secondarily (especially if they lived locally near) by phone.

When I write letters on paper, typically they're 10, 12, 14 pages long. I often pause for a couple of days and then resume writing it. It might take me a week or two to write a 10 or 15 page letter. I can't imagine doing that with an email.

Although I've worked for a living on computers at various jobs for more than 25 years, it was less than a year ago that I finally decided to get a computer and have internet and email at home. The reason I did it was that most of the people I talk to (or write letters to) had email. I was starting to lose touch with people.

E-mail can be convenient sometimes though I agree with all of the previous comments about the ephemerality of it -- it's too easy to delete emails. (It's one of the obvious though little-remarked ironies of computerdom that if there's ever anything on a computer we want to make really sure we don't lose, we print it out on paper.)

I enjoy pointing out to people -- especially if they're of a cyberfanatical bent -- that the epic of Gilgamesh survives (albeit in fragments) on the original clay tablets, and Shakespeare's plays have come down to us, on paper (or maybe something more like parchment) in the folios arranged shortly after his death by two of his friends and colleagues. Did I mention the Popol Vuh? . . .

In my blog (which I'm using mainly to talk about poets and poetry I like, or dislike, and related things -- which can cover a lot of ground) I do, I think, write in much the way I've written in letters over the years, commenting about whatever comes to mind and inserting poems or parts of poems in between.

I'm leaving room for spontaneity, though also -- shortly after I started the blog -- I made a list (on paper, filled two pages) of poets and poetry topics I want to write about in the blog at some point. When I want to put another post on the blog I usually (not always) start by going to the list, and I pick one.

Writing letters has been a secondary, but necessary, literary form for me, a place to try out and sharpen things I'm thinking. The blog is I guess some of that for me too, though maybe a little less tentative than I've been in letters to specific people. Maybe because it's been enough time, I've thought enough over the years about the things I'm writing about in my blog, that by now I have some fairly formed ideas of some things I want to say.

Though blogging doesn't feel like writing letters to me. It feels like writing an article for a magazine. (That's no doubt, at least in part, because of the kinds of things I've chosen to write about in my blog; it could be different for other people.)

Writing on paper (as your post suggested, Anne, and some of the others' comments) is slower than typing on a computer, and is conducive to slower thought. Some ideas and perceptions happen more slowly than others, and quick isn't always better.

I've always written my poems by hand on paper (I write them in a spiral stenographer's notebook). Until I got the computer last year I typed my poems on a 30+ year old portable manual typewriter, which I still have. (It still works.) I still write my poems, initially, on paper by hand, I can't conceive of doing it differently. When I send poems to friends (for whatever reason or no particular reason) I always send them on paper.

Patty said...

Great post!

Right now blogging feels like linking to the familiar, and a way of feeling tapped into a community of writers. When I was in Richmond I was surrounded by poets, now I'm 7,000 miles away, and surrounded by designers. They speak a language I don't understand, refer to people I've never heard of, and laugh at inside jokes that are meaningless to me. As soon as I enter the blogosphere I recognize the terrain, and I hear strains of familiar music.

Lorna Dee Cervantes said...

"linking to the familiar" - I like that

a blog is like a home
however many rooms you open up is up to you
I invite people into my kitchen right away, the heart
some blogs are all conducted in the library
or the foyer
we all decorate, populate, animate

"my blog
where I go to kick off
my spelling shoes" ~ LDC

Patry Francis said...

I am going immediately to the article, but even before I read it, I agree with you.

Fresh Loquats said...

Yes, yes, added strangeness is that there are so many recipients to these letters, and they float and buoy themselves, defend and gestate themselves out there in a kind of amniotic timeless supper. Nevertheless, they are very time bound. No waiting for the mailman or the passage time. & There's always the sense that one should "update" ....downdate...just plain date the blog. Take it out on the town. Send it flowers. Shine its shoes. Excoriate it for no good reason.

I just began to create a blog, a week ago, and I wonder who are the wombats I imagine I'm writing for. I began it in a fit of late-night fury at feeling alone. It is a balm. Unexpectedly.