The Golden Age of Poetry Blogging

“Blogspot was our Montparnasse” – Robert Archambeau

The era of poetry blogging was a brief one, more like a moment than an era. It was preceded, in the 1990s, by the SUNY Buffalo Poetics List, founded according to its archival site by Charles Bernstein in late 1993. A simple listserv that predated widespread access to the World Wide Web, it was the first Internet-enabled network by which poets connected directly or tangentially to the Poetics Program could discuss, argue, cajole, and harangue one another without having to congregate in Buffalo itself—or in New York City or the San Francisco Bay Area or in any other conurbation. One of the consequences of this lineage was that the first poetry blogs, including the one I created in January 2003, emerged from the structures of thought and feeling around Language poetry; it is no coincidence that it was the blog of Ron Silliman, which launched about four months before mine, that quickly became the de facto center of the new movement. The critical project of Language poetry was thus in a sense baked in to poetry blogging: most of us who started blogs in that period were acutely aware of the material conditions of production that surrounded poetry, were conscious of ourselves as outsiders to a poetry mainstream organized at that time around MFA programs and the major New York and university presses, and saw our blogs, therefore, as a kind of minor insurrection, an opportunity to bypass institutions hostile or indifferent to the kinds of poetry and discourse around poetry that we valued. There was an undeniable feeling of the frontier, a new territory that we could configure as we wished, potentially infinite in its virtual scope, rendering turf battles superfluous. This view would, of course, prove to be naive, and many younger poets came to see blogging as just one more means by which to try to make a mark and advance their careers, most quickly and easily by starting some sort of flame war with a poet perceived as more senior and established than themselves.

And yet I felt at the time and still feel that there was something genuinely new about blogging and the discursivity it enabled: rigorous yet casual, critical yet inclusive, inherently digressive, personal, quirky, goofy. It was a genuinely new literary form, located somewhere between the intimacy of the personal letter, the rawness of the diary, the miscellany of the commonplace book, and the wit of the better sort of newspaper column or feuilleton. Comparatively few of us posted much in the way of actual poems; the blogs instead fed a seemingly unquenchable hunger on the part of poets for the sort of talk and gossip and position-taking that has always happened around poetry but had previously been limited to local scenes. The influence of the Poetics List meant that a quasi-scholarly tone was struck early by myself and many other poetry bloggers; a tone that was imitated, deconstructed, and occasionally mocked by the next “generation” (by which I mean those who started their own blogs in late 2003 or early 2004). In my own case my status as a PhD candidate at Cornell was also a major factor: I was a poet whose first book, Selah, would be published later that year; but I was living in the skin of a grad student, with a student’s enthusiasms as well as a student’s anxiety about standing too nakedly in my ignorance. Blogging, I am happy to say, helped inoculate me somewhat against that anxiety; it was a form of thinking in public that felt less exposing, more fluid, and friendlier than what happened in the seminar room or the creative writing workshop. Above all it was a conversation: when I look at my early blog posts I see myself constantly riffing in response to what others were saying on their blogs, and responding to their responses to me. In the earliest days there were no such things as comments sections, which in hindsight strikes me as possibly the most utopian dimension of blogging. If someone wanted to say that something I had written was asinine or had missed the point—and someone very often did—he or she had to either send me an email or start their own blog, thus claiming ownership of their thoughts. There was a personal quality to this, a sense that we were all in the same poetic boat, even when we disagreed with each other. The dawn of the comments sections, and the anonymity they enabled, led very quickly to a coarsening of the discourse, or else forced the blogger to become a kind of policeman, regulating and approving each individual comment. I never could understand or appreciate those who chose to vent their spleen in my virtual backyard, rather than frolicking in virtual backyards of their own.

Not the least appeal of platforms like Blogspot was how easy they were to maintain and use, and how simple and stripped-down they were in their visual presentation; few of the early poetry blogs bothered much with images or videos, aside from the occasional author portrait or book cover. The form of blogging, in which the newest entry is always the one at the top of the page, and one scrolls down into the past, offers a sense of dailiness that helps to promote a casual, everyday tone. While the experience of writing a blog is diaristic and chronological, as a reader one always moves backward, gradually picking up on the endlessly ramifying web of references and allusions that have built up to the blogger’s present moment. Inevitably one makes lateral moves, clicking on links that take the reader to other posts and others’ blogs, as well as to Wikipedia, YouTube, and every other imaginable site. Blogs are also searchable, making it easy for a reader or the author to pick up on particular themes and threads; by tagging one’s entries one could create a kind of virtual index or concordance, and there are automatic features built into the software highlighting the most popular posts. At the height of their proliferation, when there were dozens if not hundreds of poets blogging, skimming their blogs felt very much like an encounter with the web of experience described by Henry James in “The Art of Fiction”:

Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative–much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius–it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.

The imaginative mind, in this case, was a collective one. When I look back at the posts from 2003-2005, what I see is a tissue woven by a variety of minds: of Ron Silliman, first of all, the home page of the poetry Internet; of Bemsha Swing and John Erhardt’s The Skeptic; of Bellona Times (now called Pseudopodium) and Kasey Mohammad’s Lime Tree; of Samizdat Blog and Mark Scroggins’s Culture Industry, Nick Piombino’s fait accompli and Stephanie Young’s the well nourished moon. As this necessarily extremely partial list suggests, male bloggers outnumbered female bloggers to an enormous extent; perhaps men in general are more comfortable with, or more oblivious to, the consequences of making fools of themselves in public. It’s more likely the case that the women were deterred by their exposure to ghastly verbal and sexual abuse when they dared to speak publically in a forum without regulation or gatekeepers; as far as I can tell this problem hasn’t been much alleviated by the advent of Facebook and Twitter. It’s also true that even as individual poets’ blogs have declined, there has been a corresponding rise in collective literary blogs sponsored by groups, institutions, and magazines such as the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet, HTMLGIANT, The Best American Poetry, and Montevidayo, and women tend to be far better represented on those blogs. Nevertheless the stark gender imbalance of poetry blogging is another indication, should one be needed, that the seemingly unlimited virtual frontier that blogging seemed to offer some of us in the early 2000s was by no means detached from the same material conditions as the rest of our society.

Poetry blogging got its start in the charged political environment of the George W. Bush years, and that charge lent a certain sense of urgency to our larger project. Ron Silliman started his blog almost exactly one year after 9/11, and when I started mine the run-up to the Iraq War was already well underway. The left-leaning tendencies of the poetry blogosphere led some of us contribute some incisive commentary to the political situation; but as the wars dragged on, and especially after John Kerry lost his bid to unseat Bush in 2004, cultural politics began to crowd out the global and national variety. Many bloggers, including myself, devoted far too much time to drawing lines in the sand demarcating the right sort of poets from the wrong sort; the most notorious and persistent line was drawn by Silliman between the “School of Quietude”—the “bad” poets behind what Charles Bernstein likes to call Official Verse Culture—and the “post-avant” poets, the “good guys” of the blogosphere. The tendency to equate cultural conservatism with political conservatism was criticized incisively by Reginald Shepherd, a late addition to the blog scene who began his contributions in the form of emails to myself and other bloggers; he began his own blog in 2007 and maintained it until his untimely death a year later.

Poetry blogging probably peaked in the middle of the second George W. Bush administration, when Publishers Weekly took notice of the phenomenon with an April 2006 article, “Poetry Off the Books,” in which Silliman is quoted as having “had over 616,000 visitors to my Web log,” while I admit to a more modest 200,000, a number that was to more than double before I stopped updating the blog in 2014. The preceding year I had logged 373 individual posts, more than one a day, a small decline from my busiest year, 2004, when I posted 410 times. By the time of Reginald Shepherd’s passing in 2008, the form seemed to be entering its decline. This may largely be attributed to advances in technology: so-called “microblogging” in the form of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram posts came to fill the space that long-form blogging had once occupied, driven largely by the omnipresence of smartphones, which have become many people’s primary means of accessing the Internet. The economic crash of 2008 may also have played a role, simultaneous with the election of Barack Obama: the one event perhaps deprived some people of the sense of leisure that blogging requires, while the other might have sapped some of the oppositional political energies on which poetry blogging seemed to thrive. (The advent of Donald Trump might just possibly lead to some sort of revival, but I have my doubts.) In my own case, I had personal reasons for blogging less often. I was no longer a graduate student but a fledgling professor at the small liberal arts college where I still teach; I was a new father as well. I found I had less time and energy to spend on writing that seemed by its nature to be not just ephemeral but ill-equipped to compete for attention with 140-character tweets.

Still, I never entirely abandoned the form, and found it especially helpful when I began navigating the fraught transition from poet-critic to poet-critic-novelist. The blog was like the rock on which I rubbed off one skin and prepared myself to inhabit another; it permitted a kind of experimental literary self to precede my actual, embodied self into what felt like a new world. And yet—with my first novel at least—I had by no means left poetry behind. The experience of writing Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy was more or less coterminous with the transformation of my blog from a space for discussion and controversy into something more like a dream annex, where I could post the sorts of pieces that had no obvious home elsewhere—manifestos, prose poems, theories, and the occasional review (of films and music as well as books). In 2014 I stopped updating my original blog with its absurd name (I always intended “Cahiers de Corey” to be self-deflating, but I’m not sure others got the joke, aside from those who insisted on spelling the first word “Cashiers”) and started a new blog on my permanent website, www.joshua-corey.com, which I update only infrequently. But blogging remains a resource to me, still very close to the idea expressed by my original blog’s pretentious title, as a form of note-taking. “To note” as a verb, after all, means to write down or record; but its primary meaning is to notice, to pay attention to some object, if only one’s own thoughts.

Joshua Corey is the author of four poetry collections, most recently The Barons (Omnidawn Publishing, 2014); a novel called Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014); and the co-translator, with Jean-Luc Garneau, of Partisan of Things by Francis Ponge (Kenning Editions, 2016). He is also the co-editor, with G.C. Waldrep, of the anthology The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012). A collection of critical essays, The Transcendental Circuit: Otherworlds of Poetry, is forthcoming from MadHat Press. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana and a PhD in English from Cornell, and was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford. He lives in Evanston, Illinois and teaches English at Lake Forest College.

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