We are all Facebook poets

By Sumana Roy

8 August 2013

What happens when publishing your thoughts is a simple mouse-click away?
Woman with smartphone, after Jean-Francois Portaels  Flickr / Mike Licht

Woman with smartphone, after Jean-Francois Portaels
Flickr / Mike Licht

On most days, my Facebook news feed resembles a kavi sammelan, a congregation of poets, a poetry festival. Sometimes I join in, adding to the wah-wah with ‘likes’. When moved enough to make a comment, I often find myself at a loss: university education has only taught me to appreciate dead poets, without claps and whistles. I am as untrained in paying compliments to makers of verses as I am in receiving them. For a few moments, I type and delete, all the while speculating on the need for a new subject in the school curriculum, ‘How to Pay Compliments on Facebook’, something that would be honest, a word or phrase that would go beyond the awesome-lovely-gorgeous-brilliant standard fare. Like most fellow Facebookers, I most often fail. I copy the line that has affected me the most and put it in inverted commas. I know that it looks like a recycled gift, this return gift for a ‘nice’ poem, but my shyness and what now seems an incompetent vocabulary leave me helpless. And so I move on to the next post, the next poem.

Living in a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal, one without reading groups and ‘intellectual communities’ (that last one always in scare-quotes in my mind) I see Facebook as a virtual Bloomsbury Group for people like me. There’s a Forster, and there’s a Woolf, and there’s a Keynes and we are their descendants, even if without their inheritance. Suddenly, the joy and the empathy of this self-contained universe leave me with inconsequential, PMS-like emotions, and I begin drafting my next Facebook update.

I take Zuckerberg’s ‘What’s on your mind?’ quite seriously, in a teenager-ish way, and so my updates are almost inevitably about what affected me three seconds ago. But there must be something magical about that rectangular box that turns snot-like verbiage and pimply catharsis into the likeness of a poem, for I’ve begun to notice how Facebook turns my pillow whispers and bathroom confessions, which no one in my family would pay any kind of attention to, into what friends call ‘poetic’.

A few days ago, perhaps because of the monsoon, our bedroom door began to creak. Being timid and easily prone to imagining ghosts, I began to wonder whether it was the spirit of the dead tree trapped inside the wood of the door. Where else was I to share my fear except on Facebook? And so I wrote: ‘When the door creaks, it’s the tree speaking. Hear?’ There were numerous likes and three comments, two telling me that it was indeed the tree ‘wailing’, another reminding me that even the leather in shoes sometimes ‘cries’. In my inbox were several messages reminding me – even trying to convince me – why I was a ‘poet’: I heard things which few people did, they said. While these words made me happy, they could not cure me of the fear of the ghost of the tree in the door. So much for likes.

On another occasion, after what had been a physically exhausting day, I posted two updates in quick succession: ‘Afternoon on my skin’; ‘The evening sky is bipolar’. In the first I was making a statement of fact, and in the second I was recording the colour and temper of the sky optically. To be completely honest, I was not aiming for any kind of poetry-fying. These are words that people who prefer a life of solitude and who speak to themselves often utter while looking out of the window, words which are essentially ‘useless’, expressions for which their immediate companions and family have no response except a mild ‘There you go again’. I think it’s something about the medium – this typing of words into a box and then hitting ‘post’ seems to have some abracadabra about it, something that turns a mere arrangement of words into a poetry lookalike. It’s a bit like a makeover.

Perhaps it is to this that P G Chinni Bhaskar, a writer and banker based in Dubai, alludes when he makes the distinction between prose and poetry (of the Facebook kind) with his typical self-mocking wit:

Since I’m not a professionally trained writer, I have developed my own rules. When I want to write prose, I place words after one another. While I want to pretend I’m writing poetry, I write them below one another. 

So, you see, this is my prose.

And this,
is my
First drafts
We’ve all noticed this epidemic – how pressing the ‘Enter’ key has turned so many of us into poets, so much so that even the most mundane expressions have taken on the mask of poetry. Manjit Kaur Handa puts it well here:
Earlier writers talked about
a blank page
and the challenge it posed.
Now there are screens
no more blank.
There is this and that on the left margin, 
right and on the top;
you scribble something in between the chaos
and make complex poetry.
Like rain is falling
Sun is shining
I am feeling
I am thinking
or I am sleepy.
Good morning
Good bye 
and good night friends.

For those of us who value the aesthetic of the everyday in literature, these might seem like instalments of the real thing, of life-as-it-really-is entering the poetry wardrobe, where words can live without naphthalene balls as they do in poems from collections and anthologies. The word ‘scribble’ in Handa’s post is telling: it marks a casual attitude towards poetry, and by using the word ‘naphthalene’, I’m trying to reiterate this distinction between poems in collections and anthologies and the Facebook poem. This is not necessarily the difference between the ‘real poet’ and the pretender, the poetaster, as I’ve found several published poets make it out to be.

I have spent enough time in my life with good poems, but never having had the urge to be in the company of ‘real poets’, I do not know them well enough. I presume that it is the name on the spine of a book that makes real poets. From time to time, I notice how Facebook poets are criticised for writing for ‘likes’ alone, and I am amazed by the superfluous lies we tell ourselves: What does any writer ever write for? Since I do not know any poet who writes to be hated, not even those who suffer from self-loathing, I am given to understand that Facebook poets have a modified ‘narcissus gene’ in them?  (I hope some scientist will write a 420 page thesis on that someday) One thing that differentiates the two must be ambition: one is trying to get embalmed on a printed page, another is happy with carpe diem appreciation, content to roll out of the news-feed assembly line.

What happens to all the ‘poetic’ status updates then? Sriram Karri, a writer based in Hyderabad, has an answer for that: “FB Application of the Year: A new application will put together all your status messages, make an e-book of it, upload it on an ebook publishing portal. And it will upload a new status: Your status book is online and available.”

In Karri’s humorous speculation is coded what is seen to be the ultimate, even ulterior, ambition of the poet: getting into a book, that post-retirement home. On Facebook India, two women on my friends list regularly post lines that carry the whiff of poetry to me: both Nandita Bose and Ruma Chakravarti have books to their name, and yet I have never had the feeling, while reading their verses-of-the-moment, that their musings on their children or their gardens, their food cravings or their evenings, were posted with an eye on a book contract. I’d like to believe that the Facebook Poet is subverting the holiness of the book.

And perhaps because of this — because it is so much easier to click on ‘post’ than to work on edits – that so much of Facebook poetry remains, well, unreadable. I find an intelligent distinction between ‘poetry’ and ‘Facebook poetry’ in this update by Nabina Das, a novelist and poet, most recently author of the collection Blue Vessel:

I have named the lawn water sprinkler “Jalpari” (water-fairy); the annoying cat “Catharsis”; the white hibiscus bush “Ciao Bella”; the gecko in my room “Greenstar” (and I dreamt him last night that he was sitting on a pile of fallen leaves we’d gathered in a pit – yes there’s such a bonfire pit around – about to be lit, and I’m trying to pull him by his green tail out before the flames leap up.

Also wrote new poems. First draft. First flush tea kind.

The first ‘paragraph’ (or ‘stanza’ if you will) of this update, because it invokes naming in such a delicious way, would strike Facebookers as ‘Facebook poetry’. The concluding line is also worth our attention: the ‘new poems’, in ‘first draft’, even if they are of the ‘first flush tea kind’, must remain a secret for now, and will therefore not be brought out into the Facebook open, not until they have taken on new incarnations after several edits.

The Facebooker who goes by the name Ro Hith, who often ‘tags’ me in the poem ‘notes’ he posts with enviable regularity, makes his feelings about the sieving, the discipline-and-punish of the poetic process, apparent in this update:

Draft again. No word in those drafts have that potential to drink freedom and call themselves as poems. But sometimes I feel too sorry about these drafts … I make these creatures and throw them in a dormant cage. And they wait and wait for that day when I release them, for that day when I feed them some grains of light, for that day when they can flap their wings with utter freedom and become poems.

I am an admirer of Ro Hith’s short poems, but the symptomatic indifference to grammar is evident even in this update.

Poetry police
It is this that Philip Nikolayev, one of the editors of Fulcrum Magazine: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics, refers to in his recent post on the ‘Indian Poetry’ Facebook page, of which he is administrator:
Read This “Poem” or Else
Dear members,
now that I have got your
attention, please know that
those who post doggerel here will be 
banned without warning. Those who 
put “likes” on doggerel will likewise 
be banned without warning. 
This group is for serious poets
and readers only. It will 
remain so. If in doubt whether you 
are a serious poet or a doggerelist, 
please do not post. You are 
posting at your own peril. A few 
doggerelists are banned here 
daily. This is a free clue.
Thank you for your attention.
Disclaimer: this is the sole piece of doggerel allowed in this group, for illustration purposes only. Any other posting of doggerel will result in an automatic ban.
What necessitated this stern post from Nikolayev was a barrage of ‘bad poems’ by the members of the group. For months, he had been patiently correcting grammatical flaws in poems by members of ‘Indian Poetry’, advising apprentice poets on genres and prosody, even warning them not to post ‘doggerel’. Bina Biswas, writer and critic, hints at her disgust at the incorrect grammar and punctuation of much Facebook poetry in one of her own Facebook poems:
Comma, full-stop and semicolon,
they haven’t got much to do.
But colon is so active here,
telling me of u.
Colon D and colon P,
colons with brackets and things.
Smileys galore, more and more,
adding to all meanings.

In poem after poem on Facebook poetry pages, I watched (not just read) with alarm and amazement the burgeoning confidence of the poet from English-speaking India showing-off his drawer secrets, drafts more than finished ‘products’. After a couple of hours on the page, I was struck by how Facebook has become a ventilator for poetry, pumping life into a decrepit body, but then I signed out, gasping.

The poet Chandini Santosh’s ‘TEN RULES FOR WRITERS’, meant for the Facebook poet, is structured like a list poem:

1. GULP!
2. Look at the mirror and smile at yourself.
3. Not at me, you!
4. Brush and floss your teeth.
5. Go sing at the balcony. Bathroom singing is passé!
6. Do some stretch ups while singing. (This one is for midgets like me only)
7. Make sure you are dressed to kill.
8. Make sure there are no exhibitionists in the nearby towers.
9. Come back. (Not here baba! To your comp!)
10. Dip your fingers in your angst and start writing. Simple.

Attached below the poem is a lovely photograph of Chandini, ‘dressed to kill’. I find number 9 in her list of instructions most telling and most amusing. ‘Come back’, not to Facebook, but ‘your comp[uter]’. But that is part of the problem: both cause and effect seem to be on Facebook; both inspiration and reward, for the muse and the audience are so often the same source. (”Oh Facebook, how many poems thou have birthed” reads a line on a toilet wall in the college where I teach.) Below the poem, in the comments section, is Chandini’s offer of help to the Facebook poet: ‘Contact me for more rules’.

‘With my heart’s blood’
Perhaps the poet quoted below has not followed Chandini’s ‘rules’, for, as he confesses, his words are “struggling to become poetry”:
A sigh from the heart of a poet 
I have a song in my veins,
looking for a singer.
I have a lyre, devoid of strings,
Searching for a musician. 
have a story of melancholy
yet to find a listener
I’m choking with a deluge of words, 
Struggling to become poetry!

Ampat Koshy, whose poems stir up my news feed almost every day, has written a Facebook note titled ‘Reading new writing on FB in 2011: A Survey. (Is it all just the Feel Good Factor or is any of it Really Good?)’ After cataloguing the impulses that drive a Facebooker to poetrify – instant publication, self-gratification and the promised Warholian epiphany-like heroin rush of a daily five minutes of instant limited pocket editions of post-modern social networking fame – he names twenty Facebook poets whose work he enjoys reading, and concludes the note with this wish for them for 2012: “May they find good publishers like Poetry’Z Own …”. No one I know will be happy with the compliment ‘He’s a brilliant Facebook Poet’ – that sense of the journey being incomplete colours Koshy’s note too. It’s like a dress rehearsal, a preparation for the ‘real’ thing. Ah, there we go about the ‘real poet’ again.

In his poem titled ‘Mourning the lost poems of an unknown poet. Subtitled: Hurt spoken to Vincent’, addressing his thoughts to Vincent Van Gogh, Koshy writes poignantly about the Facebook poet:

all my life they have followed me, vincent
those voices saying yours are no good
now they change their accent
you can be published all you want
it’s just a fluke, or easy, but you’re not as great
as this one or that other one
no great malayalam poet
no great indian poet
no great english or world poet
and i write
and i write
poems after poems
it’s just words spill on facebook
shoved away into archives
no brushes anymore
i press them straight onto the canvas
like you, vincent
i paint with my heart’s blood
i imagine that one day
my poems will fetch me money
your paintings did after you died
after gauguin mocked you insane
after you cut off your ear for rachel
after you shot yourself dead

Ever since I read this, every ‘poetic’ update brings with it the image of a sheared-off ear, and every proto-poet Facebooker seems in urgent need of a plastic surgeon.

Conditioned to thinking of writing as a solitary act, superstitious about sharing drafts, poetry, in nearly three decades now since I first made its acquaintance, has made me feel part of a happy minority. The arrival of the Facebook poet has dented that image of the cloistered writer – there must surely be some joy in ‘sharing’ that I don’t quite understand yet. ‘You don’t need table manners if you are eating alone’: I’m going to post this as my next update. I wonder how many will find it poetic, but what I’d like to know is whether poetry, of the Facebook kind, would exist if one had no ‘friends’, if one was eating alone.

~ This article is one of the articles from web-exclusive package for ‘Online-istan’.

~ Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal. She is at www.sumanaroy.com.

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