An Essay


Michael Dickel


Milton thought that the readers of poetry were “a few,” while Baudelaire spoke of the democratization of the poet; scholars have identified both prose poetry and free verse as “democratizing” influences in poems. Slam poetry—which originated in Chicago in the 1980s as a white, working-class scene and expanded with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe slams—has more convincingly been regarded as a democratic poetry. Poetry slams have spread internationally, propelled in part by social media. Social media itself, however, has created perhaps the greatest shift in poetry production and readership that may herald a democratic poetry and poetics. What does that mean to “poetry” in its various definitions? That is not at all clear.

Poetry now thrives across the World Wide Web. In addition to social media, there are online journals, some refereed through an editorial process (many with longer histories, having migrated from, or as a complement to, print journals). And affordable self-publishing through online print-on-demand services, such as Lulu.com and CreateSpace.com, make it possible for almost anyone with access to a computer and the internet to produce their own book, and for small publishers to proliferate. Established publishers and editors who select work—and have long been accused of undemocratic elitism, cronyism, regionalism, racism, sexism and of generally being part of the white patriarchal power structure in the West—no longer control the gates to publication.

Those gates today stand wide open. Anyone can post a poem on social media. People like and share poetry on Facebook, post poems and images on Instagram. They tweet and re-Tweet links to poems on Twitter, as well as Tweet entire poems of 140 or fewer characters (a new genre). Bloggers post poems, and poets have blogs. All around the Internet, poetry pours forth—and not only in English. People who call themselves poets, and make their poetry available online, do not require an editor’s approval for the publication of a single poem.

Many people read these online poems, too. Some readers comment on and critique the poetry. Some share links to the posted poems. Many sites and online forums promote voting, with the most popular poems (often the best promoted on social media) granted higher placement in listings, awards, and even print publication. The readers have more say about the poetry, its reception and acceptance, than editors.

This democratic approach to poetry may well have roots in slam poetry. Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, in her book, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America (U MI Pr 2009), writes:

…Miguel Algarín, a former Rutgers University professor and cofounder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, dubbed the practice of poetry slams “the democratization of verse.” As an open venue, the poetry slam is continually welcoming new audiences and practitioners into it ranks, all of whom can have a say in what is rewarded at the slam and where the art form is going. Poetry slams create communities of poets and poetry lovers in which verse is not only disseminated but discussed, critiqued, debated, and even reinvented. (p, 137)

This description of slam poetry, which began before the Internet spread its Web around the world, fits social media poetry and online poetry forums. While online journals that still require an editorial process do not demonstrate the same democratic process, even those sites often allow for comments and response, which, whether moderated or not, provide for immediate feedback and direct dialog between writer and reader. And some online and print journals have sprung up that select poems for inclusion through voting by readers, a parallel to slam-audience voting.

While this all speaks to the existence of “democratic” poetry online, I want to raise two questions here about social media poetry. The first comes from Paul Kameen, in his book, Writing/teaching: Essays toward a rhetoric of pedagogy (U of Pittsburgh Pr, 2000): “Has the democratization of poetry created a genuinely democratic poetry, or just a much larger number of writers writing for each other?” (p. 105). The critique that poetry from the Modernists to the present largely consists of poems written for other poets comes up often. Usually, the point seeks to puncture the balloon of the most recent rising-generation of poets. Recently, this critique has been aimed at creative writing workshops and MFA programs in particular.

Yet, the question remains relevant—even if many or possibly most of the writers posting poetry on social media did not attend a university writing program or workshop: Do social media writers write mostly for other social media writers?

A large number of my Facebook friends write, edit, or teach writing. However, in my own un-systematic observations, fewer of the likes or comments come from my academic life. More comments and critiques come from other writers. A lot of writers I meet on Facebook came to writing as readers, and experimented with posting their own work, only to discover that others liked to read it. Some have learned from what gets liked and what doesn’t, from how people comment, and from critiques online. A few have requested  me (and others, I’m sure) to comment on a draft before posting it. So, in this way, social media forms communities of writers.

In my own experience, a lot of readers (at least of my work), are in fact other writers. Does that mean I’m writing for other writers? Possibly. I like it when other writers comment favorably on my work. When someone else comments it thrills me, especially if the comment resembles that of an architect friend who does not write, who posted a comment about my writing “…scrubbing out the inside of [her] brain…” I try to write for readers like her, who like what happens to them when they read my work.

All of this brings me to the second question: What effect does democratic poetry have on poets and poetics? Having a few engaged readers satisfies me (and of course I would enjoy having lots of readers), but should I strive for the most readers? Should I change how and what I write to suit this world-wide audience and what it wants to read? Should I let the majority determine my own poetics?

I don’t like rhyming poetry and rarely use obvious end-rhyme schemes. I don’t like writing inspirational poetry full of vague generalities and “wisdom” sayings. Yet, from my impressions, the most popular poems on social media strain for just such effects. I prefer to disrupt the reading, to disturb concepts we too easily think true. I prefer to raise questions and to question my own ideas—especially those in the poem. I fear that if I really want a large audience, I would need to write something more like greeting-card poetry.

This view of online poetry could reveal my own elitist attitude, I admit. Rather than a winner-take-all desire for a large audience, though, participants in democratic poetry could value a poem not for how many likes it gets on Facebook or Retweets on Twitter. Money earned won’t provide a measurement of the value of the poetry, either. I hope that whoever measures this elusive value will measure my poetry by how many readers feel that my poems “scrubbed” their brains (in a positive sense). And those readers may not be the majority of online readers.

However, this idea may in fact reveal the most democratic aspect of social media poetry—that I don’t need the majority of an audience’s approval in order to continue participating, unlike slam competitions. My poetry can reach those readers who will value it, without the gatekeepers or a majority vote, through pluralistic democratic values that allow any one poet to post any one poem.

Michael Dickel, Ph.D., associate editor of The Woven Tale Press

Originally published in print: “Foreword: (Social Media) (Democratic) Poetry,” The Art of Being Human. Vol. 14. 2015, pp. 7–11.

© Michael Dickel

View Contributing Editor Michael Dickel’s bio HERE

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