As readers of Silliman's Blog know, he shut down his Comment Stream on July 31st, 2010, citing the harm this venue allegedly had caused to certain named subjects of reviews he had written over the preceding 3 years. He mentioned the reviews of books by Joseph Massey, Jessica Smith, and Barbara Jane Reyes. He specifically mentioned comments he had previously made on Jessica Smith's blog, "looktouchblog," and went on to say the following:
"One thing should be clear: many of the new entrants to the scene have no interest in old conflicts or in the idea of conflict in poetry under any terms. One might see this as an ordinary enough result of the gender rebalancing of the scene over the past five decades. But it’s also part of a deeper critique of society that no longer valorizes the self-destructive credo of the poet-as-addict. Or envisions the poet as warrior in a world in which real warriors leave so much devastation in their wake. It’s a different world. Dysfunctional male behavior is not glorious. It is in fact pathetic."
I really enjoy that "rebalancing" remark. It's sort of like the Thurber cartoon about the war between the sexes. I'm thinking of a huge plain peopled by men and women, strays running back and forth between competing groups in order to keep the plain from tipping too far in one direction or the other--"Come back here, Jessica! You're upsetting the balance! Hurry, or we'll all fall off the edge!" Seriously (well, maybe not completely seriously), attempting to characterize all differences of opinion, or perhaps the entire history of literary criticism as a form of "dysfunctional male behavior" is just the sort of tripe you'd expect of a fuddle-headed French culture critic suffering from cabin- (or condominium-) fever between academic appointments. On a completely straight level, I'd be inclined to characterize Silliman himself as a true poet-addict, or poetry-addict, even when, or if, his maleness is factored into the equation. My personal opinion would be that poets--especially those who broadcast their opinions and agendas as vociferously as Silliman does--who attempt to appear to be immune from the partisanship of taste are themselves, in fact, entirely pathetic and disingenuous.
"I don’t mind debate, even vigorous debate, over fundamental issues. But it does seem clear to me that some people make a point of verbally attacking writers I praise on this blog simply because I’ve praised them. Reading that responses to a positive review on my blog seriously discouraged Jessica Smith about poetry & writing is as depressing a consequence as I can imagine. I want to apologize to her for not doing a better job policing the comments stream, and I want to apologize to Joseph Massey more recently for the same. And to Barbara Jane Reyes and any other poets who feel they may have been unfairly treated in the comments stream.""I experienced this when Silliman reviewed Organic Furniture Cellar [her self-published first collection of poems]. On the one hand, Silliman was probably single-handedly responsible for selling about 200 copies of the book in a short period after the review came out. On the other hand, in both his comment stream and in other reviews, people seemed irrationally angry about Silliman’s review and turned their fury on me instead of on the book. I know it sounds wimpy and whiny to say this [yes, it does], but the experience has made me disengage with the poetry community (not write, not publish, not participate actively in a wider conversation)."
If the sentiment expressed here is to be believed--and I for one don't believe a single word of it--Silliman thinks that people disagree with his literary views simply out of a desire to attack him. That, in effect, the books and writers he reviews are simply whipping-boys in a larger dialectic between himself and his literary opponents. This is a grand conceit of megalomaniacal proportions, which places the subjects of his reviews--their value, their meaning, their significance--in a subsidiary position, well below himself and his program. And it allows him the privilege (the audacity!) of apologizing to them for his failure to protect them from these hoards of crass, pathetic, vile, male commentators. And, finally, he mourns the damage, the discouragement, which such streams of vinegar and vituperation have already inflicted upon the sensibilities and careers of several young poets! Goodness!
Well, intrigued by all this stuff and circumstance over the comment box, I went over and visited Jessica Smith's looktouchblog, to see what all the fuss was about. On July 28, 2010, Ms. Smith posted an extended ("I want to comment briefly"--but not too briefly, I note) entry, "The Silenced Generation" about "a special phenomenon [she's] seen and experienced with regard to Ron Silliman‘s blog. It seems that to some degree, poetry’s youth is being trampled, discouraged and undermined with a potential long-term detrimental effect on Poetry."
There is really something quite touching about the vision of America's youthful poets being "trampled, discouraged and undermined," but we know the situation is really big news when it may have a "potential long-term detrimental effect on Poetry" [with a capital P!--italics mine]. This really shows that Ms. Smith is aware of much wider implications than her own reputation and feelings, and it shows a degree of responsibility and duty impressive in one so young, if, indeed, she is to be believed.
The problem, as Ms. Smith states, is not with Silliman himself, whose "blog is undeniably a major and constant source of information about experimental poetry," but "with Silliman’s...comment boxes. Now, as we all know, comment boxes are notorious for being a place where a few self-appointed 'experts' on any subject can whack off listening to their own voices. Comment boxes are more often frequented by men, and they’re usually angry, aggressive men looking for an argument. This is true everywhere on the internet, not just on poetry blogs. A few years ago, Silliman’s comment boxes were especially poisonous; I’m not entirely sure what changed, but they seem to be less active now. However, when active, they are still poisonous."
Just as an aside here, I might observe that sexist remarks about the masturbatory habits of male commentators constitute a repugnant sexist swipe. Are women to be denied the same right and privacy of self-abuse as men? Sexism! Are women who comment in comment-boxes not also potentially "angry, aggressive, looking for an argument"? Is literary commentary a form of male masturbation? Is literary discussion, commentary and critical regard a function of purely male aggression? These wild notions disturb my equanimity, and send me quickly back to Ms. Smith's essay for clarification(s)!
Ms. Smith believes that in publishing a book of her own poetry, she has "unwittingly set [her]self up as an object of cruelty." Between attempts to stifle guffaws, and a seizure of sad condescension, for so much pathetic self-pity and special pleading, it occurred to me that all Ms. Smith really wanted was to be loved, for the tender, sensitive soul she is, and not the snotty, conceited little twit she sounds like. "It’s like the cyber-bullying...but in the case of poetry and Silliman’s blog specifically, the bullies are grown people who, through some lack of ability to empathize will lash out at anyone."
It's true, Jessica, the bullies are "grown people," and, as you will find as you traverse the long road towards literary fame and fortune, they may indeed fail to empathize with you and your work. Whether you continue to believe, over time, that anyone who rejects you or your work--as being anything less than the evidence of the abiding native genius of which you now believe yourself to be possessed--is a de-facto "socio-path," will largely depend on the degree to which you mature, both as a person and as a writer.
Ms. Smith goes on in an attempt to defend a publisher, and another poet (Joseph Massey), whom she feels have been unfairly (mortally!) damaged by harsh critical remarks in Silliman's Blog Comment Box. "Let's keep in mind," she goes on to say, "that most of Silliman's usual suspects are simply (and possibly clinically) narcissistic sociopaths and that there's no real point in engaging with them or acknowledging their (usually insipid and underinformed) claims."
These are harsh words, harsher, I'd wager, than 97% of all the commentary that ever appeared in Silliman's Comment Box. On a scale of intensity, I'd rate them just about at the top of the bitchy-meter. Lumping people together this way--let's estimate how many different people have commented on Silliman's Blog over the last five years--there're certainly hundreds--is an impulsive and ill-considered smear. Ms. Smith is really out of control, here, and probably is doing real harm to the feelings and reputations of those people who made serious, friendly, or helpful comments over the years. But they're not like Ms. Smith, not like the good young poet she believes herself to be: "Good poets are a sensitive, melancholic people– not to reinforce a stereotype, but we have to be sensitive in order to be observant in new, interesting ways [italics mine]. To be the object of unmerited scorn and immature but hurtful comments (that are evidently made by those with little experience with the work itself) is psychologically detrimental to a poet, as it would be to anyone with a modicum of respect for other human beings."
Here I think I have a clear disagreement with Ms. Smith about the function of criticism, but I'll throw her a bone, first. It is true that many of those who comment on the internet are incompletely "informed" about the subjects they discuss. And you could even go so far as to assert that many of those who post blog essays are inadequately "informed" about the subjects they discuss. Is it adequate simply to praise someone, or something? My guess is that Ms. Smith believes that anyone who doesn't praise her work is "uninformed" and "disrespectful" and anyone who does is by definition mature, respectful and correct. The tendency to demonize your opponents by accusing them of being rude, inhumane and uninformed is as desperately naive and juvenile, as it is futile.
Trying to "defend" your work against criticism is probably the biggest waste of time any writer can engage in. Unless you try to claim immunity because you're too sensitive and vulnerable to endure it, which is incredibly egotistical and silly. Attempting to characterize hundreds of commentators on the internet as "robotic-hearted cyberbullies" is a pathetic generality that carries no sting, because it's a misapprehension of what it means to participate in the public sphere of debate and discussion. Writing isn't a sort of organic secretion which must be stored in a test-tube and kept away from the light and air and infection. Once you publish a poem, that poem goes naked into the world, and must suffer all the slings and arrows the world can throw at it. All the self-pity and half-baked indignation doesn't change that.
"Something that Massey, Cannibal* and I have in common is that we are all fairly young, relatively unknown operatives in the poetry world. Like all young poets, we need and deserve the occasional positive or constructive feedback, and we are discouraged from doing our work by such floods of negative feedback. Although an apocalyptic statement such as 'Silliman’s comment boxes may silence an otherwise important group of upcoming young poets' may seem hyperbolic, I worry that it isn’t."
Ah, Ms. Smith, time flies. Soon you will no longer be young, but the same fears and misgivings you have about being criticized and under-appreciated will trouble you then as they do now. The very best "occasional positive or constructive feedback" you'll get will be the negative criticism you receive. The more august and authoritative the source, the more uncomfortable it will make you feel. Out of that embarrassment and frustration, you will grow and learn. Unless you simply ignore what people say about your work. Relying on what people say they think and feel about your work carries risks. If you make the critical reception a basis for your personal sense of satisfaction, or the value you yourself place on it, you'll almost certainly end up being injured.
But, as I note above, a fairer estimation is better than a quick look, so I'm going to read your work, and consider whether it merits the kind of praise you believe it's due. That'll be Part II of this discussion.
* Cannibal Books, a publisher. It should be noted that the plight of Cannibal Books was not directly tied in any way to criticisms appearing in Silliman's Blog. As Ms. Smith herself admits, the financial problems associated with running a small press, rather than any over-whelming negative critical avalanche, was the cause of its demise. Still, the "whiny self-indulgent bullshit" to which Ms. Smith refers, almost certainly would stand, perhaps ironically, as a description of what she herself has engaged in with her July 28th blog.