Edited by Gregory Laynor & Stephen McLaughlin
Reviewed by John Deming
We’re So Vain
Last fall, contemporary poetry’s selfsame internet niches were abuzz over the publication of Issue 1, a web-based anthology that promised to be the largest anthology of poetry ever published on the web, or maybe just plain ever. It was to feature the work of thousands of poets, all of whom were listed at the editors’ Web site, forgodot.com. The only problem was, no one seemed to remember submitting poems to anything called Issue 1, and for that matter, no one had never heard of forgodot.com.
How did poets even find out about it? Googling their own names, most likely. My favorite blogosphere responses came from poets who were outraged that their brilliance was being shared without their knowledge or consent. Others took the news in stride, figuring they’d submitted to so many journals that they must have submitted at some point, and forgotten. But I think most people saw a massive contributors list published on a generally unspecific Web site and figured on something else: a hoax, possibly even a cry for attention.
To forget having submitted poetry is one thing; but to forget having written a poem? A quick glance at the hard-drive clogging pdf of Issue 1, and it was evident that the named poets hadn’t created the poems. But who…or what!…had?
It didn’t quite matter. Poets didn’t seem to like having their names attached to things they didn’t write, and Ron Silliman even went so far as to publish editor Stephen McLaughlin’s home phone number on his blog so that people could call and complain. McLaughlin later posted a note informing his public that “the phone number and address that Ron Silliman so kindly shared on his blog belong not to me but to my parents. I’d appreciate if you didn’t wake them up in the middle of the night.” He then offered his real phone number. He also offered an explanation: “I expected its size, format, and (to my eye) clearly algorithmically generated content to make our intentions clear.” The poems, then, were written not by people, but by a computer.
I can’t say for sure what those “intentions” were. But there are a few things to consider. If any ingenuity at all can be attributed to this hoax, it has to do with the way its creators could reasonably predict the vanity of contemporary poets; listing so many means spiking forgodot.com’s hit count alongside the editors’ notoriety. No one is ever going to read this anthology in its entirety – but it’s conceivable that many, if not all of the poems will be read at least once, by the poets who are alleged to have written them (excepting poems written by dead authors; the inclusion of “Chaucer” is actually rather funny). So maybe the goal was to get attention while capitalizing on other poets’ needs for attention. Cool. It has nothing to do with poetry, but cool.
The fact that these editors were the subject of such internet ire is also a pleasant reminder that the incestuous cult-of-blog in contemporary poetry is the cotton candy of our medium, and has very little to do with good writing. Are there poets out there who might Google their own names to bitch when they find unexpected things, wasting time that could’ve been spent charging their imaginations, making poems, shrinking from the oddness of linking and friending and…hoaxing? If so, they should be destroyed.
Most of the “poems” in Issue 1 look and feel the same. To give you a sense, I’ll do what Silliman did on his blog, reprint the poem that was attributed to me, myself: John Deming, American Poet. It is called “Turning knowledge from rest”:
Such rest bears no relation
to earth, boat,
They will have no remorse
Outer will be they who will
believe the tiptoe of their desires
They may be
a meaning, coasts written with candour
From their magnificent
throat they will
yearn for someone, showing, from their
eye commingling waiting
There will be time
to meet knowledge
They will have to shave her
They will see their unmoved
candour, the sunken
flourish of it
Because they waited, a devotion
were sunken but not inadequate
The lightning offering her breast, her baffling
And what if
they should dishonour late
Dunno, what if? Sorry to waste your time. Didn’t write it, don’t like it. It’s dead weight, like his whole anthology (which weighs precisely zero pounds!). But I do like that my name somehow wound up next to Mary Jo Bang’s. I’m guessing – based on the presence of the “Prufrock” line “there will be time” – that the poems in this “anthology” are alogorithmically constructed from lines of other poems, but frankly, it’s not worth the milk to find out for sure.
If the “intention” was to show that any…computer…could auto-generate good poetry, then it’s a failure of intention; if it’s to show that computers can generate lousy, unimaginitive poems exactly like poems that lot of people write these days…that’s closer. Beyond that, the notion that meaninglessness carries meaning, the meaning of meaninglessness, is too bland to deal with on these terms. Are the poems in Issue 1 any good, or worth reading at all? Nope. But I’ll give them a three for the hoax. And for including me.