In the poetry world, as in the rest of the world, for the last few years people have been using social media to challenge deeply rooted power structures in new ways. During this time, when I’ve found myself talking to other poets about a conflict in Poetry Land—usually involving someone being called out on the internet for racism, sexism, or other abuses of power—and have tried to make sense of why these clashes are so volatile, I will often say something along the lines of:
“It’s great that there’s no money in poetry because we can make the art we want and feel free of market pressures, but this is the dark side of that freedom: because there’s no real capital in poetry, ego and reputation become the currency that poets stake so much on. If there’s no money in poetry, and slim chance for wider cultural recognition, then poets’ best chance of attaining power is by having a good reputation among their peers. Losing that reputation by being publicly critiqued or exposed online feels, and often is, dire.”
Beyond high-profile scandals, social media is also reshaping how poets cultivate their reputations in more ordinary ways. If poets’ popularity used to be determined by whether people liked their poems, now it can have a lot to do with how they’re perceived online. Social media is where you “build your personal brand,” as my undergrads say (without irony!). And this new idea of reputation is weirdly visible and quantifiable: we see likes, retweets, shares, and followers, and social media platforms do the counting for us. And, just as in IRL social life, those who know how to play the game are rewarded by the forces of power, whose machinations most of us only dimly understand (in this case, The Algorithm).
I’m describing these dynamics because they’ve had a huge impact on how power is acquired and perceived in the increasingly virtual social milieu in which poets and people interact with one another. But I also want to dip below or beyond the social in order to talk about another, not entirely unrelated, relationship between poetry and power that I care more about—that is, poetry’s ability to speak truth to power. Beyond all surface trappings of ego, reputation, publication, sales (haha), likes, retweets, and other earthly indexes, poetry’s power rests in the invisible realms of emotion and ethics, spirituality and intellect. Poetry moves us and reconfigures us; poetry allows us to find pattern and sense in a chaotic world; poetry gives voice, song, and spark to a fundamental creative force that can resist, or tango with, forces of destruction.
This power need not only be found in the little text-thingies we call poems, either. Lorca found it in flamenco in the 1930s: duende is “a power, not a work […] it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.” Situationist Raoul Vaneigem found it in the riots and rebellions of the 1960s: “Poetry is always somewhere. If it leaves the realm of the arts, it is all the easier to see that it belongs first and foremost in action, in a way of living and in the search for a way of living. Everywhere repressed, this poetry springs up everywhere. Brutally put down, it is reborn in violence.”
In this understanding of poetry as a lived power, the previously asserted division between power in the social world of poetry and the power of poetry itself begins to break down. Social media can be understood as a “way of living” in which we participate, and one which presents new poetic possibilities. We are living in an explosive moment when old orders of power are being exposed and interrogated and new methods of resistance are emerging. As poets, we’re in a unique position to use our faculties of language and imagination to find new ways to speak to a changing world. If attention spans are shorter and character counts are limited, we have our powers of evocation and economy: we type into tiny text boxes and instantly send out our missives.
If social media is not only the sphere of reputation, ego, and brand, but also a place where we “search for a way of living,” then how do we infuse the socially mediated revolution with the power of “spontaneous creation”? What kind of poetry do we want out of our virtual existences? How do we become receptive—or get out of the way—so that this poetry can “spring up”? And how can we harness the powers of new media not to “encourag[e] horizontal hostility,” as Audre Lorde writes in Sister Outsider, but to “question the vertical lines of power or authority”?