Where’d You Get Your Information From, Huh?

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Manuscript Page from Piers Plowman, B-version

William Langland is old school. He’s Medieval. About seven years ago I read the 7500 line “B-Text” version of his masterpiece, Piers Plowman. I remember very little about it besides my struggle with Middle English (“And tolde hem tidynges—that tyne thei sholde”), ignorance of Latin (“Ubi thesaurus tuus, ibi et cor tuum.”), and Langland’s wonderful, bawdy humor. Recently however, I’ve been keeping the book on my writing desk, opening it at random and reading a little now and again. It’s been a helpful escape from contemporary poetry and its world, and somehow it has recently converged in my head with Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Guy Davenport’s essay “The Geography of the Imagination,” and several conversations with friends, to force me to think more deliberately about how I use poetry in my life, how it has been used, and what constitutes a poem.

Photo of a dog and a dead rat with four Chinese characters beneath it.

Of course there is news that stays news, dichten = condensare, unacknowledged legislating, etc., but what sort of information do I as a poet and citizen gather and disseminate? Where did I used to get my information from? Where do I get my information from now? How is information being treated differently in literature—especially in poetry?

Photograph of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

Plenty of subtler and more informed minds than mine are currently thinking and writing about the changing brain, social networks, and shifts in how we spend our time (example: Eli Pariser, who I heard on NPR the other day discussing the problems of “the filter bubble” and the personalization of information retrieval and advertising on the internet: scary), so I’ll leave the big questions to the big thinkers and hunker down with what I’ve got in front of me: poems I’m reading by my contemporaries and poems I want to write.

Photograph of the Lumiere brothers.

I guess my anxiety can be boiled down to the question: What is Negative Capability in the Age of Information? I wonder what T. E. Hulme and his crew were talking about at their Poets’ Club in 1909. Was it the Lumière brothers and the rise of color photography? Is that the hole of anxiety that Imagism crawled out of? It seems that now more than ever, whenever I sit down to write or edit poems, I attend to my uncertainties with uncertain forces, and then I’ve got to go back sort out the falsities of abstraction and irony from the essential uncertainties I intend to address. (If irony is essentially an instance of information having one meaning while the experience of that information means something else, is it a sort of shrink-wrap for information?)

Watercolor painting of Yoko Ono and a tiny tiger.

More and more, I find myself as a writer drawn to formalism and constraint, while as a reader I prefer abstraction and something I can only (abstractly) describe as cultural effusiveness. It’s sorta strange to develop or move in these two directions at once, but perhaps if this weren’t the case I wouldn’t be able to maintain a dynamic relationship with language, which essentially feels like my job description.

Map of Germany.

For me, a lot of my writer’s anxiety that is tied to information overload is relieved when I live abroad somewhere that shares information in a different language. I like a certain type of anxiety, but when my concerns shift from information to its medium, it seems like my relationship to English becomes healthier. I theorize this helps me write poetry that’s not only less self-aware, but also more pleasing and durable, and I’m looking forward to testing this during the summer, when I’ll be in Berlin. I have no illusions that I’ll learn German over the course of the next couple of months, but I do intend to try and fail in order to distract myself from my common distractions.

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