The Poetry “Debate” as an Illustration of Internet Discourse Failure

Neil Hilborn (Source: Button Poetry)
Neil Hilborn (Source: Button Poetry)

I want to thank you my readers for being such amazingly polite and kind participants in the public discussions we have here from time to time on The Dad Poet. It’s not that you don’t have strong opinions. You do, and obviously so do I, but I am consistently impressed by your ability to respect others in the conversation while making the case for an apposing point of view. It takes not just tact, but class and character to do that in this increasingly hostile world of internet discourse.

I really don’t like the way people talk to each other on the internet. Of course, that’s a broad sweeping statement, Much internet discussion is inspirational, provocative, educational and constructive. If it weren’t I don’t think I could spend as much time as I do here. It’s not that negative opinions are not valuable, but that they are so rarely presented in a constructive manner.

Even a decade ago, when I ran a web forum for gay fathers, I was amazed at how outright rude and thoughtless and unnecessarily unkind people could be when talking to people on the other side of a computer screen, and I vigorously encouraged an attitude in the forums that involved envisioning the other person at the kitchen table with you over coffee, and to frame their disagreements accordingly. Perhaps it is different when the person is a true adversary, but how productive is it for us to be the first to attack?

Good lord, when did we forget we were talking to other human beings? And why do people think you can say instantly in writing what you would think twice about saying in person? But it seems that it is more than internet anonymity that fosters bad manners. Perhaps we have encouraged by the adversarial tone of the articles themselves.  Even respectable publications will post strong opinion columns that go well past the territory of assertiveness and into the badlands of insult. Some of them do so with great authority, like this article in the Guardian by British poet Carol Rumens who claimed that Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem was a flop. If you are really bored you can scroll down through the comments and easily find multiple responses (at least four) by me, not just to the review, but to a few of the respondents. I was wondering, what happened to polite public discourse and why were these people being so mean?

Earlier this week I read another poetry-based discussion that illustrated this tendency we have to give knee-jerk rather than thoughtful responses, often only reading a headline or skimming an article before we angrily chime in with our own oh-so-important opinions. Please read the post by James. I only copy my response here in an attempt to correct several typos. I confess I am struck by my own temptation to be more firm than perhaps I needed to be. Maybe I go too far? It’s no wonder I’ve been called arrogant when I start a comment the way I did here:

I’m going to risk sounding snarky, but let me be the first one to actually respond to you. Respondents thus far appear to have either merely skimmed your post or simply read your headline. It’s upsetting how many people do that. I wish I could say it was just on the internet, but I’m seeing it more and more in face-to-face talk. The TED talk philosopher you linked to makes many good points; we don’t argue productively anymore. It’s not simply, as I initially thought, the anonymity thing, that makes us prone to say things we would never say to a person sitting across the coffee table from us. I think the comments in your thread so far show that one of the reasons is that we often don’t actually listen to each other before we speak. I hadn’t thought of this aspect, though my concerns have echoed yours about the new trends in internet “discourse.” Perhaps it’s not merely rudeness, but a result of training to respond to snippets and talking points. But then again, we do need to be responsible to rein ourselves in and listen to each other before we chime in, don’t we? Can we really get away with just blaming the short form of tweets and blurbs?

Let’s put aside the fact that as a poet I cringe when I hear someone like Alexander above say that for him poetry has to rhyme. Sigh. Most of Walt Whitman and even many classics, the un-rhymed blank verse of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, apparently are not poems to Alexander and to many of those who responded critically to Hilborn. And we can just toss out most modern poetry either published or promoted by organizations like the Poetry Foundation and The Academy of American Poets. And he cannot tell me that Hilborn’s poem doesn’t “flow.” It might not scan as regular meter, but it certainly flows. And it has the metaphor and emotion of poetry, so while it may not seem traditional, doesn’t Alexander make a great argument, despite himself, that it really is poetry because it has the same effect. It seems to me a bit like saying, “Hey, honey, I’m not in love with you, but you give me goosebumps, and make me want to buy flowers for you; I want to see you happy, and hey, will you marry me?”

And a couple of people here have also used the term “fake,” which you and Hilborn have already addressed very well. But let me ask, since when were poets entirely truthful? Or let me rephrase that; since when were poets concerned with facts when they are getting at the truths of human emotion? Why do so many assume that poets are speaking as themselves and not as characters who may or may not be based upon themselves and others they know? Perhaps this misconception is ironically a result of the excellence of the poet’s writing and quality of performance. When an actor steps on stage nobody shouts, “He’s a fake!” Why would you expect other artists to only spit out historical fact rather than an exploration of what it means to be human? Just because something doesn’t fit your experience of OCD, or your “personal definition” of poetry, it doesn’t give you the authority to dismiss this poet or his poem.

Neither does it give you a pass for ignoring your manners by responding and arguing without actually listening to the other person and considering what he is saying. We could argue and discuss things so much better and more productively than we do. Let’s hope that this trend continues to be bucked, and that we as a society are able to learn and grown and make the social corrections necessary to benefit from our initial blunders in this new world of technology and instant speak.

Thanks for this post and the great opportunity for discussion.

Here is the poem as performed by Neil Hilborn:


Here is the TED discussion about how we argue by Daniel H. Cohen:


I ask you to listen to the poem by HIlborn, even if slam poetry is not your cup of tea. You might even scroll through a few of the YouTube comments, but I don’t encourage wading in too much of the filth. Read the post by James Grimshaw, to whom I was responding.  Feel free to tell me if you think I was being unfair to those who made comments on his post. I can take it.

Then I’d like you to listen to Cohen’s talk, paying particular attention to his ideas of how “argument as war” is not a helpful model for modern public discourse, and particularly for our purpose, internet discourse.

Then talk to me about it. And since you’ve been so good as to consider all this stuff as presented, I give you a free pass to discuss all or any part of it–the question of what poetry really is, the problems or positives of internet discourse, whatever you are moved to discuss. I know I’ve asked a lot of you, and you can give me as much guff as you see fit for that, because know you’ll keep it respectful and useful; you always do.


23 Comments Add yours

  1. holdenlyric says:

    I don’t think you were being too harsh at all. First of all, I’ve seen this slam poetry and I thought it was absolutely hilarious and genius. It’s funny I only assumed it was an act, I never thought about it being truth. So, the fact that people were calling it fake was beyond me.

    Poetry is whatever works. Words that evoke laughter, hatred, love, any kind of feeling. In my mind, this was poetry at its finest. I don’t have the patience for the internet anymore. I used to reply to comments I disagreed with. Now I usually just laugh and keep scrolling.


    1. Thank you, for that kind response. “Poetry is whatever works,” is a great way of looking at it. It’s how I’m handling my difficulty in grasping prose poetry. For me, poetry has a lot to do with the line, the fact that it ends where the poet chooses, rather than where the margins of the page dictate. However, some damn good prose poems have challenged that part of my definition as well.

      And yes, I tend to avoid the comment section of most internet places, except for the blogs I love these days. Thanks again for chiming in!


  2. slpmartin says:

    Beside my computer I have Bukowski’s ‘so you want to be a writer?’ The poem guides my thinking about internet discourses. Personally, I found Neil Hilborn’s poem quite good.


    1. Yes, I like that poem by Bukowski. It has some very good points, and is delivered with just the right curmudgeonly humor. 🙂


  3. Vincent in Ireland says:

    I was unaware of the controversy regarding the ‘OCD’ poem. I recall sharing it as it made quite an impact on me. I have stated before that slam poetry doesn’t often float my boat, however I thought this one quite sublime as an example of that genre. I have read some of the comments you refer to David. What can we say, the world is full of saints and sinners, angels and demons, thoughtful critical friends traveling the same path, and then there are cunts.I know how offensive that word is your side of the pond but I sense you will forgive my choice word dear brother.


    1. More than forgive you, I confess that I literally, not figuratively, laughed out loud when I read your comment. Thank heaven I wasn’t drinking coffee. I always appreciate your candor, my dear brother. You deliver it with grace and respect, and besides that, I agree with you. 🙂


    2. And yes, I do believe I first encountered the poem in question via your facebook feed.


  4. marceltina says:

    I agree. Much opinion airing on the net is lamentable at best and vicious and dangerous at worst. Just proves how wrong we are to assume, even for a minute, that in general , humanity has evolved, beyond being upright in posture. k


  5. marceltina says:

    OK…wordpress insists that I use an old name tho I have tried to erase/delete/kill it over and over ! Pls note David..she is me..KB..!!


    1. Lol the k is enough, every time.


  6. “Good lord, when did we forget we were talking to other human beings? And why do people think you can say instantly in writing what you would think twice about saying in person?” Such a very good question, and one I’ve asked myself a lot…

    As for what poetry is–at the risk saying nothing in order to say something…poetry is what it is. Of all literature, poetry is the one form of which that can be said, I think.


    1. Poetry is the sort of thing that poets write. Didn’t Robert Frost say something like that?


  7. keatsbabe says:

    As always, a thoughtful, clever and eloquent response to a piece that was itself worthy of more gracious responses than some of those in the subsequent comments.
    I was in London yesterday, talking to someone I met firs three years ago, via Twitter. He is no longer using that platform to discuss his interest in art and heritage because of the ‘sniping’, thoughtless (rather than thought-provoking) and irritable (and irritating) nature of some replies. Poetry is the most personal medium for expressing and distilling our deepest thoughts. It can also be huge fun, light and frothy and engaging for the youngest of readers. It also breaks rules, pushes boundaries and does all those cliché ridden things that provoke vitriol and comments such as ‘poetry has to rhyme’. Sadly I am not sure that some of the people who behave badly when commenting wouldn’t feel free to use that language to one’s face now – Stephen Fry has recently presented a programme on Radio 4 on the death of ‘rhetoric’ as an art. Discourse is dying out….


    1. Marvelous response, Suzie. Thank you! Interesting because I almost pursued a master’s program toward a teaching position while earning my PHD in Rhetoric, Technical and Professional Communication. I think I didn’t want to spend the rest of my years pulling my hair out, dealing with such a tragic loss. I’ll have to check out the Stephen Fry programme.


  8. We are so self-absorbed these days, that of course our opinion is the only one that matters. Especially behind a computer, where we run no risk of being called to account: don’t like the reply? Delete, not debate, is the answer.

    An excellent post, David.


    1. Thank you, dear! And thanks for chiming in. I know you’ve got a lot to do, so I always love it when you take time to comment here.


  9. John says:

    First, I like you response … it’s well thought out and presented.

    Thankfully, my little poetry blog gets few comments, other than from you, so I’ve not had to worry. 🙂

    But, I do know what you mean … I stay out of the comment section of most websites, because they anger me too much.

    There’s been much talk — articles, tv, about our lack of civility, especially on the Internet. Many sites are no longer allowing anonymous comments, and, I’ve read that we’ll see more comment sections where you’ll have to use your Facebook information to log in (ok, so you can create a fake FB profile), but, the idea is that comments you leave in one place will have your name on them, and been seen on your FB page, by your family and friends.

    Bill Maher did a bit about this on his show last night …about the reactions to the new Miss America, but, about our lack of civility in general.

    I do think that part of the problem is that we’ve eliminated so much from our school budgets, and limited what teachers can teach, that schools no longer have civics classes (which teach about how government works, and how to be involved), and we don’t teach logic (so people can’t argue with logic because they don’t know how — so all they’re left with is insult.)

    I’ve written a few times on my blog about criticism, and how much I dislike it. And, this is the perfect example of what I mean. Art (i.e. poetry) is much too personal a thing to be held up to criticism. The success, or lack of, can be an indication of something being good or not — but, then, there’s crap books on the bestseller lists all the time — but, that’s my opinion that they’re crap — obviously they sell millions of copies, so some people like them. If we don’t like something, it’s fair to say “it’s not my preference”, but to call something out as crap (yes, I did use the word, but, did not call anyone in particular out), is not criticism. It’s just insulting to the artist, not just the work, but the artist too.

    I would also contend that much criticism comes from sour grapes (jealousy). If you read something that’s successful, or critically acclaimed, and you don’t like it, while you’ve been spending years trying to get your stuff published (which you think is much better) can lead people to leave negative criticism.

    I would add a caveat — if you’re with a friend, or a family member you’re close with, and you want to dish something — that’s fine. We all do it. It is when you’re making public comments that we need to remember respect. We make a big deal out of famous people saying mean things — but, we don’t hold ourselves to that same standard (I use the generic “we”).

    Very thoughtful post. Enjoyed it.


    1. Well being mean on the internet, especially when we pretend we know more than we do is one thing. But I think there is a difference when professionals critique others in their same field. That’s different than an arm chair quarterback pretending that he knows how it feels to be on the field trying to get past the defensive line. When Billy Collins criticises Jorie Grahm, not only do I enjoy the exchange, but I know Jorie can take it, and dish it back. And usually such things are done with a certain measure of professional grace, even if the parties involved are passionate about their stance.

      But people who spend their lives being literature critics rather than writers themselves. . .

      I suppose it’s like movie critics, Roger Ebert knew the world of cinema, and when he critiqued he usually did it with class.

      There is little of that in the internet comments sections. I used to think YouTube was the worst, and it still is pretty bad, but it amazes me how many political trolls are on websites that hold views to which they do not even espouse.

      I may know that I don’t like a certain singer, or even a style of music, but I don’t have anything but my taste, my preference to base that on. I had a little musical training back in the day, and I have a descent singing voice, but when my Brian talks about augmented chords and modulations I have no idea what he is talking about. So there is no reason for me to say anything more than, “I don’t enjoy that kind of music.” Leave it up to someone else to critique whether or not those were the right jazz chords, or whatever.

      Anyway, thanks for chiming in, John. You know I really love what you are doing. That last poem by David Kirby blew me away. Expect a recording soon.


  10. John says:

    I often wonder how many of the trollish comments on the internet are truly sincere … yes, some obviously are as ignorant and insulting as they appear, but, I wonder if some people just don’t write a negative comment, just to stir the pot …

    I agree that a bit of criticism among professionals is not so bad … though, I’m still not always sold on people who are ‘professional critics.’ There are some, Roger Ebert being perhaps the best known, who can criticize in the nicest way possible. And, I think you may have mentioned this once (I think it was you, anyway), that Ebert was specific in his criticisms … he’d say the writing was poor, or the actors were stiff — but, he’d never rip the film to shreds, making it seem as if even the poor cameraman was horrid too. He’d always try to say something nice about the film, and, his comments were directed at the film itself — you always knew he was talking about the film. If he criticized the director, you always knew he was talking about the directing of the movie, not of the director as a person. And, that’s where many cross the line … they’ll criticize not just Scorsese’s job in whatever movie, but, will add some sort of personal insult as well.

    So, yes, I sort of agree that one well-respected poet commenting negatively on another well-respected poet is different than Joe Blow who’s never written anything other than dirty limericks criticizing a well-respected poet, I still don’t like it.

    And, that’s just my preference …. I think we just spend too much time seeking out that which is wrong, rather than searching out that which is right, or that which is on the right path, but needs a bit of work to become great…

    And, I am well aware that my own views on criticism are tied up with a great many personal baggage… 🙂


    1. Ah, yes, I so agree with you. I’m so over (to use the kids’ term) all the negatively. And there is at least one poetry workshop I steered away from and outbof because at least on member thought he was some sort of athletic trainer, and that his being mean was just “honesty,” and that it was beneficial. No, he was just a cruel ass, that’s all.

      You make a good point about the trolls. Some just stir the pot for fun. How sick is that?


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