Postscript: Embracing Oblivion
The realisations concerning death and meaning that I discussed in Scratching at Oblivion have made me re-examine the places I derive meaning from and how I do that.
In particular, I have been reconsidering what aspects of being creative on the internet I find genuinely meaningful and what aspects I have merely accepted as meaningful due to internalised societal pressure. For me, writing is genuinely meaningful. The conception, composition and completion of poems and essays remain fulfilling to me, even in all their challenge and uncertainty. I find the creative process endlessly fulfilling and interesting. For me, writing is a way of expressing the internal and external experiences of Otherness and Self. It is a way of exploring the pleasures of euphony and imagination, manifesting the mystery of the subconscious, transforming memory and thought into something that can exist outside of the ephemeral whirlwinds of mood and moment.
Problems arise mostly when the question of readership is brought up. On the face of it, I feel there is meaning in sharing my work with others. I enjoy receiving feedback. I enjoy the idea that my work is generating personal meanings for other people. However, I have noticed that some pernicious societal pressures seem to come with this source of meaning. Existing in a niche space always feels insufficient. Obscurity is the mark of failure. One must share one’s work as widely as possible. The value of one’s work is quantified by the size of one’s readership, the amount of well-known publications and awards, one's sales metrics and social media following. This makes it difficult to derive meaning from sharing my work, as society seemingly insists that its meaning is made insignificant by a lack of social and financial influence.
Then there is the trap of internet culture. No creative act is allowed to exist on its own on the internet. Every expression is made into a transaction in the attention economy. Writers can't just be writers. They must be public relations & social media managers, advertising strategists, influencers, public speakers and performers etc.
In this society, in this relentlessly performative and personality-obsessed society, art and self-expression are just some tools of the perpetual self-promoter; culture itself is just commodified content for consumers to devour. Furthermore, all of society has been made into a hall of mirrors. Look here, this is you! And here, you, again! Everything is a reflection of you. Everything is about you. Every issue, every piece of art, every news story is a new chance to perform you. Close off your empathy and curiosity; find a way to make it about you. Look into someone else’s heart and see just another comment on/reflection of you. Look into another world and see just another sandbox for you. Make it serve you. Make it amplify you. Make it improve you. You. You. You.
Once upon a time, we looked to the arts to escape ourselves. We looked to culture to expand what we know, expand what we understand, what we can imagine; learn about the Other; see a different universe through different eyes. Now everything is increasingly reframed as a means for self-serving soul-searching. Nothing can exist for its own sake. Everything is about you. And I am so fucking sick of it.
Online, poetry has become just another avenue for this phenomenon. What used to be one of the most unapologetically personal modes of expression has become increasingly diminished in the commodified game of self selling self to self. Poetry online is understood as the aesthetic formulation of aphorisms & platitudes. Poetry online is read as the free-verse diary of the audience's self-insert. No need to engage your empathy. No need to engage your imagination. No need to wrestle with ambiguity, polysemy, mystery. No need to find beauty in the finesse of form. Just look for you. Just look for a way to make it about you. We will make it so you will see yourself everywhere you look.
These are the dominant values that are implicitly imposed upon poetry by market capitalism and its social media influences. Plenty of poets and readers attempt to resist this, but all of us have to yield to its premises to some extent if we want to find a place in the contemporary poetry space.
And I am not sure I have a place anymore here. Don’t get me wrong. Whatever meaning people draw from contemporary poetry is valid, but I find it increasingly more difficult to draw meaning from partaking in this space, in this culture. I feel that everything I create and post is recontextualised within the framework of the attention economy, within the framework of self-centred media consumption. My work will always be a failure by the metrics of social media and market capitalism. My work doesn’t always tell the audience more about themselves. My work doesn’t allow them to simply self-insert and see themselves at the centre of it. My work does not provide unambiguous answers or accessible aphorisms. To sum up, my work does not have a clear mainstream appeal. The online world has decided that poetry is only meaningful if it engages with the algorithms and trends that govern social media and digitised markets. And that is not a space I find welcoming.
This does not have to be an obstacle to the creative process. I can derive meaning from writing poetry without fearing the ways in which it will be rendered meaningless in the online recontextualisation. However, this does become a problem when I want to derive meaning from sharing my work. Sure, I know the hierarchies of meaning imposed by market capitalism and the attention economy are arbitrary and essentially fictional, but knowing and internalising that are very different things.
If you want to play their game, you have to do so by their rules. If you accept that making your work seen is meaningful in itself, then the culture will attempt to make you believe that the more it is seen, the more meaningful it is. From there you don’t have to move far to internalise all of the attention economy’s pressures to compete, to turn yourself into a perpetual self-promoter, to become a brand, to become obsessed with social media & sales metrics, to force your work to have a broader appeal, to reduce yourself and your work in a black-and-white battle between winners of losers, to tell yourself that all of this will pay off when some arbitrary milestone is reached in the nebulous future.
I am not sure I can do that anymore. I still want my poetry to be read. I am still drawn to the idea of having my poems & books exist out there making meaning for people I will never meet. But I am starting to wonder if the sacrifices that are currently required to achieve that dream are really worth it. It is one thing to ask for rigorous creative commitment to one’s work and another entirely to demand devotion to the premises of the attention economy. The latter has very little to do with creativity or meaningfulness and has everything to do with playing by the rules of an openly dehumanising profit-driven game. Some writers are happy to play the social media game, to turn up the brand awareness, to play into that parasocial appeal and reorient themselves and their work to fit in with the relentless race for relevancy. Lucky them.
I guess I am different breed of writer, a different breed of person. I am someone who would prefer to let the work speak for itself and leave the person behind it entirely in the shadows. However, I am not sure there is still a place for that kind of writer in today's personality-focused climate. Consequently, I am not sure how I am going to proceed. I might be able disengage mentally from the toxic premises of the attention economy while still working to spread my work around. I might not be able to do that and be forced to consign myself to obscurity in order to be free of this endlessly exhausting world of incurious navel-gazing.
I do not know. What I do know is that right now it seems much more dignified to let myself sink into the impermeable silence of obscurity than to clamour until I am hoarse, trying to make myself heard in the cacophony of the attention economy.