Dial-A-Poets and Literary Unicorns

A couple of years ago I interviewed American poet John Giorno in Tangier. While we were talking, I found out a couple of things about John I didn’t know.  One was that he created Dial-A-Poem, described by him as ‘a new system for communicating poetry’.  

It was 1969 and back then, as the New York Times put it ‘the phone is the medium and the poem is the message’. Today, social media is the medium but is the poem still the message?

John Giorno in Tangier

John Giorno in Tangier

The viral poets of today

According to another article in the New York Times, which focused on a ‘blond tattooed poet from Montana’ named Tyler Knott Gregson, there’s a new generation of ‘young, digitally astute poets whose online followings have helped catapult them onto the best-selling lists where poetry books are scarce’. Tyler is described by the NY Times as ‘the literary equivalent of a unicorn’. (For those of you who don’t know, the word ‘unicorn’ is today used to describe a start-up worth more than $1 billion.)

Tyler is one of what the NY Times calls the ‘Instapoets’ whose popularity, it suggests, could change our belief that poetry is ‘a creative medium in decline’. (It has to be said, though, that what’s been declining is not necessarily poetry but, up until now, the audience for poetry books.)

Now, if you’re like me and you have your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds open all the time, you’ll be well aware that not an hour passes without a piece of verse popping up on your Timeline. (At the time of writing, my latest arrival is called Today by Mary Oliver and it comes from www.TheSilverPen.com.) But is this poetry or just digital hot air?

Poetry or sleeping in a ditch?

Inevitably, there are two schools of thought as to whether the ascendence of the Instapoets is a good thing. Some people in the poetry establishment think it is because it widens the general audience for poetry, whatever the quality. Others, like my friend Dominic Fust, Emeritus Professor of Poetry at St. Polycarp College have a very different take on the phenomenon.

‘To adapt G.K. Chesterton’s bilious judgement,’ Dominic says, ‘this is only poetry in the sense that sleeping in a ditch is architecture. What’s going on here is an aspect of celebrity culture, of social media solipsism and the poetry is an articulation of callow self-entitlement. Real poetry isn’t for everyone but it is, or should be, for anyone prepared to make the effort.’

Thank you Professor Fust.

Message or massage?

Personally, I’d say that the problem with the stuff pumped out by the Instapoets isn’t whether it’s ‘real poetry’ or not. That’s an argument that can go take a haiku as far as I’m concerned.  I defend your right to write, sisters and brothers of the Shakespeare Squadron and, if you can rake in the cash at the same time, more power to you.

What bothers me is that, apart from honourable exceptions, 99.9% of the pomes I read on my Facebook page are either little puffs of wordy sugar rush or baggy expressions of slack-jawed wonder at the yawniverse.  All well and good but where’s the fackin' bite?

Calling Dial-A-Poet

The great thing about Dial-A-Poet was that it offered difficult poetry (not in the ivory tower sense but rather in its subject matter) to the, ahem, masses. The ‘teenies’ as John Giorno puts it, could hear Jim Carroll reading from The Basketball Diaries or dig William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman among other others. Truly challenging poets all, using a mass medium in a most hip way. Just listen

Giorno claims that Dial-A-Poem inspired the whole premium rate number industry (think porno chat, gambling and star sign lines) when it became a worldwide sensation. Apparently, a mom snatched the phone away from her giggling ‘teenie’ and heard Jim Carroll reading a particularly mucky bit from The Basketball Dairies. She was, predictably, outraged and the news media picked up on this.

There’s no question that social media today provides a platform for all kinds of provocative, challenging and positively disturbing art to be disseminated to a vast audience. But where are the truly radical Instapoets, ready and willing to cause a sensation?

One last thing

John Giorno was the the star of Warhol's Sleep. He was Andy's boyfriend at the time and, because he drank so much, spent most of his life asleep. So now you know.