‘That’s Not Poetry’: A Response to the Response to the Response to Neil Hilborn

         Neil Hilborn seems to be the talk of the internet – at least the bits of it I frequent ̶  and no surprise either: his hauntingly beautiful beatitudes to a lost love through his invasive OCD not only demonstrate the power of love but the struggles of restraint in light of such powerful feeling and regardless of whatever psychological shackles hinder your life.

         With the explosion of interest in this video of his live performance of ‘OCD’ at a poetry slam earlier this year came, quite naturally, a large influx of bloggers, social news media and leisure/humour websites picked up on it with articles and links left right and centre, and rightly so!  His poetry has touched a great many people, the evidence of which we see in Youtube comments and blog posts the world over.  Viral release has become the norm, and its nature means every single person with an internet connection can respond to it with their opinion, and have that opinion seen by thousands.  As great as this is as a culturally levelling tool for better and more democratic conversation and discussion (at least on a social level), it has its implications.

On reading the articles about Hilborn, his past and his poem, I came across a large amount of criticism in the comments pages.  Now, I do believe that criticism is a good thing, that criticism is necessary to hone a craft, that criticism is what helps define to a consumer of art exactly what it is they like and why they like it; much the same as many written and spoken arts, criticism is finding the words you never could to express thoughts you could possibly have, as well as the obvious putting forth of a reasoned argument for the artefact’s quality.  However, the criticism I noticed, of which there appears to be boundless amounts, is not the helpful kind.  Scores and scores of people writing such things as “Oh, slam poetry… I thought a real poem was getting attention for a sec” (Gawker.com), “I couldn’t make it through two minutes of that shit” (YouTube), or even “As if I needed any more evidence as to why I despise Americans…” (YouTube)  (Note:  it is well worth saying that positivity and openness prevailed by a large margin, something very warming and very encouraging.  Nonetheless, the negatives exist, and on this occasion I believe there to be something fundamental to discuss with respect to them.)  These comments are not constructive, and I’m not entirely sure you can class them as even “critical”.  They are undue and entirely unnecessary remarks reflecting subjective opinions as objective fact, in so doing trivialising the tastes of the many that actually enjoyed the work and planting a bogus seed of doubt in the work with a dubious grasp of poetry ‘knowledge’; and herein lies our issue.

One particular comment, at the bottom of an article on the popular Gawker.com, caught my attention.  It read “That’s not poetry.”  Several others took this stance, with the proclamations that ‘ranting with meaning’ (Gawker) had no connection to poetry, or that since they couldn’t find the words written down anywhere they didn’t deem it poetry ̶ all stances that damage not only the beauty that is discovering new work but also the name of poetry at all.  That someone genuinely suggested that Hilborn’s work wasn’t poetry because it didn’t rhyme makes my brain hurt a little.

In order to perhaps pick apart the preconceptions these comments brought to the table, I direct you to Vsauce’s brilliant YouTube video on what the shortest poem might be (recommended to me by a good friend).  If I am permitted to steal a little from the video, the definition of poetry Michael uses is “a form of literary art which uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities […] to evoke meanings in addition to […] the prosaic ostensible meaning.’  These ‘rhythmic qualities’ are many and far-reaching, from repetitions to stresses and emphases and on and on and on… And these we see in Hilborn’s poem.  ‘OCD’ pushes and pulls with Hilborn’s tics to create a beautiful struggle which only serves to deepen the poem’s significance not only to him but to other sufferers, and others who can quite simply sympathise with his difficult position.  The meanings that his obsessive repetitions, and his very visual struggle with them, convey reach far beyond the ‘prosaic ostensible meaning’ afforded by the words alone.  Granted, this poem is not multi-layered deconstruction of a idea or a system, and it maybe doesn’t belong in the same collection as the poets we might call ‘traditional’, ‘canonical’, but this doesn’t make it ‘not a poem’ – objectively, by definition, it IS one – and it isn’t a bad thing, or a slight on the poem at all.  It doesn’t belong because it doesn’t belong, because we don’t put the kettle in the fridge, because we don’t plant clingfilm in the garden.  It is a poem to be spoken and felt, reacted to with every spat word and heart-rending stamp of the foot; that this is the state in which the poem is at its most potent does not take anything from it, let alone its status as a poem.  Only wilful ignorance could ever motivate someone to actively decry Hilborn’s work, or any of its ilk.

While these voices were quite the minority on this occasion, it is nonetheless a concern that these detrimental opinions-made-objective have a platform now, and could directly affect the content creators themselves – we’ve already seen Charlie Brooker take a break from writing for The Guardian, on account of ‘the sheer amount of jabber in the world […] events and noise’ comprising Twitter feeds, blog posts, comments and even his own articles.  His latest, and for the time being final, article from which I took those quotes calls to question quite a lot about the nature of the internet, and the new voices we have discovered in ourselves through the internet.  As society has grown so much more comfortable with the internet as a 2nd voicebox and a 5th limb, it has, or we have, been stretching the vocal cords, stretching out the muscles, and the novelty is still so much that we are all shouting our own rhetorics at each other, as loud as can be, wherever the opportunity, purely because the voice is there to be usedAnd this is what makes the asinine comments on Hilborn’s articles and video all the more disturbing: someone has exercised their right to speak their mind, to say something ill-conceived, unhelpful and directly harmful to the artist and the craft just because the opportunity was there; the empty space in which one could make a mark.  The question we now have to ask is “exactly how necessary is it for us to exercise these vocal cords so frequently?”

This question, and the questions it raises, I can’t answer.  But I can direct you to this short TED talk on the nature of arguments, and maybe put forth the hypothesis that if comments are to generate thoughtful debate and share ideas, then maybe that sharing is being done wrong: adversarially.  In which case, as a society learning to use our new voice and limb, we should learn to use them right before the bad habits become concrete, and from now on we settle into petty dispute and insistent sharing of non-knowledge for the sake of ego.  This subject and its implications is the utmost tip of a very large iceberg, the breadth and depth of which I will need a lot more time and research to cover with any degree of meaning.  In the meantime, I publish this article with Hilborn’s amazing poetry and the minor backlash it caused in mind, as someone actively interested and already researching the subject of poetry at large, and as the perfect example of the microcosm, the microcosm to the macrocosm that is in all honesty too hostile to fully comprehend.

If you happen to disagree or have an alternate opinion though, feel free to comment below.

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17 comments
  1. Biggest load of bullshit, overhyped crap. I would have left you too. Maybe it’s because you only loved her looks and her body, because that’s all you seem to care about. Besides, REAL OCD people do not act like this fucking buffoon. As someone with OCD, I’m offended that this person claims to have OCD yet acts like a fucking stereotype or a caricture of someone with OCD. We are not twitchy psychopaths like him, well maybe a little bit on the inside, but we take GREAT care to not show that to anyone, especially people who love in fear we might annoy them because when you’ve had OCD you whole life, you learn REAL quick that people don’t wanna hear your fucking constant mind-yammering (internal speak) on the outside. You learn control and discipline. I no longer have issues with cracks in the sidewalk, that’s because I’ve trained my whole life and anyone else who has OCD knows that struggle. This man is a grandstanding joke and he should be ashamed of himself.

    • I cannot claim to have any particular in-depth knowledge about OCD besides the mild occurrences in some relatives and friends, but what I can claim to know at least something about is poetry. I would hesitate to call slam-poetry in any way “fucking constant mind-yammering”, or even dare suggest that any sense of egotism brought him to pen some thoughts he had at the time into something I hasten to remind has been most likely honed and drafted over and over. This is a performance, not an admission.

      Another thing about poetry is it doesn’t necessarily have to be a complete representation of you on the inside at all times; now, I’m only second-guessing here, I know little else on Neil Hilborn and I was a little more concerned with addressing the nature of negativity on the internet, but often the poet seeks to cover a particular emotion or evoke a feeling in people (and judging by the overwhelming response to his poem, it worked in Hilborn’s case). If you were to find the AMA he did on reddit not days ago, you would find an admission that the tics are mostly performance – paralinguistic features there to emphasise the struggle of a protagonist attempting to deal with loss, perhaps stereotyped slightly for a crowd not so versed on the intricacies of OCD. He also goes on to explain in the AMA he is better off and realises the burden his OCD can cause on others: in other words, he is mindful of exactly what you mention.

      To finish, and I’m not sure exactly how much of my article you read, the purpose of this entry was to enter a discussion on the way we conduct ourselves and our debates online. The fairly aggressive tone of your comment and its use of many many expletives not entirely necessary to make your case kind of fall into the category of the comments I’m talking about. Not to badmouth you in any way, but for every comment like yours that makes a sweeping statement about OCD sufferers and angrily cries that Hilborn is WRONG WRONG WRONG, there are about 30 very personal, and very amicable, comments from other sufferers simply stating the poem resonated with them personally. Thank you for taking the time to respond!

    • mn2016 said:

      I think you are missing the point, its meant to show how he feels internally, he’s in no way saying he acts like this

  2. just saw the video and I’ve got to say it’s FAKE FAKE FAKE, He’s ACTING!!!!!!!

    • Again, I urge you to read his reddit AMA, in which he divulges that the tics in the poem are put there for a reason benefiting the poem – though he insists that on some occasions they become real. I’m not a Neil Hilborn apologist (as much as I may sound like one), what I care more about is the unnecessary negative criticism that dares to suggest Hilborn’s poetry isn’t poetry, and the affect this critical voice might have on the wider creative community. The allegations and accusations with regard to the verisimilitude of his condition do not concern me one bit the poem still explores that ground to a very real level, as many OCD sufferers personally touched by the poem will stand testament to. Thank you for commenting!

  3. Alexander Daniel Littleton said:

    For me, poetry has to rhyme and maintain somewhat of a proper “rhythmic flow”. This isn’t saying that I didn’t enjoy his performance, I thought it was fantastic and would even say that it is “like poetry”. I define things as “like poetry” if they can give me that same sense of greatness, but don’t necessarily meet the definition of what I’d call poetry. Now this isn’t to say that something that I think is “like poetry” is necessarily any better than “poetry” either. They’re about the same in inherent or base value as far as I’m concerned, only really differing and being capable of being judged by their content. That’s just my own personal take on it, and obviously my own personal definition. What he said was a beautiful representation of love and loss, it brought a tear to my eye, but I’ll still refrain from calling it poetry.

    • Jidda Aliyu said:

      While everyone has their definition for what feels like poetry, it does fulfill certain technical criteria. Sometimes, the things that looks and sound completely off still qualify as poetry. An example would be Edwin Morgan’s Opening the Cage which is a proper sonnet with no line breaks or rhymes.

  4. 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 etihre 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 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 if 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.

    • Thank you so so much for your words – it is extremely refreshing to receive such thoughtful discussion! I completely agree, and I too hope that a sea-change will occur in the way we conduct ourselves, as unlikely as it may be. We invest ourselves so strongly in conflict as a society that we learn less and less, unable to hear others over the straining voice of our own culture. An extremely thoughtful response, thank you so much.

      • Your timely and thoughtful post brought it out of me. I hope I didn’t sound too heavy handed. :) Greet blog-meeting you, by the way. You do nice work here.

      • I think your tone was just right, I didn’t see it as too harsh a set of observations at any rate! Likewise, I’ve just enjoyed a few of your articles, and no doubt will look into your readings in the next few days (it’s fairly late over here or I would be delving now). I’m fairly new to WordPress, and certainly need to get into the habit of writing more regularly, but in the meantime I’m content to read more. Lovely to meet you!

  5. 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. 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 hope you will forgive my choice word. Poetry thank god does evoke emotion and intellect and debate…. and that can be a truly interesting learning experience.. it can also demonstrate prejudice, arrogance and ignorance in equal measure and much else that only underlines my use of the C word.

  6. ARGONAUTIC said:

    I think it’s exploitative and creepy. Think about how that girl feels – guilty? sad? scared? confused? All of those and more. We need to stop pretending that life is a series of scenes from bullshit sitcoms and romantic comedies. We need to stop glorifying obsessive and threatening behavior as a series of romantic gestures. We need to stop telling ourselves that we are worthless without the cultural identity of a “soul mate” or some such bullshit.

    • Steele said:

      This “obsessive behavior” is a disorder, mind you. He’s trying to control it. And his “obsessive behavior” towards the girl is literally just continuing to think about her after she’s gone which most people do after a break up. Where on earth did you find him exhibiting threatening behavior?

    • Steele said:

      Also the girl helped him edit the poem. She is fully aware of the poem – before it was performed – and since she agreed to help him with it I would assume she is perfectly okay with it

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