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 used. And 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.