Reading Material on the Internet

I’m happy that this week the new on-line journal LEVELER (it started in ’09) is featuring my poem “Epiphenomenal Epithalamium.”  As far as literary journals, much quality content can be found on the Internet, and it is definitely hard to stay abreast of what’s out there.  But the premise of LEVELER is, I think, a novel one and deserves distinction: alongside the poem, one may click (if one chooses to) the section called “levelheaded” and an editorial exegesis will then appear beside the text.  This is the journal’s mission statement:     

To assure our readers we are being responsible editors and to increase the transparency of our editorial process as a whole, each poem published by LEVELER will be accompanied by a brief note on our selection entitled levelheaded. Here we will look at what a poem conveys and how. In no way do we claim levelheaded is a final, authoritative take on any corresponding poem. Instead, we hope to provide readers with another way into the poem, thereby encouraging closer readings, and ultimately, challenges to our findings.

Since my poem is so much a meditation on pairs — a partner and a partner, a sound and its echo — I think LEVELER is the perfect place for it as the site beautifully presents text and paratext, a work and a possible interpretation.  And I’m quite partial to the site’s elegant geometric design.

But more than that: I like the seriousness of the editorial mission. 

LEVELER truly shows — contra Dana Gioia’s 2004 NEA report “Reading At Risk” (in which he states, “reading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement…by contrast, most electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands on their audiences, and indeed often require no more than passive participation”) — that real close reading happens on the internet.

Many thanks to the editors for the perceptive commentary and for their engaging and ongoing web project.

~ by Michael Leong on July 4, 2010.

11 Responses to “Reading Material on the Internet”

  1. I disagree. I think some of Gioia’s complaints are disturbingly manifest in the Leveler’s commentary. The analysis of your title alone is representative of the sort of half-measures and passivity that the internet produces in abundance. I find it contemptible that a journal ostensibly dedicated to informed discussion of poetic language can’t be bothered to consult a dictionary, and draws solely on Wikipedia in order to navigate unfamiliar diction. Surely you wouldn’t stand for such lazy half-knowledge among your students, would you?

  2. Point taken, Sean. I do think there is a disturbing trend amongst online discourse that treats Wikipedia as THE authoritative source. Certainly that kind of research is not welcome in my classroom. But, at the same time, I do think the editors made an honest attempt to grapple with the poem which I don’t think is quite the same thing as “passive participation.” I do like the effort and engagement, the accuracy and elegance of the analysis notwithstanding. Thanks for checking in.

  3. Your response seems very much in keeping with Clay Shirkey’s contention that on the one hand there’s a gap between truly passive consumption of media and ANY production, while, on the other, there exists a spectrum of thoughtfulness and value in the creative endeavors of web users that runs from something like Lol Cats to interactive disaster mapping (these are examples Shirkey’s used in a recent TED lecture). I’m not entirely persuaded by Shirkey’s boosterism for digital media, but I take the point he makes–and that I sense you want to make–that there’s a threshold that’s been crossed when consumers of media become participants and creators in their own right. What worries me is the possibility that we end up celebrating pseudo-knowledge, patting laziness on the head and calling it a job well done.

  4. Because I happily (and self-interestedly) track murmurs around the internet about our modest little journal (and because as a co-editor I strongly hope our journal elicits external conversation), I was excited to find this conversation about our commentary.

    It seems clear that this thread is an extension of an ongoing conversation. I do not wish to stoke the cinders of a fading discussion. I only wish to defend LEVELER against the words “contemptible” and “laziness.” I can easily admit that Wikipedia, in every thinkable situation, is used for its convenience. I am certain there are journals of etymology that we could have cited. In a perfect world, maybe we’d each have a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, and we’d all use it daily (though I foresee a separate set of qualms attached to our hypothetical use of Oxford’s, or any institution’s, dictatorial upkeep of the English language—we speak a beautifully “crowdsourced” language after all). This is not to defend sloppy editorial practices, but to say that sources like Wikipedia have certain very valid uses, particularly when taking a variegated audience into consideration.

    As an online journal, it would existentially doom us to take a stance against the overwhelmingly populist quality of the internet. You may count me as one of the least probable defenders of Wikipedia, but it seems important to consider the accessibility of Wikipedia’s vast web of information when considering its value in any circumstance. Beyond our “dedicat[ion] to informed discussion of poetic language,” we are devoted to bringing poetry to people along with accessible, if admittedly incomplete, commentary. We succeed, and we fail. To either end, Wikipedia sometimes serves us well. I’m personally afraid that anyone who takes Wikipedia as “THE authoritative source” may be lost without the help of LEVELER. We are not publishing for children. We are not positioning ourselves to instruct students about proper citation techniques or primary sources. On the other hand, we are hardly academics. We are four editors with abstract belief in the importance of poetry who want to provide our modestly-numbered and much-appreciated readers with an explanation as to why we’ve selected the work we post.

    That said, thank you for reading, and thank you for your comments. While initially a bit maddening, I think we have already become more conscious of how and when we use Wikipedia as a source. The next time you see a link to Wikipedia on LEVELER, you can be sure we have thoroughly thought about it.

    • Thanks for your comments, P.J. — no worries about stoking up a fading conversation… I’ve been tied up for a few days and couldn’t respond. And behind Sean’s comments are awfully important issues that aren’t going to go away anytime soon, so I appreciate your take.

      Sean — I don’t know Shirkey’s work and I wasn’t exactly intending to present an uncritical ode to the internet to counter Gioia’s alarmist elegy for the book. I like how LEVELER makes the negotiation between editorial selection and interpretation deliberately explicit for their audience. And it is interesting, to me, how the commentary charts a certain itinerary of interpretation or a proposed route of access — going from what might be perceived as a difficult or “impenetrable” title, which involves tackling what George Steiner calls “contingent” or, coincidentally, “epiphenomenal” difficulty (things that need to be looked up — and, here, the wiki issue comes to the fore) to other issues or features of the poem, which might lie in the categories of what Steiner calls “tactical” or “modal” difficulties. This is, of course, assuming my poem is difficult. Nevertheless, I like how this web-based venture provides, as they say in their mission statement, “another way into the poem” just as you have found “challenges to…[the] findings.”

  5. I found PJ’s defense thoroughly unconvincing. This tidbit seemed especially risible.

    “In a perfect world, maybe we’d each have a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, and we’d all use it daily,”

    Dear PJ, many people are, at this very moment, living in this “perfect world” you describe! For you see, there a thing called a “library.” And within these “libraries” there are people who make books available to the public…for free! You needn’t even be a student, a cleric, or what have you to use these facilities. At the New York Public Library, for instance, taxpayers have seen fit to make available the Oxford English Dictionary in all its multi-volume glory and to grant the technologically inclined access to the OED online! Oh frabjous day!

    But let’s imagine, P.J., that you and your cohort of editors labour in a small town in rural Saskatchewan, a town where the local library is limited to a paltry three volumes: all Tom Clancy novels. Nary a dictionary in sight. No funding to placate the trolls who labor in the catacombs beneath the Oxford Camera, collecting quotations and adjusting word entries. Even if you labour in such dark circumstance, PJ, I stand by my accusation that negotiating a difficult title solely by consulting Wikipedia is lazy. There are plenty of reliable, free dictionaries accessible on the internet. Many of them provide etymologies. Even would have given you a better sense of epiphenomenal’s denotation. It would have been no more difficult to consult such a source than it was to go to Wikipedia.

    As for your protestations that consulting a dictionary when you don’t know the meaning of a word would put you at the tender mercy of “dictatorial” authorities, surely you’re joking, right?

  6. Michael- You have a knack for finding the best journals! What’s up with Sean? He seems pretty mad at nothing in particular…so I’ll try not to write anything that would give him something to go off on…dictionary.

  7. Sean, I apologize. I can see now how my statement about the OED may have been interpreted as an attack. All I meant to say was that none of us at LEVELER, to my knowledge, have such a subscription.

    That we “negotiat[ed] a difficult title solely by consulting Wikipedia” is a flat assumption and wrong. That we linked to it for its accessibility and breadth, as I mentioned, is the truth. The links aren’t placed there to prove we did research. They are there for readers to click and read. The Wikipedia entries for either word of Michael’s title are extensive, and for purposes of colloquial explanation, in this case I prefer them to the limited approach of most any dictionary.

    You ask if I am joking about the possibility of someone perceiving dictionaries as “dictatorial” authorities. I am not. I did not say I necessarily agree with the idea, but it is a supposition in line with attacks on the Western canon and associated institutions that characterize some critical discourse. Personally, I’d liken this kind of extremist criticism of dictionaries to the absolutism with which you treat Wikipedia. That is, both ideas are bits of reactionary cliché. If there isn’t someone who disapproves of Wikipedia’s wobbly accuracy, there is someone who disapproves of dictionaries’ reductive authority. On a separate note, obviously dictionaries are important resources, particularly for uncovering histories and etymologies of words. They are the best places to find the denotative meanings of words, but they are also limited by their emphasis on denotation. Every source has limits. The fact that there are so many different dictionaries, online and off, is evidence that no perfect consensus exists as to what words mean, and that we must select what we present to an audience. As I’ve said, you may consider our links to Wikipedia a conscious choice.

    Again, this thread doesn’t account for preference. If you have one idea of what we should be, and we have another, disagreement follows. I sometimes make the mistake of thinking these kinds of comment boards can serve as important venues for thorough ideating (and this thread probably was, before I threw in my two cents), but so often they collapse into two faceless paragraphers tying each other to the semantics of their previous posts—something I try (failingly) to avoid.

    That said, thank you so much for the “there’s a thing called a ‘library’” expostulation. Without it, I’d think we were having a conversation.

  8. In reading both the above postings and the Leveler journal, I think the editors very explicitly (and humbly) state that their take is an entrance into the poem, not the absolute authority on the inner-workings of the writer’s brain. Much in the same vein, I don’t think that the editors claim that any links used such as Wikipedia/ESPN.COM/ or any other website is the exclusive authority for any part of language, news, or events. They are just beginning points to encourage the engagement with the poem, with the event, with the word so that (universal) you will go and try to find the truth for yourself. Outside of academia, research begins from very broad questionable strokes, that is why is a multi–illion business, because it offers the broadest research base conceivable and you take that broad stroke and whittle it down until you get to someplace true.

    As a practical consideration, in NYC, libraries have (unfortunately) suffered serious cuts and have unreasonable schedules. Most folks work 9-5 and the library by my old apartment was only open on weekdays from 10 or 11 – 4pm. I can’t fault prioritizing not getting fired over using the oxford english dictionary.

    • The library cuts are a shame…I’m fortunate that my branch at Seward Park is open until 8pm (M-TH).

      I don’t mean to speak for Sean, but he seems to be upholding certain standards of accuracy. To get back to the text, “epi” is a Greek prefix (while the commentary calls the title “latinate”) and because of the way the title “echoes” this prefix in such a self-conscious way, Sean was perhaps trying to defend the perception that the title is “vague.” To me, it is supposed to connect to the body of the poem in very precise ways.

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