In Nashville we became newly enamored of the late, great Johnny Cash. We highly recommend his posthumous collection of poems, Forever Words, published in 2016. We’ve opined before about our objections to the awarding of the Nobel for Literature to Bob Dylan (in sum: he didn’t need either the attention or the money), but we’d never argue against Dylan’s stature as a musical and verbal artist. And though, as Paul Muldoon points out in the collection’s introduction, both Dylan and Cash are folk descendants of a Scotch-Irish ballad tradition, we prefer (will all due respect to Christopher Ricks) Johnny Cash’s words as they land on the page. His “California Poem” strikes us as nearly Brechtian in its terse beauty: “The lights are on past midnite / The curtains closed all day.” The human soul summarized in a couplet — that’s pure Cash. Maybe our enthusiasm is a matter of timing, as certain of the poem’s other lines feel especially resonant in the wake of recent fires: “There’s trouble on the mountain / And the valley’s full of smoke / There’s crying on the mountain /And again the same heart broke.” In any case, we know all too well that his kind of spare lyric only looks easy to write.
Certain Facebook groups we belong to have been not only extremely useful; they continue to be much appreciated as a resource for shared enthusiasms. But we note a tendency of such groups to descend into passive bullying. We have one particular closed poetry group in mind. Though it purports to be a venue for the open expression of its varied members, its posted content is tightly controlled by the administrator’s aesthetic preferences, particularly his own definition of what defines a good poem or successful poetic performance. He is especially self-righteous in his ideas as to what constitutes right behavior in the “poetic community.” On occasion he has even bragged about his removal or refusal of dissenting voices, acts which are inevitably supported by a claque of posted thumbs-ups and smiley faces. But for us most problematic is this administrator’s tendency to delete the expression of political opinions that differ from his own. In the matter of politics, we wish to remind him, lots of “well-meaning” poets have found themselves on the wrong side of history. That our politics and his basically overlap is besides the point. A despot is a despot, enlightened or not. And while it’s quite true that, shifting to matters of aesthetics, we loathe many of the mediocre poems and events he posts — well, to each his taste. For if it were truly a matter of “each,” that is, if the postings were those on his own personal page, we’d not have a problem with it. Individual hosts have every right to serve whatever they like to their friends— and even to throw a troublesome guest out of the house. But the group purports to be a public space and to provide a public service; the administrator’s job is to moderate not to log roll. Instead, as with so many bureaucratic positions, control of page content has evidently become for him a source of professional power. And so we post these observations as a general caution, noting one specific example of an increasingly widespread form of autocracy found among social networks.