In her fourth instalment of her exclusive column for Poetry London, Camille Ralphs revisits The YOLO Pages (2014), an influential anthology of internet-influenced poetry, poems, image macros, tweets, and flarf.
On the night of February 12, 2016, the post-internet poet Steve Roggenbuck (Floruit 2010–2018) read to a packed-out room at Balliol College, Oxford, where I was present as a support act. Two years on, facing allegations of sexual misconduct, he declined from grace quickly and irrevocably. His work, though, continues to exert a quiet influence. So too does that of his collaborators, many of whom were featured in The YOLO Pages (2014), an absurd circus of Alt Lit, or “works of poetry and prose that are heavily influenced by internet culture” according to Know Your Meme, comprising everything from “weird Twitter” to flarf (writing employing unpoetic or offbeat language and themes, often with the help of search engine results) and image macros. The work here has a few common qualities: a Quixotic, butterfly-bellied sincerity, perhaps derived from e. e. cummings and his imitators; the language of the cheerful meme, resulting in proliferations of such words as “kissing”, “love”, “moon”, “internet”, “crying”, “partying”, “life”, “God”, “dogs” and “beauty”; and an emphasis on collective action over ennui, and positivity over dystopiana (“if compassion and nonviolence are important to us spiritually, then we should take concrete steps to stop violence in the world as well”, write the editors in their introduction) – this writing is affirmative, sometimes didactic, and often derivative or even plagiary, implying a sort of human internet.
These authors’ preference for sans-serif fonts, for solecisms over orderly spelling and grammar, and for the egalitarian over the elitist generally, prefigures today’s online poetic culture, which has often junked the claim that there can be objective recognition of aesthetic quality. Perhaps post-internet poets as well as performance poets are behind the recent uptick in politically motivated poetry, as well: a sense of community, and community action, is integral to the movement. One of James Ganas’s Robert Montgomery-esque text art posters, featured here, is simply an admonition that “‘L’art pour l’art’ is the refuge of cowards and fascists”. While this is a misunderstanding of the bohemian ideal of l’art pour l’art, which consciously created space for subversion, for art that went against moral and social norms, it is worth noting as a statement of intention.
Back to the poets themselves. Roggenbuck was “the first poet to be catalogued as a meme”, the editors assert. The work collected here is not his finest (“whip my poop when I’m bent over my dad’s riding mower”); interested parties would be better off watching the most-viewed of his quasi-ad libitum YouTube poems, “make something beautiful before you are dead (2012)”, “somewhere in the bottom of the rain (2011)” and “eventually you will be dead but today you are not (2013)”, or reading the work collected in Live My Lief (2015) and Calculating How Big of a Tip To Give Is the Easiest Thing Ever, Shout out to My Family and Friends (2015). That said, the videos in retrospect feel cringingly sincere, too adolescent in their confident presumption of systems’ simplicity. What went awry with Roggenbuck’s poetic status can’t be blamed uniquely on the fallout of those accusations, though they hinted that this soi-disant nice guy was not so nice – it also comes down to the work.
In Calculating How Big…, we find some of Roggenbuck’s best poems or “stories” (“i can probably get a horse to kill me”, for instance). We also find the portents of his failure. By the time this book was published, his YouTube videos were garnering fewer views; his attempt to relocate the untrammelled, clownish energy of his online and in-person bardic personality onto the page is, sadly, ineffective. The poems are playful but awkward to read. They follow a gallingly obvious format: introduce character, add surreal event and animals, link to a problem in the modern world, then close with something random and distracting like a pop-up on a screen. Most start like unmetrical limericks, before devolving into deranged prose about whales, dads, poop, horses, masturbation, etc, seasoned liberally with old-school smilies (similies, meanwhile, are in shorter supply). The reader is encouraged to be vegan to the point that she eventually – resentfully – considers buying stocks in dairy.
Roggenbuck also made absolutely clear his views on literary and linguistic rules, in a tweet that appears in The YOLO Pages:
hope u have fun teling people to conform to standardizsd spelling & gramar rules !! im gona hav fun actively choosing how i present my words
Which brings us to Jos Charles. The use of nonstandard orthography in Charles’s distinctive Pulitzer Prize finalist Feeld (2018) has been widely assumed to allude to medieval and early modern spelling systems, or the lack thereof (Charles studied medieval literature), as a way of embodying the boundary-breaking nature of trans experience. Charles’s presence in this anthology alongside materials like Roggenbuck’s tweet, however, suggests an additional influence – post-internet caprice. Some lines in Feeld, in spite of its reflective, elegiac tone, could be straight out of Roggenbuck: “its such a plesure to b alive” and, for “to speak”, “2 speech”. These are not medievalisms, but fragments of cyber-speak. (For more on this, see Leo Mercer’s essay “Free Spelling and the Textual Vernacular: On poetry after the internet”, The Missing Slate, 2014. As Mercer argues, “The vibrancy and instability of language in the middle ages echoes the situation in our language today”.)
Charles’s earlier work, as it appears in this anthology, can be somewhat rash. “Love as a means of aestheticizing mortal relationships is a product of some historically brutal shit”, indubitably; but the suggestion that “John Donne would say something about suffering. // John Donne had everything going for him in terms of identity and was a miserable shitbaby” is indefensible. Charles might not want these lines repeated here, now she must have, years on, a deeper understanding of Donne’s complex social and religious roles in early modern England. It is risky to retroactively apply twenty-first-century identity politics, and especially so to apply them to a society in which ideas of selfhood, individualism and personal credit were very much in flux. That being said, the identity of the Alt Lit community was itself unstable. Roggenbuck was far from the only one to meet with allegations of misconduct, notwithstanding the scene’s commitment to societal progress. Another was Tao Lin, present here with the disarming poem “Book reviewers always praise books as ‘life-affirming’ because the more humans there are on earth the better” (in 2014, the same year this anthology appeared, he was accused of statutory rape – a charge he fervently denied).
“Book reviewers…” is in some ways unlike the work of other poets in the The YOLO Pages. Lin writes, at the inception at least, a clear narrative: his speaker watches a video of a bullfight online, observing as “the entire sword goes down into the bull / like a toothpick into a plum”; he wishes he could “see the bull’s eyes” but his desire is frustrated because “this is on a computer screen / and two-dimensional”. Considering the matador’s triumphant cruelty, the speaker feels that his connection with the world, fractured by his inability to preclude suffering, itself is two-dimensional. Deciding there is little point in speculating on God, morals or semantics, Lin informs the reader that he has deleted notional lines on those subjects, conflating his voice with the speaker’s and compressing the poet-speaker-reader engagement to the thinness of a page or screen. The world is flat after all. It is an impressively unforced feat of poetic legerdemain. Lin’s poems published elsewhere also have more of the literary about them. Though they are invariably odd, filled with diversions and divagations, all operate with one eye on the clock and the other on the prize – Lin seems less at peace with the transience of the internet oeuvre than his fellow contributors.
Another writer who transcended the bounds of this book is Patricia Lockwood, the queen of the phatic and sometimes vatic one-liner, referred to by Adam Fales in the LARB as “a Dada Dorothy Parker”. Lockwood is now widely recognised. Her debut novel, No One Is Talking about This, is multivalent, multifaceted and comically singular, and could only have come out of a life lived half-digitally. At one point, she writes of her protagonist: “She sat onstage next to men who were better known by their usernames and women who drew their eyebrows on so hard that they looked insane, and tried to explain why it was objectively funnier to spell it sneazing.”
There is a definite difference in tone between her early and more recent writing. Poems such as the surprisingly, but of course irreverently intertextual “The Ode on a Grecian Urn”, published in 2017 (akin to her viral poem “Rape Joke” in its wittily acidic personification of the subject), are superior in structural and tonal achievement to poems such as “The Church of the Open Crayon-Box”, published in 2011. More loose-limbed and yet more capable, the later poems comfortably speak in Lockwood’s own zany, mazelike voice, and favour a shorter line – sensibly, given her proclivity for Twitter. Indeed, her tweets in The YOLO Pages contain the seeds of her poetic MO, which essentially involves the relaxation of a thought or observation into its only-obvious-when-you-read-them elaborations: here we find the approachably bizarre (“So exactly how tiny IS this tim”), the ecstatically online (“When my life flashes before my eyes I hope I get to see a lot of webpages”) and the puckishly prurient (“You know that Eeyore kept losing that tail on purpose because he LOVED to get it nailed back on”).
The poetry of The YOLO Pages certainly arises from an expansive and inclusive Whitmanian source rather than a condensed and intrasemantic Dickensonian tradition, in spite of the aphoristic inclinations of the tweet as a form (Whitman and Dickinson are “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics”, according to Lockwood in Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, or the two poets from whom modern American poetic sensibilities have stemmed, according to Al Filreis). But some proved more expansive and inclusive in their creativity than others. Lockwood progressed rapidly; Lin somewhat; Charles a little. Roggenbuck, meanwhile, perched in place like a beanie-wearing effigy, failing to adapt as the world moved on around him. Cito maturum, cito putridum – the precocious is precarious. But is it not also a kind of poetic justice that the member of this scandal-damaged movement who has truly thrived is she who made her name with “Rape Joke”?
Camille Ralphs has two published pamphlets, Malkin: An ellegy in 14 spels (The Emma Press, 2015), which was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Poetry Award, and uplifts & chains (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2020). She is poetry editor at the Times Literary Supplement.