June 18, 2013

Poetry should not mean but be: on sharing poems on Tumblr


The poet Heather Christle

On May 27, Heather Christle posted a poem on her Tumblr. The poem was Christle’s own; called “1998” and picked from the collection The Trees the Trees (Octopus Books, 2011), it was first posted on a Tumblr called Cafe of the Damned. Under the reblogged image of her poem, Christle wrote, “I like it when you do this, when you want to share the poems. Thank you for reading and snapping pictures and wanting others to see.”

Having used it myself since I was sixteen or seventeen, I like to point to Tumblr’s poetry community as evidence that poetry is in no way dead. Tags like “poetry,” “lit,” and “spilled ink” thrive, with hundreds of posts curated by volunteer editors daily. Blogs like Grammolatry, this room and everything in it, and The Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife post poems which are largely not their own—though in the latter case, the eighteen-year-old Shinji Moon posts others’ poems and her own arm-to-arm. Christle does this too—alternates news of her own publications and events with requests for personal accounts, poems by John Ashbery, and little appreciations of Emily Dickinson’s recently digitized manuscripts.

This community on Tumblr shares the platform-wide urge for curation and quotation while enriching it with fragments of their own creativity. What emerges is something living and constantly developing, pushing out a volta here, caesurae there. Tumblr’s large teenage user base succeeds where curricula can fail, allowing its users to select, evaluate, imitate, excerpt, and otherwise interact visually and kinetically with an art that is too often, in the classroom and the world, rendered static.

Christle’s acceptance of poem-sharing inhabits a liminal space similar to her idea of poetry itself. “I want so much to say ‘a poem both means and bes,’” she has said in an expansion of Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that “poetry should not mean but be.” Tumblr’s responsive, active mode of reading allows a more accessible and living body of poetry, one that can inhabit both sides of Christle’s coin—flat yet glittering, discrete or piling, small and close, utterly altered by those who interact with it.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.