Perhaps a poem begins with longing, with the possibility of loss, with the elaboration of a separation hollowed out by the passage of time. Love poems surely partake of such a structure, built as they are from an address to a beloved who is almost always somewhere else.
We might say then that absence lies at the foundation of this particular form of poiesis or production, the love poem. Missing calls conjures or convokes the lover—as well as the reader, who is summoned as another beloved, albeit a voyeur, one who reads over the shoulder of the initial addressee. Thus from one time to another and one place to another, love poetry repeatedly populates its world and builds its readership from what is sometimes a daily effort to confront and live with longing.
So too does epic poetry. If we take as our example the Illiad and the Odyssey, we may see that they track a journey away from home, hearth and heart to an experience of war, and then chronicle, by way of multiple setbacks and episodes, the struggle to return again. Poetry, in such a frame, is hard work; one approaches the extinction of separation and the prospect of love and the beloved by way of elaborate productions of delay. More acutely, we see that in order for a poem to come to be at all, the hope of arrival must be matched by insistent deferral. Such labour is perhaps an exercise or art of the erotic, but is it or could it be pornographic?
I would not have thought to ask such a question—poetry and pornography don’t typically occupy the overlapping slots in my head or history or bed—but Darryl Whetter’s latest poetry collection, Search Box Bed, argues that “there is no history of poetry without love poetry, and there is no history of media without pornography.” How, Whetter asks, as he labours over his search box, sexting, noting, licking, does the changing media landscape alter the pathways of our discussions of desire? Exciting new sexualities are clearly emerging in and from this new media landscape; what then might our new poetries become?
While it is perhaps too soon to tell—Whetter’s poems, for example, come to me in a book and look very much like other poems that I’ve read over the last 20 or 30 years—Search Box Bed contains some signs that poetry and pornography may lie together, albeit uncomfortably. This is not because poetry isn’t an apt medium for seduction, sexuality or erotic experimentation and expression. On the contrary! Poetry’s labour-intensive, handmade aesthetics and attention to detail, its tilt towards immediacy and community and its tendency to linguistic and phenomenological thickness are at odds, philosophically and materially, with a world in which desire is increasingly reconfigured as forever repeatable acts of consumption, as if sex can simply be ordered up and had, one more infinitely obsolescing commodity, no contact and no messy consequences of labour required.
But, as in all other forms of rapidly expanding global commodity production and circulation, somewhere in the elaboration of erotic content for the “search box bed” of the internet, labour happens. Whose labour, where and how, are key questions. Whetter notes that according to Extreme Tech, porn accounts for “30% of the total data transferred across the internet”—that’s a lot of largely hidden and often illegal, appalling, dangerous, underpaid, racialized, feminized and infantilized labour. In one poem, Whetter imagines the off-camera life of a “cam girl;” she turns off her computer, settles into warm loose pants and comforting layers of clothing. Other poems are about intimate erotic communities and exchanges. Hovering, as cover illustration and in the background, is the fantasy of the big-box porn store of the internet, the motherboard or mother-lode, to which endless clicking mice stream.
How are such visions and modalities changing our lives? Whetter’s last poem, “A Home of One’s Own,” an unorthodox riff on Virginia Woolf’s famous phrase describing the terms of a modernist woman’s self-determination and capacity to write, suggests that the wired pursuit of each privileged individual’s least desire, all of that online searching and clicking, emerges from and leads to endless loneliness. To want may be generative, but to think one can always get creates not poetry so much as a republic of isolates, endlessly clicking and stroking, but never approaching or dwelling with each other.