On a Guardian poetry blog, scenes from the crumbling old order

The Clash - Jakub Julian Ziolkowski

Much that is rotten about the social order collapsing in the dying age of print is obvious from what was cut when censors ran amok on – of all things – a supposedly liberal newspaper’s poetry blog, the subject of the last entry here. Readers who never saw the comments hacked out of that discussion have been curious about what they said, so I’m putting up a selection in another part of this site.

The Guardian purge is well worth revisiting, for connoisseurs of pattern recognition. Censorship itself started with religious authorities who had glimpsed the beginning of their end in Gutenberg’s printing press. As hard as it was for their 15th-century ancestors to keep up with the subversive literature of their day, the toil of today’s online censors is even more quixotic. Yet they bash on, against the popular will, the masters that they serve as hopelessly misguided as hierarchs of the past were in insisting on their entitlement to authority – banding together for reinforcement in much the way they did, and deploying similar tactics.

It was the very smallness and insignificance of the group of actors associated with the poetry blog that made watching old patterns play out in the bloodbath so entertaining – not merely horrifying.

Here are seven parallels that stood out:

1. The use of propaganda. After a hundred-odd comments were slashed – by the reckoning of several readers – a supporter of Carol Rumens, the lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger enraged by attacks on academia’s effects on poetry, tried to justify the silencing of her opponents with this nonsensical post:

3 September 2010 3:47PM

An elegantly pruned blog, all excess foliage to the compost. These words of wisdom say it all: […]’Pruning grape vines is a basic principle that any grower, regardless of experience, must understand. Whenever you leave a vine unpruned, the first year you’ll have a massive big crop. Novice growers can feel delighted with their success and wonder what all the pruning fuss is about. […But …] when you actually prune a vine correctly, you remove as much as 95 to 98% of the previous season’s growth. […] The vine can’t produce enough energy to ripen an unregulated crop, and it’ll be poor quality.’

Propaganda is a branch of the art of persuasion. It nearly always relies on specious logic, like other kinds of communication that insult readers’ intelligence. Pruning a grapevine has absolutely nothing in common with suppressing free speech. Snipping leaves and branches serves a single, consistent aim – producing wine of a particular type. Not a bit like the right to free expression, which can serve as many aims as there are people expressing themselves, whose opinions can be diametrically opposed.

2. Defenders of the status quo are uniquely protected from criticism or reprisals – and on the public purse. SCFMH – whose posts are usually more intelligent — has revealed himself elsewhere on the net as Simon M. Hunter. Like Rumens, he appears to teach at a university. There is irony unbound in the reason why SCFMH can support a Rumens capable of calling her employers ‘you bastards’ without producing a single birth certificate blank where a father’s name should be – yet lecturing commenters not sitting in her classroom about their behaviour, and getting a few of them banned from the Guardian‘s site for no more than bracing, playful criticism. (I would place a large bet on no reader of or commenter on her blog’s ever having addressed an employer as she did, in full public view.)

That reason is called ‘tenure’. It was invented, as the Wikipedia says, ‘to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, …’

Who pays the salaries of most university lecturers? Ah, in Britain and the US, that would be us, the unwashed public. Shouldn’t we be entitled to as least as much freedom as they have to speak out?

3. Blatant hypocrisy goes unchallenged. Like feudal serfs, most readers of the Rumens blog were stopped from objecting to her treatment of dissenting commenters by the censors’ threat: ‘This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.’ (And indeed, all attempts to support Rumens’ critics disappeared.)

4. Defunct, repressive authorities have collaborators, enablers and appeasers. . . among those who should know better, but fear that they stand to lose more than they gain from a revolution. Look at the posts left in place after the grand cull on the morning of September the 3rd and you’ll find fine samples of smug support for the triumphant status quo.

5. No right of appeal for those muzzled and expelled. ….The Guardian’s censors and moderators will only discuss deletions in private, by email. As anyone who can see why transparency is essential to justice knows, that amounts to, ‘We’ll brook no challenges and will suppress all evidence of our repression and mistakes’.

6. The powerful never stoop to an apology. Rumens showed that she understood that something of the kind was required of her when she said vaguely, the following week, ‘Milton may be above criticism, ATF, but , alas, I don’t think I am…’. .. A whole-hearted apology clearly linked to the censorfest might have won her some points. Most of all, she owed – still owes – her critics a respectful discussion of what academia has done to modern poetry; of the wider implications of both her and her featured poet being academics. … And she and the Guardian could have won the undying loyalty of many a reader by conceding that the censorship went too far, and above all, by restoring the censored posts.

7. Futile attempts to carry privileges from the old order into the new. Noting cracks in the joists and foundations of their fortresses, some members of the old guard are naively trying to set the rules for the new order. Anxious to be seen as egalitarian in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary, Rumens said in the cull’s aftermath that her ‘blog has to have comments – that’s the admirable nature of the beast. It’s not about soloists.’ … Ah, but that’s the beauty of online media: there are no such rules. There are no externally imposed‘ has to have’s, shoulds, or musts. Millions of wonderful blogs on the net have no comments at all, year after year; millions of others have huge and lively comments sections that read like transcripts of beer busts.

… Indeed, the old order changeth … And yet, as an old friend put it, ‘These dictators never learn, do they? They can’t help themselves.’



Filed under Censorship, Criticism, Editors and editing, Poetry, Social trends, The blogosphere, The Guardian

22 responses to “On a Guardian poetry blog, scenes from the crumbling old order

  1. I fear far less the dictators, than those following them in a pleasing expectation.Without those, dictators are unable to harm widely.

    The “middle low rank careerist”exercising their petty powers to impress and “be someone”noticed.

    Those bureaucrats ,who flatter him/ herself to be of any in charge of the tool, not noticing the own exploitation of up climbing vanity.

    In a neoliberal big brother wannabe totalitarianism, beware of the new post modern zealot , the oil in the engine.

    The book burnings have started already.
    These days its called comments censure.

  2. Well said, @antiphonsgarden, in impeccable Franglais! : ) I’ll get out of the way to let other people read you.

  3. Merci,:)

    History repeats, if the lessons gets neglect by too many.
    But I deeply trust that few with courage can make a difference.

  4. ISA

    Iam posting this here because I am sure they will delete it on the GU site because I doubt they have the wit.

    ‘We should diverge, rather than converge. And when you say ‘you’ want ‘us’ to share your view of humanity parallaxview, then who is us?

    It reminds me of the racism awareness training session I went to a few years ago. ‘We’ have to learn how to treat ‘them.’

    Think how wrong headed that sentence is. And yet that is how it is set up. We, whites, have to learn how not to be racist to them, non-whites.

    The problem of course was the ‘we’? Who is ‘we’?

    Now who is the ‘we’ of the posters who haven’t been winnowed out on the GU website? It is a converging ‘we’, a ‘we’ of a supposed communty. But this is very wrong. It is obvious in its mistakeness.

    The we the GU has chosen is one not of divergence (and hence inclusion) but of convergence and a monotone. The buzznote of journalistic parametres.

    The the result has been suffocation of open discourse.

  5. Well put, ISA, I fully agree with that.

    Their “netiquette” points into the same direction.
    These “we s” have obviously not noticed that etiquette is about pleasing a arbitrary hierarchy setting the rules of mannerism, and THAT is not a real philosophical moral imperative.

  6. ISA

    Thank you antiphon’s garden. That is sweet of you.

    In response to parallaxview (who I have admired in the past as a poster)

    Parallax view:

    ‘Phil – now here’s the dilemma – you want us to embrace your view of humanity. So somewhere – beyond our reach – is a construct of what you perceive to be worthwhile – now that’s exclusively your desire. Can you see the paradox there?’


    ‘somewhere – beyond our reach’

    Have you heard of the PLE parallax view. The first place I heard of it was when studying cognition. Then I heard about it again when I read a biography of Feynman about ten years ago.

    It is not that anything is out of reach, it is that some people have a sort of mental thermostat. It cuts off because there is no point to thinking further about something because people believe that they will obtain no further benefit from thinking about it and understanding it.

    The problem is that people are not in control of their own thermostats sometimes. They just cut out. That explains, partially, why some people go on to become brain surgeons and others don’t bother.

    So the question becomes, who sets your thermostat? It’s not just you. Chomsky in 1987 in a book about the problem of Knowledge describes two problems: Orwell’s problem and Plato’s problem.

    Orwell’s problem is this:

    How come there is so much going on in the world that people don’t know or car about.

    Well I may want to talk about some of those things when discussing poetry. I think converging on a commen view leads to a sort of irritating groupiness that some people mistake for community building. It isn’t. It’s simply convergence. The way to converge is not by simplification.

    But the PLE is always there.

    But listen.

    My gloss for the well known mechanisms of the manufacture of consent is ‘convergence’.

    The difficult thing is to create a little space for yourself in other people’s public discourse. It’s harder to do. They don’t have your agenda, they have their own.

    In a sense posters steal the attention away from the writer. It is this theft of attention that is menacing to a publisher in this format. The sense that things are slipping.

    The response then is to narrow things down and elimnate contributions that disrupt the ordered flow of discourse. But what is the order of that discourse? It is the mission of the paper, the mission of the website, the mission of the literary editor in conjunction with the purpose – in alignment – of the contributer.

    (has your thermostat cut off yet PR?)

    Now, once you have narrowed down your pool of contributors to people who are willing to harmonise then, in effect you are creating allowing these personas to act as anti-bodies.

    They will cluster and nibble and report abuse and so on. So all that will happen in the end is an interesting ripple effect of the original article.

    The wonder of this new medium is that it is much more than that.

    So if I think that you, DD and PR and MM and so on, behave predictably because you have been cultivated in this little pool here, then I understand the mechanism of why and how this happened, because I was posting on this site and Carol’s threads three years ago, and you weren’t.

    My basic argument is tangentiality. I like to – and I have seen it happen wonderfully on a couple of Carol’s blogs. I think that you should take a discussion and expand it and make it as broad as possible before you narrow it down again. That you should not converge.

    And as for sensibilities. We are all human. There is no reason why anyone should bow to a Pope, or to a Professor, for that matter. ‘

  7. === In a sense posters steal the attention away from the writer. It is this theft of attention that is menacing to a publisher in this format. ===

    … but not menacing to me in the least. An occasion for delight, especially when the discussion is as rich as this one between @ISA and @antiphonsgarden, which fits my theme perfectly. See point #2 (about the witless ‘grapevine’ propaganda in my list of seven deadlies). Much to think about here.

  8. ISA

    Where is your list of deadly sins Wordy?

  9. ISA

    Carol Rumens

    No, Quizz, we don’t all agree that Duffy is duff. We agree she’s not perfect – and that goes for all of us.

    There is nothing wrong with pointing out a poem’s faults, disagreeing with someone’s opinion, etc. What’s wrong is doing it in an abusive and unkind way. I’m glad there’s less of this around this week. If you sympathise with the world’s oppressed but can’t be courteous in dispute with a colleague, then I don’t think your human sympathy is something anyone would trust very far.


    17 September 2010 8:26PM

    But how do Carol’s ideas, which we might all accept and agree with, tally with her abuse of the pope? If she is to lead by example surely a display of sectarianism against a religious leader who is loved my many millions is a grosser offence than finding CAD a duff poet, and giving very bad example and encouragement.


    17 September 2010 9:16PM


    I think you’ll find the pope can look after himself v.well even without Carol’s unaggressive secularism!
    Wise old owl … or something, both of them .


    17 September 2010 9:28PM

    You see.

    Perfectly illustrates my point, a poster comes along and responds to ATF like a Galapagos lizard that has learned to swim and feed at the bottom (and top) of Carol’s threads.

    This is not natural selection though.


    17 September 2010 9:29PM

    I personally find flattery very offensive because I know that when someone flatters it is a form of manipulation. I am surprised at people who tolerate it. We all know why they do it, but that really IS toe curling.


    17 September 2010 9:33PM

    There. I’ve recommended you Forgetit.

  10. ISA

    I think I’ve learned a little about Beagles and poodle breeding today.

    So that’s been the discussion, Wordy and Antiphon’s dream. I think it is pretty self explanatory.

  11. ISA

    Carol Rumens

    ‘There’s something that often puzzles me about this blog. The people who claim most to hate it keep reading it and posting here and sign up even after being banned for their verbal bullying. Such behaviour has the savour of hypocrisy. Why waste so much time on something they so dislike?’



    Bye then Carol.

  12. ‘Seven deadlies’ was just shorthand for the parallels I’ve drawn in the post above this discussion between the wee microcosm we are inspecting — a poetry blog on the Guardian site — and ways in which authorities silenced dissenters in the past. . . going all the way back to the invention of printing, which led hierarchs of the Catholic church to invent censorship.

    And as @antiphonsgarden has pointed out, upthread, it’s those lower down the social scale who flatter, make excuses for, justify and collude with repressive authorities who are most frightening. The deadliest enemies of free expression and truth.

  13. ISA

    Now I am pissed off!

  14. ISA

    Sanctimonious, hypocritical, dishonest, timeserving cynical, pompous, insular, territorial, poodle breeding, elitist, self-serving, duplicitous dissembling, biggoted, bullying, self righteous narrow minded philistine!

  15. ISA

    Your blog has just blocked my choice epithets.

  16. ISA

    ‘And as @antiphonsgarden has pointed out, upthread, it’s those lower down the social scale who flatter, make excuses for, justify and collude with repressive authorities who are most frightening. The deadliest enemies of free expression and truth.’

    Damn right Wordy. My powder is dry, my aim is true. My words will be fast and pointed.

  17. Replying here to …

    === Carol Rumens

    There’s something that often puzzles me about this blog. The people who claim most to hate it keep reading it and posting here and sign up even after being banned for their verbal bullying. Such behaviour has the savour of hypocrisy. Why waste so much time on something they so dislike?’ ===

    They are challenging the suppression of free speech on your blog.
    This is part of a wider — and critical — discussion of how forums in this super-democratic new medium, the internet, should be run. … You behave as if you get to decide what opinions of yours may and may not be challenged. Eg., yes, people can disagree about the interpretation of a line in a poem you put up, … or they may go off on tangents you thoroughly enjoy, such as condemnation of the first woman chosen as poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy (while pretending unconvincingly to defend her, describing her work as ‘not completely mediocre’). . . . But they are not allowed to discuss the pernicious effects of academia on modern poetry. When they do this, you set the censor-moderators on them, and get all their posts deleted. Fortunately, we have a record of some of those deletions on this very site — and of your instructions to the censors.

    That is bullying — and far, far worse.

    === Such behaviour has the savour of hypocrisy. ===

    Would not fit a dictionary definition of the word ‘hypocrisy’. Are you trying to say, ‘inconsistency’?

  18. ISA

    The point Wordy, is that Carol is the pretence of an honest person. She posesses an immitation, a fiction of morality.

    The word homonculus comes to mind. How many so called academic poets out there are there who are mere homonculi.

    They posess no politics. They possess nothing but the territory they have claimed in public discourse.

    Look at the behaviour of Ruth Padel. That is the petty truth of the petty musings of the petty and territorial academic poets.

    I despise them. I despise Carol Rumens.

  19. @ISA, I’ve rescued your missing posts .. there was a typo in your email address the second time, and the ‘choice epithets’ obviously left the WPress software reeling. : )

    Carol Rumens does say things that are demonstrably false. For instance, as I’ve now noted here more than once, she got over a hundred comments deleted from the Vona Groarke thread by claiming that they were attacking the poet – when they were actually attacking academia’s disproportionate responsibility for the witless, soulless, banal, tone-deaf lines that pass for modern poetry.

    Now, she could have won our respect with a concession like this one by a fellow-academic in a letter that ran in the NYT about two weeks ago:


    To the Editor:

    The observation by one of the academics quoted in your article that evaluating originality and intellectual significance can be done only by those who are expert in a field argues that credentialed experts are nurturers of originality. The history of the arts and sciences shows otherwise.

    Half a millennium ago “learned” people in Rome did everything they could to stifle the paradigm-shifting originality of Galileo and Copernicus. Eighteenth-century literary “experts,” including Alexander Pope, “revised and corrected” Shakespeare’s plays to purge them of impurities. Upon hearing about innovations in quantum physics in the 1920s, Einstein reportedly exclaimed that he would “rather be a cobbler” than consider these ideas.

    The innovations in peer review this article describes ought to be embraced because they take into account how blind faith in expertise has let the so-called experts’ exclusionary fears of originality slow the progress of learning.

    James D. Bloom
    Allentown, Pa., Aug. 24, 2010

    The writer is a professor of English and American studies at Muhlenberg College.


    … Btw, you were absolutely right to say that it wasn’t because of your funny ‘bleagh’ that regular commenters (barring a slavish acolyte or two) stayed away from the Rumens blog for most of two days. It was because an innocent four lines of verse got the chop from an overzealous Guardian censor – after Rumens instructed moderators (what a weaselly word that is) to be hyper-vigilant. It was after this protest (below) that many obviously stopped posting. … until you woke up the thread.


    14 September 2010 9:20AM

    You deleted my verse, you illiterate, trigger-happy, nitwits? Have they farmed out moderation to some call-centre in Bangalore? Fucking philistines…

    … The anger was certainly justified, but not the slam at the diligent workforce of Bangalore – from which I must say I rarely get less than dazzling service. It’s hardly the fault of its exceptionally obliging — underpaid and often shockingly overqualified — members that western companies and governments have been hiring them to save money.

  20. What about data selling to provide a bit more middle class wealth to some underpay call centre over skilled victim in Bangalore or elsewhere?
    Innocence/anger, all relative meaningfull/less! Says the victim of a delocalised to the Magreb call centre, who starts to be annoyed about the costly “merry go round” phrases.

    Beside that, I think, I just observe (as much as can think clearly, as the dull bunch in the distance cuts trees and bushes again with chainsaws,”the yearly harvest/wintersong”, more space to get subventions later to replant them!) something I have observed before in intelligent people.They conclude that the evil is administrated by intelligent people too.What might be a false idea.Instead of trying to find out what wittiness is behind some absurdity’s, I had to admit to myself over the years that some are just plain straight mean, because they underuse their brains. They might be led by extremely futile motivations, like “trying to look smart to get a date/promotion/cappuccino machine”, or ” feel uncertain, acting stiff determinate, every thought not understood gets killed”, and so on, from lousy digestion up to point scoring.I know the temptation to imagine they had “more in mind” as that, would ease the sense of a kafkaesque :”meet the castle offices and feel desperate”.But, hmm, no, some people send other to hell, just because their nail polish does not dry and their petty ego feels “in charge”.

  21. Nonsensical post, eh? Perhaps it was. As you have probably seen I too have been snipped by the Mods’ shears; indefensible in my case as all I did was post a spoof rhyme, whereas you do sometimes overburden people with righteous indignation…

    Having said that I think some of your posts are worthwhile and I have enjoyed reading them.

    I really wouldn’t worry about it; just do what I have done and refuse to post there any more. It’s not as though the Graun has a monopoly on poetry…

  22. @Simon, … po-faced as ever, I am self-righteously pinning a gigantic medal for bravery onto your immaculate Harris tweed lapel for being brave enough to come here. … Thank you for this contribution to the debate – which explains why I usually find your posts enjoyable, too.

    === all I did was post a spoof rhyme, whereas you do sometimes overburden people with righteous indignation… ===

    Depends on which of the many me’s you mean, see … but if you can post a re-rhyming playing on excretion – a contribution I found apt and hilarious — why not let me have a go at being …. hmm, let’s see, … erm how about Martin Luther, in one of my guises, for a post or two, when I feel like it? …. Don’t you enjoy the unexpectedness and wild variations in perspective on the net? Old Martin came to mind because, after reading this glorious account of the Pope’s visit, I’ve been revisiting the excesses of the medieval Catholic church. Priests and monks who had to be told not to curl their hair with tongs, trade in fenced goods, vomit from gluttony, fall down drunk in the streets … fatten the coffers of the Curia by paying fines for their illegitimate offspring… and worst of all, persecute hoi polloi. … Can’t we all free-associate as we please?

    About the PotW …funny, but I gave myself the same advice you just have three years ago. I only stop in occasionally for the fun of checking whether it’s a desolate Des-less thread (as at present) – or whether he’s got the joint jumping again. And on one recent visit, found him being flatly contradicted by an Authority about what was demonstrably true, and bullied when he was making some points I thought spot on and well worth discussing, about modern poetry. … Bullying makes me angry … okay, too angry, sometimes.

    I am, you see, deeply interested in the new inclusiveness – in watching and encouraging interesting and original fence-jumpers, usually in places that matter rather more than little pome blogs.

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