ON FACEBOOK HIJACKING MACEDONIAN POETRY FROM ACADEMICISM AND THE PERSISTENCE OF MISOGYNY
In 1970, the Bosnian writer Meša Selimović wrote: “Faith is a law that defines the whole life. Poetry is beyond that law, it does not recognise it, it demands freedom for the word and thought, and it denies the perfection of the world that God has created. To live by dreaming, hoping, anticipating, implies not accepting the things as they are. It is a rebellion” (Selimović, 1970: 158). Viewed and experienced not only as an expression of human creativity, but also as a site for practicing one’s genuine individuality as opposed to the collective, the unified and the externally imposed, it is of little wonder that today, more than forty years after these words, poetry has also become one of the most frequent “statuses” on social media, such as Facebook. The social media are the outlet where poetry can be written and launched without the traditional filters such as proof-readers, editors and publishers; for the readers it is easily accessible and free of charge, and for the authors it also provides the immediate feed-back (in the form of “likes” and “comments”) that they would not have from a hard copy. It can therefore be said that Facebook poetry has become a popular culture genre, a cultural product for mass consumption vis-à-vis the poetry published and read in the limited circles of writers’ associations and academia.1F Like any form or shape popular culture can take, it has encompassed “creative expressions of ordinary people as opposed to those of a society’s elite or educated classes…” (Magoulick, 2006).
In the Macedonian context, the phenomenon of Facebook poetry has become quite prominent, especially in the last couple of years. Prior to its emergence, as any other national literary form, the newly written Macedonian poetry was created and read by a limited audience, while the criteria of what made “good poetry” were prescribed by (almost exclusively male) canonised poets themselves, critics and professors, as “the universities are conservators of tradition, protectors of what they regard as the best and most valuable monuments to human invention and creative expression” (Schudsom, 1998: 497). The interpretation of poetry and the attribution of quality and value to what was produced often had little significance for the common reader, who was puzzled and could rarely relate to the poems (and poets to that matter) that had received the highest acclaims. For example, Gane Todorovski, one of the most distinguished Macedonian poets would spare no praise stating that the poetry of a fellow poet (and president of the Macedonian Writers’ Association) “manages to protect itself by ellipticism and calm expression… and via its permanent orientation to… the dominant theme of the elegantly conveyed discrete way, slightly diluted by the sickness of the metaphorisation, carefully prone to comparative values of the metonymic expression…” (Тодоровски, 2008: 105).2F Therefore, it will probably not be an exaggeration to say that Macedonian poetry, especially in the last several decades, promoting itself as an expression of “high culture”, greatly suffered from academicism, and academicism “is kitsch for the elite: spurious High Culture that is outwardly the real thing but actually a manufactured article… A generation or two later, its real nature is understood by everyone and it quietly drops into… oblivion…” (Macdonald, 1998: 26). As such, this poetry of the elite (and for the elite) remained hermetical, exclusive and beyond the understanding (but also beyond the appreciation) of the broader readership. It was the “culture of the block of power which decides what, by definition, belongs to culture and what does not” (Атанасова, 2012: 147). Facebook poetry has thus emerged as its opposite, its antipode, as the “force directed towards the block of power. This created a fresh historical ‘opening’ where it was possible to create culture that is really popular” (Ibid, 148).
If there were a single example which is paradigmatic for what has been happening with the Macedonian Facebook poetry in the last several years, it would be the case of Darko Leshoski (b. 1983). Since 2012 onwards, his poems, posted as statuses on his FB profile (https://www.facebook.com/darko.lesoski?fref=ts) have been followed by numerous Facebook users/readers, with his most popular poem “He’s the One to Cherish, Sweetie” (published on 7 September 2013) being liked by more than 300 people (or other Facebook profiles). Taking into consideration that popularity has been included as a sine qua non in any definition of popular culture, and the fact that almost all books of Macedonian literature (especially poetry) are published (but rarely sold) in no more than 500 copies, it would be proper to say that he has become the most prominent and most striking example of the fact that in popular culture, “the only authority on beauty, excellence, or value is the people, those who elect to accept or consume something” (Hinds, 2006: 365). It was these people,3F his readers, admirers, followers and passionate advertisers (ranging from teenagers and housewives to well-known intellectuals, actors, literature professors, but also other writers), and their approach to his poetry (and eventually his overall image)4F that promoted what Frankie Goes to Hollywood once said was “not so much to sell the product as to give moral permission to have fun without guilt” (according to: Ang, 1998: 274). In other words, this massive audience (or its most vocal members) persistently reiterated the idea that “there’s no accounting for taste, that in other words no objective aesthetic judgments are possible… everyone has the right to his or her own taste and has the freedom to enjoy pleasure in his or her own way (Ibid, 273). Popular portals published titles such as “The Leshoski Phenomenon Has Revived Poetry”,5F and the fans of his poetry passionately and relentlessly commented and debated with the “haters” along lines such as “screw the haters, you have us, you have me, when I read you my soul blossoms and mu heart fills with love again and again” or “you are a kind of an anti-code that I follow so easily, I bow to you for your patience so far” or “do whatever you do with your life – cuss, drink, fuck, be nervous, argue on FB… just never ever stop writing”.
While it is always a difficult endeavor to detect and analyze all the reasons why a popular culture product is more popular (of successful to that matter) than another, there are several elements that are worth mentioning when it comes to Darko Leshoski. On one hand, it can be said that, to a large extent, the popularity of his poetry was due to the fact that it appeared to be completely different than the (academicism saturated) poetry that had been written and promoted before. Written in urban, almost street slang, deprived of linguistic or moral puritanism, filled with allusions to other popular culture genres or products, such as movies or music,6F it is closer to the common, broader audience than the often arrogantly distant and abstract verses of the established and canonized (or aspiring to be canonized) poets. However, despite this assumed (or ascribed) originality and uniqueness, Leshoski’s poetry (and his overall image behind it) also do have several features which are well known in the popular culture theory, and constitute some of the basic ingredients for any successful (or: easily and massively sellable) popular culture product. One of these features is what theorists of popular culture such as Fiske and Hartley called “bardic” function, or the fact that this poetry communicates “to nearly everyone in the culture by depending on an established repertory of basic stories and other artistic patterns in a fashion analogous to the traditional bard’s use of epic formulas and a well-known mythology” (Gawelti: 2006, 267). This element of familiarization, or variations of the same basic stories, is also seen in its serial nature, since it is written in a “serial form, either as a continuing narrative or as sets of variations on a single basic patterns…” (Ibid, 267). In this sense, Leshoski’s verses are indeed a numerous set of variations of the familiar (romanticized) theme of the “handsome bad boy with a heart of gold”, the misfit, the one eternally longing for love, falling into the depths of despair and raising to the heights of euphoria.7F The pangs of love are read in verses such as: “Leave me! / I am leaving you! / I am a child from a bad family. / I write you this letter. / Tomorrow I will mail it to you. / Since when haven’t you received a letter?”, and in: “I miss you most of all early in the morning and late at night / I miss you to fill in this place – the space, the silence, the distance between God and myself / I miss you this morning… / and I will also miss you tonight in this same bed”.
1. These features feed into one of the most popular myths about popular culture, “the one of its easy accessibility, folk nature, its closeness to the ‘popular’ taste and mass audience…” (Атанасова, 2012: 124).
2. These almost incomprehensible words are included as an afterword in a book of poetry that contains verses such as: “my promised image / all alone in the wind / always awake / grieving / over the joy of childhood / by the river without springs” or “the marble-headed poet / looks as if from afar / he looks at us scared / and quietly says : / dig out from the underground garden / my shadow with a pleading voice / it will bid you good morning / and there will be no more good-byes”.
3. While the consumers of Leshoski’s poetry might have been virtual on Facebook, they also appeared to be “real people”, turning up in unprecedented numbers at the promotion of his (printed and published) poetry book that followed his on-line success. (http://sarma.mk/vesti/kultura/26418/fenomenot-leshoski-ja-ozhivea-poezijata/).
4. As in reality shows, the poet’s image building and presentation, i.e. the celebrity factor, has a significant role in this case. “The paradigm of attraction, or the reason why the audience identifies itself with a person, is no longer based on the mythos (epics, mystery), nor on logos (programme), but rather on image (affects and fantasies)” (Kukić, 2012: 211). It is also related to the ways the new media work in the age “when what matters is the image, the appearance and when there is an insistence on the success that should be made right now” (Ibid, 215).
6. As it can be seen in verses such as “I miss you like acid in my stomach / I miss you like an object to pour my anger on / I miss you like a close one / I miss you with your: Are you still in the bar? / I miss you since I have nobody to tell: For God’s Sake… I miss you / tonight / now it’s morning already / I miss you this morning fuck it”, or in verses such as “Cherish the one that listens to joyful and shallow turbo folk and reads Neruda, Schopenhauer and Tagore before going to bed. / Cherish the one that will tell you about the girls that made a pass on him the previous night as he was out with his friends. / Cherish the one that loves you both for your boobs and your eyes. / Cherish the one that you love too because of his hard ass and the madness that hits him like a Tokyo metro in his mind”.
7. This kind of image (youth with a troubled past, seemingly bad but emotionally fragile) has historically been associated with many popular culture celebrities, like James Dean, Jim Morrison, or more recently Kurt Cobain.