I would like to propose that self-aware formalist poetry reading might be geared toward consciously decelerated new media critique. Consider Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” a literary text that is often strategically slid into the pages of composition anthologies. What is the function of a poem in a course on expository prose? How might this poem in fact offer ways to critically engage online media? How might a poetry lesson cause us to reflect on reading in the age of the Internet? Through a few preliminary remarks on the opening lines of this well-known poem, I hope to offer a few tentative—if also bold—answers to these questions.
Reading this poem with the Internet in mind, we might say that Hughes interrupts himself almost immediately with a ‘pop-up’ box of sorts:
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
In these lines, Hughes enacts the very sort of textual polysemy that Roland Barthes theorizes in his essay “From Work to Text.” Writing is always many writings, here reflected in a self-reflexive joke of sorts. In an understatedly postmodern turn, Hughes turns a writing prompt into the object of composition. One can see why this poem teaches particularly well in beginning composition courses, where the primary hurdle of writing seems to be the abysmal gap between life and reflection, or subject and object. How does one “just write” when there is an aporia between the subject position of the beginning writer and this reified object out there called Writing (or Barthes’s “Work”)? Hughes leaps over this hurdle conversationally, with a nod toward his instructor. And Hughes’s uses of enjambment and empty space to these ends seems to me to be useful in terms of questioning how we navigate the banally open Google Search page:
Here I would want to stress how “to Google” has become a verb both inviting and daunting, and how “to write” harbors a similarly vexed imperative in terms of the assumed epistemological position of the subject. For the Googler as well as for the writer, the horizon of knowledge must appear at once empty and potentially full beyond comprehension. One only has to “Start,” in the parlance of Microsoft.