Spencer Madsen Is Living in the Future So the Present Is His Past

In a world where someone like, let’s say, Tony Hoagland is the baseline for what poetry looks like, while someone like Tao Lin is seen as too idiosyncratic to legitimately emulate, Spencer Madsen’s forthcoming book A Million Bears will probably get tagged as derivative. But—and this is a lucky thing for poetry, I’d argue—that isn’t the world Spencer Madsen is writing in. He’s writing in a world where Tao Lin is already the norm, where poetry has always been lowercased and dryly sarcastic, and poets have always been as deeply invested in blogs and twitters as they are in books and journals. In that world, Madsen is not only not derivative, he’s even a little ahead of his time.

Ahead of his time not because of any jolting innovation, but because of the total ease he displays while doing things that for other poets would still feel like contrived experiments. I get the feeling that in ten years, when the impact of Kenneth Goldsmith and Tao Lin and Steve Roggenbuck has been fully assimilated, every poet will be able to be as offhanded as Madsen is about opening a book with a retweet of Kanye West. Every poet will naturally treat their twitter and their blog and their IM conversations as if they were part rough draft, part journal publication; and the ability to gather all those digital scraps together and weave them into a seamless whole like this will be a basic poetic skill.

Okay, maybe not. More likely the poetry world will remain as balkanized as it is today, and while that kind of Madsen-like poet will be around, there’ll still be plenty of much less unusual writers to dismiss those poets as imitators. But A Million Bears feels to me like it was e-mailed from that other world, with only a few missteps to weaken the illusion (mainly, a handful of big-print found poems that suggest Madsen’s gifts are more subjective like Lin’s than objective like Roggenbuck’s).

All in all it’s a pretty appealing utopia: a world where poetry is getting younger instead of older, where people write about love and sadness and insecurity in the simplest way possible, with a lot of sincerity, not much hierarchizing, and no fear of using the comic or the contemporary or even the outright silly in a poem. That’s the kind of attitude it takes to write a poem about how sad your cat is and make it as touching and reflective as it is ridiculous. And a poem like that—a poem like a LOL cat, but sadder—is somehow just right to be populating our timelines and newsfeeds today.

If I seem to be calling A Million Bears both the poetry of our moment and the future of poetry, I don’t think that’s a contradiction. It’s just a sign of the need for poetry to catch up to itself. Because whatever world we may choose to evaluate him from, Spencer Madsen’s world is the one where most of the potential audience for poetry is already living.

Biz likes it too.