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Mid-Morning of the Planet of the Selfies

A few weeks ago I started flagging stories about selfies. I’m not sure why. I think I wanted to make the late-to-the-party claim that the selfie may be the emblem of our summer. But it was probably the emblem of our spring, too, and before that, of our winter. (Oxford Dictionaries named “selfie” its Word of the Year for 2013. And the Times gave 735 words to James Franco last December to say what could have been said in seven: “James Franco likes selfies and who cares.”) Still, I feel like there’s been an uptick in selfie stories lately: we’ve had the monkey selfie controversy and the tiger selfie controversy; we’ve had selfies that have led to cliff falls and suicide attempts. The monkey selfie story is both an awesome run of trochees* and an emblem of an emblem. You think selfies are ridiculous? I’ll raise you one grinning macaque, and throw in a copyright dispute, too. The story brings to mind something the actor Taylor Mead once said to Andy Warhol: “You’ve given America just what it deserves—a can of soup on the wall!” (For “America,” you might substitute “the public domain”—and then you might ask, What other kind of domain is left to us?)

But I actually love (or at least feel nostalgia for) Warhol’s soup cans and Brillo boxes. And I’m as charmed as the next distraction-seeker by that ingenious macaque. So I come neither to bury nor mock. In fact, the other sort of story I’ve been collecting lately concerns monkeys and apes making art. And I have a longstanding fascination with such stories, as I was reminded of recently when I visited my office for the first time in months. I found, buried beneath journals and half-completed course packets, (1) the worth-its-price-for-the-dust-jacket-alone academic study Monkey Painting, (2) an ArtsBeat article titled “Chimpanzee Art Wins $10,000 in Contest” (the online headline is zippier still), and (3) James Tate’s Selected Poems, opened to “Teaching the Ape to Write Poems.” I was apparently going to connect these three items in an essay that, who knows, would have located an emblem for our particular moment. “You look like a god sitting there,” Tate’s Dr. Bluespire whispers. “Why don’t you try writing something?”

But school started, and my partner was pregnant, and the ape painters and ape poets were forgotten. Still: apes as gods. The rule of apes. The possibility intrigues. I grew up loving Planet of the Apes—the 1968 film and its early-’70s sequels, the mid-’70s live action and animated TV series, the Cornelius and Zira action figures—because: apes! Apes talking! Apes doing human things! I was a sucker for the multiple ironies. And I liked the 2011 series reboot, starring—here’s that man again—James Franco. (Really, I was just glad to see a poet getting work—and outside of the academy.) So I was excited a few weeks ago when I had the chance to finally see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Alas, it’s awful—full of wooden exposition and endless foreshadowing. Only two things recommend it: the suggestion that peace between humans and apes might depend on a shared appreciation of Charles Burns and The Band, and the image of chimps on horseback firing machine guns. (I know, you’re reading a literary blog; you hate guns. I hate guns, too. But trust me: chimps + machine guns = amazing.) Beyond that, the script is heavy with Chance the Gardener-type pseudo-wisdom: “Ape seek out strongest branch,” etc. But how did this post become a review of a movie that has mostly left the theaters? I thought we were talking about selfies.

A quick Google search tells me that “Selfie,” a sitcom loosely based on My Fair Lady and situated in the world of social media, will be part of ABC’s fall TV schedule. That doesn’t sound too good. (And now I’ve watched the trailer, which is flat-out bad.) For a more thoughtful look at our pixelated present, you might turn to Zach Savich’s “Easy, Durable Dreams: Notes on Poetry and Social Media” in the current issue of Poetry Northwest. Savich identifies ways that social media has contributed to poetry: by serving as a training ground, by providing forms, by providing modes of consciousness. He also considers the flood of self-promotion from poets in his Facebook feed (“SO excited to be reading tonight”) and offers this trenchant line from Geoffrey Hill: “The poem as selfie is the aesthetic criterion of contemporary verse.”

For less thoughtful looks, you might click here and here and here.

Maybe I have come to bury (as if that were possible) and mock. I’ll give the final words to Bruce Springsteen: “We’ve come a long way, baby, and we’re going back.”

* “awesome run of trochees” is also an awesome run of trochees