The Comment-Box Poets of The New York Times

There’s poetry in everything, including the user comments of NYTimes.com’s most popular blogs. Darryl Campbell investigates the web’s unlikely poetry community.

To borrow a line from a certain crazy old hermit, comments sections on web pages are wretched hives of scum and villainy, and the last place you’d expect to encounter the internet equivalent of a literary coterie. Yet the website of The New York Times has become the unlikely home of a community of poets — specifically, poets who comment on articles and blog posts in the form of light verse. Since about January of 2009, these poet-commenters have laced many a blog post or op-ed with their peculiar form of guerilla poetry. Although they can be found commenting on everything from nuclear arms control and the pricing of short stories, they seem to save their real passion for Ben Schott’s vocabulary blog, to the point that verse comments can often outnumber prose comments. Naturally, I had to find out more about this nascent poetic community.

Take, for example, this octave by Tim Torkildson:

In this modern day and age
Sans-serif is all the rage.
Typeface, point, and spacing too
Are as bland as canned beef stew.
Cursive is no longer seen.
Gothic is a mere pipe dream.
Fonts are nothing but homogenous;
I’d as lief we were androgenous!

It goes off the rails a bit at the end, but for a little bit of versified whimsy, it’s not bad.

As far as these guerilla poets go, Torkildson is about as accomplished as they come; in February he sent in “An Ode to the Overdraft Fee” (written in rhyming fourteener couplets, if you really want to know), which the Times’s Bucks Blog incorporated into an official post:

They’ve got a little racket at the bank just down the street,
It doesn’t cost them anything, and business is repeat.
If you use your debit card and funds are running low,
The overdraft protection triggers fees that grow and grow.
The charges mount so quickly that before you can respond,
They’re hauling you away and you will need a quick bail bond.
Like a check that bounces, there’s a boomerang effect,
And before you know it your pure credit has been wrecked.
The Feds have put a damper on this billion-dollar scam,
But banks know that their customers will follow like a lamb.
And never change the way they pay for every overdraft,
The bank gets all the money while the public gets the shaft.

But Torkildson doesn’t have much of a web presence. According to the Bucks Blog, he is from Ban Phe, Thailand, and a quick Google Search seems to suggest that he’s an ex-circus clown who now teaches English overseas.

Larry Eisenberg, who keeps a similarly low internet profile, tends to stick to limericks:

Minaya has fondness for Age,
Great players, who aging, grow sage,
Willie Mays & Hank Aaron,
Both beyond comparin’,
Hey Omar, two more to engage!

Eisenberg is both prolific and popular. Several commenters have singled him out for praise or recommended his posts, and one enthusiast even signed his or her post “Eisenberg’s my American Idol.”

Wage thieves are low beyond low,
The sleaziest crim’nals I know,
Their scams are impure,
Victimizing the Poor,
Hard jail time they ought undergo!

It turns out that Larry Eisenberg has some real literary cred, too; between 1962 and 1988, he published short stories in popular sci-fi periodicals such as Fantasy and Sci-Fi, Galaxy, and Asimov’s. Even though he hasn’t published fiction since then, and even though he’s had an internet connection for less than two years now, he still finds the time to comment, and comment frequently.

Still, as much as I learned about some of these people, I didn’t know what drove them to write poetry, and write it in the form of comments on The New York Times. I needed to go straight to the sources.

Fortunately, two of the Times’s most dedicated poet-commenters answered my call. The first was Karen Lyons Kalmenson, a self-described “poetess by nature” and the Poet Laureate of the site Baby Boomer Knowledge Center, who happily agreed “to share my / knowledge / and not be / misconstrued.”

Unlike Torkildson and Eisenberg, Kalmenson is more of a free-versificator, and has a self-diagnosed case of “ee cummings disease,” which is to say that she eschews capital letters altogether. Take these two examples:

the idea of a free fall
to me sounds insane
but, then again
i would not even
board a plane

sprummer is not a bummer
but winter is a splinter
away from the cold
i wish i could run
like a sprinter

Kalmenson is certainly not going for craft points, especially when compared to other members of what she calls the Times’s “commentculture.” Despite her title, however, she does not see herself as the heir to a poetic tradition. She claimed to be “not much of a serious reader,” although “as a teen, i did have a solid appreciation of the vision and aesthetic of poe, and even the bard shakespeare,” and she rarely reads other people’s poems except on blog posts to which she is also responding. Instead of trying to create finely-wrought poetry, she finds inspiration in “anything that amuses, infuriates or is even mildly intriguing an excuse to write a poem,” and writes not so much from the heart as from her “ever giggling funny bone.” Most of all, she is much more sparing, both with her answers to me and her online verse; whereas other posters have racked up thousands of comments, Kalmenson has about 1,400, many of which are not even poems. In a word, she is the Dharma to the rest of the comment-poetry world’s Greg.

Michael Dennis Mooney, the other person who responded to me, was Kalmenson’s opposite in almost every way. Whereas Kalmenson sent me one succinct email, Mooney was profligate in his responses. Over the course of twenty emails, he not only answered the questions that I asked but also offered his poetic pedigree. Of all the commenters out there, Mooney was the only one who was clearly dying to show off his literary knowledge. He claimed influence from a variety of different poets, including Martial, Chaucer, and Pope, and wrote that “George Gordon Lord Byron was perhaps the greatest writer of light verse ever!”

Mooney, however, has a complicated relationship with the Times, and a bit of a persecution complex about his poetry (or as he calls it, his “wicked nasty obnoxious radical opinionated broadsides”). After a string of nearly 2,400 comments, his last comment appeared on the Times’s website on January 1, 2010. He accuses the Times moderators of waging a campaign to silence him, for a variety of reasons, and collects the poems that the Times moderators do not approve on his own personal blog.

For example, he claims that the moderators simply “didn’t understand” one of his poems, which was written almost entirely in what seems to be a New York patois (complete with a pronunciation guide at the end):

Ah heah how you gots one dem whaddycalls-its.
You knows, wheah dey jams da whole message in, in a few woids…

Hey, Ah heahs youse more busier den a one ahm paypuh-hanguh
Wid da prickly rash. Ya doan have time to antsa no phone!…

So peoples dey gotta send da message wid text
So you can READ da phone youse ‘salready yappin on…

Sorta takes da joy outta it, ‘swhat Ahm talkin bout, whadda youse tinkin?!
Dis idda phone yer already yappin on, already readin on, already messaging on [...]

(It goes on, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it either.)

Mooney thinks that the moderation staff removed another poem that obliquely poked fun at Eliot Spitzer because “[I] think they feared a lawsuit from Eliot Spitzer, who can be very aggressive via the court system.” And the poem that got him “unofficially barred from the gated community of commenters”? A short satire about Tiger Woods’s extramarital affairs, which even leads off with a William Blake reference:

Tiger, Tiger burning bright
In the sex clubs of Orlando
Guess it’s time you took a break
And lived life with more candor
Must’ve been weird, your secret life
Never an unserviced erection
Shouldn’t you, though, have taught the wife
Some proper club selection?
[...]

But no poet gets thwarted by a little censorship. It didn’t stop Milton, and it certainly isn’t going to stop someone who is standing in the shadow of Martial, John Donne, and W.H. Auden. Thus Mooney has created pseudonyms, complete with alternate email addresses and fake backstories, in order to post his comments unfettered. For example, he describes his character “Marilyn Ann Nardollilo” as “outrageously flirtatious,” and is currently “trying to get [Ben] Schott to write to her, at times.”

Whereas he praises Ben Schott’s blog for being “amusing, dryly, gently witty and erudite,” he is far less charitable about his fellow poets. He castigates them for being “all elbows and no manners” (except for Tim Torkildson, “the best of them so far”), and singled out Kalmenson and Larry Eisenberg for being “poor craftsmen” who were “competing for who could be the worst hack.” In particular, he riffed on Kalmenson’s title (“Boomer Poet Laureate”), calling her “the luareate [sic] of the deluded and the barely literate.” He even told me that he’d written an email to Ben Schott calling them “the poetasters” and “the doggerelistas” (Schott, by the way, never responded to this or any of Mooney’s emails).

Apart from the trials and tribulations of Michael Mooney, though, the Times staff seems to accept their community of poet-commenters. Torkildson, of course, got a poem published on the Bucks Blog, while Ben Schott held a limerick competition (limericks being one of the most common forms of versified comments), and even took an idea for a weekend competition from Michael Mooney, before their relationship soured. Still, they clearly do so with an occasional note of exasperation, judging from the introduction to the limerick competition: “This weekend, Schott’s Vocab is bowing to the inevitable and soliciting limericks.” Understandable, I suppose, when the people to whom you’ve given a forum and the occasional bit of encouragement get a sense of entitlement about the whole deal — for example, when Michael Mooney writes that “I believe I should get a free copy of [Schott’s Miscellany]” for his constant stream of “reader rejoinders.”

These poet-commenters, in other words, are doing the poetic equivalent of mugging for the camera. For some, like Kalmenson and Eisenberg, the draw is simply being able to show off for an audience. For others, like Mooney, the Times offers a proving ground, a place for him to perform literary feats of skill and daring and to thereby cement his self-identification as a writer of light verse. Clearly, they must enjoy it: between the three of them, Eisenberg, Kalmenson, and Mooney (including his alias, Maddy Nardollilo) have written nearly ten thousand comments over the past twelve months, with Eisenberg alone responsible for over half of them. And this is just the tip of the poetic iceberg; other members of this fractious literary brood are at least as profligate as Eisenberg et al., such as one Robert Marino, who clocks in at nearly 5,800 comments.

What about the rest of the commenting world, those who are neither the bloggers themselves nor the poets competing for their virtual patronage? Some praise, some put-downs, and—this being The New York Times, after all—even an occasional bit of formal criticism (“Too many wrongly stressed syllables to be good limericks,” writes Dono about one of Larry Eisenberg’s poems).

Put another way, the combination of cheers and jeers elicited by the comment-box poetry of The New York Times is proof that Thomas Babington Macaulay was right when he wrote, “perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.”

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.