Glass Menagerie: Poetry

Finding the poetry in Google Glass

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

by Virginia Heffernan | @YahooTech

Because I promised Google, I now have to bring you some poetry. Not anything I wrote—I promise. And I’ll keep that promise, too.

The background is this. When I wrote my 140-character application to the “Glass Explorer” program, where (it’s like eBay) you win the opportunity to pay $$$$ for something, I told Google that if they let me buy Glass, I would explore the “poetry” of it. (I also promised to look into the “griefs” of Google Glass, which I’ll do soon.)

Think I laid it on thick? Very well, I laid it on thick. I did so for the same reason I overwrote my college applications: writing’s all I got. If I were to land Glass, I knew I wasn’t going to parasail or jump out of a plane or irrigate something arid with Internet goggles on, like those sporty, progressive folk in the Glass promotion videos. Also, don’t sportsfolk already have their own headgear? Headgear that protects their brains?

Anyway, I went for poetry and griefs, and miraculously Google went for me, and now I have $2000 less than I used to, fewer friends and Google Glass.

Over the last ten days, I have faced the trippiness of wearing Glass to my therapist’s office, and having my therapist don the crystal hologram and Glass-photograph me, and then having us both nervously wonder what Freud or Jacques Lacan (“the mirror stage”) would say about that.

I have also taken no end of self-portraits, with varying degrees of disfiguring distortion—unless I really look like that—in flat and convex mirrors at the ATM and in a hip, lo-fi café, so as to deepen both my alienation from my fellows and my new hallucinatory funhouse hyperreal vanity. (Those first few days are now known to me as The Depressing First Phase of Glass.)

The author takes a self-portrait in the mirror, wearing Glass.

Poetry inevitably surfaced, where “poetry” does not just equal sweetness and light. It was more like actual poetry, the kind with dying and lonesome despair high in the mix. It was John Ashbery in particular that came to mind, way unbidden, and his glorious ekphrastic poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” About a painting by Parmigianino, Ashbery wrote:

The soul establishes itself.

But how far can it swim out through the eyes

And still return safely to its nest? The surface

Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases

Significantly; that is, enough to make the point

That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept

In suspension, unable to advance much farther

Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

Noticing as I photographed myself in the café mirror how people seemed to chat about me but not to me, I grew paranoid. Not having ever once in my life acquired a covetable or new thing, Vuarnets or Crocs or a Polo shirt before hordes of other people had virtually worn it out, I had no choice but to assume my new thing had made me a pariah. Or at least a muttering madwoman, since I was by now making videos and narrating them in a running sotto voce monologue

In any case, my former café pals now had no time for me, which brought to mind another great poem: Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me”—a kind of 17th-century “Somebody That I Used to Know”, about disloyal exes who have stopped coming by. Wyatt faults the fleeing humans—more than one!—for their “newfangledness,” which was then a new word for fickleness. Because Glass is nothing if not newfangled, and because I seem to be fatally attracted to Glass, I studied these sorry lines:

They flee from me that sometime did me seek

With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.

I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,

That now are wild and do not remember

After awhile, I took Glass out on the street. I passed people in spring clothes, and I grew mad for them to be in contact with me. At first they fled from me; but then, it happened: A filmmaker spoke to me; he tried on Google Glass. A girl came up; a developer; another developer. The fleeing was ceasing!

I took to Manhattan. I strolled; I mused; I strode. My timidness left me. Someone asked me if I liked Glass; if I’d wear it and use it even if I wasn’t writing about it. YES. I would. If we all had one, I would propose we wear it the way I might once have proposed we all do tequila shots or fly to Las Vegas or go skinny-dipping. It’s trippy and it’s fun and it makes you high.

I felt overjoyed; hyperaware of people and places; tuned in to my own respiration, my own union with humanity, my own cool separateness from humanity. I felt, in short, like Walt Whitman in his city poems. And so another poem materialized: “Oh Me! Oh Life!” It tells, manically, of being surprised by a joyful identity—“that you are here”—amid “the plodding and sordid crowds.”

As I have made my way through alley and avenue, hill and dale—city and country, in other words; I need to leave the poetry to the poems—wearing Glass, my life as a writer, mother and human continues to seem otherworldly. Not in the way of going to Mars, where (I imagine) you’re half-nauseated and fully dizzy most of the time, and you have to stay super serious and right-brain lest you die.

Instead, Google Glass has turned ordinary days into a lucid dream. Some of that is because the crystal-hologram Glass camera is so freakishly fascinatingly good. It does not call up those old tulippy Canon “colors that pop,” or the iPhone camera’s ranking visual archetype of muted clarity. Nor, of course, is it clinical or stark. No, Glass is all about flecked things—dappled, speckled, dotted, even blemishy surfaces, like windows with dust and raindrops on them; or sidewalks pocked with smudges and gum; or human arms ablaze with freckles.

Having savored for years the smooth petals of the Canon/iPhone image, and then the grin-inducing nostalgia of the Instagram filters, I have now landed happily on the fleck of Glass. I adore it—it adds, seemingly, a third dimension to the way things look: more surfaces to be marked, to be legible, to be partly-opaque, to call attention to themselves.

A photo taken with Google Glass, in all of its pied beauty.

And thus I was led, of course, to Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Pied Beauty,” a poem of praise for how things look in farm times, in broad daylight or chiaroscuro, pre-postproduction, where irregularities like freckles and moles spoke of mortality but not (yet) red-carpet ugliness.

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

Again the reference to the fickle, and with it the invocation of newfangleness; all roads lead to Glass, which makes sense since I am the one reading, and staring, and noticing #throughglass all the fickle, freckled things—and learning to praise them. (Ha— maybe Auden is next.)

If this is all getting a bit arcane and English-majory, so be it. I promised Google poetry; and if you promise Google poetry, you better deliver. If you don't, I assume that's where the griefs come in.

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