Concerned about the decline of literature in the digital age? Ever wake up in a tangled mess of USB cords and MacBook chargers, lamenting the printed word’s slow march toward obsolesce?
There is an antidote to your dread, bookish Luddite, and it exists in the unlikely form of a 27-year-old video blogger from rural Michigan. The young man—deemed “the first 21st-century poet” by the New York Times and the “Bard of the Internet” by the Atlantic—is Steve Roggenbuck, and he’s here to convince you that the Internet is ushering in a “golden age of literature.”
A leading figure in the web-based Alt-Lit community, Roggenbuck is best known for expressing his relentlessly positive poetry through a series of selfie-styled YouTube videos. The typical “poem” features shaky clips of the baby-faced, acne-ridden writer marching through the woods, celebrating the natural world with a Whitman-like intensity. Over an unfolding drone-rock ballad, Roggenbuck fires off non-sequiturs that run the gamut of absurd (“I got fucking dial-up on my kids bike”), existential (“I’m ticked off at the size of the sky. How is it this big?), and instructive (“make something beautiful before you are dead”).
But while Roggenbuck’s work always teeters on the surreally manic—think Dadaism on ecstasy—he is ultimately committed to lifting people up through his poetry. In AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST!!!, he declares that the job of the poet is to text people pictures of the sunset, to point the finger at the moon for people. His voice and body tremble, seemingly unable to contain the beauty of his epiphany, as Roggenburg shouts, “The Internet is the most effective finger pointing at the moon that we’ve ever had!”
It’s that simple vision of a world made more beautiful by the Internet that’s given Roggenbuck hero-status in online literary circles and earned him implausible acclaim from the likes of the New Yorker, the Guardian, and the New York Times. He expands on that ambition in an email interview with Gawker:
If we’re trying to move people in only 140 characters, or 6 seconds, or 500×500 pixels, our language must be charged with meaning. In that sense, the internet is a game that only poets can win. What I’m trying to do is get more poets-in the-romantic-sense to use these platforms.
In this sense, Roggenbuck may be equal parts pioneer and Renaissance man. He understands that art has always progressed alongside technology, but digital disruption represents such a quantum leap in communication technology that the corresponding next step in literature will of course be radical.
We could speculate further about the innovative poet’s vision of the future, but I think it might be more helpful to just ask him. Stay tuned for an interview with Steve Roggenbuck, who has graciously agreed to meet with me in a few weeks when he comes to Ann Arbor to read from his forthcoming book of short stories, “Calculating How Big Of A Tip to Give Is The Easiest Thing Ever, Shout Out To My Family & Friends.”