POETRY ON THE DIGITAL: WORTH A BOOK?
by Thomas Ellison
For poets writing today, whether amateur or laureate, hobbyist or therapist, how effectively, if at all, does poetry engage with digital technologies? Is poetry facilitated by, let’s say, adopting the 140 character limit integral to Twitter? Has Facebook, blogging and self-publishing empowered a new generation of poets, enabling expression and collaboration on current political and social concerns? More importantly, do poets adopt, critique or ridicule the languages, formats and implications of our voracious virtual realities? Do they recourse to traditional poetic forms—the lofty Greek ode, the fifteenth century pantoum, the Spenserian sonnet—or value their own inventive forms, pastiche or experimentation? Perhaps even more pressing: Is there any poetry that excels in its discourse with the digital?
Of course, I don’t doubt that poetry has been written that adopts, critiques or ridicules the languages, formats and implications of the digital. In slam poetry, for example, Marshall David Jones’s engaging 2011 piece “Touchscreen” expresses the leeching ubiquity of computers, albeit by employing the hackneyed gospel crescendo found in much spoken verse. Although his rhetoric isn’t to my taste, his final line offers a wry resolution for our relationship with digital technologies, suggesting that it is only “when technology is advanced enough to make us human again that its utility can be considered worthy.” If mainstream cinema is anything to go by, human-robot interaction is advanced enough to achieve this since it depends on robots mimicking human behaviour to the point of obfuscating distinctions between the two. Films like Spike Jonze’s “Her” and Charlie Brooker’s TV series “Black Mirror” are arresting in their dramatization of existing anxieties about human relationships with digital technologies.
But what about poetry?
In contrast to the slam poetry of Jones, the performance poetry of English comedian Tim Key is playfully droll and easily accessible through its anecdotal casualness and its tendency for the truncation of any grand contemplative conclusions. This year, Key is posting poems on Instagram, a project that Steve Gardner of V. Point News calls “a superb waste of time.” Key’s poems are hand or typewritten on Moleskine parchment or felt-tipped on various objects before being cutely arranged and snapped as the focal point in what would otherwise be a trademark close-up of trendy consumables or a faded and filtered beach sunset. It seems Key is poking fun at Instagram’s stylistic tackiness while exploiting its facility for dressing mutton à la lamb. But this can only go so far. Is this poetry or just play? Actually, Key’s poetry plays with this very ambiguity but does it doesn’t really excel at addressing the concerns of a living in a digital age. For one, it makes the place of the poet more ambiguous than ever: Buffoon or artist? Stand-up comic or writer?
When it comes to more serious reading and writing (i.e. Literature with a capital L), English author Will Self considers the seismic and psychic transition from physical, printed codices to digitised text, hyperlinks and the internet. He argues that digital technologies fundamentally change the nature of reading and writing, not to mention human learning, memory and consciousness. Self asserts that “the losers in all of this will be traditional cultural forms that were dependent on the technology of the codex” and that “the extension of the human mind into the virtual inscape is already under way.” So why aren’t poets addressing this virtual inscape in their work? Novels don’t seem to suffer this kind of neglect. In Margaret Atwood’s 2013 “Oryx and Crake” trilogy, digital networks, hacking and gaming make up a vital component of the cultural fabric of her world. Protagonists Jimmy and his friend Crake—a child-genius who turns genocidal—play various online games including “Extinctathon,” where players name extinct animal species. They also watch child porn, live executions and graphic surgery videos that titillate and disturb both the character and reader. According to Atwood, the trilogy might be called speculative fiction, which she defines in her final book, “MaddAddam.” She describes it as “a work of fiction that does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory.” Atwood’s world also includes poetry, mostly in the second book, “The Year of the Flood.” The poetry is sung by a cult of eco-survivors called God’s Gardeners and often celebrates botany, zoology and food; it is often framed within revamped Christian morality. Atwood characterises poetry in this way as a kind of refuge for those survivors who have foreseen the collapse of civilisation, along with its gaming and child porn—what God’s Gardner’s call ‘The Waterless Flood’. But can poetry be synthesised with digital technologies?
Last year, a novel link was forged between poetry and gaming with the creation of “Elegy of a Dead World.” The game is driven by narrative and allows players to explore lost worlds inspired by three works by English poets; Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Lord Byron’s “Darkness” and John Keats’ “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be.” According to a recent review, “the game is perfect for overcoming writer’s block and engaging students with writing fiction.” Essentially, players write a diary which is visible to other players while exploring ancient, gothic vistas. Maybe this demonstrates Self’s point about how we digest Literature and how we respond to it in writing? To me, it seems the conflating of poetry written two hundred years ago with the cutting-edge in educational gaming detracts from the depth and beauty that this poetry exemplifies. Perhaps the game does stimulate young writers, but does it foster a deeper understanding of what the tradition of poetry has achieved and what it can do now?
In his charming and informative how-to for aspiring poets, “The Ode Less Travelled” (2007), Stephen Fry argues that poetry “demonstrates the virtues and pleasures of taking your time” and “can be utilised as a last stand against the instant and the infantile.” If the reading and writing of poetry demands concentration and patient ruminations on language and form and meaning, what place does it have addressing the implications of instant smart-phone photography or social network sites ? The best poetry I have read delves below the surface of language, perception, consciousness, learning, memory, and essentially reveals the reader to herself in surprising and arresting ways. Poets should be excavating digital technologies, not just through gimmicks which ridicule how we use computers, or by reimagining bygone poetry in a gaming world, but by celebrating what might be possible with new technologies. Maybe this is poetry’s problem; it does not valorise digital technologies and their power over us, seeing only ugliness below the surface. Perhaps poets share Morrisey’s nostalgia for a time when “there are no electronic distractions and all human endeavour takes place face to face.”
Elsewhere in his book, Fry considers the work of the American Modernist poet Ezra Pound, concluding that “poetry is as tattered as it was when Pound found it at the end of the nineteenth century.” Fry fears that poetry from the last 50 years or so too often suffers “a jingoistic fascism to bemoan the failure of nerve of our distinctive cultural voice.” And it’s not just Fry. While judging the Forward Poetry Prize last year, the English broadcaster Jeremy Paxman said that poetry had “connived at its own irrelevance,” since it was failing to engage with ordinary people. With these concerns in mind, shouldn’t our cultural voice reflect our actual behaviour? But how much good poetry have you read that reflects how many of us now log our time? An inscape that lives online. A time when we’re phatically connected, multi-networked beyond immediate comprehension, ironically processed, verified and denied, a time that bombards us with raucous advertisements and backwater pleasure portals streaming violence and sex. I am by no means a technophobe, a Luddite or a purist. I believe that poetry can rejuvenate readers by engaging with the wider implications of new digital technologies. I do not share Fry’s concerns that contemporary poetry might be resigned to greetings cards, pastiche, rap and hip-hop. For one, pastiche has been and continues to be an effective device for choosing what we like from the past and placing it next to the present. After all, Pound’s Modernist experiments with poetic form and figurative language show potent allusions to classical and oriental verse. Elsewhere in the modernist tradition, T.S. Eliot famously argued in a 1919 essay that for new poetry to excel it must both acknowledge and modify the tradition in which it is integrated. With this in mind, poets writing today might do well to utilize traditional forms, metre and rhyme schemes when addressing digital technologies.
So, let’s consider some poetry that has been written more recently. Throughout his career, Simon Armitage has made use of a contemporary vernacular and a strikingly modern, often dissenting tone, though many of his poems show a clear adherence to traditional forms like the lyric, Old English metre known as accentual-alliterative and ancient rhyme schemes like the couplet. In 2009, he conceded his fascination with digital technologies, particularly the possibilities of the then-new iPod. However, his best poetry speaks more to an Anglo Saxon tradition than a new digital age. By contrast, UK poet Tom Chivers is concerned primarily with the digital inscape Self mentions, but not without a firm nod to the past. His 2009 poem “The Terrors” is shaped by the emails sent between inmates of London’s Newgate prison, though the interchange takes place sometime between 1700 and 1760, and Chivers’ diction is suitably archaic. In this way, Chivers frames the past in the form of the present; an inversion of Armitage’s technique. Chivers also makes use of digital language in his debut collection “How to Build a City,” which won the 2009 Crashaw Prize. His poem, “The Islanders”, employs the idea of the digital native by using an elevated form of hypertext, interspersed with Java. Chivers says that he generally avoids computer speak, instead playing with form and tone to emphasize the ubiquity of digital technologies.
Oli Hazzard’s experiments with the pastoral, the lyric, the pallindrome, the more modern sestina, and his own formal inventions show that poetry can still be inventive. Hazzard’s 2014 collection “Within Habit” has been called “one of the most exciting and original developments in UK poetry in years.” One of his own forms is composed of two nine-line prose blocks attached by a verbal hinge. (The American poet John Ashbery describes these hinges as having a strategic importance, rather like a clicker during a slide show). These prose blocks are sub-divided within the line on the page by vertical bars, a punctuation mark used in the King James’ version of The Bible and physics and computer programming, for example. According to Greg Emilio from Trop Mag, “Hazzard’s underlying message in much of his work is directed at his own generation, in which he calls for a change in the way we talk about things, rather than a change in the things themselves.” This might appear vague, but perhaps it offers a resolution in terms of how poets talk about digital technologies. We may not have control over the corporate giants who pull the virtual strings, but we can assert a kind of control by changing the way we talk about the implications digital technologies have on our lives.
Other voices include that of Irish poet Alan Gillis, who demonstrates an imaginative and risible approach to the digital, often employing contemporary language inside traditional forms. In the opening stanza of his poem “Down Through Dark and Emptying Streets,” he writes:
Open a new window.
Go on and Google yourself.
Open Facebook and update
all traces of yourself’.
Perhaps poetry has an uneasy relationship with technology because poetry itself is uneasy. One source of contention with the medium is that most of the voices we hear, those voices calling for a return to poetic metre and form, for poetry to reengage with ordinary people, or those who emphasise a paucity of deep reading in a vacuous and narcissistic culture, most of them are baby-boomers or forty-somethings, writers and critics at the peak of their careers. What about the younger voices? But then again, maybe Atwood’s right. Maybe poetry should be reserved for celebration of what is considered inherently good–the natural world and its residual necessity for human survival. Maybe the best poetry about the digital is yet to come. Perhaps digital technologies share something with writing, like Virginia Woolf said in her 1919 essay “Modern Fiction”: “Literature has a circular tendency where the whole course of the track [can] be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle.” For now, poets seem undecided how to proceed. As Gillis concludes in his poem, digital technologies are still up for interrogation since poets, like online users who receive friend requests, “waver between Confirm and Ignore.”