Nick Laird has written a very interesting article on poetry online (through the lens of poetry apps for the iPad) for The Guardian today. Most of it is occupied in showing that almost all of the poetry on the internet is very bad, but then he comes to a broader point:
The internet’s great strength and weakness is that it lacks a filter, but who has time to pick a way through all this dross, to find the new Emily Dickinson among Wattpad’s 100,000 “books”? There are some decent apps from the American Poetry Foundation, and it’s nice to be able to carry around, say, the complete works of Shakespeare or some of the anthologies in a single handheld device. But I’m not sure the fit of poetry with the internet is a happy one. In one sense they should fit. The screen is large enough to show, usually, the whole of a short poem, and we have learned to navigate happily online now by hyperlinks, skipping in non-chronological progression between juxtaposed images – in short we are happy to proceed much as poetry does, by association and indirection. The form should work with the poetic format better, say, than prose fiction or drama. And yet it doesn’t. Poems need to be set aside. They need time spent with them. They should be printed out and framed and passed every day on the way to the kitchen, or read on the fridge, or Blu-Tacked to the mirror. Poems online are treated as if they’re on a par with other language, that is, they’re denotative, rushed, degraded.
This reminds me of an article by Daniel Dennett I was reading this week for some reason, & in particular this section (paraphrasing John McCarthy):
John McCarthy, the founder of Artificial Intelligence (or in any event, the coiner of its name, a meme with its own, independent base in the infosphere) once suggested to a humanist audience that electronic mail networks could revolutionize the ecology of the poet. Only a handful of poets can make their living by selling their poems, McCarthy noted, because poetry books are slender, expensive volumes purchased by very few individuals and libraries. But imagine what would happen if poets could put their poems on an international network, where anybody could read them or copy them for a penny, electronically transferred to the poet’s royalty account. This could provide a steady source of income for many poets, he surmised. Quite independently of any aesthetic objections poets and poetry lovers might have to poems embodied in electronic media (more to the point: poems displayed in patterns of excited phosphor dots on computer screens), the obvious counter-hypothesis arises from population memetics. If such a network were established, no poetry lover would be willing to wade through thousands of electronic files filled with doggerel, looking for the good poems; there would be a niche created for various memes for poetry-filters. One could subscribe, for a few pennies, to an editorial service that scanned the infosphere for good poems, and different services, with different critical standards, would flourish, as would services for reviewing all the different services—and services that screened, collected, formatted, and presented the works of the best poets in slender electronic volumes which only a few would purchase. The memes for editing and criticism will find niches in any environment in the infosphere; they flourish because of the short supply and limited capacity of minds, whatever the transmission media between minds.
Bearing in mind that Dennett was writing in 1990, it’s interesting to see them discussing the same issue.
There are two ideas that come out here, I think:
– first, should we not only think of digital & print as two different media, but as different types of reading? What are we doing to a poem by sharing it on a screen rather than on paper? Whilst Dennett doesn’t seem to address this, mentioning only “aesthetic objections”, Nick Laird suggests that reading on the internet is “rushed”. The idea that the internet encourages shorter attention spans has been getting more attention recently, & there is perhaps an argument to be made, without resorting to a sort of sentimental luddism, that e-books are not a direct equivalent or replacement for print books when it comes to certain types of text because of the differing reading experience they promote. Or is that a bit obvious?
– second, on the internet, where there is a seemingly unlimited number of writers eager to share their work, what is the role of the “poetry-filters”? In the past, the only way to publish a poem to a wide number of people was through a filter, an editor at a journal or publishers; now, however, the internet allows anyone to publish a poem so that it may potentially be read by as many people as if it had been through an editor. The role of poetry journals has changed, since they no longer have as much control over publication: poems are as likely to be uploaded to a blog or Wattpad, deviantart, etc., as they are to be submitted to a journal. Should the role of the editors be active instead of passive, searching out & promoting high-quality content already on the internet? Are there any websites which do this already? (Can anyone bear to wade through so much crap?)